This is the second installment of a series of articles titled “Fall Fishing Festival” profiling the productive fishing on Kentucky’s lakes, rivers and streams in fall.
FRANKFORT, Ky. – You arrive at the Holcomb’s Landing Ramp just after dawn and look at the shoreline of Lake Cumberland. A line of damp rocks several inches thick rings the lake and the rip rap on the face of Wolf Creek Dam.
Your heart sinks. They are releasing a lot of water quickly through the dam and into the Cumberland River below it. The first smallmouth bass trip of the fall may be a bust.
“When they pull water through the dam, the falling water pulls the predator fish off their preferred habitat,” said John Williams, southeastern fisheries district program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “Being out of their comfort zone makes them skittish.”
Falling water, along with the fall turnover and cold fronts, are challenges in decoding fall bass fishing patterns. Falling water is a common situation found in fall as many lakes across Kentucky experience significant drawdown to winter pool.
Most large reservoirs in Kentucky begin the fall drawdown in the middle of October, but others start in late September while a few begin in November.
“This puts the bass more on the move,” said Eric Cummins, southwestern fisheries district program coordinator for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “Anglers won’t pattern them as well during the drawdown.”
Williams said he noticed the flat nature of the upper ends of creek arms during the drawdown of Lake Cumberland for repairs on Wolf Creek Dam. “Dam releases pull water and baitfish off those flats and back into the channel or along steeper banks,” he said.
This pulling effect scatters the baitfish, but they relocate and suspend over long points, channel ledges or underwater humps near the mouth of coves or creek arms. The bass follow.
Shad-colored, deep-running crankbaits and suspending jerkbaits fished near these structures work well. Mentally note the location of the first bass of the day and use the same presentation in a similar area on other parts of the lake.
As the fall winds blow ever colder air over the surface of Kentucky reservoirs, the top layer of water cools and begins mixing with the chillier, denser water underneath. The thermal layering of the water column formed during the heat of summer breaks up. Eventually, the water’s surface layer is the same temperature and density as the water under it, a phenomenon commonly known as turnover.
“During the turnover, the fish are off,” Cummins explained. “The dissolved oxygen levels drop. The turnover releases gases trapped during the summer by temperature that can have a slight sulphur smell.”
Williams explained the shallower creek arms and the upper reaches of the lake turn over before the deeper main lake. “The whole water column has to cool down to match the bottom level. In our deep lakes like Laurel River and Cumberland, the full turnover isn’t complete until November and into December,” he said.
On shallower lakes like Barren River Lake, the turnover is almost finished. The Louisville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ website has a graph of the dissolved oxygen profile for all of the lakes in its district including Barren River, Buckhorn, Carr Creek, Cave Run, Green River, Nolin River, Rough River and Taylorsville. From the homepage, click on the “Water Information” tab and the “Updated Lake Temperatures and Dissolved Oxygen Levels” tab.
“Most of the readings are taken near the dam, so if the line on the graph is nearly vertical, turnover is done,” Cummins explained. “If the graph shows a strong line at a certain depth, the thermal layers in the water column haven’t broken up yet.”
After you arrive at the water and notice off-colored water with a smell, fish another section of the lake. If you are near the dam, the upper lake and major creek arms have likely turned over. If you are in a major creek arm or upper lake, the deeper water at the dam probably hasn’t turned over yet.
“The fishing is much better where the lake isn’t turning over,” Cummins said. “If you see turnover on one of our smaller lakes, choose another lake to fish.”
Minor cold fronts actually can help fishing in early fall. Bass feed heavily in the days leading up to the front and a small deep-running chrome crankbait draws strikes. After the minor front passes, baitfish school a bit more and settle a little deeper, but bass still hit. The drop shot technique using a 3 ½-inch soft plastic jerkbait in the sexy shad color can work wonders in this situation.
A major cold front, especially later in fall, that drops the lake temperature several degrees means tough, but not impossible, fishing. Anglers must downsize their lure size, use lighter line and fish much slower.
A 4-inch black finesse worm rigged on a 3/16-ounce small Shakey head and fished in the “dead stick” presentation may save the day. Simply cast to the point, channel ledge or hump and let the rig sink to the bottom. Reel in the slack, keep a tight line and squeeze the rod handle to impart a subtle action to the worm. Grumpy bass that passed by all other offerings often succumb to this.
Get out this fall and overcome some of these challenging situations. Fall brings great weather and deserted lakes, perfect conditions for bass fishing.