It's never too early to start thinking about where you'll be wetting your line this season for lunker largemouths and spunky smallies. Here are some serious suggestions on where to go!
By Larry Self
The Commonwealth is rich when it comes to bass fishing for largemouths and smallmouths alike. February can often be a transitional month, but it also sets the stage as to where to find the best bass angling all year long. If you're looking for a barometer to plan your bass fishing this year, we've spotlighted a quality selection of bass waters to get you underway.
From Dale Hollow and Lake Cumberland's smallies and Kentucky Lake's double-header bass attack to the largemouth fishing on Barren River Lake, bass-fishing destinations abound. It's never too early to start thinking of where you'll be wetting your line this season for lunker largemouths or spunky smallies. If nothing else, you can take what we've uncovered on these Bluegrass bass hotspots and apply them to your home waters.
LAKE CUMBERLAND Lee McClellan, information officer for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), is point-blank about recent years of bass success on Lake Cumberland. He said black bass are doing well at Cumberland, similar to last year. The largemouth, smallmouth and Kentucky (spotted) bass are all showing good size structure, especially Kentucky bass. Population samplings conducted last spring and fall show very good numbers of largemouth bass from 12 to 18 inches long with decent numbers of quality fish over 18 inches and the occasional lunker of 20 inches or more.
McClellan added that the number of quality largemouths should increase in the next few years. The smallmouths are also showing very healthy numbers of fish from 12 to 16 inches, with a few lunkers over the 18-inch minimum size limit. There are excellent numbers of fish in the 6- to 11-inch range indicating smallmouth fishing should improve in the next few years as these fish grow to quality size. McClellan is pleased with the Commonwealth bass population being in excellent shape with good numbers of fish in the 11- to 16-inch range.
Greg Pullen, a tournament angler on Lake Cumberland, couldn't be happier with what he's seen in the last couple of years on the lake. He makes no bones about it that anglers should be throwing jigs in February and much of the year. His favorite late-winter and early-spring tactic is to swim a black-and-white jig tipped with a black-and-white port chunk.
Eddie Nuckols has made a name for himself by catching big smallmouth bass on Dale Hollow Lake in the winter. He'll tell you, though, that the fishing on the lake is good year 'round. Photo by Larry Self
One day last year, he boated 17 smallies that included 14 keepers over 18 inches in size. Three of them were pushing 5 pounds, and he lost one over 6 pounds. Pullen will cast a Silver Buddy and jigging spoon as brown fish backups, but said the pig-and-jig is one serious transition bait.
As the smallies move back in creeks in warming water, Pullen will turn to a spinnerbait. He'll fish around laydowns and tells anglers not to pass up any cover. As summer progresses, he'll move with the smallmouths and ease into night- fishing. Early in the summer, nighttime action means casting plastics on main-channel structure and points. In late summer, the pattern will be more consistent at night with spinnerbaits and black and red or avocado-colored pig-and-jigs.
There are a couple of spots on Cumberland that Pullen cherishes all year. He said you can almost always find good smallies on the red clay banks and wall across from the Boys' Camp. The points across from Jamestown at the cut-through are also high on his list. It would be on yours as well if you'd boated an 8-pound, 2-ounce smallmouth there in September of last year. Pullen measured, photographed and released the brown trophy that fell for a black jig. It measured over 27 inches in length.
"Cumberland is just a vast water resource," said Pullen. "It really is one of the great fisheries in Kentucky." He said the smallmouths seem to get bigger and better every year, and the lake has so much to offer with enough water for everyone with its 1,500 miles of shoreline.
DALE HOLLOW LAKE The success of Dale Hollow after the trophy slot limits were put into place is no secret to anyone. The best news, said Ted Crowell, assistant director of fisheries for the KDFWR, is that as long as we have successful spawns, the population of smallmouths would remain stable. In years with poor spawns, it could go down. If we have a flood and they drop 6 to 8 feet of water out of the lake, it would hurt down the road.
But biologically speaking, state waters are undoubtedly protecting more spawners, so as long as the spawns are good, fishing should continue for some time. There has even been talk across the border that the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is considering increasing the upper slot limit to 22 or 23 inches in the next two years. Crowell said the KDFWR would follow suit. Their management philosophy on Dale is to go along with whatever Tennessee does - it's worked so far.
Eddie Nuckols of Bullet Lures and float-and-fly fame has tasted victory in the Billy Westmorland Invitational Tournament three out of the last four years. His smallmouth tactics haven't been limited to Tennessee waters.
In February, Nuckols said Bluegrass anglers on Dale Hollow had better be drowning a craft hair fly under a bobber. The float-and-fly technique he's helped to make famous across much of the country is responsible for his greatest Dale Hollow successes, but not all of them.
Nuckols said in February and into March, the float-and-fly is so successful because it's now a proven technique anglers have adapted to. It works on suspended as well as non-suspended smallies. It'll bring them up from the bottom as well as entice them when they're suspended under baitfish because it's a slow method suited for this time of year.
Nuckols' recipe for success on Dale Hollow all year is a simple one. His philosophy is to fish for smallies where they live. That means hitting main-channel bluffs in the winter, creeks and flats in the spring and deeper structure in the summer. At night, he'll key on main-lake structure, the mouths of hollows, isolated humps and deep grassbeds.
Again, the float-and-fly is irreplaceable on Dale Hollow in February and early March. Nuckols said to add jerkbaits to your arsenal in the springtime. In the post-spawn period, you'll want to work with crankbaits and topwater baits. After dark in the summer when the smallies get on the humps and coontail grass, you'll get your arm torn off by working jigs, grubs and spinnerbaits on the edges of these areas.
"Dale Hollow ain't a top Kentucky bass destination unless you like smallmouths," said Nuckols confidently. "What makes it great is as much as anything that it's a lake of good size with a lack of continuous fishing pressure."
The beauty of the lake is it's too far from Nashville on one side and too far from Louisville on the other to receive heavy fishing pressure all the time like some other lakes contend with. Nuckols said that's the secret of Dale Hollow's great sustained smallmouth fishery.
BARREN RIVER LAKE Every time Barren River Lake is mentioned, you hear more and more about the largemouth bass fishing. Here's what's happening to make it a top Kentucky destination all year.
"Barren's always been good whether we had a 12- or 15-inch size limit," said assistant director Ted Crowell. "Barren is situated in an area with rich soil. It has good nutrients in it. Barren's watershed is agricultural, and it produces a lot of nutrients that make fish grow fast."
That also adds up to good water quality. Crowell highlights the fact that Barren has great habitat with four to five major creek channels, rocky shorelines, wooded cover, flooded timber, good vegetation on the flats and stumpbeds. These are the ingredients you need for good fish populations.
"Barren has great numbers of shad," added Crowell. "It is one of the few lakes you can catch fish all year." With all these elements, it sustains a lot of fishing pressure, but still produces good fish. Bass guide Todd Logsdon is quick to agree with Crowell. He said Barren River Lake just has so much shad forage that it results in a good bass fishery.
"Barren River Lake is a cross between Dale Hollow and Cumberland on the lower end. Up the river it flattens out like Kentucky Lake with big coves," said Logsdon. "Its variation in structure makes it a top Kentucky destination."
This time of year, Logsdon said anglers are looking at pig-and-jig fishing on Barren. As things begin to warm, crankbaits are called for on flats with sunny days in the forecast. He said the back ends of areas like Skaggs Creek and Cook Creek heat up first and deserve your attention. February features some of the best bass fishing of the year, as largemouths will get on points in stumprows.
The springtime puts bass around stumprows where they find excellent cover on spawning banks. As the action gets serious, Logsdon will fish a 3/8-ounce soft craw jig, a chrome with black back crankbait. His typical Barren River bass outing will turn up 12 to 15 largemouths with as least four keepers in the mix. The best ones will be over 3 pounds, but larger bass are definite possibilities.
"Every day is an opportunity to hang a good largemouth on Barren," said Logsdon. "There are a lot of 4- to 5-pound bass in there." A bonus opportunity also exists with smallmouths, which he said have been coming on of late. The slight resurgence in smallies may see you land three to five per day. They may not be overabundant, but Logsdon said when you find one, it'll weigh 2 to 4 pounds.
KENTUCKY LAKE Last but definitely not least, Kentucky Lake rounds out our look at the Bluegrass Bass Forecast. This lake with its healthy largemouth and smallmouth populations is a good way to wrap things up. The lake survived a recent slump and is back as strong as ever.
"Kentucky Lake is like Barren, except it's square," explained Crowell. "It has a huge drainage area with a great exchange rate of water."
He pointed out the lake had a good spawn about five to six years ago and these fish are 3 to 4 pounds now. "In the mid-1990s, we had some poor spawns and that is why the fishing dipped a bit in 2000-2001," added Crowell. "No doubt, whatever happens on Kentucky Lake, it's going to bounce back in a year or two. It can't help it."
Crowell also explained nothing has changed to keep Kentucky Lake from being one of the top spots for smallmouth anglers in recent seasons. He said anglers are catching them now because they are there. "All of the silt has washed out of Kentucky Lake and exposed gravel beds and bars," said Crowell. "In the mid-1980s, we had drought years that cleared the water and allowed for grassbeds to grow and then the bass had a great spawn at the end of it."
He said 1988 produced a fantastic year-class, a super, super year-class that has continued on. He believes the lake has aged enough now that the smallmouths are here for good.
"If you have smallies in a lake as productive as Kentucky Lake, you are going to have a lot of 5- to 6-pounders," added Crowell. "There always have been smallmouths in the Tennessee River. They showed up in the late 1980s to early 1990s and they have stayed. We, nor Tennessee, nor anybody else stocked them."
Malcolm Lane, a long-time guide on Kentucky Lake, said in early spring anglers will need to have a pig-and-jig tied on for largemouths, while smallies will be prime targets for a drop shot.
"I like small baits, and I'm slow," laughed Lane about the style of fishing that works at this time of year for him. He said in cold water to lean on small baits, and in hot water turn to big baits. Transition bass fishing on Kentucky Lake depends on the weather. Lane said if you get two or three warm days together, the bass will move up. Largemouths and smallmouths alike will move up on gravel banks chasing shad. That's when he breaks out jerkbaits and the old standard single Colorado blade spinnerbait. He says that tactic has been working for 30 years.
In the post-spawn period, bass like to go to the drops. Bass will move from drops to feed on shad along gravel bars and banks. Lane said that makes May and June good crankbait months on Kentucky Lake. In late June, he'll hit the smallies with 3-inch twistertail grubs and pig-and-jigs.
The largemouths get handed Carolina rigs on main-lake ledges. He said you need current for the bass to hit best. This is also where his warmwater-big baits strategy comes into play. Smallies might see a 4- or 6- inch worm on a given day, but Lane always offers largemouth bass the 11- inch version. Largemouths are different targets for Lane than smallies.
"Smallies suspend more and get out off the ledge a little farther," said Lane. "I go for one or the other when I'm bass fishing. After February, they're not really together anymore." Lane's opinion of Kentucky Lake as a top Bluegrass bass destination can be summed up when he said it offers natural reproduction, a large amount of water and a large amount of shoreline to choose from.
IF YOU GO
- To catch Barren River Lake's bass, call Todd Logsdon at (270) 678-4070.
- To take on Kentucky Lake's largemouths and smallies, call Malcolm Lane of Hook, Line and Sinker Guide Service at (270) 388-0525.
- For more information on Bullet Lures' Float-N-Fly Kits, contact Eddie Nuckols at (423) 753-6151 or on the Web site at: www. bulletlures.com.
KENTUCKY BASS LIMITS
- Statewide - Creel limit is six black bass with a size limit of 12 inches, unless otherwise specified.
- Barren River Lake - Largemouth bass have a size limit of 15 inches, but one may be less than 15 inches.
- Cumberland Lake - Largemouth bass size limit is 15 inches. Smallmouth bass size limit is 18 inches.
- Dale Hollow Lake - There is a creel limit of five black bass with a size limit of 15 inches on largemouths. Of the five-fish limit, only two can be smallmouth bass, one under 16 inches and one over 21 inches.
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