Imagine a collection of jewels strung on a drooping chain. This is like the impoundments along the Tennessee River. They start in east Tennessee, loop down through Alabama and northeast Mississippi, then angle back north through west Tennessee and Kentucky. Truly, these reservoirs are "jewels" in terms of recreational value, especially fishing.
Especially bass fishing on Kentucky Lake, the biggest Tennessee Valley Authority reservoir. This impoundment stretches 184 miles from the tailrace of Pickwick Dam near Savannah, Tenn., to Kentucky Dam at Gilbertsville, Ky. At summer pool, Kentucky Lake measures a whopping 160,000-plus surface acres and traces more than 2,000 miles of shoreline.
Kentucky is a typical lowland reservoir — a maze of submerged ditches, creeks, islands and roadbeds. It has steep bluffs that drop into deep water. It has stumpfields, aquatic grass, sand and gravel banks, and buckbrush and willow flats. Its water quality is good, and its forage base (shad and sunfish) is abundant. All these factors combine to place Kentucky Lake on anybody's list of the country's best waters.
Actually, Kentucky can be considered three lakes in one. Owing to its length and changing topography, it can be divided into three sections, each with its own opportunities and best patterns. Thus, the way to approach Kentucky Lake is through the eyes of three different anglers who mainly stick to one section and who know its most intimate secrets.
UPPER LAKE: PICKWICK DAM TO NEW JOHNSONVILLE
Michael Redfearn of Parsons, Tenn., is a sales rep for the Bass Cat boat company. He has fished Kentucky Lake's upper section for more than 30 years.
"The upper lake has a narrow main arm with numerous feeder creeks and pockets opening on the sides," he describes. "This is where most bass are caught, typically from buck bushes, logs and crappie mats. There's nothing complicated about fishing here. You just hit a lot of spots with spinnerbaits and crankbaits and keep looking until you find a concentration of fish."
Redfearn says the best action in upper Kentucky Lake comes in spring and fall. "In spring, my No. 1 bait is a small-profile spinnerbait in combinations of white and chartreuse. The secret with this bait is to keep your retrieve slow. Too many fishermen want to burn it in the springtime, and this is a mistake," he advises.
Redfearn's main backup baits are shallow running crankbaits in chartreuse root beer, chartreuse crawfish and ghost colors. "I really like the Strike King Series 4S," he affirms. "This is a bigger bait with a shallow bill. It'll dig through the same shallow cover you'd work with a spinnerbait."
In postspawn, some bass stay in the coves, while others migrate toward the main river channel. "This is when you have to really cover a lot of water to find fish. I do my hunting with a lipless crankbait, then when I start getting some bites, I'll switch to a diving crankbait and work the area more thoroughly."
In midsummer, two patterns work in the upper lake: shallow cover; and sunken ledges, humps and points along the main river. Redfearn says, "Some bass stay shallow right through hot weather. The key is to look for baitfish and work nearby cover with spinnerbaits with big blades. Also, buzzbaits are good in this situation."
Redfearn scours main river structure with deep diving crankbaits and Carolina rigged lizards (junebug, pumpkin/chartreuse tail and redbud colors). "Usually in summer the current starts running around 11 a.m., and when it does, the fish turn on."
In fall, bass return to the bays, and they prowl near shad concentrations. Redfearn says this is when upper Kentucky Lake offers one of the best opportunities of the year. "When you find a concentration of fish, you can catch 20 to 30 in one spot. The best baits are lipless crankbaits and spinnerbaits. Just pull into a bay, shut your motor off and watch for minnows working. If you can find the minnows, you'll find the bass."
MIDDLE LAKE: NEW JOHNSONVILLE TO EGGNER'S FERRY BRIDGE
The "middle lake," from New Johnsonville north to the Highway 68 bridge in Kentucky, is a transition area.
This is where Kentucky Lake spreads out and feeder bays are larger, like small lakes unto themselves. This zone includes the Big Sandy and Blood River tributaries, each with thousands of surface acres and an abundance of prime deep water structure.
Stephen Crouse of Greenfield, Tenn., has fished here for more than 20 years. He's a regular competitor— and high finisher— in local tournaments. He says, "The midlake area is known for its ledge fishing. In spring, we work the banks in the coves — anywhere there's buckbrush or willow trees in at least 3 feet of water. But after the bass spawn, most of them migrate back to deep open lake areas, and by late May or June they will stack up on the better ledges. Fishermen who know how to find and fish these places can weigh some heavy catches."
Specifically, Crouse says to look for ledges that are 6 to 14 feet deep and dotted with stumps and/or brush.
"Sharp channel bends are good, and so are creek mouths. You can find these places by coordinating map and depthfinder readings, and if cover is present, odds are high they'll hold bass."
Crouse works these spots with three main lures: a Strike King Series 4 or 5 crankbait (chartreuse back, white belly), a 10-inch plastic worm (green pumpkin), and a jig-and-craw (black/blue). "I'll start with a crankbait to catch the feeders, then I'll switch to the worm or jig for the less active fish," he explains. He adds that it's not uncommon to catch largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass off the same hole. Also, the ledges produce many fish in the 3- to 5-pound range, with larger bass possible.
Crouse says a good secondary pattern for this midlake zone is working long submerged points. "A topo map will show these underwater points, and you can cruise over them and check them with a depthfinder. Look for stumps or brush (dropped and anchored by anglers), and fish this cover with diving crankbaits or soft plastics."
LOWER LAKE: EGGNER'S FERRY BRIDGE TO KENTUCKY DAM
The lower (north) area of Kentucky Lake is big open water with large feeder bays on both sides. Bays on the west side are typically shallow and stained, and they support abundant numbers of largemouth. Bays on the east side of the lake are deep and clear, and they foster some of the best smallmouth fishing in the U.S.
Mike Auten is a former BASS pro who lives a rock-throw from Kentucky Lake, near Benton, Ky. "In spring, it's not unusual to see a five-fish tournament weight of more than 20 pounds taken from the north end of the lake, and they'll all be smallmouth," Auten says. "It's possible to catch 'brown bass' of 8 pounds or larger here.
These fish are big, they're plentiful, and they offer a lot of excitement for anglers who know the right patterns and presentations."
Auten continues that in spring, three patterns are perennial winners: yanking jerkbaits around main lake points and gravel flats; swimming/bumping tube baits and small jigs through the same spots; and pulling shallow crankbaits over pea gravel flats and along rock-strewn banks.
"When the water's clear, a clown colored jerkbait (red nose, chartreuse back, chrome sides, white belly) can be deadly," Auten explains. "Prime water depth around the points and flats is 3 to 10 feet. You should target isolated rocks or stumps if you can find them. You can cover a lot of water with this presentation, and the fish will move a long way to hit this lure. Sometimes it's like they're trying to jerk the rod out of your hands."
However, when jerkbaits aren't producing — what Auten calls "nonreaction days" — he works the same spots with tube lures and jigs, which swim deeper and slower. "A 1/4- to 3/8-ounce bait is just right, and green pumpkin and pumpkinseed are the best colors. You want something that looks like a crawfish. You just swim these along the bottom, reeling steadily or perhaps hopping them when they bump into something. Sometimes this erratic movement triggers a strike."
And Auten's third presentation centers on Shad Raps or Bandit 200s, "finesse crankbaits," worked on 8- to 10-pound-test line. "I'll cast these around steeper gravel banks, especially those that have chunk rocks scattered along them. And one place to always pay special attention to is where you've got some change in the bank, like gravel turning to clay or riprap changing to pea gravel. Big smallmouth love to hang around these spots."
After spawning, Kentucky Lake's brown bass migrate back deep, and they feed mostly after dark. "When nightfishing, I'll stick mostly with a big (1/2- to 5/8-ounce) black spinnerbait with one large Colorado blade. I'll always rig with a trailer hook. Sometimes I'll also add a split-tail trailer; other times I'll leave the trailer off."
At night, Auten works flats adjacent to main lake bluffs, deep points, steep chunk rock banks and stumpy underwater ridges next to deep channels. "You should try two retrieves with the spinnerbait: slow rolling close to the bottom and lifting-and-dropping. A lot of times they'll hit the bait when it's dropping, and it's usually a vicious strike. Having a 5-pounder crash your bait at night is a good way to get cardiac arrest!"
Billy Phillips: Dean of Kentucky Lake Anglers
Many locals consider Billy Phillips to be the dean of Kentucky Lake bass anglers. Phillips, of Jackson, Tenn., began fishing "the big pond" when this impoundment was filling in 1944. Today, at age 77, he's still going strong. During this 60-plus year span, Phillips has boated tens of thousands of largemouth from these waters.
"I'm a shallow water fisherman," Phillips states. "I learned to fish before sonar came along, and I've just always been able to catch all the bass I wanted around the banks and on the flats."
"All the bass he wanted" was enough to win many Kentucky Lake tournaments and to qualify for two Bassmaster Classics through the B.A.S.S. Federation Nation system, in 1976 and 1980. (This was when only one Federation angler qualified to fish this world championship of bass fishing.)
Phillips fished from the bow of a 14-foot Alumacraft boat that was fitted with a front-mounted steering wheel to control his 20-hp Mercury. With this rig, he would zip from one cover spot to the next, flicking a few casts at each one without slowing down. Phillips "secret" was his efficiency. In a day on the water, he could hit three times more spots than anglers fishing from bigger boats pulled along by standard trolling motors.
He also designed, crafted and sold his own line of spinnerbaits and buzzbaits (Little Jewel, Buzz Jewel, Go-Go Girl, Double Whammy). These lures are still available through Phillips' Web site:
Today Phillips suffers "from a little arthritis," but he has no other health problems. He quit fishing tournaments three years ago, but he frequently ventures onto Kentucky Lake for fun fishing. "I still love to catch 'em," he says with characteristic enthusiasm. "The thrill has never grown old."