By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Only one angler managed a 10-pounds-per-day average the last time Lake Cumberland hosted a tour-level event. Weights will almost certainly be higher this week at the fourth stop on the 2017 FLW Tour schedule, but by how much is almost anybody's guess.
Cumberland, a serpentine impoundment that spreads across six counties in Kentucky, isn't exactly a black bass mecca to begin with. Throw in a massive cold front that'll bring rain and powerful winds on day 1 and add the fact that it's an unfamiliar venue for the vast majority of the field, and what you come up with is a big platter of unpredictability.
In May 2006, Texan Mike Hawkes won an FLW Series event at Cumberland with a 4-day total of 46-15. Runner-up Rusty Salewske boxed just 36-08.
Much has changed about the lake over the past decade-plus. It was drawn down for an extended period for servicing of the dam, and a great deal of vegetation grew along the shoreline. It's still a lake that's mostly steep and rocky, but it now has a lot more cover – there are thousands of 20-foot trees near the banks that weren't present in '06.
Smallmouths remain the primary quarry for tournament anglers, but they must measure at least 18 inches to be possessed. Targeting largemouths is also a viable option, and there's a large population of spotted bass that can be used as limit-fillers (largemouths must be 15 inches and spots 12).
The minimum-length requirement for smallmouths is a big issue. With most of the bronzebacks in the pre-spawn mode and feeding heavily for the past few weeks, it's entirely possible to catch five that combine to weigh 17 pounds, with none of them eligible to go to the scale.
"Somebody's probably going to have the day of their life catching smallmouths, but they're not going to have a single keeper," said Arkansas pro Clark Reehm.
Before delving deeper into the present conditions, 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 for spots, 15 for largemouths and 18 for smallmouths
> Reputation: Primarily known as a striped bass hot spot, its reputation as a smallmouth fishery has been enhanced in recent years
> Weather: Chilly and windy for the first 2 days as a massive cold front moves in; warming up on the weekend
> Water temp: High 50s to low 60s
> Water visibility/color: Variable, depending on location
> Water level: A few feet below full pool
> Fish in: All depths
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn/spawn
> Primary patterns: Jigs, jerkbaits, swimbaits, spinnerbaits, flipping, shaky-heads, soft-plastics
> Winning weight: 56 pounds
> Cut weight (top 20 after 2 days): 27 pounds
> Check weight: 19 pounds (60th place)
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2 for Cumberland
> Biggest factor: Debris is spread throughout the lake and long runs will be difficult and treacherous
> Biggest decision: Which species to target – all are risk/reward propositions
> Wildcard: The inclement weather – it will alter a lot of game plans
Not a Bucket-List Place
Jay Yelas finished 6th in the '06 Series derby, but failed to get a single bite on the final day.
"From what I hear, the lake has improved a lot over the last 11 years, but there's still lots and lots of water that doesn't have any fish," he said. "I'm sure it's improved relative to what it was, but it's still not a fishery that I'd plan a vacation around.
"I have a friend in Knoxville, Tenn., which is just a couple hours away. He's 50 years old and has bass-fished his whole life, and he didn't even know where Cumberland was. That tells you that it doesn't have a great reputation as a bass fishery.
"With that being said," he continued, "I enjoy going to different venues like this, even if the fishing's tough. It's a new puzzle for everybody to solve and it's a fun challenge."
Clark Reehm said fans can expect to see big changes on the leaderboard each day.
In his view, the smallmouth length minimum makes them too risky to target, so he'll focus on largemouths. He'll be interested to see how the smallmouth-chasers fare.
Three keeper smallmouths a day and two spots should put you in the money, four smallmouths will get you in the top 30 and five would probably put you in the top 10. Five might be too much for anybody to ask for."
Heavy Bags Possible
Clark Wendlandt, the 7th-place finisher in '06, thinks some big bags will be caught this week.
"There's going to be some sacks over 20 pounds," he said, "but I don't think by any means that somebody's going to do it every day. It's too hard to catch those big fish.
"Good sacks will be 17s and 18s, but I don't have any idea what it's going to take to make a check."
He had a solid practice targeting all three species, but he's not sure how much of it will carry over into the competition days.
"I'd be real confident if it wasn't for the weather that's coming in. I think the largemouth fishery is definitely better than it was (11 years ago). Now, does that mean I can catch a bunch of good largemouths? I don't know.
"I do think this place is going to fish really big – it's a gigantic lake and I never felt pressured in practice. A few guys might stack up in some areas, but I don't think it'll be an issue."
Timing Could be Better
Clark Reehm, who comes into the event at No. 10 in the Angler of the Year race, said the action would be a lot better if the tournament were conducted at the end of this month.
"We're about 2 to 3 weeks early," he said. "This lake has good ones in it and there's no doubt there's 20-pound bags out there. If you hit it right, you'd see a bunch of 20-pound bags.
"The real wildcard is the weather. We don't know how much rain we're going to get and these mountain lakes can rise 2 or 3 feet real fast. For the guys fishing in the backs of creeks, is that going to get blown out with mud? Is a runoff pattern going to emerge because of the rain? The guys throwing Ned rigs and shaky-heads and little swimbaits on spinning gear, that could be tough when the wind's blowing 40 mph.
"Some guys who caught them in practice are going to get their feelings hurt and some people who weren't on anything are going to start catching them," he continued. "You're going to see major changes on the leaderboard every day."
Some Creeks are Loaded
Jimmy Reese said he witnessed a mass migration of largemouths and spots toward the bank on Tuesday evening. He assumes that the smallmouths were coming, too, but were too deep to see.
"It was like a circus," he said. "They were everywhere. But who knows what the weather's going to do to that."
He found a place in a creek that's loaded with spotted bass and figures it's good for at least 8 to 10 pounds, but he'd prefer to catch smallmouths. The initial portion of the day could be key in regard to the smallies.
"You can catch them in that first hour, even though you might only get one per area. This place is so huge and maybe I didn't find the key 5-mile area or whatever and there might be a place to catch a bunch of them, but I'm guessing that it's kind of hit or miss.
"If you catch three of those, that's going to be close to 11 pounds right there. Then you add just a couple of fish – it doesn't matter what they are – and you're up around 15. That's going to be solid."
Top 10 to Watch
With the above in mind and more, here are BassFan's recommendations for the top 10 to watch in this event.
Points leader Bryan Thrift comes into the event on a big-time roll.
1. Bryan Thrift – The Angler of the Year leader is on a serious roll and his willingness to adapt on the fly usually serves him well in this type of event. Yet another single-digit finish is likely.
2. Shinichi Fukae – He's a master at getting bites – and putting them in the boat – under conditions that leave others scratching their heads. He has lots of tricks that'll help him catch a bag that weighs in the teens each day.
3. Jim Moynagh – The veteran from Minnesota knows a thing or two about catching big smallmouths, and also about fishing in bad weather.
4. Andy Morgan – The three-time AOY has long disdained smallmouth fishing, so look for him to go after the green fish and come back with some good ones.
5. Clark Wendlandt – The veteran Texan has finished 5th and 11th in his past two events and did pretty well at Cumberland on his previous visit. At No. 3 in the points, he's in the hunt for a record fourth AOY crown.
6. Jeff Gustafson – The Canadian dropped to 17th in the points after a non-money finish in Florida, so he'll look to get back on track. He's very familiar with the ways of the smallmouth.
7. David Dudley – His finishes have been going in the wrong direction as the season has progressed (16th to 45th to 67th), but he could easily reverse that this week. He often does well in mixed-bag events.
8. Larry Nixon – The legend from Arkansas has fished solidly this year, but has yet to advance to the weekend. He has the patience to remain composed when conditions get rugged.
9. John Cox – The reigning Forrest Wood Cup champion had a tough start to the campaign and then led for 3 days at the Harris Chain, but couldn't close out the win. He got some momentum back, though, and could finish high at Cumberland by sticking to the shallows.
10. Cody Meyer – He needs to get things turned around quickly in order to qualify for the Forrest Wood Cup. He's very adept at getting bites when they're not easy to come by.
Anglers will take off at 7 a.m. EDT each day from General Burnside Island State Park, located at 8801 S. Highway 27 in Burnside, Ky. Thursday's and Friday’s weigh-ins will be held in the same location beginning at 3 p.m. Saturday's and Sunday’s weigh-ins will begin at 4 p.m.
> Thurs., April 6 – Showers/Wind – 48°/33°
- Wind: From the W at 23 mph
> Fri., April 7 – Partly Cloudy – 54°/33°
- Wind: From the WNW at 19 mph
> Sat., April 8 – Mostly Sunny – 61°/41°
- Wind: From the WNW at 4 mph
> Sun., April 9 – Mostly Sunny – 75°/52°
- Wind: From the SSW at 9 mph