By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

The conditions at Lake Cumberland this week have been a bit challenging, but with sunshine drenching the area Wednesday and more in the forecast for the first half of the tournament, competitors are hoping the bass react favorably to the improving temperatures.

The cold snap that gripped the area through practice has the fish scattered and hesitant as they are nearing the end of their pre-spawn phase. Quality fish are certainly available, but they’re not grouped up and trying to pattern big fish has been a fruitless endeavor for some.

Some who competed at Cumberland last year couldn’t wait to get back to the Kentucky wilderness once they heard the 18-inch minimum length requirement on smallmouth had been relaxed to 12 inches, as part of a new study announced by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources aimed at gauging the impact of a shorter minimum length on the overall health of the fishery.

Many anglers last year reported having to throw back 15- to 17-pound limits worth of smallies because they were agonizingly short of the target length. This week, smallmouth will certainly be on a lot of anglers’ minds – most expect they will dominate – but they were uncharacteristically finicky in practice considering the weather.

The water at Cumberland is roughly 10 feet higher than it was a year ago and more than 3 feet above normal pool, giving the fish much more room to spread out on an already sprawling lake. There’s a considerable amount of stain in the water, as well, which could work in the anglers’ favor, but there’s also floating debris galore around the lake due to the elevated water level.

Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself.

BassFan Lake Profile

> Lake name: Cumberland
> Type of water: Highland reservoir
> Surface acres: Approximately 50,000
> Primary structure/cover: Flooded timber, bushes, rock points, bluffs
> Primary forage: Alewives, shad and crawfish
> Average depth: Roughly 90 feet
> Species: Largemouths, smallmouths and spotted bass
> Minimum length: 12 inches (all three species)
> Reputation: Primarily known as a striped bass hot spot, its reputation as a smallmouth fishery has been enhanced in recent years
> Weather: Warming trend for the first couple days, then rain on the weekend
> Water temp: Low to high 50s, but should warm up through the tournament
> Water visibility/color: High water has put more stain in the lake compared to last year
> Water level: 3-plus feet above full pool
> Fish in: All depths
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn/spawn
> Primary patterns: Jigs, jerkbaits, swimbaits, spinnerbaits, flipping, shaky-heads, soft-plastics
> Winning weight: 63-65 pounds
> Cut weight (top 30 after 2 days): 28 pounds
> Check weight (top 50 after 2 days): 23 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2 for Cumberland
> Biggest factor: Debris is spread throughout the lake and long runs could be difficult and treacherous
> Biggest decision: If smallmouth don’t fire, then what?
> Wildcard: Early spawners – someone could stumble upon a few early on.

Here’s a closer look at Cumberland, thanks to the Navionics WebApp:

Slow Start

Elite Series angler and Kentucky native Bradley Roy grew up fishing the lower end of Cumberland. He said based on the recent weather patterns and judging from a day he spent on the water last week, things seem to be behind schedule this year.

“If these guys have been watching the weather, we’ve not had spring yet,” Roy said. “What I found is that the fish are doing exactly what they should be doing for the second week of April. Even though the temperatures are cooler, they don’t seem to care.”

Roy said mental toughness will be an important element this week.

“Don’t let the weather affect what your mindset will be ahead of the game,” he said.

Pro Fishing Management
Photo: Pro Fishing Management

Elite Series pro Bradley Roy says fishing with an open mind this week will be key at Cumberland.

Even though the water temperature hasn’t cracked 60 degrees yet, the warmup forecasted for the tournament days should get some fish moving toward areas they can be more easily targeted.

Be Willing To Change

Since all three species are present at Cumberland, Roy said it’ll be critical to fish with an open mind each day. He knows the 12-inch length threshold will have a lot of guys in the smallmouth camp, but the largemouth shouldn’t be overlooked.

“You won’t win with spots there,” he said. “You can have a good day with them, but you can win with smallmouth or largemouth. Now, guys can fish for only smallmouth whereas they had to have largemouth (last year). There are tons of 17-inch 3-pounders and that will take pressure off the largemouth.”

He then revealed a friend caught a 6.9-pound largemouth at Cumberland last weekend.

If he were competing this week, he’d commit to nothing ahead of time and fish mostly off feel and the condition.

“For me, knowing from day to day whether to fish for smallmouth or largemouth,” he said. “You can’t go with one mindset. You have to look at the conditions. There will be days when the smallmouth disappear and won’t bite and you have to be able to make the switch quickly and go after both of them.”

He mentioned there being certain conditions that seem to favor one species over the other and when those situations arise, competitors need to be willing to adjust.

“Over 4 days, you will need to mix it up,” he said. “There’s not a place on that lake that doesn’t hold bass. Usually, a big wave moves in toward the end of April so there could be a few fish spawning. The majority of guys will be catching fish right before they move in to spawn.”

Notes from the Field

Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.

David Williams
“They’re very scattered. There is not a lot of fish up, but it’s all going to change here soon with the warmup coming. I look for it to be a different lake the next two or three days.

“I’ve seen it get too warm too fast, but I’d expect it to get better. The biggest thing is the nights are warming up. I like fishing like this. It’s going to be my kind of deal, covering lot of water. Practice has been decent. I’m looking forward to it. The biggest thing is I have to catch everything that bites. I have to execute when I get chances. If it’s anything like practice, you won’t get a lot of opportunities at big fish.”

Photo: BassFan

Todd Castledine thinks the morning bite and afternoon bite have been strong, but he's not sure about the middle of the day.

James Watson
“The water is higher and dirtier and colder. Everything you don’t want it to be doing it’s doing right now. Everything is pre-spawn, which I hate. It’s definitely behind compared to this time last year.

“There’s no good rhyme or reason to any bite. I can get one on a point and one halfway back a cove and another all the way in the back of the cove. Then you count your blessings you’re getting bites.

“With what happened last year, I was disappointed to see the 12-inch limit, but now I welcome it. It wasn’t difficult for me last year to catch three or four of the 17-inch smallies each day. This week, I’ve only caught two. I am only hoping that some nice weather will bring them up, and when I say up, I mean closer to the bank.”

Todd Castledine
“My practices have sucked all year so this one was not all that bad. I actually got bit every day. They all talked about how they crushed them, but I still saw it took 28 pounds to make a top-20. I’m not saying that’s bad, but it seems easily doable. Right now, I’m happy with a 15-inch smallmouth because it’s not exactly easy.

“I’ve yet to see a single person away from the bank. They’re not scattered out, in my opinion. I just think they’re not in very many big areas. There’s a ton of dead water here.

“You have to pick your poison between largemouth and smallmouth because I don’t think spots will play. You can mix it up, but it’s hard to catch them together. They’re not in the same areas. Plus, I don’t know if they bite all day. I went through periods with no bites. You just have to get around them because it’s real easy to get away from them. I know they bite in the morning and evening, but the middle of the day is the question mark.”

Braxton Setzer
“It’s not like I was expecting it to be. It’s definitely not like it was last year. I think it has a lot to do with the lake being dirtier and higher. I can still catch smallmouth, but not like I was expecting to.

“We’ve had a pretty significant cold spell, but we have clouds today and all sun so hopefully, the sun makes it better and puts some fish in some places where you can catch ‘em. It feels random right now. It’s one of those deals where you have to go fishing. You can’t pull up to spots where you caught them in practice and catch them or expect there to be more there.

“I have caught all three species in practice and the way it’s fishing, I have somewhat of an idea of what it’ll be, but on Tuesday I got a bite I thought was a smallmouth and it was a largemouth. Then I got a bite I thought would be a largemouth and it turned out to be a smallmouth. It’s really weird how it’s fishing. You almost don’t know when or where the bigger fish are going to come from, but the number of 15- to 17-inch smallmouth here is incredible. You have to get those bites to get into the mid-teens.”

Josh Douglas
“I’m a smallmouth guy so I was excited coming here. One day last year I targeted smallmouth and caught 14 pounds, but couldn’t weigh any of them. This year, I think a lot of guys are targeting smallmouth, but the fishing is rough and tough. It’s just that kind of fishery. You never seem to catch them the same way each day. By 11 a.m., you have to switch it up.

“It’s been super cold, but these fish are ready to go. They want to spawn so bad. I just think they’ve been in a funk. Coming into practice, I definitely thought that even if you had a good practice that didn’t necessarily mean anything. The off day is going to be critical because it’s 60 degrees with high skies with the sun and some wind on the way. We haven’t had that yet. It makes a guy’s brain get all scrambled.

“It’s a great lake, but it’s gonna be a grinder’s tournament. You just have to put your head down and fish stuff you didn’t practice. My philosophy was to sample stuff and if I got a bite, I’d leave the area becaue there’s a whole bunch of dead water.”

Scott Martin
“For me it’s totally different (than last year). I mentally prepared for that. It’s rare to go back to the same lake this time of year because it’s so dependent on the spawn. It’s the one time of year you can be off by a week and have it be so different.

“For me practice was very tough. I didn’t catch a lot of fish, but with the changing weather coming up my main goal was to find areas with good concentrations of fish. I feel like they’ll bite good Thursday and Friday, but because of the lack of sun, the fish were there, but they weren’t real active. I noticed a lot of fish were very apprehensive. Ones that weren’t on the bank were just suspended and not wanting to participate.

“I’m fishing for smallmouth and spots for the most part so if things go right and things turn on, you can catch better fish that way. There are way more 3 1/2- to 5-pound smallmouth in here than anything else.”

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. Jeff Gustafson – His career arc continues on an upward path and his season is off to a blistering start. Now, he gets to tangle with some smallmouth. While he was 71st at Cumberland last year, his momentum coming off two top-10s should overcome that.

Photo: FLW

Jeff Gustafson has been on a tear recently and wouldn't mind becoming the second Ontario native to win a Tour event in 2018.

2. Cody Meyer – Off to another dazzling start and still hunting his first Tour win. He was 7th at Cumberland a year ago and has just one finish outside the top 50 in his last eight FLW events.

3. Casey Scanlon – Cumberland shares some traits with the Ozark lakes and that could be why Scanlon managed a top-10 there last year. He needs a positive experience this week to break out of the triple-digit finish funk he’s been in the last two tournaments.

4. Cory Johnston – Brother Chris got his time in the limelight at the Harris Chain, so maybe it’s Cory’s time to shine. After a top-10 at Okeechobee, he missed the money in the next two. He can turn things around this week chasing brown bass.

5. Andy Morgan – Nobody expects his early-season struggles to drag out across the whole schedule. With the water high and stained this week, he should be able to find a few targets to flip to.

6. Bryan Thrift – Coming off a top-10 at the Santee Cooper FLW Series, the reigning AOY has bounced back after a 65th at Okeechobee. He posted a top-15 finish at Cumberland a year ago and conditions seem to favor his new-water-each-day mentality.

7. Clark Wendlandt – He was the day-3 leader at Cumberland a year ago and let a 3 1/2-pound lead slip away and slid to 9th. He’s had a decent start to the season, but rest assured he hasn’t forgotten about the letdown last April.

8. Barry Wilson – Another contender from a year ago (he finished 2nd), Wilson has regressed since a top-30 finish at Okeechobee. He’ll need to stem the tide this week to reverse that trend.

9. Zack Birge – Fresh off a career-best 2nd-place finish at Lake Lanier, Birge is in the early mix for AOY and figures to match up well with Cumberland’s high, stained water. He escaped with a top-40 finish last year, but momentum is on his side right now.

10. Billy McCaghren – The water’s up and dirty and he should be right at home in those conditions. A triple-digit finish at Lanier marred what was a good start so Cumberland might be where he recaptures his mojo.

Launch/Weigh-In Info

> Anglers will launch at 7 a.m. ET all four days from General Burnside Island State Park (8801 S. Highway 27, Burnside, Ky.). Weigh-ins on days 1 and 2 will begin at 3 p.m. at General Burnside Island State Park (same address) while weigh-ins on days 3 and 4 will begin at 4 p.m. at the same location.

Weather Forecast

> Thurs., April 12 – Sunny - 76°/53°
- Wind: From the SW at 10 to 20 mph

> Fri., April 13 – Sunny - 78°/59°
- Wind: From the SSW at 10 to 20 mph

> Sat., April 14 – Chance of thunderstorms - 75°/60°
- Wind: From the S at 10 to 15 mph

> Sun., April 15 – Rain - 62°/37°
- Wind: From the SSW at 10 to 15 mph