Even with less water, Lake Cumberland offers outstanding fishing
By Lee McClellan
It is one of the largest manmade lakes east of the Mississippi River. It possesses one of the best striped bass fisheries in the nation and is loaded with chunky smallmouth bass and eating-sized walleyes.
Lake Cumberland changed this year, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dropped the summer lake level by more than 40 feet while repairs are underway to Wolf Creek Dam over the next seven years. Anglers may think the sky is falling, but it’s just the lake level.
“What you are doing is reducing the lake from a 50,000-acre lake to a 37,000-acre lake,” said John Williams, southeastern fishery district biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “Anytime you concentrate fish and prey, that is a good thing for fishing. I think the fishing is going to be good for this and the next several years.”
Early reports from the lake show that it’s been an excellent spring for striper fishing. “The lake is down 45 feet and it hasn’t changed the striper fishing,” said Ryan Oster, federal aid coordinator for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife and avid striper angler. “We are fishing the same areas as we did when the water was at (normal summer pool). There wasn’t a single thing different this year than we haven’t done in previous years.”
Anglers are still finding that primary and secondary points are good places for stripers in spring and early summer, before summer heat stratifies the lake.
“With the water being down, the areas on those points are even closer to the channel, and that makes them even better,” Oster said. “Stripers are a lot like other sport and forage fish. They travel highways such as river channels, primary and secondary points and roadbeds.”
Black bass fishing should improve with the drawdown, especially largemouth bass.
Lake Cumberland at its new level possesses a slight green color, due to the same amount of nutrients flowing into a smaller body of water. Gerry Buynak, assistant director of fisheries for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, said there could be more food for young bass and forage fish as a result.
Bass anglers should look toward the banks because of the emergence of prime new cover.
Through the years, wind and boat waves eroded most of the shoreline stumps located between the winter and summer pool levels. Now, untouched stump beds are shallow enough for bass to use - and for anglers to reach them. A crankbait banging against one of these stumps or a jig crawling beside it will draw strikes.
Look for stump beds on main lake points, and points along Harmon Creek, Otter Creek, Wolf Creek and upper Lilly Creek.
Oster predicts the drawdown will have little impact on how anglers fish for walleye because there is just as much structure available.
Williams said Lake Cumberland’s walleyes were in great shape coming into the spring. “In our most recent population sampling, we had our highest catch rate ever,” he said. “There are lots of 2½-4 pounders, from 18-22 inches long, perfect for the frying pan.”
Leslie County resident Larry Collett, who has fished for Lake Cumberland’s walleyes for 11 years, didn’t let the lower water level stop him from coming back. In May and June, Collett and fishing partner Phillip Hoskins typically spend 2-3 evenings a week on the lake, fishing from the mouth of Caney Creek near Jamestown to Shinbone Cliff near Conley Bottom. “Anywhere in that area is good,” Collett said. “We look for points that have busted up rock on them. We stay in 17 to 22 feet of water and just drift along, almost still.”
The anglers jig gold spoons off the bottom on cloudy, dark nights and chrome spoons on bright nights. “I set my rod on my knee and ease it up and down off the bottom,” Collett explained.
The pair also derives some help from a homemade light system used to draw in alewives or shad. “We’ll catch six or seven real good walleyes at night,” Collett said. “We’ll also tie off at an angle to the shore and throw a live shad up against the bank. Sometimes, we’ll catch a nice striper that way, as well as walleyes and even catfish.”
Williams, an avid walleye angler, usually fishes the main lake from Jamestown to the dam. “I like Bugwood Flats and the point across from Bugwood Flats,” he said. “The island at the end of the cut-through (Low Gap Island) is also good. I also like those mud flats down by the dam. I drag night crawlers on bottom bouncers on those points and flats.”
Williams also suggests trolling deep-running, tight wobbling crankbaits across points that slope into the main lake.
Whether you’re after walleyes, stripers or bass, this is the summer to fish Lake Cumberland. Although its surface area is smaller, it remains the third largest lake in Kentucky – and one of the best fishing destinations in the state.