There's little doubt that it'll take an average of at least 20 pounds a day to win this week's Kentucky Lake Bassmaster Elite Series. That kind of quality wasn't easy to find in practice, though – too many little fish were running interference for the 4-plus-pounders.
Fish can be found just about everywhere on Kentucky and adjacent Lake Barkley, which between them comprise about 240,000 surface acres. They're a little bit behind their normal calendar routine, which means there's still a good number of them in shallow water. There are lots already on the ledges, though, and many more on their way there.
Anglers' rods were bent nearly the entire time they had a bait in the water during the just-concluded 3-day practice period. But the vast majority of those fish failed to meet the 15-inch minimum length requirement. And when guys did catch a keeper, they'd usually mark the spot and leave immediately in order to conserve those bigger specimens for the tournament.
There's a bunch of those heftier ones out there, though, and competitors who are in contention for a Top-12 spot will tangle with quite a few of them every day. They might have to work their way through a bunch of short fish to get to them, or perhaps they can minimize that chore by being in the right places at the right times – when the bigger ones decide to feed up.
Before getting into more bite info, here's a rundown of the fishery.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Kentucky and Barkley lakes
> Type of Water: Flood-control reservoirs
> Surface Acres (full pool): Kentucky = 160,000; Barkley = 80,000
> Primary structure/cover: Shallow – flooded buckbrush, vegetation, willows; Offshore – ledges and humps
> Primary forage: Shad, some crawfish and bluegill
> Average depth: Kentucky = 15 feet; Barkley = 8 feet
> Species: Largemouths (mostly), smallmouths (some jumbos), spotted bass (not usually a major factor)
> Minimum length: 15"
> Reputation: Big lake with lots of fish that can be caught many ways
> Weather: Thundershowers are possible over the first 2 days; no major wind in the forecast
> Water temperature: High 70s to low 80s
> Water visibility/color: Tinted to stained in some places, virtually gin-clear in others
> Water level: Full summer pool
> Fish in: 1 to 25 feet
> Fish phase: Summer and post-spawn, with a few stragglers still on the beds
> Primary patterns: Crankbaits, Carolina-rigs, football-head jigs, jig-stroking, worms (particularly large ones), flipping
> Winning weight: 85 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 12): 54 pounds
> Check weight (50th): 32 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Kentucky/Barkley
> Biggest factors: Timing – hit it right and the bigger fish will bite
> Biggest decision: Run and gun, or wait for the big ones to put on the feed bag
> Wildcard: Schoolers feasting on shad – it can happen at any time, and when and where is entirely unpredictable
Gotta Time it Right
If you want to find out what's working on a particular venue, who better to go to for answers than a guy who won two tournaments there just last week? David Gnewikow topped a pair of Triton-sponsored events (the Elite Gold Fish-Off and the 10th annual Owners Tournament) over the span of 4 days, pocketing $47,000 in the process.
"I practiced for 3 days before those tournaments and every day I was catching between 100 and 125 fish a day," he said. "Before I found the fish that ended up winning for me, I found 25 schools where I could catch one every cast. The problem was you might catch 20 before you caught a keeper.
"It's a real big timing deal right now. Some of the best places I had I might visit four times during the day, and three of those times it'd be nothing by small fish. But there'd be that one time I'd pull up and they'd all be 4- to 6-pounders, and you'd catch them the same way on the same stuff."
Elite Series angler Byron Velvick (right) served as emcee of the Triton Owner's Tournament at Kentucky Lake last week. David Gnewikow (right) won both the owners event and the Triton Gold Elite Fish-Off that preceded it.
The Mt. Juliet, Tenn. resident averaged a little more than 23 pounds a day en route to the Elite Gold triumph and more than 24 a day on his way to the Owners Tournament win.
"I fished those same fish every day and you just couldn't predict them. You'd have to just keep hitting and hitting and hitting those spots. And I used the same bait for 4 days straight – a deep-running crankbait."
Find the Good Hydrilla
Another guy who's picked up a few bucks catching fish at Kentucky/Barkley is Greeneville, Tenn. resident and 2007 Bassmaster Classic qualifier Sam Lashlee. He won an FLW Series event and a Stren on back-to-back weeks in this same timeframe 3 years ago, and also has two BFL triumphs and a Bassmaster Weekend Series victory on his ledger – all from his home lake.
He says plenty of fat fish are here for the taking.
"I can't remember a time when we had so many 6-, 7- and 8-pounders coming out of the lake," he said. "You have to pinpoint the sweet spots, but once you find them, there's just an unlimited number of 4-pounders. There's a couple of spots like that where you can catch 22 to 25 pounds a day, no matter how many days you fish.
"It's hard to come in from out of town and find those sweet spots, but these guys are the best in the world and they're going to do it. It would shock me if it didn't take 80 to 90 pounds to win."
Last year's Elite event here launched from near the dam. This year's will go out of Paris, Tenn. – about 40 miles to the south – and Lashlee said more big fish can be found on the ledges in that direction.
"The farther south they go, the better it will be. The better hydrilla is down that way. Depth really doesn't matter as much as the hydrilla. We've had so much high water that' it's knocked the hydrilla back and it's probably a month behind, but now it's really growing. It can be in 6 to 7 feet of water out to 12, 13, 14 feet.
"I predict that a Strike King Series 5 in blue and chartreuse or sexy shad will dominate this tournament – it comes through the grass so good and guys are just tearing it up with it right now. (The weights) won't be like they were at Guntersville, but it'll be impressive what these guys bring in."
Some anglers surmised that a lack of current might've been behind their inability to catch many quality fish during practice. The water level was as much as 5 feet high earlier this spring, but the Tennessee Valley Authority recently lowered it to the summer full-pool mark and, as of this week, wasn't pulling much current for power generation.
With no current running, the larger fish have a tendency to suspend and forego feeding.
"You can't count on the current now," said Dave Stewart, who's been a full-time guide on the lake for 10 years. "If you get a burst of it the fish will go crazy, but there's no way to determine when it's going to happen. A lot of factories have shut down in the area and we don't have the peak draw like we used to."
Another phenomenon that's unpredictable is "wolfpacks" ravaging a school of shad near the surface. It can occur at any time of the day, and an angler who's prepared for it can make some hay in a hurry.
"I was on a teaching trip last Friday and we were fishing jigs and Carolina rigs and a school of 4- and 5-pounders started in right by the boat. It didn't last long."
He expects the tournament to be won off the ledges, but says there's a remote chance that the champion could emerge from shallow water.
"There's still fish spawning – guys are still catching them with eggs in them – so the shallow bite is a possibility. But every day there's more and more on the ledges, and there's some awful good ledges out there.
"If you can get on the right ledge when they're feeding, you can put 25 pounds in the boat in five or six casts."
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from some of the anglers fishing the event:
"The fishing hasn't been good for me. They put my favorite area (the Tennessee portion of Barkley) off limits, so I'm really mad about that. The shallow deal has been kind of tough and I've fished deep almost the whole time, trying to find them out on those ledges.
"The deal is finding the right size and I haven't found it."
"I don't think the fish are as far along as they were last year. I fished Barkley last year and normally the same areas are good year after year, but all I've found are a bunch of small fish and some white bass. There's no quality fish there.
"There were places last year where you could catch keeper after keeper. You can still catch one fish after another, but now they're 10 to 12 inches."
"It seems like there's a lot of small fish and the bigger ones are harder to come by. When I did catch a good one I left, so I don't know how dependable my areas will be. But it's Kentucky Lake in June and even though (the bigger fish) don't seem to be biting right now, they will be.
"I think current's going to be a big factor in getting those bigger ones to start snapping."
Kentucky resident Mark Menendez said he can't remember a time when the lake yielded so many non-keepers.
"I've never seen this many little fish in this lake. It doesn't matter what kind of structure you're on, you're jerking 10- to 12-inchers, and you don't have enough time or enough plastic worms to wade through all of them.
"I still think it's going to be a good-weight tournament, but it's tougher than I expected. The weather's getting warmer, so that should push some more fish out there (to the ledges)."
"To be honest, it's been a lot of small fish for me. I have a few places where I've caught some 3- to 4 1/2-pounders, but not very many.
"It seems like the bigger ones are kind of scattered between the shallows and the deeper structure. If I was able to fish without other boats, I think I could do fine, but that rarely happens. I'd like to have enough places where I could run around a little and move in between them."
"I've caught good numbers of fish, but I haven't fished each spot hard enough to know what's really there. Personally, I think it's a little tougher than last year. There just isn't the same kind of quality.
"I think it'll be won deep. I spent an entire (practice) day fishing shallow just because that's the kind of guy I am. I caught a few 4-pounders, but I didn't feel like it was something I could base my tournament on."
"I can catch a few fish, but I just have to make sure I don't leave a spot too soon, You've got to kind of work through them and it's a nerve-wracking deal when they don't want to cooperate. I'd feel a lot better if I knew I had a place where I could catch a 15- or 20-pound bag.
"I'm just going to put my head down and fish as hard as I can. I've got some places where I didn't fish (in practice) and I hope they'll be out there."
"I found three pretty good wads of fish that I think have the potential for 20-pound bags. But (day 1) is really the learning day, when you become more familiar with your spots and really see what you have.
"It used to be that more fish would segregate by size, but I've seen more and more on these 15-inch (minimum-length) lakes that fish of different sizes are stockpiling. It seems like it causes fish to overlap territories. It used to be you could find a school of 2- and 3-pounders or 4- and 5-pounders and you knew what you had. Now you might have to go through some fish to see if some big ones are mixed in."
"I've got confidence in a particular area of the lake, and then I've got some spots outside of that. I'm boat No. 2, so I'll just go fishing and let the day kind of develop. There will be about a dozen guys who'll figure it out and their wad of fish will hold up, and they'll blister them.
"Every outside spot I spent any time on (in practice), a local got on it as soon as I left. Hopefully some of the places I left alone have some good fish on them."
"There's more small fish than I can ever remember catching here. It's like there's a size-class missing – they're either non-keepers or 3 3/4- to 5-pounders. That's the oddball part about it.
"It seems like they're a little more transitional this year. Last year they were more set up on the summer pattern and ready to feed. But I get to fish the way I want to fish (offshore), and that's important."
Top 10 To Watch
Here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this week's event.
1. Kevin VanDam – He's got a win and a 3rd-place finish here in the Elite Series' two visits over the past 3 years, and there's nothing about this event that doesn't set up well for him. The odds of him posting at least a Top 5 are extremely good.
2. Skeet Reese – He's right on VanDam's hip in the Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year (AOY) race. He's had some success here, too (4th in 2006 and 29th last year) and has three finishes of 9th or better in the last four Elite tournaments. No reason for his roll to end here.
3. Edwin Evers – He hasn't posted a finish of better than 25th this season, and that's not normal for the quiet Oklahoman. He's notched Top 12s in each of his two previous Elite visits and needs to make a big bang here to spark a strong late-season run.
Mike McClelland is in his element and hopes to build on the momentum of his 7th-place finish at Guntersville.
4. Mike McClelland – Posted his first Top 12 of the year in the last outing at Guntersville after back-to-back missed 50-cuts. He's as good as anybody when it comes to working a jig offshore, and he'll have ample opportunity to do that here.
5. Mark Davis – This might be hard to believe, but he hasn't finished higher than 37th in any Elite event this year. He stunk it up here a year ago (83rd), but this is his type of bite and his time of year. He badly needs a good showing to get back into Classic contention.
6. Aaron Martens – He's gone from 18th to 5th to 1st over the last three Elite events. There's nowhere left to climb after his victory at Guntersville, but there's no reason for a big slip-up, either. He can catch them away from the bank and it doesn't have to be a finesse bite.
7. Bill Lowen – Somebody's going to do well from the shallows, and he's established himself as just about as good a candidate to pull that off as grizzled veterans Denny Brauer or Tommy Biffle. His record here is mixed (84th last year, 20th in 2006), and at 35th in the points, he's on the Classic bubble. A good finish here would lay a strong foundation for the final two events.
8. Scott Rook – He emerged from his season-long slump with a 31st at Guntersville last time out – it was his first Top 50 of the campaign. He's fared well here in the past (22nd last year, 13th in 2006) and will try to build on the little bit of momentum he gained last month.
9. Kelly Jordon – Another guy with a good history here (15th in '08, 11th in '06). He's best known as a flipper, but he's equally comfortable cranking structure. He'd be right up there in postseason contention if not for a bomb at Wheeler, and a singe-digit finish here could put him back near the Top 12 in the points.
10. Jeff Kriet – A superb deep-water stick who currently sits just outside the Classic cutoff (he's 40th in the points). The 15th he posted at Guntersville was his best showing of the year, and he'd certainly like to take another step forward. He was 32nd here least year and 6th in '06.
The field will launch at 6 a.m. CT each day from Paris Landing State Park (16055 Hwy. 79 N, Buchanan, Tenn.). Weigh-ins are scheduled for 4 p.m. in the same location.
Here's the weather forecast for the tournament. Note the big temperature dip on day 2.
> Wed., June 3 - Scattered T-Storms - 83°/60°
- Wind: From the WSW at 8 mph
> Thurs., June 4 - T-Showers - 69°/55°
- Wind: From the N/NE at 11 mph
> Fri., June 5 - Sunny - 80°/56°
- Wind: From the N/NE at 8 mph
> Sat., June 6 - Partly Cloudy - 83°/64°
- Wind: From the SE at 5 mph
> BassFan Big Stick John Murray was one spot out of the money (51st) at last year's Kentucky Lake event, but turned in a solid 23rd-place showing in 2006. To read his practice report for this tournament, click here.