I have an old friend who was reluctant to go wading in streams for smallmouth bass for many years.
“The fish are too small,” he said.
One May a few years ago, I convinced him to wade a small creek in Central Kentucky the weekend after the Kentucky Derby. From the time the water lapped over our ankles until nearly dark, we caught nice smallmouth after nice smallmouth. Many of those topped the 15-inch mark. I also hooked an unusual 22-inch largemouth bass on a 4-inch lizard that only had one eye.
We caught over two dozen smallmouth apiece that day. My friend caught one in the 17-inch range that gave him quite a tussle on a light action spinning rod. He’s been hooked on stream smallmouth fishing since.
It is that time of year again. When the water recedes from this incredibly wet and cool spring, stream smallmouth bass will be hungry. It will be time to slip on some old tennis shoes, worn out hiking boots or wade boots, grab a light to medium-light power spinning rod and hit the creek.
Good reproduction years in the early and mid-2000s produced a nice cohort of 14-inch and better stream smallmouth bass across Kentucky. Central Kentucky’s famed Elkhorn Creek is a good representative of the present condition of stream smallmouth bass in our state.
“There were many nice, quality smallmouth in Elkhorn based on our recent population sampling last month,” said Kathryn Emme, assistant central fisheries district biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “We got a lot of fish between 15 and 19 inches. We also got a 20-incher. I’ve not seen a 20-incher in Elkhorn before. They were in good condition as well, all of them fat and healthy. They’ve been munching all kinds of good food.”
Gerry Buynak, assistant director of fisheries for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, said this productive upswing is reflected across Kentucky.
“There is not much variation in stream smallmouth growth across Kentucky,” he said. “Elkhorn is a good gauge of what is happening across the state. We should have good stream smallmouth fishing for quite a few years.”
In May, anglers should concentrate on three areas of a stream: the bottom of stream drops, often called riffles, the top of stream drops and flowing shoals. The current-free areas in the deeper holes hold fish at rest; these areas are the television room, not the kitchen.
The feeding smallmouths are picking off disoriented crawfish, sculpins and baitfish in the flowing water. Toss a 4-inch black straight-tailed finesse worm rigged on a 1/8-ounce leadhead above or below a riffle along the seam where fast current meets slower. Let the worm tumble along the current seam, occasionally touching bottom. A green pumpkin skirted double-tailed grub worked in the same areas produces strikes as do smaller jig and trailer combinations in hues of brown, green and orange.
Work flowing shoals with a weightless pearl-colored soft plastic jerkbait rigged weedless with a worm hook or hooked through the nose with a wide gapped finesse hook. Allow this presentation to slowly tumble toward bottom and gently jerk the rod tip every few feet to start the process again. This rig often sinks in a corkscrew death spiral. Smallmouth bass that ignored every offering in your vest will crush this.
In the early morning and dusk, topwater lures work well at times. Chugger style topwaters and cigar-shaped lures designed for the walk-the-dog retrieve work extremely well. Use 3- to 4-inch versions of these lures, not the larger ones designed for largemouth bass in lakes. Cork and deer hair poppers cast on a fly rod also work well as do white 1/8-ounce buzzbaits.
The topwater bite can be sporadic. On some days, they hit them with abandon, while on other days, stream smallmouth ignore them completely. If you fish a topwater for 45 minutes or so without a strike during these low light times, switch to sub-surface lures.
In addition to the Elkhorn Creek system in Central Kentucky, anglers can enjoy high quality stream smallmouth fishing across the Bluegrass state. The Gasper River in Warren County, the Little Barren River system in Green and Metcalfe counties, the Russell and Levisa Forks of Big Sandy River in Pike County and the Green River below Green River Lake to Mammoth Cave National Park all offer productive stream smallmouth fishing. The South Fork of Licking River in Bourbon and Harrison counties, the South Fork of the Kentucky River in Clay and Owsley counties, the Cumberland River above the Falls in Bell and Whitley counties, the Rockcastle River in Laurel, Pulaski and Rockcastle counties, the Little Kentucky River in Henry, Trimble and Carroll counties are all good streams to catch smallmouth bass.
Many overlooked smallmouth streams occur across Kentucky. If a local stream has good current with pools and riffles, a rocky bottom and water at least thigh deep, it likely holds smallmouths. Most of these small streams rarely get fished. Remember to get landowner permission before fishing.
Kentucky Fish and Wildlife offers anglers a free brochure on stream smallmouth waters in Kentucky, available in a printable version at the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife webpage at fw.ky.gov or you may request one by calling 800-858-1549.
Now is the best time of year to catch trophy stream smallmouth bass. This is the most exciting fishing you can find in Kentucky.
Note: The license year expired Feb. 28. You’ll need to buy a new fishing license, available in the sporting goods section of department stores and tackle shops to fish now. Licenses and permits may also be purchased online from the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife homepage here or by calling 877-598-2401.
This column is from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources’ Spring Fishing Frenzy series.
Author Lee McClellan is associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources manages, regulates, enforces and promotes responsible use of all fish and wildlife species, their habitats, public wildlife areas and waterways for the benefit of those resources and for public enjoyment. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife is an agency of the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. For more information on the department, click here.