This sprawling Bluegrass lake offers up largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass for anglers looking to test their skills. Here's how to hook 'em this month!
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Norm Minch
There are only a handful of Bluegrass State lakes where anglers can expect to catch all three major species of black bass. Lake Cumberland in south-central Kentucky comes to mind, along with Green River Lake, and maybe another top pick might be Cave Run Lake in the northeast. But as far as good choices for largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass (also known as Kentucky bass) all in one hole of water, you'll have a tough time topping Kentucky Lake for triple-header bassin' opportunities this summer.
Now, it's no secret that in July bass fishing starts getting a little tougher, especially during the heat of the day. Most anglers will focus their fishing at night, and at Kentucky Lake, this can be an excellent approach on all three of these kinds of bass. We'll discuss some daytime tactics, too, that should help you put more fish in the boat this summer, regardless of which kind you like best.
Kentucky Lake offers an enormous amount of water to fish, and there are a wide variety of habitat types to explore within the 51,000 acres that lie in Kentucky. It is, in fact, one of the reasons why all three black bass species do very well in this reservoir. All lakes in Kentucky have warm water to support largemouth and Kentucky bass, but Kentucky Lake also has the coldwater habitat needed to maintain a smallmouth population worth fishing for.
For most of the last decade, Kentucky Lake fishermen have enjoyed some outstanding bronzeback fishing, and conditions that prompted an explosion of sorts in smallmouth numbers have made it a premier smallie hotspot since that time. Water conditions have returned to a more normal state for this reservoir in the last few years, and smallmouth production has likewise reacted. And while there continue to be some monster smallies caught, the lake is now believed to be on the backside of its most recent heyday for bronzebacks.
According to Paul Rister, a district biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) in the far-western part of the state, Kentucky Lake vaulted to the top of the bass-fishing hotspots in the early '90s. Smallmouths came on strong and blossomed into what some would say was a trophy fishery.
Kentucky Lake was already very well known for its bass production for largemouths and some of the heaviest, impressive spotted bass being caught anywhere in the Commonwealth. Kentucky Lake still produces 3- to 4-pound spots from time to time - not something you hear too often about elsewhere. Biologists will tell you that normally, a Kentucky bass takes five years to get to 15 inches, and many die of natural causes before ever reaching that size. Kentucky's Lake's fertility, however, allows better growth than most other reservoirs, and spots can exceed the norm regularly in this body of water.
When the smallmouth fishing caught fire, thanks mostly to some drought years that cleared the water and reduced its fertility a little, it was a godsend for bass fishermen. There was enough deep water and coldwater habitat present to sustain the fishery, and as years passed, some huge smallmouths developed. Avid anglers cashed in big time.
According to the state's trophy fish records, some of those hawgs are still out there, as Kevin Snider of Elizabethtown, Paul Smith of Benton and Richard Butler of Irvington found out when they all boated smallies at least 21 inches long and weighing 5 pounds or better last year. Snider's bronzeback topped 6 pounds, and fish of that quality have been well known to Kentucky Lake anglers for several years now.
The lake's largemouth fishery has been up and down, as most are, due to varying conditions and weather patterns. Bass anglers are often caught off guard by this cyclic pattern, mostly because the effects of a poor spawn aren't really noticed by anglers until two or three years down the road. Of course, the reverse is also true, that a good year-class or two can make it seem like, all of a sudden, catchable-sized bass are everywhere, when last year they were hard to come by. And that's where Rister says Kentucky Lake is for this spring.
"We expect to start an upswing this year throughout the summer and fall, following what has been a down cycle for largemouths for Kentucky Lake the last couple of years," said Rister.
Rister's observance of the lake's largemouth population shows an increase in the population of fish reaching the size limit, which should improve the fishing from having a couple of years of lower volume production.
The health of the spotted bass population in Kentucky Lake seems to remain pretty stable. Spots look more like largemouths, but have characteristics closer to smallmouths in many regards. This species has a tendency to school and use open water. Spotted bass seem to prefer slightly deeper water habitat and structure. Sometimes in warmer weather, Kentuckies will gang up and chase shad in groups up near the surface at daylight and dusk, or suspend close to humps and dropoffs, or off main-lake channel points 10 to 20 feet deep during the heat of the day.
The key to catching bass during the summer months is understanding how they behave when water temperatures start to climb. While they venture into less than desirable areas sometimes to feed, most of the time bass are going to be in the zone that is most comfortable for them. Generally, that's not going to be 18 inches deep at 3 p.m. on a sunny July day.
Daytime anglers must search for bass using some type of cover to shield them from the heat, or that are in deep enough water that the sun's penetration doesn't make it too hot. This is perhaps even truer for smallmouths than largemouths and Kentuckies, but all three will spend more time located around channel drops and cuts near deeper points. Check out places such as a hump that reaches up through the 10- to 20-foot depth range, around a rockpile, or in a stumpbed that's close to a deep creek or river channel.
If you locate some extremely dense cover in more shallow water, you will likely find a bass or two nearby because the cover creates shade, and is a good place for ambushing baitfish.
For most of the better daytime fishing, you're going to need a medium- to deep-running crankbait, a jig or a Carolina- or Texas-rigged worm to put lures consistently down in front of summertime bass. Don't be surprised to learn that largemouths can be found as deep as 30 feet on structure in the depths of summer, hiding out from the daytime heat. However, most will be down 10 to 15 feet deep off a main-lake ledge. You should select lures that work well in that range for best success.
Early and late, you may find trying topwater lures around heavy vegetation or weedy or brushy cover effective. Buzzbaits and jerkbaits can also be effective for bass that begin to steal into more shallow water trying to pick off breakfast or dinner during low-light periods.
Better climatic conditions for summer fishing are cloudy days, days with a light rain or prior to a front moving in. Oftentimes a weather system coming in triggers bass to feed, and a cool rain may drop surface temperatures a few degrees. This can sometimes draw fish up for a while, and they may stay in shallow water a little longer than normal since it's not as uncomfortable to them.
Smallmouths will most often be associated with deeper water and structure found closer or in deeper, cooler water. On Kentucky Lake, most smallmouths are concentrated on the Land Between The Lakes side, and found on the steeper rocky banks and points. Following the channel edge watching for changes in direction, depth or contour, and then working those spots, is a good bet for smallies during daylight hours. Shift to the gravel banks as night falls to find fish moving up to shoreline cover looking for where the baitfish congregate.
Lures that imitate crawfish or smaller aquatic organisms will be good on smallmouths at night. Jig-and-trailer combinations, plastic grubs, spinnerbaits and crankbaits are the top choices on bronzebacks around rocky shoreline cover after dark.
During July and into August, there are several specific tactics largemouth anglers should try on Kentucky Lake. Interestingly, they include both deep-water and surface approaches.
Kentucky Lake has areas in summer with some surface and underwater vegetation. Before the sun gets up on the water, and once it's down in the evening, anglers can still find some bass near vegetation growing in the shallower coves and creeks.
Zipping a buzzbait through the pockets or along the edges of weeds will take some bass, usually smaller fish that are lingering around in the cover and shade. Zara Spooks are another favorite topwater, twitched around on top for bass to home in on. You may need to experiment with color a little, but also using something that mimics the size baitfish you can usually see around the weedbeds is advantageous in presenting something the fish are used to.
This tactic can also be employed successfully on overcast days, or periods when it's been sunny and then clouds up. The bass are there rain or shine many times, but prefer to stay hidden until there's less light coming through the water column. If it turns cloudy, try casting to the outer edges of the beds and see if you can lure the largemouths out to play.
While Kentucky Lake has a host of feeder creeks and channels funneling into the lake, bigger bass tend to stay on the main-lake drops and ledges in summer. Use your electronics to locate the channel and find a break that comes up 8 to 15 feet deep. Work the break with a crankbait, and remember that bass may not chase a lure too hard or too far at this time of year. A stop-and-go retrieve, or a slow, steady retrieve once you've got the lure down to the right depth, will probably catch fish for you.
If you're on a channel ledge that has cover on it, drop a plastic worm or a jig with trailer down, and fish along the contour through the cover. Worm fishing around stumps or brushpiles someone has buried for crappie is a popular approach because these spots will also hold bass if you, find some located in the right depth range.
A third habitat type used heavily by largemouths and Kentuckies during the hot weather period is humps and islands. The fish orient themselves along these bottom features in the band of water that is comfortable for them and where oxygen levels are suitable.
Sometimes big bass will suspend on submerged cover that on the surface appears to be out in the middle of nowhere. They use river and creek channels to move from spot to spot, so a hump or a stumpbed found just off a channel cut is a good place for bass to loaf around during the day. At night, bass are more likely to move up onto a feeding flat in 10 feet or less of water to find another source of cover.
Other summer bass-fishing tactics include looking for downed trees along banks that extend out into the lake. Work the cover from the shoreline out to the end of the blowdown. A big spinnerbait is good for up-close work to visible cover, while a worm or jig might be a good choice for cover that's 8 to 12 feet down.
Fishing slides and downed timber along the Land Between The Lakes bank are super spots to find smallmouths on summer nights, as well. Rocky points are also a hangout for smallies, as are riprapped areas around marinas and other spots with chunk rock and or pea-gravel that run out into the water a little ways.
A spinnerbait, skirted jig with a curlytail of some sort or a pork chunk lilting along behind it, gives a good impression of a crawfish or injured baitfish as it flitters down over the rocks or around tree limbs. Any nearby smallmouth will likely hammer it. Sometimes just hopping a jig, or a worm along a bank where a channel drop is near, picks up bass that have moved into the shallower areas at night to feed. Keep an eye out for where baitfish are located, and spend some time fishing there. Sooner or later, a bass will cruise by looking for a meal.
A final type of cover summer bass use frequently is a ditch line or an old roadbed that runs out a point, or creates an impression on what is otherwise a flat bottom. If you can locate a groove or a cut that has some stumps or fallen logs along it, running a crankbait through that corridor is a good way to catch fish.
Lots of times, they will just be laying in there, waiting for an easy meal. When it swims or twitches by, they run up fast, grab it and return back to their spot.
If you're looking for some Kentucky bass action, keep an eye open for surface baitfish activity. Kentucky bass are an aggressive species, and often seem to have less aversion and sometimes no aversion to going anywhere, and going at it hard, to get a meal. They chase and corner shad in against a bank or the back of a cove, and will sometimes be found in open water in big groups giving a school of minnows a good measure of fright.
Small spinnerbaits with a lot of flash get spotted bass attention routinely, especially if allowed to fall down through a bunch of baitfish as if hurt. Occasionally, Kentucky bass will get in the jumps in the depths of summer and smack small topwaters jerked around on the surface where you see minnows dimpling the surface.
Regardless of which type of bass fishing you prefer, or if it doesn't matter to you, Kentucky Lake is going to be a tough act to beat this summer for all three species. According to tournament records, many five-fish limit events are requiring more than 20 pounds to win on this reservoir. Some anglers are weighing in largemouths over 8 pounds and smallmouths in the 7-pound range.
Not only is the temperature hot down in west Kentucky in July, but so is this lake for bas
s fishing. As the biologist for the lake noted, catches of 15-inch and better bass should be on the upswing as the year progresses. Be sure to include Kentucky Lake on your list of trips this summer. Try some of these suggested tactics and see what winds up in your livewell!
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