When the chance to fish does arise, it's handy to know where some of the best fishing is located each month both from a traditional standpoint and any "new and upcoming" hotspots.
High-quality fishing in Kentucky is a simple because of the sheer volume of both cold and warm water lakes, rivers and streams. The Bluegrass State offers world-class coldwater fisheries that crank up in the depths of winter, and warmwater spots that offer excellent potential in the heat of July and August.
The annual fishing calendar charts three of the top trips to consider each month. So let's look at some of the best options January through December, and try to help you determine where to go this year.
Cumberland River Rainbow Trout
Trout fishing below the dam on Lake Cumberland is unparalleled in Kentucky. The portion of the Cumberland River in Kentucky runs downstream for almost 100 miles, and the area close to the dam can be fished from boat or bank. Also, there are several take-out spots along the river for half-day or day trips.
Shoreline anglers connect with rainbows on corn, cheese or other organic baits, while boat fisherman troll or cast crankbaits and in-line spinners with good success.
Perhaps one of the best features of winter fishing the Cumberland is the absence of other anglers, in addition to the trophy-class rainbows available throughout.
Other Options: A second choice for this month is in Lake Cumberland for striped bass, though this species can also be taken below the dam on alewives or large jigs. It is also hard to ignore the early crappie fishing on Lake Barkley using minnows and jigs off the deeper drop-offs and ledges in the numerous tributaries feeding the reservoir. Look for fish attractors to hold big crappie, too.
Kentucky Lake Crappies
Paul Rister, district biologist for the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Department, says that Kentucky Lake is the best place to score crappie in February.
Well before the spawn in April, anglers who fish deeper structure on warmer days routinely take excellent stringers of 10-inch fish and better. And when the temperature hits 50 degrees for a few days, crappie head to shoreline cover and are very active on twister-tails, minnows and small spinner/grub combinations.
Both black and white crappie are available, and fish up to 2 pounds are not uncommon during the winter bite.
Other Options: The back-up plan for February includes flipping a dark jig-and-pig combination in cover on Cedar Creek Lake near Stanford for hefty largemouth, or trolling Paintsville Lake creek and main river channels adjacent to open feeding flats for walleye with nightcrawler rigs. Walleye are active in cold weather, and the typical overcast day in February dovetails well with this species' sensitivity to light.
Dale Hollow Lake Smallmouths
When the rocky banks of Dale Hollow begin to warm in March, it beckons chunky smallmouth to nose around for crawfish and sluggish baitfish in the gravel. Areas of the lake where channel cuts are in close proximity to points are good to try. Banks with large rocks or other spotty cover attract bronzebacks.
Drifting minnows or casting spoons or flashy crankbaits, and working jigs on the bottom along bank slides or near mouths of creeks produce good fish. Many anglers prefer using lighter line and smaller tackle in clear water, yet when the feed is on, not too much spooks a smallmouth that's waited all winter to start eating well again.
Other Options: Hybrid striped bass are also ramping up activity at Herrington Lake, beginning their early spring run upstream toward the headwaters and into the Dix River. Another top-notch opportunity is catching sauger below the dams on the Ohio River, where schools are ganged up for their spring spawning run. Bright colored jigs tipped with minnows are very effective just off the rocky bottom in these tailwater areas. Many also offer bank fishing access for those who prefer that approach.
Benjy Kinman Lake Largemouths
Benjy Kinman Lake, an 88-acre oxbow of the Kentucky River in Henry County, is now open to fishing. If you are a largemouth fan, this is going to be a hotspot this spring. The lake is located just outside Gratz, and has a great deal of visible shoreline cover. This new public jewel will get a good bit of attention, but should also yield some very good bucketmouths this spring.
Fishing in the stickups, around logs, fallen trees and other cover with soft plastics should work well. Tossing a crankbait just outside the cover should also take fish as their feeding time increases with warmer weather.
Other Options: Likewise in April, muskie on Cave Run Lake near Morehead should start becoming much more active in timbered coves, with large topwaters or spinnerbaits thrown along woody creek banks. Shallow flats, where baitfish are beginning to congregate, are also hot. A third choice is crappie on Taylorsville Lake in the flooded shoreline brush or stickups. The spawn should be in full swing.
Fishtrap Lake Channel Catfish
Fishtrap Lake in Pike County is well known in the eastern region for good channel catfishing. Starting in May, channels begin making their way to the tree-lined creek banks with submerged cover looking for food and possible spawning habitat. These fish can also be taken off rocky banks and points with nearby access to deeper water, and the mouths of feeder creeks.
Fishing cut bait, such as bluegill or shad, or using nighcrawlers and chicken livers should put catfish on the hook. Try shady spots with overhanging trees, or look for downed trees or logs piled up in the backs of bays. You may also want to give the tailwater area a try, as well.
Other Options: Other opportunities this month include worming for potential trophy largemouths at Lake Malone, or locating beds for bluegills on Grayson Lake in the northeast. Crickets and red worms get the nod for a great Memorial Day outing with the family.
Barren River Lake Hybrid Striped Bass
With temperatures rising, hybrid stripers at Barren River Lake begin to roam open waters for schools of baitfish. Work areas around islands on the main lake and watch for surface activity early and late.
Anglers can cast to schools chasing shad on top with a rooster tail or spoon, or troll channel cuts with medium-running crankbaits when fish are down. Increased stocking in recent years have elevated the numbers of 15-inch fish available.
Other Options: Mid-summer brings with it the improved chance of taking flathead catfish at night on Rough River Lake. Fish live bluegill or other sunfish in the mouths of creeks or off deeper points after dark. Another top choice is redear sunfish at Lake Barkley. Shellcrackers will still be active after the late May spawn in slightly deeper water where gravel bottoms and some vegetation occur together. Lake studies indicate excellent numbers of high-quality fish.
Greenbo Lake Largemouths
When bass go nocturnal in summer, a trip to Greenbo Lake for largemouths is worth the effort. Greenbo is among the top choices based on state fishery biologist recommendations for catching big bass.
One tip to keep in mind is that big bass tend to go after larger meals when they feed in summer, surprisingly near the surface after dark. Choose something you don't ordinarily use on bass at this lake for a while, and create a little disturbance on top with it. The easier it appears to catch the better.
Other Options: Below the dams on the Green River are hot in July for white bass on lead-head jigs. When the mayfly hatches come in summer, picking up good bluegills along the banks on Kentucky Lake makes for a fun trip. Also find them in brushpiles down to 10 feet on mealworms or wax worms.
Nolin River Lake White Bass
Hot action matches the weather on Nolin Lake in August for white bass. Population sampling shows a high number of whites in the 20-inch range, which are very susceptible to minnows and jigs at night. Concentrate on points and spots along the main lake channel. Use lights over or submerged in the water to bring up baitfish and draw white bass up.
White bass are quite good to eat as long as you remove the red strip of meat down the sides of the filet. Because they school, once action starts many can be caught in the same location quickly.
Other Options: The warmer months in Kentucky mean catfishing for many. Don't overlook going for big blues in the tailwaters of Kentucky Lake in August. If you can squeeze it in, another superb opportunity is going for Laurel River Lake's bluegill against the bluff walls with crickets on cloudy days.
Buckhorn Lake Muskie
Head to the backs of coves and fish the edges of vegetation for big muskie at Buckhorn Lake starting in September. Large spinnerbaits and crankbaits attract a lot of attention. Muskie will be lying in wait of baitfish that move into shallow water as nights begin to become crisper and the water cools.
Good muskie can also be found in the tailwaters below Buckhorn dam and can be taken from the bank by savvy anglers. Remember, keepers have to be 36 inches long on this reservoir.
Other Options: The onset of September also triggers smallmouth into more activity on several commonwealth streams, but none more so and better than Elkhorn Creek. Small spinners and crawfish imitations in the main stem are top baits just below riffles. This month also brings with it an increase in walleye activity on the flats of Lake Cumberland. Troll and bump the bottom to stir up some action on overcast days.
Cave Run Lake Crappies
State fishery biologists are very positive about the population health of crappie in Cave Run Lake, and the month of October finds them returning to their springtime haunts in shallow cover. Early in the month, anglers find crappie on deeper structure along creek channels, and the edges of vegetation in coves and other submerged cover in water 10-feet deep or less, later in the month.
Other Options: Try fishing topwaters for largemouth on Herrington Lake early and late in the backs of creeks around woody cover, or cranking craw-patterned plugs on sloping points after a fall rain. An excellent third selection is fishing the deeper pools of the Cumberland River for big brown trout with crankbaits.
Lake Cumberland Striped Bass
Now back at normal water levels, the striped bass population is rebounding in Lake Cumberland, with both overall numbers of fish and larger fish improving. During the day, drifting alewives in the lower end of creeks is productive. At night, during full moon periods, try topwater plugs off main lake points, or where you mark schools of shad along the creek channels.
Other Options: Largemouth lovers will want to get to Lake Beshear to try soft plastics along shoreline cover. This lake holds a better than average number of 3-pound and better bass. Big blue cats are active this month below Kentucky Lake Dam. Fishing from piers on the bank is available. Using live bait from the tailwater works best on heavy tackle, since good, long-casting rod and reel combos aid in landing larger fish.
Green River Lake Muskie
State biologists are noting that the number of legal size muskie (36 inches minimum) are very good in Green River Lake, and late fall to early winter is a good time to connect with a trophy. Look for muskie in tree-lined embankments around submerged or shoreline cover.
Slow retrieves sometimes work better to get muskie to follow, or several casts in the same likely looking spot. Fish will not be terribly deep, and can be picked up by trolling parallel to the bank, or even out over open, shallow water bordered by a deeper channel.
Other Options: Good catches of trout are common in December on Wood Creek Lake. Holdover fish are present, often taking small spinners or spoons trolled in open water. Lastly, December starts some of the better smallmouth fishing on Lake Cumberland. Rocky points are best for smallies with a float-and-fly or crawfish-colored jig bounced down rocky outcroppings.
Fishing in Kentucky is a year-round endeavor, and these are just a smattering of the best trips to consider. Like they say, even in the dead of winter, the worst day fishing is better than the best day working. It's hard to argue with the truth, yes?