By Todd Ceisner
It’s not often pro anglers speak with a tone of genuine concern about the current state of a fishery, but what’s played out during practice for this week’s Elite Series stop at Kentucky Lake has some pros wondering what’s up with one of the most prolific bass lakes in the country.
Some will say pros look for any excuse to poor-mouth a fishery, but by the sounds of it, Kentucky Lake is going through some sort of transition cycle right now aside from the typical seasonal changes that take place in the spring.
“Our lake is going through a strange time right now,” said longtime pro Dan Morehead, who lives in Paducah. “It’s not the powerhouse we’ve been. It seems like there are age classes of fish from 15 inches to 3 pounds that are just not there. It’s like they’re gone. We’ve had some bad spawns and the creel studies will back that up. The weights have been off this year. Someone always catches a big bag or two, but then it drops off.”
Surely, a few guys will collide with big stringers of fish this weekend, but it’s not expected to be at the prodigious rate Kentucky Lake has been known for in the past. For instance, at BASSFest in 2015, 29 anglers cracked the 20-pound mark on day 1 and another 21 did it on day 2. If talk amongst pros is to be believed, those figures won’t be approached this week.
Part of that is due to the fact that a majority of the fish seem to be in spawning mode or still pre-spawn. This won’t be a ledge-fishing exhibition like many previous major events have been. That’s due to the timing of the tournament. The five previous Elite Series events at the massive Tennessee River impoundment all were in the early- to mid-June time frame – prime time for post-spawn ledge tactics – so being a month earlier on the calendar will be a new experience for some.
Another factor is spring has arrived a little later than normal around the lake and the Elite Series field was greeted by rapidly falling water levels at the start of practice (some suspected it dropped two feet in the matter of a day) and some wicked fast current in some areas. Bushes and buck brush that were flooded and fishable Tuesday will be high and dry come blast off on Friday. Things are expected to stabilize once the tournament gets going, clearing the way for shallow-water patterns to materialize.
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: Some rain in the forecast with shifting winds and temperatures in the 70s and 80s through Monday
> Water temperature: Mid-60s, but expected to climb through the tournament
> Water visibility/color: Some areas are pretty stained and dirty while others are clear/typical
> Water level: Was 3 feet high last week, but has been dropping toward summer pool level (359)
> Fish in: All depths
> Fish phase: Mostly pre-spawn and spawning; few 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: 83 pounds
> Cut weight (top 50 after 2 days): 22 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2.5 for Kentucky/Barkley
> Biggest factors: Water level. Once it stabilizes, the fishing should be more consistent
> Biggest decision: How much to run around. Junk-fishing or zeroing on a pattern or two will be a make or break call
> Wildcard: Big spawners. Visibility is an issue, but they’re up there to be caught
For a closer look at Kentucky Lake, check out the embedded map below, courtesy of Navionics.
Shallow Should Rule
Dan Morehead has fished Kentucky Lake for more than two decades, but after deciding to sit out the 2018 FLW Tour season, he’s been on the big pond plenty this winter and spring, including several days in the past week.
He has witnessed the water level swing 12 feet from where it was in February to now and noticed there’s a big migration of fish in progress.
“It’s been a jacked-up year as far as weather gos, but those fish have made a massive move in the last three or four days,” he said. “Crappie, bluegill, bass … almost everything in the lake.”
Kevin VanDam, fresh off a win last week at Grand Lake, will be chasing his third career Elite Series title at Kentucky Lake this weekend.
He said the lingering winter and random cold fronts conspired to keep the fish out of sync, but he saw some spawning activity as recently as Monday that told him things are starting to progress.
“I saw a bunch of fish on beds Monday and a lot were paired up and bumping so they’re new,” he said. “What I’ll be interested to see is because of the water fluctuation, even day by day, sight-fishing on the Tennessee River is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. In 40 years of doing it, there’s only been one tournament where I’ve pulled it off so I’ll be damn surprised if someone catches them doing that.”
Still, he predicts a strong shallow flipping bite and possibly good topwater action around shallow cover that’s still in the water.
“They’re hitting it about the perfect time,” he added. “The water is starting to fall out of the buck brush. There will be water in some bushes, but not much. A lot of fish have locked on (beds) and won’t be leaving so I’ll be very surprised if there’s much caught offshore at all.”
South Tends to be Better
Brandon Hunter makes his living as a guide on Kentucky Lake and as much as he hates to say it, the lake is in some kind of funk right now.
“The lake is in a cycle now with the zebra mussels and carp,” he said. “What’s concerning about it is the lack of keeper bass. In the early spring, if you catch them and get five, they’re going to weigh 20 (pounds), but those 2- to 3-pounders pounders just aren’t there.”
Like Morehead, Hunter believes this will be largely a shallow-water tournament, but he feels the south end of the lake, especially below the Highway 79 bridge, will be where the bulk of the weight is caught.
That’s where the majority of the stained, warmer water is and there is more shallow cover to target, even with the water dropping toward summer pool levels.
“The north end is not happening right now,” he said. “It’s clearer up north and the stain is down south.”
But the current state of the lake is confounding to Hunter, who was the runner-up at the 2016 Kentucky Lake FLW Tour.
“Two weekends ago, there was a tournament out of Paris and the top 20 was all over 20 pounds,” he said. “Two days later, it’s like they all left. I don’t know what happened, but it seems like it’s gotten worse ever since.”
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
“It’s not the lake I’m used to seeing in the spring. I’ve fished here since I was old enough to drive and there were always areas I know I could run to and get a bite, but it’s not like that now.
“You should be able to get 50 2-pound bites flipping bushes, but it’s not happening unless you’re dialed in on the right bush. I haven’t been here in the spring in 2 years and it’s the first time I ever remember seeing the carp like they are. You can get in a bay and you could get out and walk on them. I knew they were in there, but not like this.
“You can get a bite if you know exactly what deal to go to. It’s Kentucky Lake, though, and they’re going to wreck ‘em. When practice started, I wanted to be by New Johnsonville, but the water was too high. There was current in places where I’d never seen current before. It was running through the islands.
Brett Hite has done well at Kentucky Lake in the past during the post-spawn time period, but says the lake is much more challenging this week.
“I think you’re going to see pre-spawners, spawners and post-spawners. I’ve caught pre- and post-spawners already and I think there’s a shad spawn looming so this is going to be interesting. I’m going to get dialed into a couple baits and run the patterns because it seems like if you do that you can get a bite rather than putting the trolling motor down and just fishing. I think with the combination of the water falling and what’s going on, that’s a good plan.”
“It’s tough fishing. They pulled the plug on it and the water is dropping with a lot of current. They had a real late winter here and the water temps are in the low 60s in the morning. Some fish have spawned, but there’s probably still a good amount that haven’t. They’re a little gun shy with the water dropping from under them.
“I think the lake is changing a little bit and there’s no doubt there are a ton of these carp. If you get out in 8 or 10 feet they’re everywhere on your SideScan. They almost look like troops setting up a line across a bay.
“I’m getting six to eight keeper bites a day, which you would never think of at Kentucky Lake. There’s not enough of a pattern to lead you to exactly what they’re doing. You have your feelers our in a bunch of different directions and hopefully a feeler picks up on something when it stabilizes or in the tournament and you get more confidence in that.”
“I don’t think the bass want to be around (the carp). I’m not a biologist, but from what I can tell, the places I would say a bass would want go when they want to go offshore, there are carp there by the truck loads, especially those bars where the bass would normally get.
“Some of the biggest challenges I faced are not spending a lot of time on the lake this time of year. It’s an in-between period and there are a lot of fish wanting to spawn, but it’s May and you want to start looking out, but it’s so behind. I don’t know whether to stay in or go out – it’s hard to know. The water level dropping is another challenge. This is a great bush-flipping lake, but those bushes are getting further away from the water. Where there was 2 to 3 feet of water, there’s now a foot.
“This is one time I’m going to gamble and go. I feel like a lot of bites to be had in bushes are dwindling, yet the other ways weren’t productive so you have to fall back on what was working. There are still a lot of fish in here and we still will see good stringers, but it will be down from what we’ve seen in the past.”
“You have to imagine where the fish are going to be going because it’s going to be changing. You can catch them somewhere today and go back there tomorrow and there be no water there so you have to watch where you practice and don’t practice the real shallow stuff.
“I can get some bites, but I’m having a hard time catching good fish, even keepers. I’m still just looking. I’m not confident in anything as of now as far as good fish, but I can get some bites. I’d say probably 60 percent are spawning or maybe more right now. I can’t see a lot of them, but I’m pretty sure that’s what they’re doing.
“The falling water is a big factor because people could be on some fish and they could be gone or they could be on just a few fish and more show up with the water falling.”
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. Kevin VanDam – Made history last week with his 25th career B.A.S.S. victory so momentum is on his side. He’s always in contention at Kentucky Lake, where he’s won twice before despite having massive throngs of spectators following him around.
2. Ott DeFoe – Led after day 1 of BASSFest in 2015 before fading to 17th. Rarely does he have two stinkers in a row, so following an off week at Grand (77th), expect him to bounce back.
3. Steve Kennedy – His Kentucky Lake record includes two FLW Tour wins (2003 and ’06) and both occurred in early May. He’s missed both cuts so far this season so he’ll be looking to rebound on a lake he’s comfortable at.
4. Edwin Evers – After a 50th-place finish at Grand, he’ll be itching to get back on the water with a shot at redemption. He’s won at Kentucky before (2015) and was 2nd in 2010.
5. Brett Hite – Off to a great start through two events (4th in points) and Kentucky has produced three top-10s in five career trips.
6. Bradley Roy – He’s been on a hot streak going back to last year (four straight top-50 cuts) and is fresh off a top-5 at Grand. The Tennessee River has been a mixed bag for him, but he’s gaining momentum and confidence with each day on the water.
7. Dave Lefebre – He’s no stranger to Kentucky Lake – he won an FLW Tour there in 2012 – and is pretty adept at adjusting to changing conditions. Posted a top-25 at Grand after missing the cut at Lake Martin.
8. Shin Fukae – Has four top-20s in his career at Kentucky Lake, which should give him a boost after a triple-digit stinker at Grand last week.
9. Brandon Lester – The new dad hasn’t missed a money cut since last June (six in a row) and was a factor (9th place) at BASSFest in 2015.
10. Randy Howell – Off to a strong start with a pair of top-30s so far. Has never had a top-end finish at Kentucky, but he seems overdue as his last top-5 came two years ago at Winyah Bay.
> Anglers will launch at 7 a.m. ET all four days from Paris Landing Marina (16055 Highway 79 N, Buchanan, Tenn.). Weigh-ins each day will begin at 4 p.m. EST at Paris Landing State Park (400 Lodge Rd., Buchanan, Tenn.).
> Fri., May 4 – Chance of morning rain - 79°/61°
- Wind: From the SW at 10 to 20 mph
> Sat., May 5 – Thunderstorms - 71°/53°
- Wind: From the E at 5 to 10 mph
> Sun., May 6 – Sunny - 80°/56°
- Wind: From the WNW at 5 to 10 mph
> Thurs., May 7 – Mix of sun and clouds - 76°/52°
- Wind: From the NNE at 5 to 10 mph