As winter begins to lose its grip, striped bass in Lake Cumberland are on the move.
“We have threadfin shad, gizzard shad and alewives in Lake Cumberland,” said Benjy Kinman, deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, and an avid striper angler. “Stripers are keying on bait so they could be anywhere, at any depth.”
Late February to early March has always been a transitional period. Generally, stripers spend the winter in creeks following major schools of baitfish. As the lake warms up, some fish move out to the mouths of creeks and eventually to the main lake.
But, warmer water can also bring baitfish and the stripers back up into the shallows. “If there’s a warm rain in the headwaters of major embayments, some stripers will go to run-ins, where the warmer water is entering the lake,” said Kinman “The good fishing may only last a day or two due to the cool down, so you have to be there when it happens. Water temperatures have a lot to do with where you’ll find stripers at this time of the year.”
A rising lake level is a major factor that could influence striper behavior and benefit anglers in the upcoming weeks.
Lake Cumberland has been held at elevations between 680 feet above sea level to 685 feet since January 2007, while crews repaired Wolf Creek Dam. This spring, after the repairs have been inspected and approved, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to raise the lake level to an elevation between 700 feet above sea level to 705 feet and operate a power pool throughout the spring and summer. “The lake level would fluctuate from that starting point due to power production and maintaining downstream flow, but probably not fall lower than elevation 690,” said Kinman.
More water stored in the system will benefit both Lake Cumberland and Cumberland River downstream of the lake.
“Any extra water is good,” said John Williams, southeastern district fishery biologist for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “The more water in the lake, the more cool water habitat stored and the better the growth rates for striped bass.”
The prolonged drawdown had a big impact on the striped bass in Lake Cumberland, but the stage is set for a rebound. A rise in the lake level could hold baitfish and stripers in the creeks for an extended period of time this spring.
In recent years, the zone of cool water was squeezed, adversely affecting growth rates and condition. However, Williams said it wasn’t as bad last fall as in previous years. “We found that striper body condition was much improved when we netted last fall in late November and early December,” he explained. “I think anglers will catch more keepers this year than in the past two years.” Williams said there are lots of stripers longer than the 22-inch minimum size limit in the lake now from the highly successful 2009 stockings. He predicts anglers will encounter much improved numbers of larger stripers in the 26- to 28-inch class.
Some presentations for fishing live bait for striped bass include bottom fishing and drifting live bait on planer boards. Down rod fishing, a still, vertical presentation, works best when stripers are tightly schooled in deep water. The basic live bait rig works for all three presentations. Tie a #2 hook on a two-foot leader, then attach the other end of the leader to a barrel swivel. The line from the reel (17-pound test is recommended) is then threaded through an egg sinker and tied to the other end of the barrel swivel. Most anglers put a plastic bead between the sinker and the swivel to protect the main line and knot from damage.
“The best fishing right now is about halfway up the creeks,” said Kinman. “Stripers are feeding on threadfin shad and anglers are catching stripers by trolling umbrella rigs or using downriggers at a depth of 25- to 40-feet.”
This spring presents the best striped bass fishing in years on Lake Cumberland. Get out and enjoy it.
The current license year expires Feb. 28. If you plan to fish after March 1, you’ll need to buy a new fishing license, available in the sporting goods section of department stores and tackle shops. Licenses and permits may also be purchased online from the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife homepage at fw.ky.gov or by calling 1-877-598-2401. The entire Spring Fishing Frenzy series will be posted at this same website for future access to these articles.
Author Art Lander Jr. has been writing about the outdoors since the 1970s. He is a staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine.
Cumberland during the late winter