By Todd Ceisner
Last June, when the Bassmaster Elite Series rolled into Kentucky Lake for its BASSFest event, the lake was feeling the effects of having hosted several major tournaments in the weeks immediately preceding BASSFest.
The post-spawn fish had already moved out to their summer haunts and schooled up, but the intense pressure took its toll and put a serious dent in those large groups. Still, Edwin Evers managed to sack 97-04 in winning the event, a testament to the kind of fishery Kentucky Lake can be.
“We had three or four major events where the fish had already been out before,” said veteran Kentucky Lake guide Sam Lashlee. “That’s why hair jigs and finesse tactics worked (at BASSFest). All of the fresh schools had been busted up.”
This week, it appears the FLW Tour anglers could reap the benefit of being among the first to target the post-spawn fish after they’ve moved out. While the fish spawned a bit later than usual this year and water stayed cooler longer this spring, the variables needed for an offshore shootout are starting to fall into place.
The water temperature in certain parts of the lake is in the 80s and following a brief cold snap Tuesday night, the weather is expected to remain stable and hot the rest of the week.
“These fish are fresh and it’s going to shock me if they don’t just smash ‘em,” Lashlee added.
The one wild card – and it’s an important one on the Tennessee River – is current, of which there was very little during practice. The lake is a few inches above full pool so if the Tennessee Valley Authority decides to move some water out, it could trigger the fish that have already moved out to group up even more and it also tends to activate their feeding instincts.
As competitors came off the water Tuesday evening at the conclusion of their three-day practice session, the vibe was that the fishing was okay, but some are hoping that with the prolonged heat wave additional schools will develop or show up on areas that weren’t holding fish earlier in the week.
This is the second straight FLW Tour event on the Tennessee River and the fifth time since 2009 that Kentucky Lake has hosted a Tour stop in June.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown 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" (largemouth/smallmouth), 12” (spotted bass)
> Reputation: Big lake with lots of fish, including some giants, that can be caught many ways
> Weather: The mercury will creep into the upper 90s later this week and with stable conditions, additional waves of fish should start heading to the ledges
> Water temperature: The northern end of lake has mid to upper 70s, mid-lake and the southern end is harboring warmer water in the 80s.
> Water visibility/color: 18 inches in most areas/fair amount of stain from north to south
> Water level: Slightly above summer pool
> Fish in: 3 to 30 feet
> Fish phase: Early summer and post-spawn
> Primary patterns: Crankbaits, Carolina rigs, football-head jigs, spoons, worms (particularly large ones), swimbaits, flipping, topwater, hair jigs, magnum finesse baits
> Winning weight: 95 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 20 after 2 days): 35 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: When to move off a school and go to another; getting in a bad rotation can lead to missed opportunities
> Wildcard: New Johnsonville – the grass isn’t that far along, but the long run could pay off for someone
For a closer look at Kentucky Lake, check out the embedded map below, courtesy of Navionics.
Let’s Get It Flowing
There’s absolutely no rain in the forecast through the weekend, but it’s supposed to be sweltering hot in southwest Kentucky the rest of the week, and that could prompt the TVA to push some water through the system to generate power. If that happens, it could take the fishing conditions over the top.
“I wish they’d open the gates at 4 a.m. Thursday,” said Jeff Sprague, the current points leader in the Angler of the Year race. “They’re not pulling a lot of water right now and that’s affected the fish tremendously. They thrive on current and when they’re not cranking it, it makes it tough. The fish scatter where they’re not easy to catch and don’t feed like when the current is moving.”
It’s just one of those variables – some would argue the most important variable – that could separate this event from previous Kentucky Lake post-spawn tournaments. A lot of the elements for a slugfest are present and a little current might be the missing link.
“That could happen for sure,” said veteran pro Dan Morehead, who resides in nearby Paducah, Ky. “Both lakes are a little bit high and if they pull some current with this stable weather, when it happens, it’s like flipping a switch. It can go crazy.”
Back to School(s)
With the advances made in contour mapping and how anglers read and interpret what they see on their sonars, preparing for an event on a place like Kentucky Lake has changed over the years. Now, it’s not uncommon for a competitor to spend 16 hours on the water, the majority of which is spent staring at their electronics and waiting to see it light up with a flurry of slashes or dots.
Dan Morehead was expecting to find more schools on the ledges during practice, but thinks come tournament time they could be there.
Practice was all about finding as many schools of those slashes/dots as possible in hopes they’ll still be there Thursday. Some competitors will keep an open mind and go back to areas that were ghost towns hoping that new fish have arrived.
Lashlee (contact him via Facebook to book a trip) has been on the lake daily recently and has started to see some mega schools take shape in various areas. He’s gone from seeing small groups with four or fish in them to schools of 60 or more.
“I’d been fishing for smaller groups here or there and when it’s like that you have to fish for them,” he said. “Now, I’m not stopping on anything with fewer than 20 to 25 in them. Last week, I had a school where I counted 62 fish and every one I caught there was over 5 pounds. Where I’d been seeing those small groupings I’m now seeing 18, 20, 40 fish. It’s not uncommon to find 100 in a school.”
Lashlee predicts deep-diving plugs will ultimately be the best producers this week.
“It’s going to be a 6XD and 10XD slaughter,” he said. “The crankbait is typically good for three weeks after they get out and they’re still fresh and those schools are just starting to form now.”
With two events remaining on the schedule, a lot can still happen in the race for AOY. Sprague currently holds a two-point edge over John Cox, the top-ranked pro in BassFan’s latest world rankings. It’s a 35-point deficit from Cox to Jeff Gustafson in 3rd and another 13 points to Jamie Horton in 4th.
It’s hard to call it a two-man race at this point, but if anyone inside the Top 10 is going to make a late charge, it’ll have to start this week.
The other section of the points to focus on will be down around 36th as that’s where the presumptive cutoff will be for qualification for this year’s Forrest Wood Cup.
Anglers in places 31 through 44 are separated by just 40 points, so expect plenty of shuffling (and leaderboard-watching) as this tournament wears on.
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
“It’s not full-blown, wide open yet. They are there. I wish it were full-blown because it’s going to make it fish much smaller. I think we’ll see smaller weights unless some fish really show up. I think 30 pounds will be a respectable 2-day total.
“There will be some shallow fish caught there. That can be a player in certain areas of the lake. I caught some Tuesday, but I don’t plan on fishing for those in the tournament.
Jeff Sprague had a good practice, but fears the lake might fish smaller than anticipated this week.
“I found water temperatures in the mid-80s on the south end, but up north it’s in the low to mid 70s. That’s a big difference and some fish are further along than others. It’s going to be a boat-draw deal and finding the right school and making the right decision on which one to start on.”
“I think I feel okay about this. It’s one of those deals where if I open my mouth, they’re going to make me look stupid. The fishing’s good, but I don’t think it’s what everybody thought it would be.
“I swear it seems like the fish aren’t as far along as I thought they’d be for the first week of June. Practice was like I’d see two or three or four on my graph and catch one. After three days of hard fishing and every memory I have here, I have only 10 places with big schools. In the days of old, I’d probably have 25 schools. I don’t know if they’re there and not ready to bite or haven’t gotten there yet.
“There are definitely some fish shallow. Is there enough to do well or win? I don’t believe so, but somebody might prove me wrong. If there are fish shallow, whomever figures them out will have them to himself.”
“I put in a 14-hour day on Tuesday. I probably split my time 50-50 between driving around and idling and fishing. It’s a lot tougher than I expected it to be. The last time we were here, everything that looked good, it seemed like you catch them on it. This time, it’s not like that. I’ve had a few lulls, but found a few big schools so I’m pretty happy with my practice and I’m looking forward to getting out there.
“There are a lot of shallow fish still, but if it’s shallower than 10 to 12 feet, I feel like I want to fish it rather than graph it. I have a handful of spots – they’re not places where I can catch a dozen fish – but I’ve seen a few good ones up there.
“I’ve seen a few schools with a lot of fish in ‘em. That said, you can catch a half dozen 2 1/2- to 3-pounders, then an odd good one. I’m pretty happy with what I found, but you have to get those five good bites on Thursday. Hopefully, they will not all be moving around big time.”
“I found a bunch of schools late in the day on Tuesday so I’m glad I stayed out late. This ledge fishing is all new to me, which makes it exciting. After Wilson (Pickwick), things were starting to click. It’s all about finding them. I didn’t do a lot of fishing in practice, but I’m committing to it. I never went to the bank, which was tough for me.
“There were more fish out Tuesday than there has been and I think a key will be throwing stuff that hasn’t been thrown yet. Where to start will also be a big deal because when you’re not fishing for them, you have to figure out where your best odds will be. It’s all about what flight you’re in. You can have 20 pounds in five casts here if you make the right call or you can make the wrong decision and be stuck behind guys all day.”
“I don’t know what’s going on. I’ve been looking and looking and when I find what looks like a school I can’t get them to bite. I haven’t found those giant schools and the ones I’ve caught seem to be loners and there’s no rhyme or reason to it. I can catch 2-pounders, but those won’t do me any good. It’s Kentucky Lake, though. You can run into the right place at the right time and catch ‘em.
Randy Haynes has a track record of success at Kentucky Lake and the conditions certainly favor him this week.
“I don’t know what I’ll be doing Thursday. I have stuff from the dam all the way to New Johnsonville. There’s a lot less boat pressure down there, which I like, but there’s absolutely no current. I caught some decent fish down there, but I was not getting many bites. The question is: Do I gamble and go there and lose 3 hours of time by making the run? It was a frustrating practice. I’ve been trying to make something happen.”
Top 10 To Watch
With the above in mind and more, here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this event:
1. Randy Haynes – He’s a maven on the Tennessee River and this one is setting up like a batting practice fastball right in his wheelhouse. After a breakdown at Pickwick, he’ll be itching to get redemption.
2. Michael Neal – Another Tennessee River stud who took 2nd at Pickwick Lake. He’s still looking for his first Tour win and it could very well come this week – he’s that good at the offshore game.
3. Michael Wooley – He hasn’t had the best season, but a strong finish to the year could put him in the Forrest Wood Cup. He’s won at Chickamauga in June so he knows how to attack the ledges from all angles.
4. Jason Lambert – Came within 1-02 of hoisting the trophy here two years ago and has been in a tailspin with seven triple-digit finishes in 11 outings since. He got a check at Pickwick (43rd) and is always one to watch when ledges are a factor.
5. Mark Rose – Sitting in good shape to make the Cup (15th place) and in his comfort zone trying to figure out the offshore puzzle, if Rose gets off to a good start, look out.
6. Stetson Blaylock – Has been on a tear all year until a zero on day 2 of the Arkansas River. His Kentucky Lake results are a mixed bag, but he did draw a check at BASSFest there last year.
7. Chris or Cory Johnston – Ok, so it’s a 2-for-1 deal here, but as they’ve demonstrated throughout their rookie season, one of them is bound to figure them out. Chris impressed with a 13th-place showing at BASSFest last year at Kentucky Lake.
8. Andy Morgan – Mr. Consistency is in the hunt for another AOY crown and Kentucky Lake has been the source of steady Top-20s over the years. It’s hard to bet against him anymore.
9. Jim Moynagh – He has three Top-10s at Kentucky Lake to his credit and if they’re biting the jig, he’ll be a threat for a fourth. Stands 63rd in points, so his Cup hopes are hinging on it.
10. Ramie Colson – He’s had two of the worst finishes of his career this season, but Kentucky Lake has always treated him well. He could use a boost of momentum heading into the season finale at Champlain.
> Anglers will take off at 6:30 a.m. CT all four days from Kentucky Dam State Park (7792 US Highway 641 North, Gilbertsville, KY). Weigh-ins on days 1 and 2 will get under way at 3 p.m. CT at Kentucky Dam State Park (same address). Weigh-ins on days 3 and 4 will start at 4 p.m. (same address).
> Thurs., June 9 – Sunny - 90°/66°
- Wind: From the SE at 5 mph
> Fri., June 10 – Sunny - 97°/69°
- Wind: From the WSW at 5 to 10 mph
> Sat., June 11 – Sunny - 98°/72°
- Wind: From the WSW at 5 to 10 mph
> Sun., June 12 – Mostly Sunny - 97°/72°
- Wind: From the W at 5 to 10 mph
> The BFL All-American is taking place this week at Lake Barkley. Therefore, FLW Tour anglers will be permitted to fish down to Rockcastle Point on the east side of Barkley and the north point of Taylor Bay on the western side. BFL anglers will compete on the lower portion of Barkley.