FRANKFORT, Ky. – Anglers looking for good lakes for fall bass fishing should head west – to Kentucky and Barkley lakes.
Bass fishing here is on an upswing, especially for smallmouth bass. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources rates smallmouth bass fishing in these lakes as the best in 20 years.
The famed largemouth bass fishery in Kentucky Lake has powered the reservoir’s reputation as a destination for decades. But more anglers are discovering the growing opportunities for bronzebacks as well.
“Smallmouth bass numbers have really increased over the past two to three years on both Kentucky and Barkley lakes,” said Adam Martin, Western Fisheries District biologist for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife.
Smallmouth bass now make up about 30 percent of the black bass in both these lakes. Smallmouths are showing up more often in bass tournament weigh-ins as well.
Environmental conditions play a major role in this transition.
Smallmouth bass started appearing in greater numbers in the lower sections of Kentucky Lake in the late 1980s. The drought years of that decade, along with improved land use practices in the Tennessee River drainage, such as no-till agriculture, helped reduce sediment and clear the water.
Numbers of smallmouth bass and black crappie – both of which favor clearer water than largemouth bass or white crappie – began increasing as a result, Martin said.
The eastern side of Kentucky Lake, along the Land Between the Lakes side, holds more smallmouth bass than the western side. Wave action through the years exposed much pea gravel-sized chert on the eastern side of the lake, along with some stumps and chunk rock to mix in with the pea gravel.
The Tennessee River also runs closer to the bank on this side of the lake from the canal that links Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley in the north down to Eggner Ferry Bridge. This gives smallmouth bass the deepwater sanctuary they need.
The pea gravel banks and bars in the mouth Pisgah Bay, Duncan Bay and Sugar Bay are riven with channels and drops and hold smallmouth bass in fall. The sloping gravel banks on the northern side of Higgins Bay and Vickers Bay also harbors smallmouth bass.
A skirted double-tailed grub, commonly called a Hula grub or a spider grub, is a nearly forgotten lure for smallmouth bass in the fall. Rig a 4-inch green pumpkin Hula grub on a ¼- to 3/8-ounce stand-up head with a weed guard. Toss the lure toward the bank then crawl it down the slope of the pea gravel banks. Sometimes, swimming the grub just above the bottom triggers smallmouth bass into biting.
Watermelon with red flake and motor oil also make productive Hula grub colors.
A 4- to 5-inch soft plastic tube bait is another lure from a bygone era that destroys smallmouth bass on Kentucky Lake. Fish the tube on a ¼-ounce leadhead with a pull and drop technique: gently pull the tube off the bottom then let it settle back down to the bottom.
The strike is usually light with this retrieve. Anglers should respond with a vigorous hook set to any jump in the fishing line, a spongy feeling or if the line suddenly goes slack.
Roadkill camo is a popular local color for tubes, but watermelon candy and black with red flakes also produce strikes.
The fabled largemouth bass fishery is improving in Kentucky Lake, after some disruption from the arrival of invasive carp. Numbers of bighead and silver carp, both natives of Asia, began swelling in Kentucky and Barkley lakes about a decade ago. The lakes began losing their luster in some bass fishing circles as a result.
“We’ve had the best largemouth bass spawn on record and the worst largemouth bass spawn during the 10 years that invasive carp have been in the lake,” Martin said. “This is not surprising since historically, we’ve had inconsistent bass spawns on Kentucky Lake. The success of the spawn is largely independent of carp – it is mainly driven by springtime weather patterns.”
The success of the largemouth bass spawn in 2016 led to great numbers of 15- to 17-inch spawning size fish in Kentucky Lake a few years later. These fish had good reproduction in 2020 and 2021; this bodes well for future fishing for largemouths. The lack of springtime floods created good conditions for successful spawns.
“The largemouth bass population has good numbers, just not as good as they were at their peak in 2014,” Martin said. “We’ve had good shad reproduction and the largemouth bass currently are in good body condition.”
Bays on the Land Between the Lakes side of the lake near the Tennessee state line – including Blockhouse Bay, Rushing Bay, Ginger Bay and Clay Bay – are good places to prospect for largemouth bass in fall.
These bays have shallow pockets and gravel bars adjacent to drop-offs. A Carolina rig is not often thought of as a fall presentation, but a 5-inch Senko-style soft plastic jerkbait on the business end of draws strikes.
A Carolina rig consists of a hook threaded through a plastic bait, then tied with 1 to 4 feet of fishing line to a swivel. On the other side of the swivel, the angler threads on a bullet sinker then a bead to protect the swivel, then ties the line to the free end of the swivel. The weight, sometimes as much as an ounce, keeps the rig on the bottom but allows the plastic lure to float freely. A Senko-style jerkbait resembles a pencil tapered on both ends.
Fish the Carolina rig in the shallow pockets and gravel bars to pick off largemouth bass. Productive colors for the soft plastic jerkbait are smoke with black and purple flakes, natural shad, black and green pumpkin magic.
The points along the main lake just north of the mouth of Blood River on the western side of Kentucky Lake also produce largemouth bass in fall. A medium-running shad-colored crankbait produces strikes fished along or across points. A bladed jig in the sexy shad color also works well in these areas.
Bass fishing is on the upswing in Kentucky Lake. Fall is a great time to fish this wonderful reservoir as football and deer hunting draw people away from the water, granting anglers more places to fish in peace.