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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Alter your tackle, techniques for success when fishing in Kentucky’s summer heat

It’s been a challenging fishing year, weather-wise, with all that rain during the spring creating wildly fluctuating water levels, then summer came in hot. That’s Kentucky weather, wait a day and it will change, as the old saying goes.

But there is stability in summer.

When surface water temperatures warm into the mid-80s, many game fish species are in more predictable patterns, feed early and late or at night, and retreat to deep water in the heat of the day.

Anglers who alter their tackle and techniques to embrace these seasonal patterns will be more successful. Here’s some observations and opinions about fishing for black bass, crappie, and catfish during the summer:

Black bass seek out moving water during the summer, especially when water levels are low (Photo by John B. Lander)

• In large rivers black bass seek out moving water during the summer, especially when water levels are low.

Shad, and other baitfish that bass feed on, gravitate towards stream run-ins and areas below locks and dams, where water is more highly oxygenated.

Bass are ambush feeders and summer is prime time for casting crankbaits along rocky banks and the walls adjacent to dams.

Try to match the size of your crankbait to the size of the forage fish being preyed upon by the bass. Bass will be positioned facing into the current, looking for a hapless minnow or shad to swim by. Cast upstream, and move the crankbait past the cover with an erratic retrieve.

Spinnerbaits are an excellent choice when schools of baitfish congregate around small stream run-ins.

Cast to nearby wood cover. Bass will often be waiting in ambush, for the swarm to get close enough for an attack. If you actually observe bass attacking the school, fish the area thoroughly, repeatedly casting close to the swarm of baitfish.

• In major reservoirs crappie suspend in the deep channels near, or at the mouth, of major embayments.

Casting jigs enables anglers to cover different depths of water. Position your boat facing a dropoff. Cast your jig out and let it fall, stair-stepping it down the ledge, hopping it over brush and stumps.

Casting jigs is a productive summer presentation for crappie (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

This presentation is effective because in the hot weather of summer crappie are typically suspended. They lay over the deeper water of the channel, and come up shallower on the ledge top and contour to feed around the cover. Then they go back out to deeper water in the heat of the day.

As summer intensifies crappie begin to move vertically more often, up and down in the water column. They could be at eight feet, suspended over 20 feet of water or deeper. Crappie tend to be scattered so you have to move around a lot.

Depending on the depth being fished, hair jigs and plastics of 1/16-ounce, 3/32-ounce or 1/8-ounce are most commonly used. Recommended rods and reels include a medium-action spinning rod, 6 to 6 1/2 feet in length with fast tip action, and reels spooled in 4 to 6-pound test monofilament line.

• Catfish also vary their depth daily during the summer, in predictable patterns.
Slow your live bait presentation down, and probe every hump, ditch, channel, rock pile or hole in the bottom cover. Put the bait right in front of the catfish’s nose so he gets two or three good looks at the bait, not just a fleeting glance.

Drifting is an especially effective technique during the summer when catfish are widely scattered across the flat basins of major reservoirs.

In main stem reservoirs, such as Kentucky Lake or Lake Barkley, where there is consistent current in the channel during peak hours of electricity generation, use a trolling motor to slow your drift, keeping the bait on the edge of a deep ledge.

Early in the morning catfish will be up on top of the ledge, in 25 feet of water, but midday they move down into the old river channel, in water as deep as 65 feet.

In the late afternoon, catfish will move back up on top of the break, where the old river bank once was, and there are tree stumps and other cover still in place.

Drift at a speed where the line is at about a 45-degree angle behind the boat, to aid in feeling the bottom contour, and avoiding snags. Raise and lower the bait very slowly. That’s when most strikes occur.

In rivers, and the tailwaters below dams, catfish are closer to the bottom, and facing into the current.

Rock piles, deep rip-rap lined banks, channels and eddies behind bridge abutments and fishing piers, often hold catfish in the swift water below dams.

Catfish vary their depth daily during the summer, in predictable patterns (Photo from KDFWR)

In large rivers, where the channel may be less defined due to silting, the prime catfish-holding cover is often holes, logs or root wads sticking up from the bottom, deep outside bends, or runs below holes, where the bottom is uneven and there are V-shaped current seams on the surface.

The two to eight-pound catfish will be shallow, but the bigger fish will always be deep. Holes form where the river is constricted into a narrow chute, or the current gouges out big bends.

River anglers should also fish around the deep side of sandbars. At night, catfish like to cruise the tops of sandbars, especially where they come up shallow to the banks.

The basic catfish drifting rig starts with a three-way swivel. Use a bell sinker for the weight on the bottom of the rig, tied to the three-way swivel on a 30 to 36-inch leader.

Typically, the hook leader is shorter, about 20 to 24 inches long. Foam floats are sometime added to the hook leader to keep the bait up in the water column.

Most anglers use lighter line on the sinker leader, to prevent loosing the whole rig when snags occur.

Obviously the weight of the sinker depends on the depth being fished, and the pound test of the line, the size of catfish usually encountered.

When fishing with a casting reel and rod, some anglers use braided line for the main line and monofilament line for the hook and weight leaders.

The hook of choice for catfish is the circle hook, which ensures more consistent hookups. When the angler feels the catfish on the line, simply raise the rod tip and start reeling.

Some anglers snell two hooks in line on the leader when fishing nightcrawlers for channel catfish.

Live fish must be used as bait to catch blue or flathead catfish. The bait of choice is local shad or skipjack herring, but large shiners are also effective.

Some anglers add a small crane swivel to the hook leader because it gives the bait more action and eliminates line twist. When the bait is twisting and turning in the current it looks like the bait is dying.

It’s summer, it’s hot. Go fishing at night or early in the morning, especially if there’s a cooling rain in the forecast.

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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.

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