Expectations for fishing on the region’s big sister lakes this year are rich.
A recent re-run of wintry temperatures aside, some rewarding early season fishing already has been under way on Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. Results are encouraging, revealing an upswing.
Even the leanest of years on the massive west Kentucky (and Tennessee) waters provide fishing cherished by many. Admittedly, we get a little spoiled hereabouts.
But it appears that for both crappie and black bass — headliner species for which a majority of anglers attend the big waters — the 2023 fishing season of spring through fall promises to be one of the more productive seasons in a good while.
We know there are expert anglers who can make paltry times look good. And, sadly, we recognize that plenty of people can go out there and find nothing when keepers are claustrophobic about being stacked fin-to-fin on every possible stump and brush pile.
Yet, for the fair-to-middlin’ angler that knows a bit about what he’s doing, this could be a season when a generous population of quality fish is more obvious. This could be one of those years when catches come easier and anglers feel better about themselves.
A relatively few crappie anglers have been slipping out on the big lakes off and on for several weeks when the weather has been friendly enough. Of course, there have been plenty of days scratched off the winter fishing calendar because of intolerable chill and/or roller-stacking winds.
Yet, multiple reports from those knowledgeable anglers already active indicate that it is looking good. Crappie haven’t been scarce, and the numbers of bigger fish have fishermen excited.
Adam Martin, the chief biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources’ Western District fisheries office, said the reports of good crappie catches already this year dovetail with the data that has been gathered.
“The crappie catch rates on both Kentucky and Barkley should be really good,” according to Martin. “There aren’t that many 10-inch crappie, but there are good numbers of crappie of both species, both black and white crappie, that go from around 11 to 13 inches. There is an exceptional number of crappie to 14 inches and better.”
The source of this bulging number of keeper-plus crappie is a bumper spawn of crappie during the spring of 2019.
KDFWR managers track the abundance or scarcity of crappie spawns by the findings of trap netting studies each fall. The number of young-of-the-year crappie found in trap net samples several weeks after the crappie spawn is a good general indicator of what kind of outpouring of young fish the spring rites produced. Those samples seen in the fall of 2019 showed a great spawn.
The minimum legal size of crappie on Kentucky and Barkley lakes is 10 inches. Even with good growth rates on the sister lakes, it typically takes a bit over two years to grow a keeper crappie from the time it spawned.
Those crappie that were spawned in 2019 are approaching four years old, explaining why there is such a throng of keeper-plus fish.
The class of ’19 isn’t as big as it used to be, reduced by natural factors for almost four years and by angler harvest for almost two years since they hit legal size. Still, the lakes are huge with immense spawning potential, and when the conditions are right, as in 2019, those fish churn out an incredible crop of youngsters.
The spawn of 2021 was moderately good, even better on Lake Barkley than on Kentucky, Martin said.
“That means there will be a lot of short crappie, fish of less than 10 inches, out there this spring,” he said. “But by fall, many of those fish will have grown past the 10-inch mark.”
By autumn, the survivors from the senior class of 2019 should be largely of “slab” quality, while the sophomores from the class of 2021 will be boosting the numbers with a new wave of keepers. Meanwhile, there were crappie spawned in 2020, too, and some of those will be out there to fill in the odd spaces.
“It should be good this spring, but this fall it will be about as good as it gets for crappie fishing,” Martin said.
Something similar is happen to Kentucky-Barkley bass fishing. Riding the crest of an earlier boomer spawn, the lakes are seeing notably more bass of generous sizes.
Martin said the bass spawn of 2016 was the best on record. It generally takes a bass about five years to grow to the legal minimum harvest size of 15 inches on these lakes. The class of ’16 is coming up on seven years of age, so those fish are putting on some size.
Bass don’t have the same rate of growth, and all the fish out there certainly don’t stem from the same spawning class, but Martin said the lakes presently are packed with bass in the 16- to 18-inch range.
Meanwhile, smallmouth bass seem to have been increasing their numbers in comparison to the still-dominant largemouth bass.
Martin said the smallmouth population segment has increased on both lakes but especially on Kentucky Lake.
“From our creel studies last year, smallmouth made up about 30% of the bass catch,” Martin said.
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