This season, here's what to expect while you're bass fishing in Kentucky's well-known reservoirs and overlooked lakes. (February 2009)
Sometimes, an enjoyable bass fishing season seems hard to achieve.
When the fishing starts off slow, even skilled fishermen begin to wonder if something out of the ordinary is happening on their favorite waterway.
Let's say you've set out to fish the same old spots, the same way you did in the past'¦but things just don't turn out as well as the year before.
That's when you start asking yourself, "What's changed?"
If that happens, the answer is usually one that few anglers think about, since the year-to-year ups and downs of fishing success are rarely the result of anything happening right at the time you experience them.
Something happened two or three years ago or even more, and the results are occurring only now.
Declines in the quality of fishing -- as well as improvements -- are primarily the consequences of previous years' bass production and how good or long their growing season was.
"By the time a big drop or upswing occurs, anglers have forgotten what the conditions were during the spawn three years ago," said Ryan Oster, fisheries program coordinator for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR).
"It's natural to think that the weather is too hot, or that too many tournaments are going on this year or that some other, more immediate factor is causing a difference from last year's success.
"One reason why we study fish populations of various species in our waters year to year, is to predict what their numbers and the health will be in future, and then adjust our management accordingly," said Oster.
"It also helps us prepare anglers for what success they can expect, because populations experience high and low cycles.
"We try to inform fishermen of when numbers are very good, as well as when we know a down year may be coming, so they don't get caught off guard."
With that said, Oster and other fishery biologists continue to monitor largemouth and smallmouth populations across the state. They believe that this spring and summer, several lakes will yield another good fishing season.
Here are some of the highlights of what they've found. (Continued)
KENTUCKY & BARKLEY LAKES
Over the last few summers, lack of rain across the Bluegrass State has created some interesting changes in the dynamics of bass populations in many lakes. Biologist Paul Rister has seen the good results in his region, despite the lack of rain.
"Last year was about the third year in a row when lower rainfall totals came our way," Rister said.
"It's having the same effect on bass in Kentucky Lake as we saw in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The numbers of small bass are really increasing, and in 2009 anglers can expect to catch largemouth in the 12- to 14-inch range all day long."
Though the spring was wet in 2008, water conditions on Kentucky Lake are still generally clearer than normal. This allows a noticeable increase in the milfoil, hydrilla and other weed growth. That greatly benefits younger bass. When two or three good spawns also result, Kentucky quickly loads up with tons of young largemouths.
"I think it will probably be 2010 before we see this bumper crop of largemouths start breaking the 15-inch mark," said Rister. "But anglers are still catching a lot of bigger bass on Kentucky Lake. I doubt that will change in 2009. It's been taking 20 pounds to win tournaments. Kentucky is still in the top five lakes for best weights on tournaments in the state."
If smallmouths are your game, the drought effects of yesteryear will also produce a likely jump in the quality of Kentucky Lake's smallmouth fishing in the coming years. Rister recalls how clearer water eventually improved the catches of bronzebacks last time, with numerous reports of very high-quality fish being taken.
He says it's reasonable to think that will occur in the next few years, too.
"Fortunately, Kentucky is always good for largemouths," Rister said. "When these drought periods happen, the fishing is just phenomenal. There's no other way to describe it."
This spring, he expects the good numbers of bass to remain stable across the way at Barkley. Rister tells anglers to stay on Kentucky Lake if they want to catch bigger bass, but for numbers of bass, Barkley Lake is equally good.
Tournament winners at Barkley consistently have to post a stringer of 15 pounds, on average. Barkley also ranks among state's leading lakes for high-quality bassing.
Recent checks show an excellent number of 12- to 20-inch largemouths in Barkley Lake. If fishing conditions are normal this spring, a whole lot of nice bass are going to fall for lures in the lake's many bays and points.
Barkley is generally shallower than Kentucky Lake and tends to remain a bit more turbid, so that the effects of rainfall on the two lakes are not exactly the same. Nevertheless, selecting Barkley for a trip this spring or summer is still an excellent plan for catching largemouths consistently.
BARREN RIVER LAKE
Lots of tournament anglers really like to fish for bass in Barren River Lake. It's been a consistently good place to catch fish and regularly provides good numbers of high-quality largemouths. Also, Barren River isn't so big that you can't figure out where you are, or so very small that all the other anglers feel like they're in the same boat with you.
The lake's rocky points and feeding flats give bass anglers good options to choose for bass-holding structure. Underwater stumps and humps are frequently used by largemouths, and the creekbanks attract bass and baitfish in the spring when the fishes' activity level picks up.
Reports for 2009 are that this lake should be very good for catching bass over 15 inches. It should be similar to 2008, when bass from bigger than usual year-classes from 2002 and '03 had reached that desirable size range.
Barren is another middle-western Kentucky reservoir where heavier total weights are needed to win a tournament. On average, the bass weighed in consistently exceed 2 pounds. And to catch a bass of 4 pounds or more takes a much shorter number of hours than on most of the state's other lakes.
The latest tournament results from the KDFWR indicate that Barren's catch rate for bass is the second-highest in the state. In other words, good numbers of fish are also present.
This reservoir has a lot going for it, and when a lake is a favorite for bass anglers, there's usually a good reason -- namely, you can catch bass there.
LAKE CUMBERLAND & LAUREL RIVER LAKE
Biologist John Williams notes that according to his 2008 creel surveyor's report, fishing pressure was down on Lake Cumberland last year -- whether because of the continued drawdown, higher gasoline prices or something else.
"On the other hand, when we've electro-shocked the lake, our catch rates have improved significantly," said Williams. "And many of the fish we're picking up are high-quality bass. Our tournament winning average two years ago was the best in the state, and it appears to be holding.
"This tells us that bass anglers are finding good fish, despite the fact there may be a little less water," he said. "I think those who've stayed with it have figured out how the lower water level has relocated largemouths. With less water to roam, perhaps bass have become a little more concentrated, so improved success has resulted.
"I see nothing to indicate that 2009 will be anything different than another good year for bass fishing on Cumberland. And I think those who can handle the increased cost of a fishing trip should see good results from their fishing efforts.
"There have been no negative impacts on bass from the lower water level. In fact, anglers seem to have done better, and we've found fish more easily when doing our studies.
"That all adds up to the positive side of the equation," Williams said.
This season, he also recommends that smallmouth anglers in his region check out the quality fishing on Laurel River Lake.
He attributes an increase in catching good-sized smallies to the recent regulation change that allows for a two-fish daily limit, coupled with an 18-inch minimum-size limit.
That 18-inch minimum has been in effect for a couple of years now, but to generate even a higher volume of quality bronzebacks. Last year, anglers were limited to two fish.
While most bass anglers release their catch, keeping two monster smallmouths of this caliber seems more than reasonable to help maintain the stock of big bass.
Just catching two or more 18-inch plus smallmouths is one heck of an experience in itself -- and even more so if you're able to take them home with you.
Looking to the east, anglers on Dewey Lake -- in district biologist Kevin Frey's area -- experienced a very noticeable improvement in bass fishing last year. And Frey expects the good fishing to hold over into 2009 as well.
The presence of zebra mussels, interestingly, seems to be the primary reason behind the surge of additional largemouths that Dewey is now enjoying. Zebra mussels filter the lake water and make it clearer during the summer, which has encouraged a lot of vegetation to grow in this smaller corps-owned reservoir.
Historically, Dewey has not been noted for quality bass fishing. But more weedbeds have helped more young bass survive and grow.
Cover affords bass protection, but it also concentrates baitfish. Bass like to congregate in spots where they can find food. Also, the chance to feed more often helps them attain a better size to winter over and progress into the keeper-size fish that anglers want.
Compared to what anglers have usually found in Dewey, largemouths have blossomed well beyond the norm.
This lake is now definitely on the map for a possible fishing trip this season. In this lake, spinnerbaits and soft-plastic worms or jigs should work very well around weeds.
The 15-inch size limit should help maintain the quality of the fishery so that a good percentage of the bass have a chance to generate some of those heavier stringers.
Major reservoirs don't have the exclusive rights to good largemouth fishing in Kentucky. There are a few out-of-the-way places that any angler should consider.
These smaller lakes, rivers and sometimes streams can offer some excellent fishing when their bass populations are doing well, but those waters don't always get a lot of ink.
One such place, where biologists have been working to improve the bucketmouths, is in the Markland pool of the Ohio River.
Here and there, the Ohio has some marginally good bass fishing.
Recently, biologists studied the results of an ongoing stocking effort and were pleasantly surprised at what they found.
Markland has better backwater habitat for bass than some of the other pools, so the KDFWR released a round of bass to see how well they would do and to try and bolster the existing fishery.
One hundred fish per acre were released in 16 of 20 backwater embayments in this pool -- and will be again. After the first release, biologists returned to check their success.
They found that nearly 70 percent of the bass collected were fish that had been stocked.
"We dropped those bass in on top of an unusually good forage production year," said Doug Henley, an Ohio River research biologist. "And they took off well beyond what we had expected. But that wasn't a typical year at all.
"Although we saw high survival and dynamite growth, this effort's long-term success may come out differently, depending on the conditions of the river."
Henley believes that by late spring or summer, a portion of these stocked bass will be reaching 12 inches -- keeper size. Anglers are going to notice a difference in the numbers of bass they catch.
"We decided to stock the pool to try to make a big enough improvement that bass anglers were easily going to see that it was better than before," he said.
"Initially, it will be thanks to the odd year and timing of the start of this project, and anglers can find some good fishing there this year.
"On sustaining a better largemouth fishery, the jury is still out," Henley said. "But we intend to make a hard run at it and see what can be done."
Anglers at Cedar Creek Lake had a good season of catching high-quality largemouths in 2008.
Biologist Oster recommends fishermen give this smaller trophy-managed lake a try in 2009, too.
"We're now getting the reports of 18- to 20-inch largemouth catches," he said. "Of course, a lot of bass being boated are of quality size, though they're under the minimum-size limit over there.
"As the summer progresses, anglers may find that the weeds and cover will dictate a change in fishing approaches," he said. "And because there is so much cover available, they will have to work at it to determine what kind of structure is holding the bass at a given time.
"Cedar Creek certainly has the potential to produce some truly big bass. Anglers who persist are going to come up with some nice experiences, sooner or later. They will likely connect with more and bigger bass than they will in most other lakes.
"That was the idea behind managing this lake very restrictively, so that those more interested in catching a few big bass -- versus little bass over and over -- could have a spot where that opportunity is more likely," Oster concluded.
THE BASS WRAP-UP
The drought that most of the commonwealth has experienced the last two or three years is generating some benefits for various largemouth fisheries throughout Kentucky.
Some changes will improve the fishing that's available now, and others may help populations down the road. Biologists say that even long-term droughts don't really have a negative impact on bass populations -- but they can affect fishing conditions and strategies.
What will the spring and summer bring? That remains to be seen.
However, in many waters, bass are doing exceptionally well.
If water conditions are decent, Kentucky anglers can hit spots like those highlighted here.
For the most up-to-date fishing information, check the KDFWR's Web site at fw.ky.gov.
Under the "Fishing" tab, look for the "2009 Fishing Forecast," which updates all the major fisheries of Kentucky's waters.
You can download the pages you want, or have the entire forecast report mailed to you free by calling the KDFWR on weekdays toll-free at 1-800-858-1549.
"Lucky for us," said the biologist, "in most of our major reservoirs, we're expecting largemouth and smallmouth fishing to continually improve this coming spring and for the following year or two."