GILBERTSVILLE, Ky. — Kentucky Lake, site of this week's Bluegrass Brawl presented by DieHard Platinum Marine Batteries®, is widely regarded as one of the best bass fishing lakes in the country. And so far, the Elite Series pros and co-anglers plying the waters of this 160,300-acre two-state gem are finding truth in that reputation… and then some.
Take the Day One weigh-in at Kentucky Dam Marina for instance, a spot where 10 BASS pros weighed in bags of bass weighing more than 19-0 pounds: Six of those limits actually topped the impressive 20-0 mark, led, of course, by Kevin VanDam, who took the first-round lead with five bass weighing in at 24-13.
From the comments of most of the anglers at the weigh-in stage, two things seemed apparent after just one round of the Bluegrass Brawl:
First, Kentucky Lake fishing is on fire right now.
And second, the winning pattern will almost certainly be what the lake is best known for: it's stellar ledge fishing.
Mark Davis, the Mount Ida, Ark. pro who is the only man to win the Bassmaster Classic and Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles in the same year, is very familiar with ledge fishing.
In fact, it led the way to his 1995 Classic triumph on North Carolina's High Rock Lake.
"The fish were suspending around brush piles that were around ledges," Davis reminisced about his Classic win.
"I never caught a fish on anything bumping the bottom, but when I would throw something on deeper ledges where they were suspending above the tops of these brush piles in 15 to 20 pounds, (it was good)."
With a Classic title in hand, won specifically because of his ledge fishing prowess — and with a career resume that shows five BASS victories and more than $1.2 million in career earnings — Davis is highly qualified to help instruct anglers on where to begin for ledge fishing success.
So where do they begin, is it with a map or with a boat's electronics?
"It's a little bit of both in reading a map and time spent on the water," said Davis. "And in this tournament, it's really hard to rule anything out by the first look at the map."
Even so, Davis said that a map can certainly help to eliminate unproductive water on the countless ledge features that exist on the vast Kentucky Lake.
"You can pick most of 'em out on a map," he said.
How is that?
"When I pick up a map, I'm looking for three things," Davis explained. "First, I'm looking for really tight contours where there is a good drop-off and shallow water close to deeper water.
"Second, I'm looking for an irregular feature like an indention on a point or something like that.
"And third, I'm looking for any creek or ditch that intersects the ledge."
Ardmore, Okla. Elite Series pro Jeff Kriet has a similar approach to fishing ledges.
"I try and pick out any irregularity in a ledge, something like guts, little points, high spots, and steeper versus gradual drops," he said.
"Then I figure out (on the water) which ones the bass are on and then I go with (that)."
Kriet really means that — he prefers open water fishing techniques to beating the shoreline, having fine-tuned his offshore abilities on the smallmouth bass rich waters of his home lake, Lake Murray, in southern Oklahoma.
"I hate fishing the bank where there might be one fish around a laydown," said the one-time winner on the BASS tournament trail.
"But out there, with every cast, I feel like I've got 100 looking at it. When I find them out there, it's generally a school instead of one three-pounder and that's what keeps me going."
As important as map study is for an off-shore ledge pattern, Davis does note that it can only take an angler so far.
"Unfortunately, the better ones are not on a map," he said. "You actually have to go out on the water and find those others with your electronics, looking for the little subtle ones and the features that they have."
Texas Elite Series pro Kelly Jordon agrees wholeheartedly about the role that using and understanding today's electronic equipment plays in properly fishing a lake's ledges.
"Electronics (are a key)," Jordon said before the Friday morning launch. "They allow you to run these ledges looking for (features) like ditches, high spots, and something that is real subtle on this lake, shell beds. That's where these bass will be schooled up."
Davis says that current sonar technology combined with GPS waypoint coordinates has helped change the game on ledge fishing from what it was 15 years ago.
In fact, a number of anglers prepping for local tournament action this weekend on Kentucky Lake were following many of the top BASS Elite Series pros on Thursday, marking spots where bass were being caught with their GPS equipment.
While some of the pros were obviously disgruntled by that tactic, Davis said that the amazing state of current technology is what allows such a tactic to occur.
It's also what allows the same BASS pros to figure out one ledge from another.
"Before, it took some degree of expertise with a paper map and sonar," Davis said.
"But with a GPS and a map, you can drive right to a spot and then drive around looking at your sonar (to fine tune a location)," he added.
Speaking of fine tuning, Davis firmly believes that the best ledge fishing on a heavily pressured reservoir like Kentucky Lake will occur when anglers learn to locate more subtle locations.
"Sometimes, you can find something good when you set up on places a little bit off the beaten path," Davis said. "It might be 100 yards away (from the community hole). And of course those spots are harder to find."
This leads Davis to note the eventual key to all successful bass fishing patterns.
"At the end of the day, while you want to use all of the tools at your disposal like maps and electronics, it all comes down to fishing it with an actual lure," he said.
Kriet agreed, noting that he'll spend many hours of fishing to narrow down the best offshore spots.
"The key, on obvious stuff, at first, is to see what they are on," he said. "Then I'll spend as much as 12 to 14 hours a day practicing to find those one or two really good deals out there."
In practice for the Bluegrass Brawl, Kriet was on the water from 5:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. looking for enough spots to have six primary spots and six emergency spots.
If that doesn't sound like much, Kriet said that offshore fishing is a tough, time consuming method.
"When you're offshore, hitting one to three places a day is pretty good."
Once an angler finds a good spot… or two… or three… the key then becomes figuring out which lures will work best on a particular ledge.
Sometimes, which bait will be the best on a given day is a decision that is actually taken out of the angler's hands to some degree.
"The key (as to which bait works) is current," Davis said. "If water is being pulled, you can catch them on a crankbait, by ripping a jig off the bottom, or even by fishing big spinnerbaits."
Jordon, a four-time winner on the BASS circuit and a member of the winning team in this year's Toyota Big Bass Classic on Lake Fork (where offshore fishing was a primary tactic) concurred about the importance of current.
The Mineola, Texas BASS pro with $1.08 million in career earnings noted that his lighter than expected opening day effort on Thursday was negatively influenced by the absence of current.
That reportedly occurred when the Tennessee Valley Authority didn't pull much water due to the horrible flooding conditions that are causing disaster further downstream on the Ohio River and the Mississippi River.
"I had a good practice and had seven or eight good spots picked out," Jordon said. "But only one of those spots panned out yesterday because there was no current.
"I was really surprised by the weights yesterday and thought that they would have been better. I thought coming into yesterday that 20-0 would put you in about 30th place."
But with no current, Jordon's expectations weren't met, even with a solid ledge pattern going strong.
If current isn't being pulled across ledges, Davis said that slower baits like Carolina rigs, jigs, and plastic worms become more important in enticing a bass into the boat.
The Arkansas pro's favorite way to exploit a subtle feature on a Kentucky Lake ledge is a combination of both fast and slow lure presentations.
"Yesterday, I pulled up on a spot and caught a couple with a crankbait," Davis said. "I knew there were more fish there, so I switched rods and slowed way down in order to pick up the others."
Kriet follows a similar routine, using a fast retrieve bait to get into the "sweet stuff," then "slowing down once in the goods." When the Oklahoma pro slows down, it will often be with a ¾ oz. football jig or with a Big Bite Bait Red Bug 10" plastic worm.
If things are too slow, Kriet tries to fire up a school that he is working. To do so, he'll smoke a jig off the bottom, rip a crankbait through the school, or even drop a spoon.
Once a school of Kentucky Lake bass gets fired up, Kriet says to hang on – you might catch 25 fish in 25 casts.
"Once you get 'em fired up, your jig will never hit bottom," he said.
Jordon concurred, noting that in his practice, fishing spoons through a school of ledge fish was a ticket to a huge day.
"In practice, it was ridiculous," he said. "You would throw a spoon in there and it would get smoked. You could throw it in there and get a big one."
Why is that? Because a spoon effectively mimics a baitfish's desperate attempt to avoid becoming a big bass' version of a "McShad Happy Meal."
While not mentioning a spoon as a specific tool in his arsenal, Davis is keyed into the importance of shad in terms of catching bass on Kentucky Lake's prosperous ledges.
In fact, he says that lure color selection is a breeze — just be sure to err on the side of any of the various shad mimicking colors or chartreuse.
Davis will use baitfish school locations, as revealed by his electronics, as a key towards which ledge to fish and which ledge to ignore.
"If you're seeing a lot of baitfish pulled off a ledge in deeper water, then go ahead and move," he said. "What you're looking for is baitfish on top of a ledge or on the lip.
"And you also want to see bass activity towards the bottom."
Why is that?
Because when an angler is working a ledge pattern on Kentucky Lake — the mother of all ledge-fishing lakes in America — bass activity on the bottom can only mean one thing:
And that's bass activity up top in an angler's boat.
Followed of course by the weigh-in stage, where big bass action matters most during this week's Bluegrass Brawl.