Running Bass Down on Cave Run: Take Your Pick

Running Bass Down on Cave Run: Take Your Pick
Infographic by Allen Hansen

kentucky bass
Cave Run Lake in Kentucky supports fishing for all three main black bass species, including largemouth bass. (Photo by Scott Bernarde)

Kentucky anglers are lucky to have so many good choices for bass fishing. Among those choices and one of the state's larger reservoirs, Cave Run Lake's 8,000 plus acres offer plenty of opportunity this spring to catch largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass.

Not all of the state's lakes are able to support the three varieties of black bass, since it requires both warm- and cold-water habitat. Cave Run does, however, giving bass fisherman a broad range of action that spans all year 'round.

The spring draws much attention on Cave Run mostly focused on largemouth, and in May anglers on different portions of the lake may find these bass either in pre-spawn, spawning or even post spawn modes. Each stage requires a different approach to be successful, and to know which to use at a given time during the month, observation of water temperatures and fish activity is important.

Regardless if bass are about to go on the nest, already in the process or just coming off the beds, most will be found in feeder creeks, on points and in the backs of coves. It is likely a portion of the bass will be highly aggressive, some nearly impossible to interest and others already starting to look for deeper habitat during the daytime as the month wears on.

>>Read more about Kentucky Bass Fishing

Kentucky Fish and Wildlife's Tom Timmerman, district fisheries biologist for the Northeast Region of the state, says regardless of what stage anglers find largemouth, there are a few major keys in catching bass on Cave Run anglers should keep in mind.

"First, I'd try to get away from where everyone else is fishing, not be afraid to try something other than the usual fare, and learn where the habitat is," said Timmerman. "As far as habitat goes, all fish are utilizing habitat at some point. You have to fish it, and move on if nothing is happening."

In early May, fishing bank and shoreline cover in the creeks with spinnerbaits and jig combinations for feeding bass prior to going on the nest is effective. Stick up timber, stumps and woody debris in the backs of coves can be productive. Using soft plastics along the bank fished super slow for bedding bass is a proven tactic.

Bass in post-spawn generally begin to move off the banks to deeper habitat, which is one item Timmerman and many area lake "partners" have helped improve in recent years.

"We began the habitat improvement project here in 2013 and finished our initial round last year," Timmerman explained. "The focus was on the lower lake portion, primarily between the confluence of the Licking River and Beaver Creek down toward the dam."

The KDFWR has had a long-term Christmas tree donation program across the state, where anyone needing to dispose of a tree can drop it off to create fish attractors. Over the years, biologists have become pretty creative in trying various combinations of materials and researching which work best in what situations to hold fish.

"The key to improving fishing and the population is having a variety of habitat, and since our fisheries are diverse in Cave Run, the effort is aimed at helping all the species, including the black basses," said Timmerman.

Bass anglers have already begun seeing improved success. Timmerman notes most are having the best success boating bass off the submerged habitat at times and depths where baitfish are present as well.

"This is why I suggest checking your graph frequently when you locate underwater cover, and determining if there are baitfish on it," said Timmerman. "If not, I move to the next bunch of stuff, look, fish it a bit and stay mobile until I find bass, and then follow that pattern."

He believes the anglers who are on the water during all seasons will have the most consistent good outings. If anglers keep track of what depth they catch bass, on what kind of structure and the conditions at specific times of the year, the chances greatly improve later when conditions are similar.

"Interestingly, from a biological standpoint, Cave Run is one of the best lakes in Kentucky for bass production according to how many younger fish we see anglers catching," Timmerman said. "But, we are likewise similar to most lakes in this third of Kentucky, and our growth rates are significantly slower than other more fertile reservoirs west of us."

bass fishing

Those two factors are primarily what warrants the current 13- to 16-inch slot limit for largemouth on Cave Run. That approach is designed to remove a portion of the smaller fish and reduce the competition for food, so those left can grow into higher quality bass, giving anglers a better percentage of the high-quality bass over 16 inches to pursue.

"Spring fishing, particularly in May, can be a situation where you've potentially got to prepare that bass may be about to spawn, in the spawn or past the spawn" said Mike Hardin, a frequent visitor to Cave Run and KDFWR assistant director for the agency's fisheries division.

Hardin reminds anglers to pay special attention to the water temperature and color, because the hills and hollows can shade portions of the lake and make a big difference in surface temperatures.

"Just a three- to five-degree difference can make a lot of difference in what the bass are doing, and where the more active fish might be," said Hardin. "The larger bass are going to want to be in water that is more comfortable, and almost always associated with some kind of cover as they come in to the banks."

Pro Angler Brandon Palaniuk: Adjust for Changing Conditions

"We have been particularly successful fishing jig and pigs on channel drops in early to mid-spring when we find some stained water in the creeks," Hardin said.

Hardin says anglers have to think like a fish to be more successful, and go where the bass want to be to find more of them. Water temperatures in the 60s, with a little stain to filter the sun and around something that attracts baitfish and can hide the bass.

For smallmouth anglers, Cave Run doesn't have a huge population, but the quality is often very good. Smallmouth require the colder water habitat found on the lower end of the lake closer to the dam, and can be caught on rocky habitat in early spring on crawfish imitation soft plastics and live minnows on main lake points.

Smallies move to the banks well before April and May, and begin to return to deeper water on main lake and creek channels not long after the spring water temperature warm up comes. Pea gravel banks close to deep-water access are top areas to cast medium-running crankbaits in lowlight conditions or at night as spring transitions to summer.

Kentucky "spotted" bass are also present in Cave Run. There is no size limit on spotted bass. Anglers throwing crankbaits on open flats, such as the one close to the Zilpo area of the lake, when the water is showing spring color from a rain can be successful on spots and largemouth both. To be successful, follow the baitfish, especially as bass are feeding hard after the winter slow down.

Another major goal of ramping up the volume and diversity of habitat is to bump up forage availability. Not something anglers think about much, but underwater stuff is what stimulates algae and micro-invertebrate growth. Baitfish use that food source, which helps make more baitfish, thus more food for bass.

A very helpful way to locate where structure has been put in Cave Run recently is to download or otherwise obtain a lake map.

There are some 75 noted locations where fish attractors have been installed, both along the main lake channel, along reefs and banks, as well as in some of the larger creeks. The GPS coordinates for each attractor is listed along with the map.

In May, those closer to the shoreline or along creek channels or on flats will be more productive. Bass will be seeking warmer water where baitfish congregate in April, staying around cover until the spawn, and then moving back to cover as that period concludes. Choosing habitat based on how fish are behaving at any point in the season simply improves the odds of finding bass.

"We selected these spots in the lower portion of the lake for most of the work because they are the most popular with anglers and where most of the natural habitat has deteriorated or disappeared," explained Timmerman. "This work does good things for crappie, muskie and our bass populations, and our goal in 2018 is to begin assessing location success of what we have out there now, and maintaining those sites over the next four years and then making adjustments as needed."

One concern Timmerman voices about Cave Run Lake is the increasing presence of hydrilla vegetation, and he requests anglers take special care not to inadvertently or purposefully extend this problem to other area waters.

"While some vegetation can certainly help fishing, there is a popular misconception that if some is good, more is better, and this simply isn't true, especially for types like hydrilla," Timmerman cautioned. "We have a tremendous resource for anglers in Cave Run Lake, and we want to protect, maintain and improve that through the right and responsible avenues. And we need more anglers to join us in that effort from all aspects, such as cleaning boats, motors and trailers after fishing, taking part in giving us feedback on their experiences and being good stewards of our natural resources."

The U.S. Forest Service, Army Corps of Engineers, Friends of Cave Run Bass, Morehead Tourism and other local entities have all partnered with the KDFWR on the habitat project, which is having positive effects for Cave Run anglers of all kinds.

"I think the 2018 spring season will be quite good for bass fisherman for a lake in the Eastern region, and can continue to be better with the combined efforts of our agency and the fishing community," Timmerman said.

Minor Clark State Fish Hatchery

cave run
Infographic by Allen Hansen

Named in honor of the agency's first fishery biologist Minor E. Clark, who became KDFWR Commissioner in 1958, the 300-acre fish hatchery facility at Cave Run Lake operates 124 acres of ponds.

The Clark hatchery is one of the largest state-owned, warm-water facilities of its kind in the United States. It's located eight miles southwest of Morehead on KY 801, and open for public tour weekdays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

This hatchery produces 4 to 5 million fingerling fish each year, including striped bass, hybrid stripers, walleye, white bass, muskie, largemouth, smallmouth and crappie. These fish are raised to specific sizes based on need, and released in various waters statewide. 

Interestingly, the facility also produces thousands of pounds of minnows and goldfish used to feed sportfish until they are ready to be loaded, trucked and released for anglers to eventually catch in a lake, river or tailwater in the Commonwealth.

Clark is one of two state-owned and operated hatcheries by the KDFWR, in addition to the federally operated and state supported Wolf Creek Hatchery at Lake Cumberland.

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