FRANKFORT, KENTUCKY - The sight of hundreds of medium-sized striped bass and quality walleye floating bloated and dead on the surface of Lake Cumberland in August and September sent a shudder throughout the Kentucky fishing community.
The ongoing repair work on Wolf Creek Dam means the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must keep Lake Cumberland much lower than normal, resulting in higher water temperatures in the depths with less dissolved oxygen. The situation worsened in August to the point that some striped bass and walleye in the lake perished.
The ghastly sight of those dead fish looked worse than the reality. In comparison to striped bass population throughout Lake Cumberland, this incident is relatively small.
"Good stockings of striped bass in the past couple of years should offset those losses in the near future," said John Williams, southeastern fishery district biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. "The striper deaths looked bad, but the 1,500 to 2,000 we counted compared to the total striped bass population isn't that much."
Kentucky anglers should also bear in mind that what is bad for one species could benefit others. The black bass, largemouth, smallmouth and spotted, are in great shape in Lake Cumberland.
"The black bass are through the roof in terms of reproduction," said Gerry Buynak, assistant director of fisheries for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. "The lake is about 37,000 acres now and it is 50,250 at full capacity. When the same amount of nutrients flow into a smaller body of water, it is more productive."
These nutrients fuel the production of zooplankton, a microscopic organism at the base of the food chain in Lake Cumberland and the other bodies of water in Kentucky.
"More zooplankton in the water benefits bass, crappie and everything else," Buynak explained. "The bigger the base of the food chain; the more predator fish exist at the top of the food chain. This all means more fish, bigger fish and faster growing fish."
Spotted bass fishing in the lake may be the best ever.
"The spots are in great condition," Williams said. "They are footballs with many of them over 15 inches long. We see quite a few over 17 inches long and that is big for a spotted bass in Kentucky."
Search for spotted bass around wood cover this fall in Lake Cumberland. Tree tops, limbs and brush often wash into the back of coves on Lake Cumberland. Cast 4-inch black finesse worms or 3-inch black boot-tailed grubs rigged on 1/16-to-1/4-ounce leadheads to this woody cover for spotted bass. Crappie minnows rigged on small circle hooks with a BB-sized split shot above the hook also draw strikes from spotted bass when cast into this cover. You may also catch a large bluegill or crappie with this technique as well.
Lake Cumberland is a clear, rocky bottomed, highland reservoir, a type of water body more productive for smallmouth bass than largemouth bass. However, the largemouth bass in Lake Cumberland thrive.
"We have lots of quality largemouth bass in the lake right now, many 14-to-18 inchers," Williams explained.
Lower lake levels place many of the traditional bluegill and other sunfish habitats out of the water. "The lower water pulls sunfish out of their cover, making them more susceptible to predation by the largemouth bass," Williams said.
A medium-running crankbait in colors that match bluegill such as shades of blue, green, purple and orange worked around points and along the sides of small coves triggers strikes from largemouth bass in Lake Cumberland. A 5-inch curly-tailed grub in motor oil or junebug colors worked in the same areas also entices largemouth bass.
Smallmouth bass do well in Lake Cumberland year after year. "The smallies have been in great shape for several years," Williams explained. "From now through winter, the smallmouth fishing should be really good."
Target main lake points with 3/16-ounce jigs and small trailers for fall smallmouth bass. Jigs in the peanut butter and jelly color generate hits from smallmouths as do purple hair jigs with small black trailers. As the water temperatures dip below 55 degrees, the float and fly technique grows deadly for Lake Cumberland bronzebacks.
The striped bass and walleye deaths hurt the public's image of Lake Cumberland, but the black bass fishing may be the best ever in the lake. The striped bass and walleye will recover in the near future while many 5-pound smallmouth bass now swim in the lake. The good old days of black bass fishing on Lake Cumberland are right now.