(Editor’s Note: This is the seventh article in a series about Kentucky’s gamefish species.)
The largemouth bass is Kentucky’s most popular gamefish.
French naturalist Bernard Germain de Lacépède (1756-1825) was the first to publish information on this black bass in the scientific literature, based on a drawing and simple description obtained in 1802 from the Carolinas. He named the fish Micropterus salmoides, a combination of the Greek word for “small fin” and the Latin word for “troutlike.”
But the poorly executed drawing and incomplete description so confused later naturalists that they could not decide with certainty whether the fish had been a Largemouth or Smallmouth Bass, so later descriptions were published under various scientific names.
In Book of the Black Bass (1881), James A. Henshall resolved the issue of the appropriate name, pointing out that the bass as described being large-mouthed and common, and the location of the specimen being the Carolinas, where the Smallmouth Bass’s range was limited, Lacépède’s bass was surely a Largemouth Bass.
Largemouth bass are members of the sunfish family, Centrarchidae, which includes 18 species of fish native to Kentucky waters.
Size and Coloration
The back and upper sides of the Largemouth Bass are olive green, with a gold or bronze luster. Its eyes are golden colored. There are faint, radiating lines on the cheeks, a dark lateral band, and silvery undersides. Its upper jaw extends beyond the back of the eye, and its tongue usually doesn’t have a tooth patch, like the Spotted Bass.
Coloration deepens in clear water.
Adult largemouth typically range from 12 to 20 inches and weigh one to five pounds.
Distribution in Kentucky
Largemouth Bass thrive in standing waters, and are less likely to be found in high-gradient streams. They are common throughout the state, stocked in farm ponds and small lakes.
Populations of this black bass in big rivers are sustained by natural reproduction, but spawning success is often compromised by spring floods. This is true not only for Largemouth Bass, but Smallmouth Bass and Spotted Bass as well.
By far the largest populations of Largemouth Bass are found in Kentucky’s 22 major lakes, six of which have fisheries rated excellent — Barren River Lake, Dale Hollow Lake, Green River Lake, Lake Malone, Herrington Lake, and Taylorsville Lake.
Dave Dreves, an assistant director in the Fisheries Division who supervises hatcheries and research for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), said about 90,000 5-inch Largemouth Bass are stocked in Kentucky lakes annually. “The list of lakes stocked and the amount of fish stocked is based on trend data, after we assess the strength of the (previous) year class,” he said. “Generally, the stocking rate is 15 or (fewer) fish per (surface acre) of water.”
Kentucky’s largest impoundments aren’t stocked with Largemouth Bass. The lakes that receive periodic stockings are typically under about 8,000 surface acres in size.
Additionally, about 155,000 2-inch Largemouth Bass are stocked in five pools of the Ohio River, from the Cannelton Pool, upriver to the Greenup Pool.
“Due to siltation there’s poor spawning success in these embayments,” said Dreves.
Notoriously voracious, a Largemouth Bass will eat anything that will fit in its mouth. Prey can be as large as almost 50 percent of the bass’s body length.
Adults feed on the widest variety of prey of all the most common species of black bass. This includes minnows and shiners, aquatic and terrestrial insects, small sunfish, snails, crayfish, frogs, snakes, salamanders, even baby ducks.
There are lots of productive fishing lures and techniques for catching Largemouth Bass, including jigs, spinnerbaits, jerk baits, plastic worms, weighted and unweighted, topwater baits, and deep-diving crankbaits.
Many anglers consider the jig to be the “go-to” lure early in the year.
In rivers, bass stage at the mouths of creeks pre-spawn, before moving into the creeks to spawn in April and May.
They are tight to cover — tree root wads, undercut banks, big rocks, logs and other floating debris.
The presentation is to get fairly close to the shoreline and pitch or flip the jig to the fish-holding structure.
A good choice is a 3/8 to 5/8-ounce jig, rigged with a craw tail plastic trailer, which makes the jig swim from side to side, rather than dropping straight down as it sinks.
Many anglers prefer to fish the heavier jigs when bushes or floating cover is thick.
In large reservoirs, the jig is a top lure choice on bright, sunny days when the water is stained, and bass come up shallow and suspend under floating debris at the backs of bays.
Here again, the technique is a precise presentation to the target cover. The idea is to ease the lure into the water and finesse it around cover.
In stained water conditions, fish black and blue colored jigs. In clear water, a top color choice is green pumpkin.
Ponds and small lakes, that warm up before larger bodies of water, can be effectively fished with spinnerbaits in the spring.
The size of the pond or lake and its water clarity, are factors in how fast they warm up, and the more fertile lakes tend to warm-up earlier than clear lakes, which have relatively low fertility.
Warm rains turn on spring bass when runoff washes in food and the plume of colored water, which offers bass the security to move up shallow to feed.
That’s when the spinnerbait is at its best.
In stained water bass home in the pulse of the blades, and the spinnerbait’s skirt provides some enticing action.
But the main reason why the spinnerbait is so effective is that it can be fished in so many ways. Practically weedless, the spinnerbait can be retrieved around standing timber, through gaps in weed beds and along the edge of floating wood debris.
Retrieved fast just below the surface, or slow-rolled up and down, by raising or lowering the rod tip, the spinnerbait works in any cover type or bottom contour.
In large reservoirs, fish spinnerbaits for bass suspended off rock walls over deep creek channels, when water temperatures reach 55 degrees.
In shallow ponds, try casting out to deep water, let the lure sink and reel it back up shallow to locate the depth at which bass are holding. In shallow water, fish 1/4 or 3/8-ounce spinnerbaits, always tipped with curly tail grub.
In Kentucky waters, a good color choice is a spinnerbait with a white/chartreuse body and skirt, nickel Colorado blade and gold (brass) willow leaf blade.
Any time that rains cause lake levels to rise, and color up waters, Largemouth Bass will move up shallow, especially early in the day. Don’t overlook the spinnerbait, spring through fall.
The jerk bait has a loyal following of anglers and has been hyped to legendary proportions in the outdoors media.
It’s a deserved reputation.
In late March, early April, pre-spawn cold water, the jerk bait really catches a lot of bass. The hard plastic, lipped crankbaits are neutrally buoyant and suspend, rather than float up, when the retrieve is stopped. That’s what makes them so effective.
A top lure choice is the Bomber Suspending Pro Long A, a 9/16-ounce, 4 5/8-inch bait, which dives to six feet.
Cast the lure out, then reel it down a few feet, and drop the rod tip. Then jerk the rod back and pause for several seconds, allowing the lure to stop and suspend. Continue this retrieve all the way back.
Vary the length of the pause between jerks, to find out what bass want — generally, the idea is to fish slower, the colder the water temperature.
The lure’s built in wiggle and roll entices bass to strike. Often the angler won’t feel a fish on the line until the next jerk.
Jerkbaits are especially effective on large reservoirs when fished parallel to the bank where channels are adjacent to main lake rock walls. Bass will be suspended close to the surface but over deep water.
As water temperatures climb into the upper 50s and low 60s, the bass spawn begins. Bass in great numbers come up shallow and are cruising the banks. That’s when floating a worm is very effective.
Plastic worms can be rigged Texas-style with no weight so that they dart and plane while slowly sinking, but there’s a better option.
Try rigging wacky-style, by hooking a 7-inch straight worm on a 2/0 worm hook, with the barb of the hook buried in the center of the worm.
Borrow a trick from fly tying and wrap the hook shank with soft lead wire, so it sinks faster. The added weight does a crazy thing to the buoyant worm — makes it flutter as it falls.
This life-like action triggers bass to grab the worm and swim off.
Cast to shoreline cover and let the worm sink. When it hits bottom, shake the rod tip, pull the worm up off the bottom, and then let it settle back down to the bottom again. A strike is detected by watching for line movement.
Later in the summer, when bass spend more time in deep water on flats adjacent to submerged creek channels, Texas-rigged plastic worms, or plastic worms rigged Carolina style, can be very productive.
Both rigs feature an offset worm hook. The Texas rig is tied with a bullet weight that slides down the mainline from the reel and rod, to sit atop the worm. The Carolina rig features an unweighted plastic worm tied to a leader. The other end of the leader is tied to a barrel swivel. A plastic bead and bullet weight or egg sinker are threaded on the mainline from the rod and reel, which is tied to the other end of the barrel swivel.
Deep-diving crankbaits are also a good choice during the summer, especially in main stem reservoirs like Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. During peak hours of electricity generation, there’s a surge of current in the submerged river channel. Largemouth Bass move from the deep water in the channel to adjacent flats. Anglers make long casts, covering lots of water, targeting bass that are actively feeding on the flats.
Topwater baits are at their best post-spawn, after Largemouth Bass have finished their parenting duties.
As bluegills and other sunfish spawn, and schools of shad appear, bass feed heavily in the shallows, especially at night and in the early mornings.
Topwater baits can be fished successfully throughout the summer into the fall when conditions are right.
Ideal conditions include cool early mornings, overcast days when surface water temperatures are cooled by light rains, and when bass are observed on or near the surface, chasing baitfish (shad). When cool weather returns in the fall, bass will move up shallow and are vulnerable to topwater baits.
A bass’s response to topwater baits varies. If your presentation isn’t working, try experimenting with a different approach.
Generally, calm conditions and flat water usually calls for a quiet, finesse presentation. Slow down your retrieve and pause frequently. This usually triggers a strike if a bass is eyeballing your bait.
When fishing windswept, choppy waters, more aggressive lure action on the retrieve may be required to get a bass to respond. In most situations, strikes are generally violent as the bass attacks a topwater bait.
Topwater baits generally fall into four categories: poppers, propeller baits, walkers and soft-plastic creature baits, such as the weedless frog.
Resembling insects, fish or small animals thrashing on the surface, topwater baits displace water with blades or concave noses. When jerked, these baits pop, sputter, dart side-to-side or gurgle, disrupting the surface of the water.
Work them slowly, allowing the baits to entice bass. After a cast, let them rest until the ripples fade. Then jerk once more and let it rest again. Keep repeating this retrieve. This technique works well for attracting bass not aggressively feeding by offering them an easy target of opportunity.
Fishing for Largemouth Bass is great sport and Kentucky waters are full of this spunky gamefish. Don’t wait, go fishing now!