Since both bass and bluegrass start with the letter B, it is pretty obvious that bass fishing in the Bluegrass State is quite popular. And if the weather will play fair this year, the bass fishing forecast across the Commonwealth should be very positive on many waters, according to Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Department biologists.
The record-setting wet weather early in the season in 2015, followed by widespread drought mid-summer, made fishing noticeably tougher than usual, even on lakes that are usually excellent for largemouth. Perhaps in 2016, closer to normal conditions will exist.
Of course, some areas are better than others, but that doesn't mean that the local lake is bad, it just might not be considered the best of the area based on what biologists have seen recently in their management activities.
Though the eastern third of Kentucky has a hefty slice of the major reservoirs in the state, it's not always the big fellas that get the highest marks for bass populations. Sure, there is more water to fish on Corps lakes, but often it's the smaller, under 1,000-acre waters that shine. Such is the case with at least one choice for spring for quality bass fishing.
Wilgreen Lake's 170 acres are located in Madison County, approximately two miles out of downtown Richmond to the southwest. The lake also goes by the name of Taylor Valley Lake, and is owned and managed by the KDFWR.
"The best spot (for largemouth) hands down in our district is Lake Wilgreen," said Tom Timmerman, KDFWR Northeastern District fishery biologist. "We are seeing high percentages of fish over 15 and 20 inches in our sampling. In fact, 45 percent were over 15 inches. They are also very heavy fish for their size."
The biologist points out that there is some bank access near the dam, and the single ramp on Wilgreen gives anglers easy access to anywhere on the lake.
"I'd also recommend anglers stop in at either the Cane Pole bait shop or the Wilgreen Pro Shop in the vicinity, to get some pointers on what has been working for the locals lately," said Timmerman. "It might give those less familiar with this little lake a good place to start, and get you on fish sooner than flying completely blind."
Close by in the same county, Timmerman believes the Lake Reba bass fishing will be quite good this spring, with some good numbers of larger fish in the population. Reba has a good amount of bank access and carries a 15-inch minimum and three fish daily limit on largemouth. Timmerman says anglers can hit both Wilgreen and Lake Reba's 76 acres in one outing.
Elsewhere in the eastern end, District Biologist John Williams points to a somewhat unlikely candidate for good bass in 2016.
"I think Laurel River Lake is a sleeper for largemouth, particularly in the Laurel River arm section of the lake," Williams said. "The largemouth population at Laurel has significantly improved during the last decade and it is actually quite good right now. Smallmouth right now are slightly down in numbers, but it remains a very good lake in comparison to others in the region to land a bigger than average bronzeback."
Williams' crew also looked at Dale Hollow recently and reports it looked well worth a trip for largemouth. Smallmouth are consistently a good bet at Dale Hollow in quality and numbers, but Williams says to overlook the largemouth there would be a mistake.
"We slayed them in Illwill and Little Sulpher Creeks on a recent fishing trip, and caught a lot of 16- to 19-inch largemouths," said Williams. "If I get a chance to go back this spring, I will definitely be in that area again."
Taylorsville Lake in the north remains a good largemouth producer, and despite pretty heavy fishing pressure from the Louisville metro area, is holding its own in the 2016 spring fishing season.
Biologist Steve Crosby reports that Taylorsville's coves and embayments are the places to focus for chunky largemouth in this 3,000-plus-acre reservoir. His latest research indicates very good numbers of fish in the 15-inch size range, with above average volumes of 18-inch and larger largemouths present among the population. Spring anglers tossing soft plastics and jig-and-trailer combinations into shoreline cover, and working them back slowly through limbs are going to catch early season bass.
As spring continues to progress and water temperatures rise, largemouth will become increasingly aggressive and start taking faster moving offerings along the outside of submerged cover. Spinnerbaits and shad-type crankbaits around stumps, rocking banks or points start working more consistently, especially in lower-light conditions or in stained water on sloping shorelines.
Further down in the south-central district, largemouth in Green River Lake are reportedly doing quite well, and worth a spring trip right after a three- or four-day warming trend in April or May.
The forecast looks good-to-excellent, according to Eric Cummins, KDFWR district fishery biologist for that piece of Kentucky real estate. Green River Lake's status on largemouth is very much like Taylorsville, with lots of keeper fish and chances of a 3- to 4-pound bass.
Recall, that Green River also holds smallmouth in fair numbers in the lower end of the lake where some colder water habitat exists. Robinson Creek and the lower reaches of the Green River arm tend to be where the larger smallies congregate, and the March to April timeframe is one of the hotter times for finding active fish closer to the bank.4
Look for coves that hold standing timber during spring on Green River. Heads of bays often warm more quickly, and for largemouth in early spring only a few degrees difference in water temperature can have a big influence on how active the bass are. Banks with a good deal of exposed rock also pull fish into what is usually warmer water, so try that kind of habitat, too.
As the season progresses, largemouth will eventually take up spots around cover and look to feed on baitfish spending more time near the banks as the spawning period nears. When water temperatures get into the high 60s and low 70s and insect activity increases, frogs appear on the banks and around surface cover and vegetation, meaning anglers should drag or twitch a topwater of some kind above bass hiding around cover. That approach will take some heart-stopping hits by aggressive spring largemouth.
The western third of Kentucky contains some of the waters best suited for largemouth bass production, growth and survival. The rich agricultural landscape feeds large and smaller reservoirs good nutrient loads, which support the food chain.
Northwestern Fishery District Biologist Rob Rold reports that both of the major Corps lakes he manages are in very good shape for largemouth for 2016.
"We have pretty similar situations for bass on Rough River and Nolin River lakes right now," said Rold. "Anglers are going to find good number of fish 15-20 inches in the population, and the quality of bass should carry through for a while into the future."
Generally, strong spawn years in past springs help create and sustain higher quality fishing experiences two to four years down the road. In more-fertile waters, it takes less time for bass to reach quality size, as these lakes have a good supply of food and healthier fish, so mortality usually occurs less during winter.
Rough and Nolin offer good bass fishing in feeder creeks and around woody cover when fish begin moving up to more comfortable water in April and May. Post spawn fish can be found on creek channel drops and off points during the day, and can be caught on the banks early and late on topwater lures around tree laps and stick ups.
The remaining two recommendations for connecting with lots of good bass seem to always be at the top of the list — Kentucky and Barkley lakes. These two reservoirs are premiere bass fishing waters for the entire southern region of the United States. This is especially true in the spring, when water levels rise to summer pool.
"We are fortunate these two lakes are excellent environments for largemouth (and other species)," said Paul Rister, lead fishery biologist for the KDFWR Western Fishery District. "There is a very good amount of natural and manmade habitat in both these reservoirs that bass flock to when spawning time approaches in early to mid-May, which is a plus for fisherman. The quality of what you can catch is exceptional, and when we have a period where multiple good year-classes occur, as we have in the recent past, it keeps the population steady with a large percentage of fish continuing to break over into the 15-inch category, or larger."
Good consistency in spawns help level out the up and down years some reservoirs experience, so the fishing remains excellent on both Kentucky and Barkley nearly every year. Rister believes 2016 won't be an exception.
When the fish get on the banks, sometimes in late March, but for sure by April and May, and the water is up in the shoreline vegetation, anglers can wear fish out on Barkley using surface lures in the bays. After a while bass will key on woody cover submerged off the banks or on points. Rocky banks hold fish ready for crankbaits in spots that pull baitfish into the shallow water.
Kentucky Lake anglers also shouldn't overlook some superb smallmouth opportunities on the Land Between the Lakes side, along gravel banks and rocky shoreline areas starting in March. Even into the summer period, smallies can be caught on crawfish imitations, plastic creature baits and jigs, fished back in a hop-and-drop motion off riprap banks or bank slides close to the river channel.
"I get excited just talking about it, and thinking about some of the days fishermen we talk to tell us about," said Rister. "We have a great resource here, and I hope every bass angler gets a chance to try these two reservoirs, and many of the other good bass lakes Kentucky has to offer."
If bass fishing is your thing, you owe it to yourself to make the time to get on the water over the next three or four months. Summer and fall fishing can be productive, too, but on the tail end of winter when both largemouth and smallmouth come calling, being there to answer seems more like a responsibility, rather than a choice.