Back in action on Kentucky and Barkley lakes - Major League Fishing

Back in action on Kentucky and Barkley lakes

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Big MLF tournaments are back at Kentucky and Barkley lakes for the first time in a long time. Photo by Matt Pace.
April 20, 2023 • Tyler Brinks • Toyota Series

CALVERT CITY, Ky. – After a four-year break, Kentucky and Barkley lakes are back on the schedule for the Toyota Series Presented by Phoenix Boats Plains Division. The famed fishery has had some low points recently, but signs indicate a much-improved scenario now.

Things looked bleak for several years, with many factors getting some of the blame. Asian carp, severe flooding during the spawn, and tournament pressure have all had fingers pointed at them for the downturn, but things are looking up, according to Jake Lawrence, who won the 2018 Toyota Series stop on Barkley Lake.

“Everything in the lake appears to be getting healthier,” he said. “The crappie are back in big numbers and you see tons of gizzard and threadfin shad, which were all pretty scarce for a few years. Everything, from top to bottom, looks like it’s returning to how it was.”

Kentucky Lake in particular holds a special place in bass-fishing history.

About the fishery

The popular Tennessee River and Cumberland River fisheries are no strangers to big-time bass tournaments and Kentucky, in particular, was a mainstay on professional trails for years. Most of those events were postspawn and early summer ordeals and helped make Kentucky Lake famous for ledge fishing on the massive lake and its more than 160,000 acres.

The ledges are still there, but most bass and anglers will focus on the bank. Both largemouth and smallmouth will be caught in all phases of the spawn and it’s set up to be a shallow-water power-fishing deal.

Barkley Lake is also a big one, covering some 58,000 acres and figures to be a significant player in this event with its abundant shallow wood for bass to spawn around. From the sound of things, the potential to win exists on both sides of the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.

Smallies will be a player

Smallmouth bass have always lived in the lakes, but their bigger largemouth cousins mainly overshadowed them in recent years. In the past, they were more of a bonus catch and most didn’t spend the time to target them specifically. That’s all changed, according to Lawrence.

“If this event was a few weeks earlier, there’s no question that we would have seen a lot of smallmouth limits in the 15- to 17-pound range,” he said. There will still be plenty of smallmouth caught, but it will likely be a mix of largemouth and smallmouth to win it.”

The changing species dynamic is nothing new.

“There’s always an ebb and flow between the two, but it seems like we can never have both of them right at the same time,” he said. “From the late 90s until about 2005, smallmouth were the deal and then we saw the start of the madness for the big largemouth. But, right now, the numbers and size of the smallmouth is unbelievable. The problem is that most of them are postspawn and they become nomadic this time of year.”

Spring conditions will give anglers plenty of options.

What to expect

During the spring, anglers can generally catch fish many different ways and fish to their strengths. Lawrence backs that up and says we’ll have many tactics in play this week.

He believes 3- and 4-inch swimbaits for the smallmouth will be popular options for postspawn bass feeding up on shad, but there will be other ways to catch them. The largemouth are likely to still be in and around their spawning grounds and he believes soft plastics will be the way to go.

“The largemouth get real moody here around the spawn and a lot of times, you have to drag something and pick apart areas slowly,” he said. “A shaky head, Neko rig, Stupid Tube, and wobble head are all things that will get them to bite.”

Last weekend, Ryan Kirkpatrick won the Phoenix Bass Fishing League LBL Division event, fishing on Kentucky Lake. He brought in a limit worth 17 pounds, 6 ounces and Lawrence believes that will be a solid goal to shoot for, with weights maybe a touch higher for this event.

“I think 17 or 18 pounds a day will get you close to the win,” he said. “I’d like my chances if I could get that anyway. That’s possible in both Kentucky and Barkley, and I believe the Top 10 anglers will be about even between the two lakes.”