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Kentucky Afield Outdoors: Best time to catch trophy smallmouth bass – if you can stand it


Scot Ortwein of Park Hills holds a 21-inch smallmouth bass caught yesterday from Laurel River Lake. The trophy smallmouth fell for a 3-inch pearl swimbait. The cold water period of fall, winter and early spring is the best time of year to fish for large smallmouth bass in reservoirs such as Lake Cumberland, Dale Hollow Lake and Laurel River Lake. (Photo from F&W)


This is one in a series of articles titled “Fall Fishing Festival” profiling the productive fishing on Kentucky’s lakes, rivers and streams in fall.

By Lee McClellan
Special to KyForward

Winds blowing straight from Santa Claus’ abode at the North Pole rocketed across Kentucky this past week, bringing with them the start of reservoir smallmouth bass fishing season.

“From now into late winter, if you can stand it, is the best time of year to catch trophy smallmouth bass,” said John Williams, southeastern fisheries district biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “The whole cold water period of the year is the most productive time for large smallmouths.”

Water temperatures at Lake Cumberland, Dale Hollow Lake and Laurel River Lake are getting perfect for bringing smallmouth into the range of angler’s lures.

“When the water temperatures drop to 60 degrees, the baitfish start moving into the creeks,” said Scot Ortwein, an avid smallmouth angler from Park Hills who fishes Laurel River Lake as often as possible. “The deeper the creek is; the better the fishing.”

Smallmouth bass follow the baitfish into the major creek arms on these lakes. The point where the creek arm meets the main lake is a good place to start looking for the smallmouths at this time of year. The secondary points leading up into the creek should be next on the list.

Ortwein, the co-owner of a company that manufactures lights for night fishing from boats, likes smaller grubs and swimbaits for late fall and winter smallmouth bass. Ortwein searches for balls of baitfish such as alewives or shad on his electronic sonar unit before he fishes an area.

“The 3-inch pearl Slider grub is the best smallmouth bass bait there is,” he said. “I rig them hook exposed on a ¼-ounce ball head. I rarely divert from a ¼-ounce head in fall.”

This combination works extremely well on Laurel River Lake, a notoriously tough lake to fish. “Laurel has a tremendous population of trophy smallmouth bass,” said Williams, who oversees the fisheries management at Laurel River, Cumberland and Dale Hollow lakes. “They can be hit or miss on Laurel. The smallmouth bass are there, even if you don’t catch them.”

Ortwein caught six smallmouth bass yesterday on Laurel River Lake, the days after the nastiest cold front since last winter hit Kentucky. The air temperature was 18 degrees at daybreak. The fishing line froze in his rod guides. Frost flew from his reel like snow.

Yet, he used a 3-inch pearl swimbait rigged hook exposed on 6-pound test fluorocarbon line to boat two smallmouth bass longer than 20-inches on a raw, tough day by counting his lure down to the fish.

Charlie Brewer, the originator of Slider fishing, believed in probing the water column by simply counting down to find the active fish zone. After casting your lure off a point in a deep smallmouth reservoir like Laurel or Cumberland, slowly count as the offering sinks.

Reel in the Slider grub or swimbait in a straight line after counting down to 12, for example. Count down deeper on successive casts until you feel pecks or nips on your lure from small bass or baitfish during the retrieve. Probe a little deeper on the next cast and find the smallmouths lurking under the baitfish.

This method works just as well for someone who doesn’t own a boat. If you can walk to a point that slopes into deep water on these lakes, you can catch trophy smallmouths by counting down your 3-inch pearl swimbait or black 3-inch grub to find the activity zone and the smallmouth bass.

For those who just want to catch fish, pitching large crappie minnows or medium-sized shiners into main lake pockets on Lake Cumberland, Dale Hollow or Laurel River lakes is incredible fun. Using medium or medium-light spinning gear, tie on a size 1/0 Octopus style hook to 6- or 8-pound fluorocarbon line. Pinch on one or two BB-sized split shot sinkers (the non-removable kind work best) 18- to 24-inches above the hook.

Hook the shiner through both lips starting from the bottom one. Rig a large crappie minnow through the tail. Gently cast this presentation to the main lake pocket or point and let it slowly sink toward bottom. Rhythmically retrieve the offering once it touches down until the line jumps, goes slack or moves off to one side. Take a few deep breaths, reel in the slack line and set the hook. Live bait produces more trophy smallmouth bass than anything else in fall and winter.

Kentuckians are lucky. Our state is the home of the all-tackle, world record smallmouth bass, an 11-pound, 15-ounce beast caught from the Kentucky portion of Dale Hollow Lake in the summer of 1955. Dale Hollow, Cumberland and Laurel River lakes hold some of the biggest specimens of smallmouth bass on Earth.

Now is the time to hit these waters and catch some of the world’s best.


Author Lee McClellan is associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources manages, regulates, enforces and promotes responsible use of all fish and wildlife species, their habitats, public wildlife areas and waterways for the benefit of those resources and for public enjoyment. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife is an agency of the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. For more information on the department, click here.

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