Few things in the outdoors in Kentucky can top being on Lake Cumberland at daybreak on a summer morning, watching a planer board or large bobber disappear, followed by the sound of a slipping drag.
Striped bass pull like no other fish in Kentucky and landing a 22-inch or longer keeper brings a rush of adrenaline that gives you the shakes. Now in the fourth year of normal water levels since the drawdown to repair Wolf Creek Dam, the striped bass in Lake Cumberland are well on the way to returning to the glory days.
“The striped bass in Lake Cumberland are doing great,” said John Williams, Southeastern Fisheries District biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “There are multiple year classes in the lake with many keepers over 22 inches. We are getting more fish over 30 inches. Their body condition is fantastic.”
Although striped bass are in good numbers in Lake Cumberland, the spring fishing proved frustrating in the lake this year.
“Some guides had a hard time this spring finding fish, but now they are on fish, they found them,” Williams said. “Because we had so much rain this year and they released so much water from the lake, it spread the fish throughout the water column. This leads to spotty fishing.”
Williams said a recent temperature profile of the lake shows a gradual temperature change through the depths. “There is only a 10 degree temperature drop from 20 feet deep to 60 feet deep,” he said. “The water temperature is 70 degrees at 20 feet and 60 degrees at 60 feet deep. They have a wide range of the water column that changes only a few degrees. Usually, the temperature changes are much more abrupt as you descend in the water column in summer. They have 40 feet of depth to roam now.”
Anglers fishing live bait in the middle of this range are catching stripers. “I had my first ever triple on my boat this last weekend,” said Joe McWilliams, an avid striped bass angler who has a vacation home on the lake. “I’ve been fishing about 40 to 50 feet deep.”
McWilliams uses an old school method to judge his depth. “My rods are 7 feet long, so I do 7 pulls of line the length of the rod to get my depth right now,” he said. “In summer, I usually put two rods out at 10 to 15 feet, two more out from 28 to 35 feet and then two more out at 42 to 48 feet or so and adjust until I find fish.” McWilliams typically fishes the mid-lake region from Harmon Creek up to Fall Creek.
He employs three planer boards on each side of his boat with two large bobber rigs drifting off the back, all rigged with live threadfin shad or alewives on 3/0 circle hooks. A light drag helps keep the marauding stripers from snapping off the 20-pound leaders McWilliams uses.
A remote controlled trolling motor helps McWilliams slowly troll the bait he gathers in the pre-dawn via a casting net and a green light mounted under his boat slip. “I check my lines every 20 to 25 minutes or so,” McWilliams said. “I want fresh, lively bait on at all times.”
The river channel is key to finding the schools of baitfish stripers rip through with abandon. “The baitfish in summer seem to relate to the old Cumberland River channel,” Williams, the biologist, said. “The stripers will be close to the baitfish.”
A good sonar unit helps locate these schools. It is common in summer on Cumberland to see small scattered blobs of bait suspended over flats adjacent to the old river channel. However, once the boat cruises over the drop down into the river channel, the screen often fills with large blobs of bait. Study the depth of the blobs and start fishing.
“Modern sonar units are so good at finding schools of baitfish,” Williams said. “They really help narrow down where to fish.”
You do not have to troll to catch striped bass in summer. Once you find the baitfish, cast 1/2-ounce white and light blue doll flies down the points nearest the bait. Some anglers use downriggers to deep troll large white doll flies with a white or chartreuse curly tailed grub as a trailer.
No matter the technique employed, the early bird gets the worm for summer striped bass fishing. “You have to be out there early at this time of year,” Williams said. “You need to have your bait in the water before the sun rises. The bite is usually done by 9 a.m. or so.”
Lake Cumberland striped bass are under a 22-inch minimum size limit and a 2-fish daily creel limit. “Keep your keeper-sized fish and quit fishing when you reach your two fish daily limit,” Williams said. “Striped bass don’t release well anyway, but when you are pulling them out of deep water the pressure and temperature change really stresses them in summer.”
If you want a thrill like no other, get on Lake Cumberland this summer and hear your drag sing from a strong striped bass pulling with all its might.