2024 Tackle Warehouse Invitationals preview: Kentucky Lake - Major League Fishing

2024 Tackle Warehouse Invitationals preview: Kentucky Lake

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A familiar stop, Kentucky Lake has produced a lot of bass fishing history over the years. Photo by Matt Pace.
April 14, 2024 • Jody White • Invitationals

CALVERT CITY, Ky. – The Tackle Warehouse Invitationals season continues a wild ride through diverse fisheries to get the season going. After starting off at Sam Rayburn for a big bass smashfest, a left turn at West Point featured a grinder event on a new body of water, and Stop 3 Presented by Phoenix Boats on Kentucky Lake should showcase a resurgent fishery.

Kentucky Lake

Calvert City, Kentucky.

April 19-21, 2024

Hosted by the Kentucky Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau

Tournament details

About the fishery

The last reservoir on the Tennessee River chain, Kentucky Lake has a storied tournament history. A hotbed of ledge fishing back in the heyday of the offshore bite, it’s been home to some truly epic tournaments over the years. Now, after a pretty serious downturn, the lake is back on the upswing. With a big population of smallmouth making headlines, the largemouth numbers and size are also coming back.

With little to no grass in it, Kentucky Lake is a long, fairly shallow reservoir. The current and water level are always key on it – both can position the fish throughout the year. For this event, the water level is likely to be key. When the lake level gets to about 359 or 360 feet, the shallow flipping bite can ignite.

Lake Barkley, which runs parallel to Kentucky on the Cumberland River, is similar, but not identical to Kentucky. Barkley is smaller and generally features more shallow cover, with a lot more laydowns and the like in play regardless of the water level.

In 2023, the springtime Toyota Series event on the lake was dominated by spawning smallmouth. Photo by Matt Pace

Last time

Which one do you want? Home to the most tournaments in MLF and FLW history, 235 events have played out on Kentucky or Barkley since 1994. For this event, the most relevant is probably last year’s Toyota Series event, won by Jake Lawrence, which took place April 20-22. In that event, Lawrence and many of the other top finishers exploited offshore spawning smallmouth – but, a big largemouth he caught on Day 1 helped Lawrence seal the deal.

This year, Jake Lawrence picked up right where he left off on Kentucky Lake. Photo by Matt Pace

What to expect this time

Last year’s Toyota Series event revealed the offshore spawn bite to many, and in theory, this event should be plug-and-play. Still, you can’t count on things always being the same, and spring is always a dynamic time of year.

For his part, Clint Knight, who knows the lake well and has seen a lot of success there lately, thinks variety will be a feature of the event.

“I can see a lot of numbers being caught by the guys that know the pattern and the deal, but this time, we’re getting a little rain, so Barkley is going to rise,” Knight said. “I’m not for sure you can make it all three days at Barkley, but maybe some of the guys that know the honey stretches can.

“The guys that know the smallmouth deal are going to catch a lot of fish,” Knight said. “To win the event, in my head, you’re going to catch a limit of smallmouth, and then you’re going to have to go largemouth fishing to get a kicker fish. I think the smallmouth are a week or two ahead of the largemouth.”

Timing the spawn could end up being very important. Back in early March, there were already hints of spawning smallmouth in the Toyota Series event, and from the sounds of it, there were lots of smallmouth spawning or close to it in the recent BFL.

“Last year, the lake got exposed like it’s never got exposed before,” Knight said. “Those fish had been out in the middle spawning for years, and we did not know it, until a couple of us went out there and realized that they were easy and aggressive. Now, it’s going to raise the fish awareness. I know multiple guys in the BFL that were running the same deal, and we all caught 20 or 30 keepers. The fish are swimming right back down to their nest, but it makes it that much tougher to fish.”

For folks not fishing for spawning smallmouth on Kentucky, the largemouth could come a lot of ways. In bushes, around other cover, near brush or docks, and with everything from a frog to a Neko rig.

The wildcard in the event is probably Barkley, which both Lawrence and Knight are high on.

 “Lake Barkley is also going to be a big player – I expect that lake to show its hand next week,” Lawrence said. “It’s a great fishery, but usually it has a hard time competing with Kentucky Lake, other than a three-week window every year later in the spring. And this tournament just happens to fall right in that window. I absolutely think we see a couple of guys that finish in the Top 10 fishing in Barkley next week.”

Knight had a similar opinion of Barkley.

“The fish on Barkley are usually two weeks behind the fish on Kentucky,” Knight said. “I think the fish on Kentucky are spawning, and I think the fish on Barkley are prespawn. You’re not going to get as many bites, but they just weigh more. You’ll get some fish cranking, on a ChatterBait, flipping laydowns. Condition-wise, it’s time for Barkley to shine. There are like two or three weeks out of the year when Barkley can beat Kentucky, and this looks like the perfect storm.”

It’s also worth watching the water level. Depending on where it sits on derby day, there could be some really fun stuff in play.

“If water levels are high, above normal summer pool and up in the bushes, I think the largemouth will be the predominant species and we’ll see around 70% largemouth, 30% smallmouth weighed in,” Lawrence said.

“If the water is at 359, 360 in the Invitational, you better watch out for Cole Floyd, his dad, people like that,” Knight added.

Still, barring some really wild water conditions, Knight thinks a pretty diverse tournament is in the cards.

“I’m gonna say it will be 50/50, the guys that catch the smallmouth will fall in love with it in practice,” he said. “If you’re a good ‘Scoper and you keep catching them like that, it’s just fun, and it’s hard to steer away from it. The other half, I think you’re going to see a lot of flipping, spinnerbaits, ChatterBaits, maybe a few big swimbaits thrown in the mix. The guys that are going to be doing that, they’re not going to be catching 20 keepers a day, they’ll be catching seven. When they lose one, it hurts so much more than when you’re catching 20 a day.”

One key storyline to watch will be the shallow bite. Can folks like Cole Floyd make it work? Photo by Tyler Brinks

Headlines to watch for

In every event, there are a few factors that can really shape the outcome. Here are some possible storylines for Kentucky and Barkley.

  • Lawrence is the prohibitive favorite – Lawrence has been unassailable on the lake recently, and he’s won the last two Toyota Series events there. Can he do it again? Can someone do the impossible and knock him from his perch?
  • Get ready to learn – This will be the first event on new school Kentucky Lake with live coverage. We should learn a lot about catching spawning smallmouth on forward-facing sonar thanks to MLFNOW! 
  • Cross your fingers for some shallow fun – There will be plenty of largemouth caught on LiveScope, but there should also be a bunch caught on power techniques. Flipping bushes, throwing big swimmers and just generally grinding around shallow can be good stuff on Kentucky and Barkley. So, expect Drew Gill in the Top 10, but know that there could be some traditional shallow stuff in play as well.

Follow along

You can follow the action at Stop 3 Presented by Phoenix Boats on Kentucky Lake on MLFNOW! and stay locked to the website for on-the-water galleries, daily stories and more.