By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
The FLW Tour is set to conclude its 2014 campaign with a flourish this week at Kentucky Lake. The Angler of the Year will be determined following a season-long duel between defending points champion Andy Morgan and persistent challenger Cody Meyer, Forrest Wood Cup berths will be finalized and fans will enjoy watching massive sacks of fish come to the weigh-in stage.
The big Tennessee River impoundment is fishing extremely well at the moment and there's a good chance that the winner of this 4-day derby will compile a 100-pound aggregate. Even competitors who don't fare well in the standings should have some fun on the water – if you can't catch a figurative ton of 2 1/2- to 3-pounders this week, then you probably shouldn't be fishing at this level to begin with.
The lake is giving up massive sacks week in and week out. A month ago, Randy Haynes plied its ledges for 25 pounds a day en route to winning the annual Rayovac event at this venue, and more big ones have moved out to their hot-weather haunts since then. Numerous schools of 4-pound-plus fish are there to be had and double-digit specimens have been showing up with regularity, along with local-derby bags in the high 20s to low 30s
Greg Hackney surprised many by winning the previous Tour event at Pickwick Lake from water that he could nearly stand up in. A similar occurrence this week, although not impossible, is extremely unlikely. The vast majority of the lake's biggest bass, having transitioned to their full-on summer mode, are in water that would be well over the tallest NBA player's head.
The launch this year will be at Paris Landing instead of the traditional Kentucky Dam Marina locale, and that'll put the field in closer proximity to the hottest areas around New Johnsonville. Still, crowding won't be anywhere near the issue it was at Pickwick – Kentucky Lake holds a lot more water, which translates to a lot more productive ledges and far fewer congested "community holes."
Before delving deeper into the bite, here's some intel on the lake itself.
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 inches
> Reputation: Big lake with lots of fish that can be caught many ways
> Weather: Relatively cool (highs remaining in the 80s) with some thunderstorms possible on tournament days
> Water temperature: Low to mid 80s
> Water visibility/color: Stained from recent rains
> Water level: Full summer pool
> Fish in: 1 to 35 feet (mostly deep)
> Fish phase: Summer
> Primary patterns: Crankbaits, football-head jigs, spoons, worms (particularly large ones), swimbaits, Carolina rigs
> Winning weight: 92 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 10 after 3 days): 57 pounds
> Check weight (60th place after 2 days): 28 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 4 for Kentucky/Barkley
> Biggest factors: Timing and location are always critical in regard to ledge-fish
> Biggest decision: Stay or go – making a run south could result in bigger bites
> Wildcard: Monster bites. Chances to catch an 8-pounder or better are as good as they’ve ever been
Nowhere to Hide
Local guide and tournament ace Sam Lashlee, a former Bassmaster Classic qualifier whose long list of victories at Kentucky Lake includes an FLW Series event, a Rayovac, three BFLs and a Bassmaster Weekend Series derby, says the bite on his home body of water right now is phenomenal. There are two primary reasons for that: The grass that's been responsible for the recent uptick in the fish population is pretty much nonexistent this year, and depthfinders are so good now (and anglers so adept at using them) that the big schools are easy to find in the absence of the grass.
"It's been unbelievable," he said. "I think you're going to see huge weights. It used to be that guys who went to New Johnsonville (from the dam) only had about 4 hours to fish. Now they're going to get 6 or 7 hours and there's more and bigger fish.
"It wouldn't surprise me to see somebody catch close to 100 pounds – I think you're going to need a 24-pound average to win this tournament."
Not only is there an abundance of fish in the 4- to 6-pound class on the southern end, there's also a substantial number of true giants. Case in point: Lashlee recently caught an 11-pounder and one pushing 10 1/2 on the same trip.
"I've never seen so many big fish on this lake. If you're in a tournament out of New Johnsonville and you don't have a 9 or a 10, you won't be competing for the big-fish prize."
There's some quality farther north as well, but the average size is a bit smaller and the monsters far fewer in number.
"I've been fishing mostly in the New Johnsonville-Paris area, but I've had (guide clients) who wanted to fish near the (U.S. Route) 68 bridge and the dam, and there's huge schools of 3-, 4- and 5-pounders on that end. It's making a big comeback, but the bigger fish are still down south."
As for the Lake Barkley option, which has produced Top-10 finishes on previous June visits (most notably by Jay Yelas), Lashlee doesn't think it'll be a player this year and Yelas has gone on record as saying he won't venture over there. Compounding the negatives, Barkley is a much longer run this time.
"As far as somebody winning on Barkley, I'd say that won't happen. It just doesn't have the 7-, 8- and 10-pounders that (Kentucky Lake) does and it doesn't have the numbers of the 4- to 6-pounders."
Climb, Stand or Fall?
It's conceivable that someone other than Morgan or Meyer could still win the AOY, but such a scenario is a serious longshot. Morgan would need to finish 55th or worse to surrender the crown to anyone other than Meyer, and he's done that exactly once in the last 17 Tour events. He hasn't done it in a Tennessee River derby since 2006.
Meyer enters the tournament trailing Morgan by 8 points. He struggled on the Tennesse River early in his career (this is his 5th pro season), but he's gotten a grip on the system and has been rock-solid since the end of 2012.
Neither angler has posted a finish lower than 34th in any Tour event this year.
The Cup cutoff will certainly extend to 37th place on the points list and could drop to 38th if 2013 Central Rayovac AOY Dan Morehead surrenders no more than 7 places. Morgan and '13 Cup winner Randall Tharp are locks as double-qualifiers.
Kentucky Lake guide and tournament competitor Sam Lashlee caught this 10-pounder recently. He had one that was slightly bigger on the same day.
Anthony Gagliardi, who was disqualified from the opener at Okeechobee for an inadvertent violation of practice-partner rules and received no points for that event, has battled all the way back to 37th in the race. If he holds his ground or moves up, he'll get to compete for the Cup on his home lake (Murray) in 2 months.
Notable names residing between Gagliardi and the 60th position, and thus still having a decent shot to make the Cup with a high finish, include former Cup champions Scott Suggs (44th) and Luke Clausen (50th) and the legendary Larry Nixon (58th).
Following are some practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
"My practice wasn't that good at all. I spent a lot of time looking and I didn't find what other guys are talking about finding. I think I could catch 12 to 15 pounds, maybe. I didn't catch a 4-pounder in 3 days.
"People are going to be spread out – this place is a lot different than Pickwick. There's a lot more fish and a lot more areas that fish use, and they're at a lot of different depths.
"I'll try to go out and catch what I think I can, which will hopefully be in the 15-pound range, and then maybe get one or two big bites and get up to 17 or 19. There's going to be some big bags caught, but I don't think there'll be a gangload of them like there was in the Rayovac."
"It hasn't been great. I just dislike the whole Tennessee River – I don't know how to find stuff here that nobody else finds. I caught some fish and found a couple of schools, but I don't know how well I can do with them.
"I tried to fish shallow a little in practice, but I couldn't make it work. I'm sure some guys will catch them shallow.
"What I've found so far, 15 or 15 1/2 pounds might be all I can catch, and I don't think that'll put me where I need to be at all. I'll start out fishing the stuff I found and see what's there – a lot of places you pull up and catch four or five and leave and you don't know if there's some big ones mixed in with the 2 1/2 pounders or not. I'll go with that plan and try to catch a bunch of fish and just hope that a few of them are bigger than 3 pounds."
"I came up before (off-limits) and the fish were halfway between the spawning bays and the main river, and I caught them pretty good. Then when I got back here and got started on Sunday, I found that they've mostly all moved to the river where they're getting a lot of pressure and they can be pretty hard to catch. You pull up on a school and catch one and you think you're going to whack them, but then you can't catch another one.
Glenn Chappelear says the Kentucky Lake bass are a bit tougher to catch right now than they were prior to the off-limits period.
"It's getting to be summertime and the water's warmed up 7 to 8 degrees. If (the Tennessee Valley Authority) pulls a lot of current, that'll help.
"If I could catch over 20 pounds I think that'd be strong, but I don't know if I can do that. I didn't catch any 5-pounders in practice, but I was seeing some big ones on the graph. I'm thinking 18 to 20 a day will be good enough for the Top-20 cut."
"It's not like it was for the (Rayovac), I can promise you that. It's getting into summertime and the lake's getting more pressure and the fish are getting a little more scattered out. The places where everybody was catching them and they were biting real good, a lot of that has changed. It usually happens here around the 1st of July, but this is a little early.
"There's still some good fish to be caught, but they're just not biting as good. I'm sure there'll be some bags in the high 20s, but it's not going to be like the Rayovac. I know I'm not catching them like I usually catch them.
"For me, anything over 20 pounds would be a good catch and that's nothing like this lake is capable of. The crankbait bite is really off. I can usually just stroke them, but now somebody can come behind me throwing plastics and whip my butt. I don't like that, but that's how it is. They're not just jumping on everything that goes by.
"I know this lake really well, but with GPS, everybody else knows it, too. It used to be 20 or 30 guys fishing this way, but now you've got 160 doing it because anybody with GPS can find them. It's become such an important tool.
"When the fish get pressured like this, it's all about timing. The best places are still the best places, but you don't know if they're going to bite during tournament hours or before you get there or after you leave."
Top 10 to Watch
With the above in mind and more, here (in no particular order) are BassFan's recommendations for the Top 10 to Watch in this event.
1. Randy Haynes – The winner of this year's Kentucky Lake Rayovac is a much-feared man in any structure-fishing scenario. At 48th in the points race, he needs to move up a bit to make the Forrest Wood Cup, and it's a very good bet that he will.
2. Mark Rose – A surprisingly lackluster 59th-place showing at Pickwick ended a string of three straight Top-10 finishes (including the Toyota Texas Bass Classic) for the deep-water stalwart. Look for him to perform much better this time.
3. Jason Lambert – The rookie finished as the runner-up to Haynes at the Kentucky Lake Rayovac and logged an 8th at Pickwick. He's red-hot and this is his kind of set-up.
4. Brent Ehrler – You simply can't leave "Meter Man" off of any favorites list when the highest quality fish are hanging in deep water. Look for his name to be among the leaders throughout.
5. Jacob Wheeler – He bombed badly at Pickwick (96th), but bounced back to win the inaugural BASSFest at Chickamauga. This finish will almost certainly be a lot closer to the latter than the former.
6. Shinichi Fukae – He's quietly put together a superb campaign, with no finishes worse than 45th in six events (including the TTBC). He can find them on structure and he has the finesse skills to make them bite.
7. Andy Morgan – The Tennesseean will likely need yet another strong finish to hold off Cody Meyer and capture his second straight AOY. Another 15th such as he posted at Kentucky Lake in 2012 might do it – or it might not considering Meyer's dogged persistence.
8. Cody Meyer – The guess here is that the Californian will still be chomping at Morgan's heels for the points title at least through day 3. He surrendered just 2 points to his rival at Pickwick to give himself a fighting chance at the title in the finale.
9. Dave Lefebre – At 74th in the points, he's headed for his first Cup non-qualification since joining the Tour in 2003. He won at Kentucky Lake the last time the circuit visited, though, and would like to post a strong finish to a season that had a horrible start.
10. Michael Neal – The runner-up at Pickwick is bound to notch his first Tour win before too long, and it could happen here. At 22, he's younger than a lot of guys still fishing college events, but his offshore game is thoroughly professional.
> Jay Yelas and Luke Clausen both found multiple schools in practice, but like most of the field, they won't know what kind of quality they'll produce until they begin hammering on them on day 1. To read their practice recaps, click here to go to Pro View Reports.
Anglers will take off from Paris Landing State Park (16055 Highway 79 N., Buchanan, Tenn.) at 6:30 a.m. CT each day of competition. Thursday's and Friday’s weigh-ins will be held at the same location beginning at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday’s final weigh-ins will be held at Walmart (1210 Mineral Wells Ave., Paris, Tenn.) beginning at 4 p.m.
> Thurs., June 26 – Isolated Thunderstorms - 88°/68°
- Wind: From the SSW at 4 mph
> Fri., June 27 – Isolated Thunderstorms - 82°/69°
- Wind: From the SSW at 6 mph
> Sat., June 28 – Partly Cloudy - 89°/70°
- Wind: From the SSWW at 10 mph
> Sun., June 29 – Partly Cloudy - 88°/69°
- Wind: From the SW at 9 mph