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Kentucky's Top 5 Bass Picks!

Kentucky's Top 5 Bass Picks!

Largemouth and smallmouth bass are on the minds of many anglers as the spring season rolls around. Here's where you need to try, from famous Kentucky and Barkley lakes to lesser-known Kincaid.

By Jeff Samsel

Despite deeply chilled fingers on an early-spring morning, a biologist pulls a bass from a bucket. He lays the fish against a measuring board, hangs it from a scale and examines the fish's pectoral fins to see whether they have ever been clipped. Another biologist records information as the one handling the fish calls it out. Then they release the bass and begin with another.

Information from this fish and the rest of the day's catch, all captured through electrofishing, will help the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) biologists get a snapshot of the condition of the lake's black bass fishery.

Through several days of sampling, biologists can examine size structures, bass numbers and the condition of the fish, all compared to previous years' samples. They can evaluate the success of past years' spawning classes. In this lake, where young hatchery-raised bass have been stocked in recent years, they will also look at how many of those bass are making it into the population of adult fish

The KDFWR conducts annual electrofishing surveys on lakes throughout the state, along with conducting creel surveys and using other specialized approaches to evaluating fish populations. The combined data helps biologists make wise decisions about game fish and forage stocking programs, habitat-enhancement projects, regulations recommendations and other management plans. They also use the data collected to compile a fishing forecast for the following year, which helps Kentucky anglers make decisions about where to fish.

Jeff Ross is a black bass research biologist for the KDFWR. Beyond asking about management efforts of particular interest to largemouth and smallmouth fishermen, Ross shared his thoughts regarding some of the waterways that promise to offer the best fishing this year.

One management project of particular interest to stream smallmouth fishermen is the experimental stocking of 3-inch smallmouth bass in Elkhorn Creek in recent years. Looking at annual shocking survey results, early indications suggest that the stockings add very few fish to the overall population in years when natural reproduction is good; however, the stockings might be quite helpful to supplement poor year- classes and might be more beneficial in less productive streams.


Be sure to check the latest fishing regulations before you wet a line in any of our state's waters. Photo by Ron Sinfelt

While there is no way to effectively evaluate reproduction the year of a spawn to determine whether to stock fish, the KDFWR has repeatedly observed that spawning success tends to be low in streams throughout the state in years of heavy spring rainfall. Therefore, by stocking smallmouths in summers following very wet springs, they might be able to mediate big future dips in fish numbers.

Another project that bass fishermen are paying close attention to is the still-developing fishery on Cedar Creek Lake. Highly restrictive regulations will go into place this year in order to make the most of this new lake's "boon period," when fertility levels will be at their highest. Strict compliance with the regulations will be essential for this lake to develop into the trophy bass fishery that biologists and fishermen alike are anticipating, Ross said.

Picking top places to fish is a little bit tougher call. Rivers and lakes throughout Kentucky offer very good bass-fishing prospects and tremendous variety. From deep, clear mountain lakes to shallow, fertile waterways, Bluegrass State fishermen have just about a little bit of every type of fishing. Despite all the great options, a handful of lakes did stand out in Ross' mind as offering extra intriguing prospects for one reason or another. Let's look more closely.

Kentucky and Barkley lakes appear to be making good comebacks, according to biologist Ross. These two big lakes, which lie side by side and are even connected by a canal, both went through a few rough years following a series of poor spawns.

However, strong year-classes from 2000 and 2001 spawns are now making it into the population of catchable fish, and anglers are catching better numbers of 15-inch-plus fish than they have for several years. Tournament results, fisheries surveys and general reports from anglers all indicate that these two neighboring fisheries are on the upswing.

Among the most intriguing things about Kentucky and Barkley lakes is that both offer good prospects for largemouths and smallmouths. While largemouths clearly dominate the black bass fishery, anglers who learn to recognize smallmouth haunts and who target them in the proper areas often enjoy very good bronzeback action as well.

Kentucky Lake has also produced some giant smallmouth bass over the past few years. In fact, some anglers believe the next state record is more likely to come from Kentucky Lake than from Dale Hollow or Laurel River lakes.

Largemouth and smallmouth anglers alike are wise to learn to turn their backs to the banks more often than not, according to Lynn Lane of Hook, Line and Sinker Guide Service. Lane, who grew up fishing Kentucky Lake, has found that offshore humps, the ends of long points, and the mouths of ditches and creeks that feed the rivers' original channels, produce far better quality fish on average than do features along the banks.

"Most bass fishermen head straight to the banks because so much cover looks good, and they'll catch a few bass by doing so," he said. "However, the bigger bass tend to stay offshore in these lakes. Anglers who rely on lake maps and electronics tend to catch the best fish."

Lane, who fishes primarily in the lower reaches of the two big lakes, uses a lot of different approaches to catch largemouths and smallmouths. However, his No. 1 approach is without question dragging a Carolina rig over structure. Using marker buoys to define edges of underwater features or key spots on them, he works the structure very thoroughly.

As a bonus to anglers, Kentucky Lake is now under a partial reciprocal licensing agreement that allows anglers licensed in Kentucky to fish as far south as the Governor Ned McWhorter bridge (U.S. Highway 79, state Route 76) in Tennessee, including embayments. There is no reciprocal agreement on Barkley. Kentucky anglers must either possess both licenses or stay north of the border.

A 15-inch minimum size limit applies to largemouths and smallmouths in Kentucky and Barkley lakes and the canal that connects them. To le

arn more about Kentucky and Barkley lakes or to book a trip with Lynn Lane, visit the Web site at, or call (270) 388-0525.

"Dale Hollow is definitely our best smallmouth lake," Ross said. "Several lakes have at least a few smallmouths and a few others have pretty good populations, but Dale Hollow is the best."

The most recent fishing forecast by the KDFW rates Dale Hollow as excellent, with the comment, "premier smallmouth bass fishery; good numbers of fish larger than 3 pounds."

Nationally famous for the big bronzebacks it regularly kicks out, Dale Hollow offers picture-perfect smallmouth habitat from one end to the other, with steep, rocky banks and deep, clear water. Smallies enjoy a forage smorgasbord on Dale Hollow, with threadfin shad, alewives and crawfish all readily available.

The majority of Dale Hollow lies in Tennessee. However, the Kentucky portion alone offers anglers 4,300 acres, and a partial reciprocal agreement between the two states expands that territory significantly. The Kentucky portion and reciprocal waters include a couple of major creek arms that come in from the north side, as well as the Wolf River arm of the lake.

During May, the bass will be either in the creeks or on the main lake, and anglers will catch them with a variety of offerings. Popular lures include hair jigs, spinnerbaits, grubs and small crawfish-imitating crankbaits. By the end of May, though, most serious Dale Hollow smallmouth fishermen will be moving into their night-fishing mode, which they will stay in throughout the summer.

Stephen Headrick, owner of the Dale Hollow 1 Stop tackle, gas and convenience store - and manufacturer of Punisher Jigs - likes night-fishing best. Through summer, Headrick fishes after hours exclusively, using Punisher Jigs right along the bottom. He generally likes moderate-sloping clay banks because those banks have the most grass on the flats that stretch out from them.

Dale Hollow smallmouths are managed with a special 16- to 21-inch slot limit. One fish less than 16 inches and one fish over 21 inches may be harvested daily. The minimum size for largemouths is 15 inches.

A reciprocal agreement allows anglers licensed to fish in Kentucky or Tennessee to fish anywhere in the Wolf River arm of Dale Hollow, including the Illwill Creek embayment beginning at a line crossing the Wolf River at its mouth where it joins the Obey River and the main part of the lake.

For guided fishing or updated fishing reports, call the Dale Hollow 1 Stop at (931) 243-2636 or log onto

Best known for the super-sized muskies it produces, Cave Run Lake has quietly developed into a very good bass lake in recent years. "We seem to be really seeing positive effects from the slot limit put on this lake several years ago," Ross said.

Ross notes that during the past couple of years, anglers have been catching more fish that either fall into the upper end of the slot, which is 13 to 16 inches, or are above the slot. Bass tournaments also have reported very good success on Cave Run in recent years.

Ross stresses that anglers should not be shy about taking home a limit of fish that fall under the slot, noting that they would, in fact, be helping the fishery by doing so. "For a slot limit to be effective, some of those smaller fish need to be taken out," he said. "That reduces competition and allows more fish that make it into the protected slot to grow to larger sizes."

Although Cave Run is in the highlands region and is bounded by hills, it also offers a fair amount of good shallow habitat for bass. The best largemouth habitat and the highest largemouth densities are up the river arms, but the lower end of the lake seems to yield more big bass. In addition, the lower end of the lake offers both largemouths and smallmouths for anglers to go after.

Cave Run bass anglers spend a lot of time pitching jigs to downed trees, stumps and other woody cover in the upper half of the lake. In addition, large stands of milfoil that have developed in recent years hold a lot of bass. During May, fishermen primarily work the edges of the grass or fish over grass that hasn't grown all the way to the surface.

All largemouths between 13 to 16 inches must be released on Cave Run Lake. The minimum size for smallmouths is 16 inches. Access to Cave Run is excellent, with more than 20 boat ramps for 8,270 acres. The lake is bounded almost completely by the Daniel Boone National Forest.

As Cave Run has benefited from special regulations put into place by the KDFWR, Dewey Lake has benefited from another form of proactive management. Over the past few years, the department has been doing supplemental stockings of fingerling largemouths in a few eastern Kentucky lakes to see whether those stockings would translate into higher numbers of catchable-sized fish.

Early indications suggest that the bass stockings have worked well on Dewey, which covers 1,100 acres in the far eastern part of the state. The KDFWR clips fins on stocked fish so that they can recognize them when they do shocking surveys. Since the stockings began in 1999, good percentages of stocked fish have been showing up in samples. The first of those fish are just now beginning to show up in the harvest.

Dewey earned an excellent rating for largemouth bass in the most recent fishing forecast. The report notes that size distribution is good, and that tournament anglers consistently weigh in good catches from this lake. Dewey's largemouths feed primarily on gizzard shad, which tend to stay small and provide good bass forage on this lake.

A very narrow lake that sets deep in the mountains, Dewey is also a very old lake. The negative side of the lake's age is that natural cover is very scarce. On the other hand, years of bank erosion have actually built up flats along the main creek channel, and those flats offer good spawning and feeding habitat for bass.

The KDFWR has added a lot of cover to Dewey Lake over the years, in the form of Christmas trees and brushpiles. Any cover that is on a point or near the mouth of a tributary is worth working during May. While most fish will be caught on spinnerbaits, plastic worms and other subsurface offerings, anglers should always keep a topwater lure handy and be ready to throw it anytime they see fish breaking or shad moving near the surface.

Half a dozen boat ramps provide good access to all parts of Dewey Lake. Jenny Wiley State Resort Park provides boating and banks access, cottages, lodge rooms, a campground and a marina. For information, call (606) 886-2711. A 15-inch minimum size applies to largemouths and smallmouths on Dewey Lake.

Anyone who doubts that big things can come in small packages has never spent much tim

e around Kincaid Lake. This northern Kentucky lake, which covers only 183 acres, offers some of the best trophy largemouth prospects of any lake in the state.

Kincaid earned an excellent rating for largemouth bass in the most recent fishing forecast, with the report noting that numbers of 15-inch-plus bass are great and that trophy potential is excellent.

"When we do sampling out there, we always see an amazing number of big fish," Ross said. "It's not necessarily a good destination for anglers who hope to catch a bunch of fish, but it is a good place to go with hopes of catching some good-quality largemouths.

Kincaid Lake, which is located in a rural part of Pendleton County, is highly fertile and supports a lot of baitfish, which is part of why the bass grow big. Also, most fishing pressure is from fairly serious bass fishermen and the release ethic seemingly is very high.

While local anglers all know that Kincaid Lake holds a lot of big bass, they also know that those bass can be very tough to catch. The fish tend to be finicky. Most fishing is around visible cover, whether in the form or laydowns, brush or vegetation, some of which should have grown to the surface and matted up by May.

Access to Kincaid Lake is through Kincaid Lake State Park, which offers bank and boating access, boat rentals and a campground. For information, call (859) 654-3531. Kincaid falls under statewide regulations, with a six-fish daily limit for all black bass and a 12-inch minimum size for largemouths and smallmouths.

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