Happy New Year!
Before we turn the page on 2013, let’s take a look back at four of the top news stories on the outdoors beat in Kentucky this past year. Here they are, in chronological order:
Lake Cumberland on the rise
After being lowered by more than 40 feet from its historic summer pool level, Lake Cumberland was on the rise in 2013.
The 50,250-acre reservoir, near Jamestown, had been held at elevations between 680 to 685 feet above sea level since January 2007, while crews plugged the leaks in Wolf Creek Dam. In March, after repairs were inspected and approved, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers raised the lake level, and operated a power pool near elevation 700 throughout the spring and summer.
The normal summer pool elevation is 723.
The prolonged drawdown had a devastating effect on the striped bass in the lake. The zone of cool, oxygenated water was decreased so much that striper growth rates and body condition declined. In the fall, stripers were especially stressed, causing some die-offs of larger fish, during the first few years that the lake level was lowered.
“We had a wet year this year (2013) and that extra water in the lake really helped the striped bass,” said John Williams, southeastern fisheries district biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
Williams, who oversees the fisheries management of Lake Cumberland, said the body condition and growth rates of the striped bass improved somewhat in 2013. “We netted some stripers in early December when they were gorging on shad up in the creeks. Most of the fish were in the 23- to 27-inch range.”
Because of the improved water quality, the fisheries division stocked 686,759 fingerling striped bass in 2013. It will take a couple of years for the striper population to fully recover, but the outlook is encouraging.
A strong year class of stripers stocked in 2009 is driving the population now and includes most of the 25- to 26-inch fish. A small number of stripers in the 30-inch are present in the population, and occasionally being taken by anglers.
Lake Cumberland has a 22-inch minimum size limit with a two fish daily creel limit on striped bass, which is likely to stay in effect through 2014, Williams said.
Once the lake reaches elevation 723 this summer, miles of shoreline brush and trees will be flooded. This will create excellent habitat for a wide variety of other fish species, including largemouth bass and crappie, and 2014 is likely to be good year for anglers.
Tailwater fishing saved by Freedom to Fish Act
When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made their intentions public, to move forward with a plan to limit access to tailwaters of dams along the Cumberland River, a veritable “flood” of protest poured forth from anglers, state fish and wildlife agencies, and the outdoors media.
The Corps cited safety concerns for anglers in boats during high water discharges.
Most egregious was the plan to install physical barriers to block anglers in several locations, including below Barkley Dam and Wolf Creek Dam, which impounds Lake Cumberland.
On May 16, politicians jumped into the fray, when the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Freedom to Fish Act, S. 421.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was an original co-sponsor of the bill, introduced by Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander.
On May 21, the U.S. House gave its OK, and 13 days later the act was signed into law.
“I know I am speaking for many Kentuckians when I say that I am glad the Freedom to Fish Act is now law. The livelihoods of many business owners and fishermen were at stake, but because of this legislation’s enactment, they will continue to enjoy the freedom to fish without the bureaucratic overreach of the Army Corps,” Paul said.
“No one I know in Kentucky supported this plan – not fishermen and boaters, not local elected officials, and not the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell. “I talked with many fishermen and business owners about the disastrous effect the Army Corps plan would have had on their livelihoods.”
But some critics said the act didn’t go far enough.
The law imposes a two-year moratorium on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to install barricades and restrict fishing accesses to tailwaters of dams along the Cumberland River in Kentucky and Tennessee, but did not address other sportfishing issues that big government wants to control.
Gassett resigns amid allegations of unethical behavior
In September, Jon Gassett resigned as Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), amid allegations of unethical behavior.
Gassett had a meteoric rise to the agency’s top spot. He joined the department in 1999 as the deer and elk biologist and was promoted to wildlife division director in 2001 and Commissioner in 2005. He was the first head of the agency to have a PhD in a wildlife management field.
The allegations were numerous and details of the findings were released in a 59-page report, the result of a seven-month investigation by Kentucky’s office of the inspector general. The investigation was triggered by an anonymous letter, which alleged that Gassett used KDFW employee labor, equipment and supplies for his personal benefit.
Gassett declined, on advice of legal counsel, to be interviewed by the inspector general’s office.
The investigation also uncovered some questionable behavior by other department staff and violations of regulations by some members of the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission, a nine-member citizens board, nominated by sportsmen and appointed by the Governor.
The duties of the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission, which meets quarterly in Frankfort, includes hiring the agency director (Commissioner) and voting on hunting and fishing regulations, which are subject to legislative review.
The report is extensive and provides an insight into the culture of the department during Gassett’s tenure. Read the entire report here
Deer harvest record for second straight year
For the second consecutive year, deer hunters have posted an overall harvest record.
As of Dec. 30, 141,611 deer have been checked in, 10,216 more than last season’s record.
Tina Brunjes, deer and elk coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, predicted last month that the overall harvest for the 2013-14 season would be a record. “We had the second highest opening day harvest for modern gun deer season and the highest closing weekend on record.”
Kentucky deer hunters set a harvest record of 101,076 deer during the 16-day modern gun deer season that concluded Nov. 24. Last year’s overall deer harvest record was 131,395 deer — 55.6 percent bucks and 44.4 percent does (antlerless), with archers taking 18,711 deer and firearms hunters bagging 95,613 deer.
So far this season gun hunters have taken a record 104,517 deer.
Archers are just 299 deer shy of a fifth consecutive harvest record with about three weeks left to hunt. Archery season for deer ends on Monday, Jan. 20. According to data posted on fw.ky.gov archers have bagged a record number of deer for the past four seasons — 14,666 in 2009, 16,650 in 2010, 18,170 in 2011 and 18,711 in 2012.
A higher percentage of the deer taken this season were antlerless (45.9 percent), compared to last season (44.4 percent). This could indicate that deer populations are continuing to grow in some Zone 2 and Zone 3 counties.
A spotty mast crop that made deer move around more in search of food, favorable weather and dedicated hunters are all thought to be reasons for the big harvest this deer season.
Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.
To read more from Art Lander, click here.