Smallies and largemouths (and sometimes Kentucky bass) are on tap in the waters of Lake Barkley and Dale Hollow -- plus three other top picks!
By Stan Warren
Smallies, largemouths, and an occasional surprise, Kentucky bass, are on tap on Dale Hollow, Kentucky Lake and other Commonwealth waterholes. Here are some things to know and where to go to catch fish.
"There are more smallmouth bass in Kentucky Lake than anybody had ever guessed." I wrote those words down quite a few years ago when nobody but a few biologists and even fewer anglers were paying attention to the spread of the "brown fish."
It was not until almost a decade later when an angler won a major bass-fishing tournament and brought nothing to the weigh-in except smallmouths! Billy McLemore, the biologist who made the statement has since retired, but I suspect he still manages a smile when he thinks about it.
Not that the idea of smallmouths is anything strange to Kentucky fishermen. Dale Hollow Lake turned out the world's record; but the idea of that oversized, meandering mini-ocean to the west might challenge the hallowed Hollow for top honors has occurred to very few anglers even today.
Bluegrass writer and veteran angler Soc Clay has wet lines virtually all over North America and smallmouth bass are his favorite fish. He has watched things change at Kentucky Lake for over 30 years. He has also been lucky enough to fish with some of the top guides who try for and find Kentucky Lake brown bass.
Secondary points are a good place to start searching for Dale Hollow Lake smallies like this one. Photo by Larry Self
"The lake is like most moving water bodies. As they get older there is less turbidity, less silt on the bottom, more exposed gravel flats, shell bars and other clean spawning areas. With less silt and increased clarity, there is also a corresponding drop in water temperatures. This may not be a big change, but it can be enough for a marginal species like the smallmouth to make a sudden surge," said Clay.
Why don't more anglers catch smallmouths if the numbers have jumped substantially? Simple: You may catch one now and then on a bait intended for largemouths, but it will generally be put down as a fluke. In most cases, there will be some type of contour, cover, forage type or whatever that can give a clue to where the smallies are apt to be holding.
"It's really an oversimplification to say fish deeper," Clay continued, "but in a sense it's true to do so. Largemouth fishermen tend to work shorelines, visible brush, points and such. Any of these can hold smallmouths, but more often anglers don't work far enough out and down on the points. They also seldom work a lure of any kind downward on the outside edge of visible cover. A smallmouth will definitely hide in the shadow of a deep stump or rock, but probably not shallow enough for a spinnerbait or plastic worm or lizard worked shallow and cranked back in."
Like McLemore preached well over a decade ago, expert Clay believes that lures should be worked along channel edges where sloping contours give way to more vertical breaks. Smallies tend to migrate along deeper paths than their bucketmouth cousins. Getting away from the shoreline is not a bad idea either.
When that big tournament mentioned earlier took place, the eventual winner worked minnow-type jerkbaits over relatively shallow flats or bars with a gravel bottoms. The fish could blow up on minnows, then drop into a deeper slot or secondary channel to wait on anther victim. A patient approach and willingness to wait until they came up hungry or angry did the trick.
Precisely telling where to go on a body of water this size is next to impossible. I have caught good numbers of all three major types of black bass, all the way from Kentucky Dam to the big bay just above Hamlin on the western shore. As active as the fish are likely to be this month, the best thing an angler can do is to figure out which species he wants to concentrate on and work accordingly. Go shallow for largemouths and marginally deeper for smallmouths and Kentucky bass. They will all be at home or somewhere close by.
LAKE BARKLEY Although a geographic neighbor to Kentucky Lake, Barkley is a different study. It's not as wide for the most part and has an ample amount of shallow water with brushy cover on much of it. Some of the shallow flats, especially those adjacent to creek channels that have not completely silted in, can provide spectacular fishing at times.
On one occasion I was helping with media coverage for a major bass tournament and saw an old friend working a spot that could not have been larger than the average living room. About every third cast a keeper bass nailed his lure. The flat had one scrawny bush sitting atop it, but as my friend explained later, there was a creek channel that made a bow around his fishing hole.
Although good results are possible virtually anywhere on Barkley this month, tournament records provided by winners willing to 'fess up about their locations and lure selections are in agreement that a few places stand out. One of these is the big bay across from Mineral Mound State Park south of Kuttawa. Lying on the eastern side and with a substantial southern exposure, this cove warms up early, so fish begin to move shallow here quicker than in most other sections of the lake. Likewise, baitfish move up so the bass can satisfy their increasing metabolic needs and will hang out here until conditions become uncomfortable.
Spinnerbaits, soft plastics and shallow- to medium-running crankbaits see plenty of use. If a late cold front comes through, try "stump knocking" east of the Interstate 24 Bridge. Why the bass like to hold there instead of dropping back out to deeper water like the ones closer to the main lake is a mystery that anglers in the know don't really care to try and solve.
For day-in and day-out success on quality fish, those big enough to give you a shot at tournament success, it is hard to argue with the two forks of the Little River found east of Lake Barkley State Park Resort. Spinnerbaits will work here, as will soft-plastic lizards and worms. However, if you are going for the money or in search of a trophy, you might be well advised to go with a jig-and-pig (black and blue are the favorite color combo) and methodically work every bit of cover, both visible and submerged. Do not get into a hurry. Instead, flip and pitch your way along at the proverbial snail's pace. Some big ones live back in Little River.
DALE HOLLOW LAKE Yep, the lake that produced the world-record smallmouth bass is still a real trophy fishery. Although better than half of the lake lies across the state line in Tennessee,
the two "arms" that extend north of the border offer excellent prospects, and not just for smallmouths. More on that point later.
Many years ago I was fortunate enough to be befriended by Billy Westmoreland, arguably the finest smallmouth angler to ply this or any other lake. Although he lived south of the border, his peregrinations in search of a new record fish carried him over the entire reservoir so many times that he finally published a map designating hotspots and when to fish them. When on the Kentucky side, I recall that he spent more time in the Wolf River arm than anywhere else.
The techniques that he used then are still viable now. Instead of blindly working a shoreline (Dale Hollow is deep - really deep, so there are not a lot of offshore flats), he would initially select secondary points. Only those with some sort of cover such as blowdowns really caught his interest. The rods rigged with jigs, spinners and crankbaits stayed in the storage locker until he confirmed that another method quite unlike that commonly employed either would or would not work on that trip.
Using a particular brand of slender minnow plug, one of those that floats at rest and dives a foot or more on retrieve, he would plunk the thing as close to limbs or other cover as he could get it. Then would come a short pause followed by a twitch, twitch, twitch sequence. At the end of that, he would really put things in gear and see how fast he could get his bait back to the boat. On more than a few occasions, a bass thought that an easy meal was escaping and grabbed the thing in a frantic dash.
Since the smallmouth fishing here has been pretty well documented in the basic how-to sense, let me switch gears and mention the underutilized black bass found in Dale Hollow: the spotted or Kentucky bass.
Several years back, a prominent outdoors photographer and I were going about things in a normal manner. He was waiting for me to stick a fish so he could get some action shots. A loop developed in my line and while I picked it out, the lure, a jig-and-grub, had fallen quite a bit deeper than intended, possibly almost to the bottom. We were positioned in 40 feet of water next to a broken rock bank. When my line came tight, there was something on the other end. It proved to be a spotted bass weighing about 4 pounds. Now a 4-pound spot is akin to a 6-pound smallmouth, so we got somewhat excited.
This turned out to be anything but a fluke. We took several more fish using that long-falling method and were later told by the local fisheries biologist that the number of Kentucky spotted bass in the lake probably rivaled that of the smallmouths and most likely exceeded that of the largemouths of which Dale Hollow has a respectable number. Just remember, if the smallmouths don't cooperate, there is another game in town waiting just a level or two farther down.
LAKE CUMBERLAND Striped bass have stolen some of the glory from the Lake Cumberland bass fishing, and indeed it may not be quite what it was during the heydays of the 1950s and 1960s, when it was considered one of the nation's best bucketmouth lakes. That does not mean that Lake Cumberland is not worth your attention: far from it. The lake still offers a lot of fine bassing.
This reservoir is something more than a puddle, covering some 55,000 acres and stretching from Jamestown at Wolf Creek Dam to Somerset, Kentucky. Picking a top spot or two is therefore not easy to do, but success rates from past seasons give us a place to start.
The first-time visitor would be advised to take a look at Beaver Creek, Fishing Creek and the area surrounding the Conley Bottom Marina. The coves in these areas generally have plenty of debris washed in during spring rains and run-offs. There are also a number of good sloping points close to shallow-water spawning areas that the bass will be prowling at this time of year.
Also, be on the lookout for submerged islands that show up on the better lake maps. Check closely for short flats that have cover and are situated close to deep water. All of these areas will hold fish; you just need to push the right buttons to get a strike.
A variety of baits have real potential, especially since Cumberland contains largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. The smallies are found primarily on the lower portion of the lake, but can show up anywhere. If you decide to fish a dropoff, you might encounter any of the three species.
The locals who know the lake best have settled on a basic lure selection which includes: a shad-colored red crawdad crankbait, a white, chartreuse or blue/chartreuse spinnerbait (the short-arm spinnerbait was developed here by Ernie and Charlie Taylor) or a jig-and-pig, usually in black/blue, although some score well on crawfish-colored jigs.
This is a big lake with plenty of room, and if you visit on a weekday, you may have the ramp almost to yourself.
BARREN RIVER LAKE This 10,000-acre lake near Glasgow and Bowling Green is another place that is home to largemouth and smallmouth bass. Unlike some other Kentucky waters, Barren River Lake is a delight for anglers who like to fish in shallow water. There simply are no unproductive areas on the whole expanse, but in April some types of habitat are better than others.
Expect bass, especially largemouths, to be in the creek mouths or even farther back in the shallow water checking out potential spawning sites. Other prime spots are the rather flat points, stump-studded flats and any cove that catches plenty of sunshine.
The angler who can't sit still will have a ball on Barren River because it is made to order for a run-and-gun approach. Hit the shoreline or other area with spinnerbaits or use medium- to deep-running crankbaits that will bite into the bottom. Crankbait colors preferred are usually shad, crawdad or bone/orange; spinnerbaits in white or chartreuse will get the job done. Either of these baits pulled past a stump can get your string pulled.
Jerkbaits take some big bass in the spring for those who will take the time to use them properly, and a handful of anglers do their best to have a heart attack by pulling buzzbaits past exposed stumps.
More patient anglers can get their licks in using plastic worms or lizards in a variety of colors ranging from pumpkin pepper to brown. It seems that the choice here is more to suit the fisherman than the bass.
To cash in on the overlooked smallmouth, try medium-sided, deep-running crankbaits in shad or crawdad pattern, a leadhead/grub combo, or a jig-and-pig. Focus on shale and pea gravel banks and along the steeper bluffs.
GREENBO LAKE No where-to-go bass fishing piece would be complete without mention of diminutive Greenbo Lake. This 180-acre jewel in Greenup County has produced two state records, including the current chart topper largemouth bass of 13 pounds, 8 ounces. Incidentally, Ernie Grizzle from Flatwoods set both of these records. He took the fish at night on 7-inch purple w
orms, in case you're interested.
This is a very clear lake, and a two-year drawdown has allowed vegetation to take over formerly bare areas. Slender minnow plugs are a prime choice, and pulling a spinnerbait through the new weeds can be mighty entertaining. Work the modest points side to side with crankbaits or plastic worms. Obviously, Greenbo has a reputation for producing huge bass, so make sure your tackle is up to the task at hand.
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