By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Venerable Kentucky Lake is set to host a pro-level event for the second time in 3 weeks as the FLW Tour has arrived in Gilbertsville, Ky. for the second-to-last tournament in its 2018 schedule. The weights compiled by the most successful anglers might be pretty similar to those amassed by Bassmaster Elite Series competitors earlier this month, but a lot more of the best fish will come from deeper water.
A mass migration of bass toward the lake's famed offshore ledges just got under way, which should play into hands of the deep-water experts. On the flip side, there are still some fish hanging around the spawning grounds and this week's weather (cloudy and breezy with frequent thunderstorms) will be conducive to making them bite.
The lake is not in tip-top shape – a fact that has been well-publicized recently. It's absolutely teeming with invasive Asian carp (one angler reported seeing them jam-packed like sardines in a can along a 100-by-100-yard stretch that was 10 feet deep near a discharge) and a couple of year-classes of bass appear to be all but nonexistent. There are still a solid number of bigger fish, however, and that will be reflected in the bags caught by the leaders.
Before diving deeper into the bite, here's a look at the fishery itself.
> 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 big fish that can be caught many ways
> Weather: Unsettled – thunderstorms are in the forecast for each tournament day
> Water temperature: 80 degrees, give or take a few in each direction depending on location
> Water visibility/color: Variable, but mostly clear
> Water level: A half-foot shy of summer pool level (359)
> Fish in: All depths
> Fish phase: Spawn/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: 72 pounds
> Cut weight (top 30 after 2 days): 31
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2.5 for Kentucky/Barkley
> Biggest factors: Water level – having some in the bushes is critical for the bank-beaters
> Biggest decision: The banks or ledges – the 4-pound-plus fish are spread out from shallow to deep
> Wildcard: Finding a school of big ones that stays put for multiple days
Longtime Kentucky Lake tournament ace and guide Sam Lashlee said the lake is fishing a bit better than when the Elite Series visited. That improvement has mostly occurred due to the initial congregations of fish deeper water, but the banks can't be counted out just yet.
Zack Birge is committed to flipping despite having little success with that technique over the final 2 days of practice.
"The last few days there's been a huge move of fish offshore," he said. "I finished 2nd in a tournament on Friday and we caught them all out wide. We were seeing groups of seven or eight fish, but now we're seeing 25. I found a school (on Tuesday) that had 50 good ones and another that had 35 or 40. That's the first of that I've seen this year."
Identifying the schools is a bit more difficult than in previous years due to the proliferation of the carp. However, Lashlee says it can be done by those who are well-versed at reading their graphs.
"A few guys who find the right schools will bust really good bags. We had record (high temperatures) 2 days in a row earlier this week and the water is clearing and falling out of most of the bushes, and the fish are moving out fast."
Nonetheless, he said there will still be opportunities to excel in skinnier water.
"There's always some shallow fish in May that can be caught on a topwater in the backs of creeks and the gizzard shad are spawning on the south end, and they'll have some big fish around them. Plus, it'll be cloudy and rainy on the tournament days, and that'll give the shallow guys a chance to win.
"The water's out of the real good bushes and near any bush or willow you can see the bottom. Somebody could do real well skipping a frog or a swimbait up there, but I don't know if it'll hold up for 4 days."
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll compete this week.
"It's been a whole lot of nothing for me. The first day of practice I probably had 10 bites and caught six and the best five would've gone about 16 pounds. I was flipping, but the water came down another 3 inches and I've had one flipping bite since. I refuse to go out, so I'm hoping the weather change to the clouds and wind will produce some more bites.
"When we were here 2 years ago I caught quite a few shallow and that was in June, and I learned that just because it's tough, that doesn't mean they're all gone. I'm going to stick with it and try to make it work."
"It's hard to get a bite right now and it doesn't matter whether you're shallow or deep. All the guys I network with are saying the same thing: When you get bit, it's a decent fish, but just getting the bites is difficult.
"I'm going to flip the whole tournament. The first day of practice I had a pretty good day doing that and I've tried to expand it to different parts of the lake and over on Barkley. I've seen the quality that's up there, but I'm going to have to maximize every bite. When I do get one, it has to go in the box.
"It's going to be like the Elite Series – the weights will be decent, but people won't understand how tough it was to catch those five fish."
"It's a grind out there. It's the way I like to fish, offshore and using my electronics, but it isn't set up real well for that yet.
"There are some good ones out there, but it's hard to get five bites. I found one school on the first practice day where it was a bite ever cast, but I never found another school and I went back to those twice (on Tuesday) and there was nothing there.
"It's hard to graph anything with the carp everywhere, but I'm going to commit to doing it and hopefully I'll run into the right schools. If you do, you can get in good shape real fast."
"I've had quite a few bites and I've seen enough to make me think there's some potential there. I don't plan on getting a lot of bites, but if you catch five you'll have 15 pounds or better. I didn't do well the last time I was here when guys whacked them offshore, so it suits me the way it is. I don't want a whack-fest; I like mixing it up.
Randy Haynes is always a threat when fish are gathered offshore.
"I feel good – I've gotten some really nice bits, one here and one there. Whatever you're doing, you have to really dial it in. You're not going to just get lucking going down the bank."
Top 10 to Watch
Here, in no particular order, are BassFan's recommendations for the top 10 to watch in this event.
1. Mark Rose – The Angler of the Year leader has a great chance to solidify his advantage in the points race at a venue that's very familiar to him and is setting up better by the day.
2. Randy Haynes – The man who helped Rose learn the ledge game is always a big threat when big Tennessee River fish start arriving at their summer haunts.
3. Jason Lambert – The winner of the 2016 Kentucky Lake event is well-schooled in the ways of deep-water bass and there are enough out there to keep him busy.
4. Scott Martin – He's contended for the victory here on more than one past occasion. Could this be the time he breaks through?
5. Bryan Thrift – If the tournament can be won shallow, he's as likely as anybody to pull it off. He'll have to make a lot of casts to get five bites, but that won't bother him.
6. Tom Redington – He's buried deep in the points standings, but he has an affinity for Kentucky Lake and sometimes shows up in a big way. Should make his first money showing of the season.
7. Jeff Gustafson – Finding fish with electronics is Gustafson's specialty, and that'll certainly play in this event. A third top-10 finish of the season is a distinct possibility.
8. Michael Neal – He hasn't made a final-day cut this year, but there's a good chance that'll change. He's a bona fide ace when it comes to Tennessee River ledge-fishing.
9. Clark Wendlandt – The veteran from Texas has made a lot of money at Kentucky Lake over the years. His experience – and perhaps more so his patience – could be big factors this week.
10. Anthony Gagliardi – He notched his first tour-level win at Kentucky Lake in 2004. At No. 51 in the points, he could use a good finish to get inside the cutoff for the Forrest Wood Cup.
Anglers will take off at 6:30 a.m. CDT each day from Kentucky Dam State Park (7792 U.S. Highway 641 N., Gilbertsville, Ky.). Thursday's and Friday’s weigh-ins will be held at the same location beginning at 3 p.m. Saturday's and Sunday’s weigh-ins will also be held at the park, but will begin at 4 p.m.
> Thurs., May 17 – Thunderstorms - 80°/64°
- Wind: From the NE at 6 mph
> Fri., May 18 – P.M. T-Storms - 79°/64°
- Wind: From the NNE at 4 mph
> Sat., May 19 – P.M. T-Storms - 89°/69°
- Wind: From the SW at 7 mph
> Sun., May 20 – Scattered T-storms - 90°/68°
- Wind: From the SW at 7 mph