From Herrington Lake largemouths to Dale Hollow Lake smallies, here are the waters you should try this season to catch your share of bass.
By Norm Minch
Kentucky bass anglers throughout the Commonwealth had a fairly tough season last year. Largemouth and smallmouth spawns on several lakes (from three or four springs ago) were average at best, thanks to Mother Nature's peculiar whims. This translates to fewer numbers of quality-sized bass out there for anglers to catch. And there is more.
A wet spring, followed quickly by a very dry summer and early fall in 2002, challenged anglers to locate and catch bass in some of the toughest of fishing conditions. High water in the spring, then clear water and hot temperatures all summer made it hard to catch bass. Bass tend to suspend, become active mostly at night, and just don't hit as well for the average angler.
We can't predict what the weather will do, but we can point out what's happening with populations at some of our better bass waters, and generally speaking, things are on an upswing for largemouth and smallmouth bass for the coming season.
Two of the most productive largemouth waters in Kentucky are located in the same fisheries management region. They are excellent producers of bucketmouths, primarily because their waters are fertile. These waters also provide the habitat and food sources bass must have for offspring production and good growth.
Herrington and Taylorsville lakes in the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) Central Fisheries District have long been known as high-quality bass-fishing waters. The volume and types of agriculture in the watershed area of these major reservoirs make a big difference in the productivity of these lakes.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Other reservoirs don't have as many nutrients being washed in from the surrounding lands when run-off into the lake occurs. No farming is close by, and thus a lower amount of the base elements that help initially create a strong food chain are washed in. The survival and growth of bass and other fish depends a good deal on the quality of food they have available at a young age.
According to district fisheries biologist Kerry Prather, Herrington Lake's fertile waters continue to produce good numbers of quality largemouths.
"It's one of our most consistent bass fisheries, and has the capability to rebound quickly if we have an off year," said Prather.
"We believe that the spawns in the last couple of springs have been fairly good, which means there ought to be a little boost in the numbers of quality-sized bass in there sometime this year. They should be breaking over into the 12-inch-plus range very shortly," said the biologist.
Of course, Herrington holds its own with any lake when it comes to producing a steady supply of 2- to 4-pound largemouths. Though this lake is fished hard, especially in spring and at night during the summer, traditionally, there's a lot of catch-and-release taking place here. This helps to offset the heavy fishing pressure.
During the spring warm-up, anglers should be running spinnerbaits and crankbaits in a shad- or crawfish-type color off the shallow, sloping banks in the creeks. Bass use the large amount of rocky habitat as spots to warm themselves. Any type of shoreline cover increases the chances of bass being present. At this time of the year, it's important to keep your lures smaller and moving a little slower until water temperatures get up to 60 degrees or more.
A second top spot Prather thinks will shine this spring is Taylorsville Lake. Another metropolitan-area reservoir, Taylorsville's 3,000 acres or so take a pretty good assault from anglers during the spring, but reports from anglers were favorable and improving.
"Several bass fishermen have commented seeing an upswing in the size of the bass last fall, and I expect it will hold over into this spring if we can luck out on some better fishing conditions," commented Prather.
"We believe the bass population is in good shape, with some good-sized bass already present. There is also a decent supply of bass just under the size limit following along behind.
"Anglers should key on the structure in the lake early on, perhaps with jig-and-trailer combinations, and look for woody cover and stumpbeds on points or along creek channels," Prather noted.
Fish in Taylorsville grow quickly and attain some of the better body weights for their lengths. In some years, the KDFWR has stocked largemouths in Taylorsville to even out some of the peaks and valleys that nature creates. Although survival rates of stocked fish are often less than what survive through natural reproduction, biologists believe it does make some difference in buffering the drop of legal-sized bass, especially after a year when a poor spawn occurs.
A third hotspot where largemouth anglers can expect good things this spring is on Barren River Lake in Barren and Allen counties. Tim Abney of the KDFWR's Southwestern Fisheries District reports some high marks for Barren River Lake for the upcoming year. He expects fishermen to see some really top-quality bass, based on electrofishing studies last spring.
He said one local angler told him recently, "If a man can't catch a limit on Barren, he might as well give it up." Abney won't go as far as to say every fisherman will limit out every trip, but he does say there are a lot of bass present, especially a lot of big bass that are available right now.
"We shocked and released a whole lot of 4- and 5-pounders last spring, along with the occasional 6- and 7-pound largemouth," said Abney.
"There were also a lot of smaller bass present, which means we've been getting excellent recruitment the last couple of years."
Anglers on Barren have experienced a couple of banner years lately with so many bass in the population. On good days, some anglers have boated 25-30 bass a day and the lake is definitely in a high cycle. Things are returning to normal now, and catching fish at that rate probably won't be the case, but the probability of tangling with some really nice bass still runs high.
"I think we'll see good bass fishing remain stable for a couple of years, based on what's present now and what's coming up behind in the ranks," said Abney.
"We've had a complaint registered here and there that bass numbers have bottomed out, but that's not the case. We've had a couple of abnormally high-volume years and people sometimes get used to
catching a ton of fish. When it returns to what it usually is, they wonder what happened and give us a call.
"Not every year can be head and shoulders above. We're just passed the crest, but the fishing is still in very, very good shape based on what we've seen," he said.
"Some of the best fish we see and hear about come out of Beaver and Walnut creeks in early spring, and that would be a good place to start, I think," Abney suggests.
There's a warmwater discharge that feeds into Beaver Creek that tends to attract lots of shad into that arm of the lake early on. It provides a load of bait for largemouths (and other species) when feeding starts picking up in the springtime. That's when bass are looking for warmer water and food. Beaver Creek is located toward the upper end of the lake.
Toward the middle, Walnut Creek turns up several big bass as well, and into April and May, Abney suggests looking in very shallow water for bass. They get right on the banks in the backs of coves. He says not to spend much time fishing along bluffs or straight down steep drops. The bass won't be there too often early in the season. Stick to the cover in 2 to 3 feet of water.
A final good indicator of how well bass are doing in Barren is the condition of the fish and the forage base. Both seem superb for this spring. The lake is brimming with gizzard shad. Not long ago, a shocking expedition yielded a spotted bass that measured 12 inches, but weighed more than 2 pounds. That's a chunky Kentucky. "Looked like a basketball with a head," says Abney.
Turning our attention to top prospects for smallmouths this spring, it's hard to beat Kentucky's usual starting lineup. Dale Hollow, Cumberland and Kentucky lakes have been the most consistent frontrunners for bronzebacks for many years. It basically boils down to having the most habitat (cold water) for this species. A close fourth would be Green River Lake.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) has recently installed a 16- to 21-inch slot limit on smallmouths in Dale Hollow to try to fine-tune the fishery there and perhaps increase the volume of trophy-class smallmouths. Biologists already know the potential is present for some exceptional bronzebacks to grow in this reservoir.
Anglers can keep one smallmouth under 16 inches and one fish over 21 inches. Although part of the lake lies in Kentucky, fisheries management is primarily handled on Dale Hollow by the TWRA. When a regulatory change is made, Kentucky generally changes its limits as well to match up.
"We know the smallmouth fishery there is good, and that this lake is at the top of the list for that species," said KDFWR fisheries director Benjy Kinman.
"It just has a lot more smallmouth habitat and from what we've heard, most anglers are pleased with the higher volume of big fish the slot limit is creating right now.
"I imagine some tournament anglers have had to switch their focus some since this limit has taken effect. They can't bank on just fishing smallmouths to get enough pounds to put them in the money anymore, since they can only keep two fish," Kinman said.
"Most of them have adjusted well to the change, though, and now they're using smallmouths as a bonus, especially if they pick up one over 21 inches. Now they're fishing more for largemouths and big spots," Kinman offers.
"There had been some complaints about the 18-inch minimum limit. Some anglers claim it is causing too many smaller fish to stack up and the bigger fish to decline from harvest," explained Kinman.
"The slot limit seems to be increasing the volume of smallmouths over 20 inches, and the stockpile of 14- to 17-inch fish has leveled out a little better. They've either been taken out at the smaller size or are moving on through the slot and reaching harvestable size on the upper end of the slot.
"A lot of catch-and-release anglers are enjoying boating more fish over 18 inches, which is a dandy smallmouth," Kinman said.
Anglers should be sure to check Tennessee regulations this spring, as the agency was discussing defining the upper boundaries in the Wolf River arm more specifically how far up the slot would apply. When high water occurs, anglers are sometimes in question as to whether they are still considered in the lake, or fishing in the river.
The No. 2 smallmouth lake in Kentucky right now is perhaps a matter of some debate. If you talk with the biologists, some rank waters better based on the potential, which usually translates into the volume of habitat a reservoir has. Others may lean more toward the quality of fish being caught to tip their scales toward determining the better place to fish.
Regardless of what method of measure you use, it's pretty obvious that Kentucky Lake and Lake Cumberland, or vice versa, come in as the second- and third-ranking waters for smallmouths this year. In comparison, Cumberland, by far, has more water and habitat suited to bronzebacks than Kentucky Lake. Yet fishing in recent years in terms of catching good quality fish probably favors Kentucky Lake.
"We know Cumberland has the potential for some good smallmouth fishing, but we've had a tough time sampling the lake the last couple of years, and anglers have noticed a marked decline in smallmouth numbers," Kinman said.
"We know something is happening there, but haven't had luck with Mother Nature yet to really get a solid handle on it. There's still a fishery there, and it still provides more opportunity for smallmouths than say, Laurel, Paintsville, Green or Barren, but anglers will probably have to work a little harder to find fish this spring.
"Some of our striper anglers who catch a decent number of smallies at night in the summer aren't connecting with them as often as they did in the late 1990s," Kinman remarked.
"That's an indicator to me that the population may be in a low cycle, or that we had a couple of poor year-classes some time back, or something else is competing with smallmouths. We just don't know for sure. We intend to keep investigating, and perhaps anglers can assist us with some reports of what they're finding," he said.
"I'd still say you can catch some fish on the gravel banks there in spring, especially when it's time for them to move up and spawn. They're going to do that out of instinct, and that will concentrate them in spots where anglers have better access and chance of catching them before they disperse and move out to the deeper water."
The story on Kentucky Lake, according to KDFWR district biologist Paul Rister, is pretty bright for this season. Anglers are still catching, and biologists seeing, some big smallmouths coming from Kentucky.
"We've still got some truly high-quality fish in the population, some up in the 6-pound range. Our spring studies show the population of smaller fish is rebounding like th
e largemouth numbers are," said Rister.
"I think we'll be able to ride out the slump in production that reduced the smaller fish numbers the last couple of years. Starting this year, the hole in the 2- to 3-pound fish should start filling back in some."
Anglers should concentrate on the deeper water areas of the lake, more specifically the points and gravel banks adjacent to the river channel, to locate the better smallmouth fishing when spring arrives. Many anglers start fishing areas for smallmouths in late February and early March looking to boat the bigger fish. Sometimes they move in earlier than younger fish.
"If you get a smallmouth on, you've got a good chance that it's going to be a hawg, and I'd encourage people wanting to try for some of these 5-, 6- and 7-pounders to do it now. In a couple more years, most of them will either be caught out or die of natural mortality," recommended Rister.
"A 6-pound smallmouth is a pretty old fish in Kentucky Lake, and I believe we're probably on the tail end of the great run on smallies that we've had the last few years," he concluded.
Kentucky bass anglers have some good things to look forward to as they start getting the itch to hit the water this spring. There are some topnotch experiences out there waiting. If you want the entire scoop on all the major lake fishing expectations, check the KDFWR Web site for the Kentucky fishing forecast at www.kdfwr.state.ky.us/; or contact the agency at (800) 858-1549 and request a copy. The 2003 Kentucky Fishing and Boating Guide should also be available from license outlets this month, too.
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