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Kentucky's 'Fearsome Foursome' Hybrid Waters

Kentucky's 'Fearsome Foursome' Hybrid Waters

From the Ohio River to Herrington Lake, plus two other top picks, here is where you'll find our state's best hybrid and striper fishing right now!

Stripers and hybrid stripers are two of the hardest-fighting game fish that are found in freshwater; hence, it's a good idea to bring along sturdy tackle. Photo by Tom Evans

By Norm Minch

I remember my two fishing buddies getting a good chuckle at my expense the first time I flung a jig into the wide expanse of Lake Cumberland daring to do battle with a giant striped bass. Up until then, I'd never tried Kentucky's striped bass fishing. It didn't take terribly long to realize I was a tad outgunned when it came to actually fighting and boating one of these powerful, large fish. Stripers seem to be particularly testy when they realize they're hooked.

As proudly as I knew how, I wound up my rod and fired a gorgeous arcing cast to the water's edge of the point, and proceeded to slowly retrieve my lure back to the boat with my trusty heavy-duty spin-casting reel. That's about the time the whispering and snickering piped up in the front of the boat.

As we worked our way around the point with darkness falling, my education came full circle. One of the other guys onboard and I each got hammered by a big striper at about the same time. I heard the drag on his baitcaster start doing its job, followed by the distinctive, unpleasant sound of my overmatched spin-caster, which was straining to take the fish where I wanted it to go, opposed to what it had in mind.

"Back it off!" my cohorts sort of laughed out at me simultaneously, knowing what was about to happen. Fumbling with a drag wheel while a huge striped bass is pulling - well, the two don't work well together - not that it would have mattered had I gotten the drag to loosen. My reflexes kicked in amidst the brawl. I frantically tried to crank the bass another inch closer, realizing it was winning the battle. At least I would have that to my credit, I thought. But, as you've guessed it by now, my line broke, my groaning rod snapped back straight, and the line inside my reel had become wrenched around the spool so tight I couldn't even find the end of it.

Have you ever noticed just how loud two guys breaking up in laughter sounds across a quiet lake? I did - right after I sat back down, looking at what was left of my equipment, and then admiring a superb 12-pounder in my buddy's dip net. I was offered another rod-and-reel combination with, "Might want to give this one a try now."

Lesson one - big, strong fish require tackle designed to catch big, strong fish. Don't leave home without it lest you suffer several consequences, the best of which is losing a fish.


Kentucky has a handful of good places where anglers can tangle with stripers or hybrid stripers. For the purebred version, there's no place better than Lake Cumberland. Its 50,000-plus surface acres provide a good deal of room to fish. The lake has given up at least one rockfish that pushed the 60-pound mark. And, while no one has yet eclipsed the 1985 Roger Foster catch of 58 pounds, 4 ounces, the quality of fishing here is better than anywhere else in Kentucky in terms of big fish.

According to Doug Stephens, southeastern district fisheries biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), striped bass numbers look pretty good on Cumberland for this spring. Last summer, he believes anglers may have had a tough time finding stripers because of a depleted oxygen situation, but his late fall netting indicated there were plenty of stripers toward the lower end of the lake.

"We found a lot of 1-year-old fish where we netted, and our second crew located some of the larger, older fish. So we feel pretty good about what's going to be available this spring," said Stephens.

Stephens notes that the last few years have resulted in good survival of stocked fish, and that a good percentage should be large enough to "recruit" into the fishery. In the spring, a big key to success is finding schools of baitfish, such as shad and alewives, which stripers will feed heavily upon up until early June.

"Some of the best fishing we have during the April and May period is surface fishing at night around the mouths of the creeks and the main lake when the shad are coming up," said Stephens.

The biologist recommends casting topwater plugs at the mouths of Lily and Wolf creeks, for example, starting after dusk. Many times, the fish will become most active after midnight into the wee hours of the morning.

"In late spring, the surface water temperatures are still pretty comfortable for stripers, and when the sun goes down, they have no reservations about coming to the top to feed.

"It's hard to predict exactly what time of night that will happen, but if you can locate baitfish working the surface, it's a pretty good bet that before the evening is over, a group of stripers will get on that bait. That's when either a topwater or shallow-running crankbait of some kind will produce strikes," Stephens said.

"When they hit, you better hold on tight and get ready for a fight," said Stephens. "They don't give up easily once they're hooked." (Yeah, no kidding.)

If you want to try stripers on Cumberland during daylight hours, overcast or rainy days are usually the best choice. The stripers will be in deeper water while the sun is up, and artificial baits that can be worked deep off points or along channels or live bait drifted deep and slow can be effective.

"Once the water temperatures get up into the upper 70s, most of the surface activity will subside and stripers will suspend in the deeper water. That usually occurs about the second week of June or so on Cumberland," said Stephens.

After that, it gets tougher to find fish and you may have to go to downrigging or trolling shad or alewives down the main creek channels or out in the open water of the main lake to find a school. Stripers are very mobile and like the open waters to cruise.

For those looking for a combination striper and hybrid striper fishing opportunity, there's only one spot to go, but it's a dandy. The Ohio River provides about 600 miles of water for striped bass and hybrid stripers to wander, and both fisheries are doing pretty well.

"Besides us, Ohio and West Virginia are stocking parts of the Ohio with hybrid striped bass, and more of the anglers we hear from are connecting with hybrids, especially in the upper end of the river from Cincinnati on up," said Doug Henley, an Ohio River res

earch biologist.

"Anywhere from five to 10 fish per acre are being stocked each year by the three agencies in the Greenup, Meldahl, Markland, McAlpine and Cannelton pools, and Kentucky stocks stripers in Markland, McAlpine and Cannelton at five fish per acre," said Henley.

Henley is finishing up a study this year that will determine the survival rates of stocked fish, and may yield good information on whether stocking purebred stripers or hybrid stripers works best in the Ohio. Biologists have marked stocked fish with a chemical that leaves a fluorescent yellow color on the ear bone, which can be detected on fish they collect during electroshocking and netting surveys. Depending upon what the research shows, it is possible that one species may survive better than the other, and be more cost effective to produce and stock.

"We've learned that the conditions of the river make a huge difference in the survival of the 2-inch fingerlings we release," said Henley. If it's really muddy, the biologist says small fish have a tough time finding plankton and other food sources at the bottom of the chain that little fish must have to grow.

The KDFWR is targeting June and July to stock hybrids, when water conditions are generally more clear and favorable, which should maximize their survival. For the upcoming spring, Henley's investigations show that there are a greater number of larger hybrids out there, supplemented by what looks like a couple of good year-classes of stripers coming on. The fishing should be good.

During the late spring, you can almost always find hybrids and stripers right below the dams in the immediate tailwaters. Even with the 150- and 300-foot buffers around the lock discharges, Henley says anglers using heavier weights can cast into the most productive fishing spots without much difficulty.

"You can catch these hybrids just about anyway you want to fish for them, whether it's casting stick baits, or drifting live or cut bait down the current," he said.

"Hybrids are popular for several reasons, one of which is they are so aggressive and they fight hard. In the swifter water where they tend to congregate, it makes for a lot of excitement trying to get them to the boat.

"We like hybrids from the stocking standpoint because they're more flexible than stripers, and can survive warmer water temperatures a bit better. When stripers get to the 5- to 7-year mark, they have an increased problem with tolerating warmer water, and in the Ohio, the cold water habitat is fairly limited," said Henley.

"I do look forward to anglers having some quality experiences this spring, and as long as people are mindful of safety precautions, there should be plenty of fish there to make a good trip," the biologist concluded.

A third place where hybrid striped bass have been established for several years is Herrington Lake in central Kentucky. Herrington is a major reservoir, yet the characteristics of the lake's contour and terrain are somewhat similar to a river system like the Ohio. The lake is long and winding, narrow from bank to bank, and has a good deal of deeper water habitat for hybrids to roam.

The lake also has a good forage base, including gizzard and threadfin shad, which is a plus for hybrids (and other game fish). The threadfin that overwinter provide a bonus food source for the hybrids.

For younger game fish like hybrids, having a baitfish that can be eaten for over a longer period of time increases survival and aids in growth. Gizzard shad that grow so fast often get too big for small hybrids to get in their mouths, thus the volume of food available to them throughout the year is lower. Threadfins help fill the gap, and many times they also survive through the winter months unlike gizzard shad.

Although recent budget cuts have caused the KDFWR to drop their creel survey on Herrington this past year, Central District fishery biologist Kerry Prather still has some info to share about the Herrington hybrid fishery. One of the most incredible facts is that within the first 12 months of life, a hybrid can reach 12 inches in length. Sometime in the middle of the second year, it will be 15 inches or longer and already at a legal size to keep. That's astounding growth.

In Prather's netting studies recently, he has found good numbers of fish in the 4- to 8-pound range, a result of a couple of good year-classes stocked in the late 1990s. The usual stocking rate each year is about 20 fish per acre, and that seems to keep the population pretty stable, Prather says.

Prather strongly believes there could be some huge hybrids lurking in this reservoir, given their growth rate and the forage base that is available.

"Herrington is considered a trophy bass, bluegill and crappie lake, even though sometimes it can be tough to fish," said Prather.

"I can't believe we don't have some 15-pound-plus hybrids in this lake, as it has the potential to produce a state record."

Some effective tactics to use at Herrington on hybrids include casting spinners and spoons to main channel points and spots where baitfish congregate. Prather believes hybrids do not run upstream with white bass in April and May, at least not into the river, but may move into the upper third of the lake some when spawning season begins. He still finds fish, too, in the deeper water near the dam. During flood periods, hybrids seem to be very susceptible to going over the spillway and out of the reservoir downstream. Luckily, it has been a while since that much rain came during the spring, so there should be good fish available this time around.

In comparison to Taylorsville Lake, which will be highlighted next, Prather says the number of hybrids is slightly lower on Herrington, but the quality of the fish is better on Herrington. Prather got a report of a 22-pound hybrid being taken last year, but the angler did not pursue what might have been a new state record. He says the Herrington's hybrid population is dominated by 13-inch up to 25-inch hybrids currently, which can make for some superb jump-fishing when the baitfish come up, usually right at daybreak or dusk lots of times.

On to our final hotspot. Taylorsville Lake receives about 20 hybrids per acre stocked each year, which equals around 6,000 fish. In 2001, Prather found a strong year-class of fish in the 11- to 14-inch range, which this spring should provide a good crop of nice fish above the 15-inch limit.

The creel limit on Taylorsville is a little more restrictive, allowing anglers to keep 10 fish a day with no more than five over 15 inches. On Herrington, anglers can take 20 fish a day with no more than five over 15 inches. The limit on both lakes is a combined one of hybrids, stripers, white bass and yellow bass. Only five of the combined species daily limit can be 15 inches or longer.

"We regulate Taylorsville a little tight

er on harvest because it gets more fishing pressure, and we want to spread out the harvest among a larger number of fishermen and a greater demand," said the biologist.

Anglers will find hybrids in open waters during most springs, either in the upper part of the lake or near the dam following the spawn. "If you get on them, you can have a blast and sometimes catch fish until you actually get tired of it, according to some of the locals," said Prather.

Paying attention to locations where shad are present, and using a surface bait with a small jig trailer tied off below can sometimes be deadly on schools of feeding hybrids. The surface movement attracts their attention, and if they don't want to come up and take a topwater, they often will latch on to what looks like a wounded baitfish suspended below the surface. It's not all that unusual to take fish on both lures at the same time when fish are shallow.

Hybrid striper and striper fishing is a little different from bass fishing in that you're more apt to locate these species in open water and not necessarily on some type of shoreline cover like largemouths. Be observant around natural travel corridors like creek and river channels, and cast an eye to the open-water expanses for shad dimpling the surface.

Approach these areas quietly and use a fishing rig that allows for long, smooth casts. Almost inevitably, if you get a strike, there are more fish present - probably a lot more, also a little different than with largemouths most of the time.

Other spots where hybrid fisheries have been established include Barren River Lake, Grayson Lake, Fishtrap Lake and Guist Creek Lake. Contact the KDFWR for an update on these fisheries by requesting the 2003 Kentucky Fishing Forecast from the KDFWR Information Center at (800) 858-1549, or look online at the agency's Web address:

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