Smallmouth bass inhabit both Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, but Kentucky is known to have a greater population. It simply comes down to habitat, and Kentucky Lake has more deep water with a rock bottom and pea gravel flats than Barkley. That’s not to say you can’t get into smallies on Barkley, it’s just more common on Kentucky.
Smallmouth become active earlier in the year than most other game fish found in the lakes. The pre-spawn period generally kicks in late February when water temperatures push into the upper 40s. Largemouth are still slow going, making smallmouth the bass to seek during this time period. Pre-spawn smallies congregate on points, especially those consisting of a pea gravel bottom near deep water.
Traditional fishermen have been stealing a page from our playbook. The float-and-fly method of taking smallmouth bass has become a popular tactic on Kentucky and Barkley. The method is as simple as it sounds; float a fly under a bobber. We fly fisherman can, of course, do the same with a strike indicator.
Shad are a primary food source for smallmouth in both lakes. Traditional fishers will tie on a white jig and call it a fly. We fly fishers shall up the game and hunt for our quarry with more aptly named attractors. Whitlock’s Swimming Sheep Shad or the Davy Wotton Shad are both fine flies for imitating a distressed shad, making them the best bet for the float-and-fly method.
The process isn’t too exciting, but the results often are. Locate a point that fits the bill of pea gravel and deep water. Adjust your indicator for length, understanding you may have to stretch your depth by using a 12-foot leader and adding extra tippet. Cast, then drift. The chop on the water will bounce your indicator, giving life to your fly. Twitch your fly sporadically, and give the slightest strips.
Strikes are usually subtle. Pay attention to your indicator, as there is a good chance you will see strikes without feeling them. Smallies will come up for the floating fly, but you want to be close to the strike zone. Experiment for depth. Start high and work low, making numerous passes over a promising point before abandoning hope and moving on. The action may not be fast, but stay alert, as early spring pre-spawn is when the pigs come out to play.
Smallmouth begin to spawn once water temperatures reach the 60-degree mark. This is typically around the middle of April. They’ll bed on gravel flats, while generally associating with some sort of structure, such as fallen logs and boulders. Females will spawn out and move off their beds to recuperate in deeper water, leaving the smaller but more aggressive males to guard the nests. Any flies stripped near enough the nest to pose potential danger have a good chance of being annihilated.
Summertime smallmouth fishing can be tough for fly anglers on the lakes, because the fish are seeking cooler water temps which are often deeper than most fly anglers prefer to fish. Night fishing shallow points close to deep water can produce good numbers. Any erratically fished fly imitating an injured shad should produce, as do typical topwater flies such as poppers and sliders fished close to cover.
Fall is a fantastic time of year for smallmouth everywhere, and Kentucky and Barkley are no exception. As water temperatures drop back below 70 degrees, smallmouth school up in coves to annihilate baitfish in order to gain body weight to sustain them through winter. For me, targeting fish with intentions to eat, a lot, is ideal. This is the time of year to rip those Clouser minnows through the shallows.
See you down the trail…