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KY Afield Outdoors: Spring fishing on rivers

By Kevin Kelly

Frankfort, KY - An extended stretch of stable weather and seasonably warm temperatures in late April created optimal spring fishing conditions for anglers across Kentucky.

The calm broke at the end of the month when rounds of storms over a period of days preceded a cold front. In their wake, rivers and streams that had been running low and clear and warmer than normal rose and cooled off a bit.

"This is just going to be a quick pulse," said Mike Hardin, assistant director of fisheries for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. "On a falling river, I'd hit the feeder creeks. You'll have a better chance of finding fish there because of the difference in water quality and clarity. When stable patterns return, fish will start returning to the main river and below locks and dams."

Increased streamflow can prolong spawning activity for some fish species such as largemouth bass. Due to the recent warm weather, catfish already were on the verge of starting their spawning rituals in smaller creeks.

"It's been so pleasant this spring that we're likely to see early spawning by catfish," Hardin said. "I've already seen channel catfish in Elkhorn Creek paired up and full of eggs while smallmouth bass were guarding fry along nearby banks."

Also look for white bass and hybrids below some of the dams. The Ohio River is highly rated for its hybrid striped bass and channel catfish. Those in search of largemouth bass and crappie on the river in the coming weeks should key on embayments.

"As far as somebody looking to go out and have a really good day, I would suggest the Markland Pool, and point people toward the embayments like Craigs Creek, Gunpowder Creek and Woolper Creek," said Jay Herrala, Big Rivers Research Branch biologist with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. "Woolper Creek this past fall looked absolutely amazing."

Largemouth bass anglers would do well to focus on spots that lead to spawning areas - deeper points and the deeper stretches of banks that lead into the embayments - and work back from there. Crawdad imitations, jig and trailer combinations, square-billed crankbaits, weightless flukes and Texas or Carolina-rigged lizards all can draw strikes. Also, save room in a stowaway box for topwater lures such as Zara Spooks, Pop-Rs and buzzbaits.

Herrala recommends the lower ends of pools for largemouth. "You can pick up some pretty nice spots here and there as well," he said.

For crappie, consider drifting live minnows below bobbers in areas with good structure. A 2-inch white or black and chartreuse 1/8- or 1/16-ounce tube jig tipped with live minnows or a soft plastic grub also can entice bites.

"Late in the spring, if those crappie don't pull out into the river and that water starts to set up like a lake, you could probably troll some small crankbaits and maybe catch a few as well," Herrala said.

Silt-free embayments and rocky habitat are good places to target channel catfish with nightcrawlers, chicken livers, cut pieces of shad or skipjack herring, shrimp and scented dough baits.

Recent sampling of the South Fork of Kentucky River from the Oneida boat ramp in Clay County to the Kay Wood Road access near Booneville in Owsley County produced impressive results for channel catfish and other species.

"I was absolutely blown away with it," Herrala said. "Catch rates for smallmouth bass were probably somewhere in the Green River to Elkhorn Creek range. It was phenomenal. Channel catfish looked great. Muskie numbers were good and they were in excellent physical condition."

Smallmouth bass can be found in tailwater areas but also along outside bends with rocky habitat. A 3-inch plastic tube, 4-inch salty lizard or 3-inch Senko-style worm in green pumpkin or smoke fished on a 1/8-ounce lead head is a tried and true presentation. As water temperatures crest 70 degrees, topwater baits are worth trying in low-light conditions.

Like the South Fork of Kentucky River, the Barren River from the dam at Barren River Lake downstream to Lock and Dam 1 at Greencastle offers an opportunity to encounter muskellunge. As with any stream that holds a population of these fish, target the mouths of feeder creeks - and the creeks themselves - as well as areas around woody structure and current breaks.

"You also need to be aware of temperature differential," Hardin said. "Think about what you're fishing for and look at your temperatures. If you're looking at tributaries and the river is the same temperature, fish can be anywhere."

A dressed in-line spinner or spinnerbait, 4- to 7-inch balsa wood crankbait and a 1/4-ounce skirted buzz bait are essentials. A 7-foot medium-heavy to heavy action rod, baitcaster reel rated for 40- to 80-pound braided line tipped fortified with a steel leader will be up to the task.

Tailwater areas and locks and dams can attract muskie but also white, hybrid and striped bass and catfish. Good to excellent white bass fishing was expected in the Barren River Lake tailwater this year. Small curly tailed jigs and in-line spinners are proven producers.

It's understandable for anglers who normally fish lakes and reservoirs to feel out of their element fishing a river.

"It's a lot of trusting your instincts," Herrala assured.

Kentucky Fish and Wildlife offers some helpful resources on its website at The department's annual Fishing Forecast offers a snapshot of Kentucky's major fisheries. The listing rates each species and offers tips about where and how to fish for them. Visitors to the department's website also will find a complete listing of fishing and boating access sites by clicking on the "Fish" tab on the homepage and choosing "Where to Fish" from the dropdown menu.

Another important resource for bank anglers and paddlers alike is the U.S. Geological Survey's streamflow conditions web page. It provides up-to-date information and is available at

Outfitted with that information, all that's left to do is to give it a try before spring turns to summer.

Author Kevin Kelly is a staff writer for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Get the latest from Kevin and the entire Kentucky Afield staff by following them on Twitter: @kyafield.

This story was posted on 2016-05-05 15:07:21
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KY Afield Outdoors: May is incredibly productive

2016-05-05 - South Fork of Kentucky River - Photo by Lee McClellan.
Ryan Kausing, fisheries technician for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, holds two huge smallmouth bass captured and released during population sampling on the South Fork of Kentucky River a few weeks ago. May is an incredibly productive month to fish rivers across Kentucky.

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