What's Going on with the Fishing on Kentucky Lake

(Photo: Jason Sealock)

A lot of anglers have asked me to do investigative reports on what's happening at Kentucky Lake, specifically related to the Asian Carp on the lake. Honestly, there is not a lot of investigation required. And I'm always hesitant to get involved with mobs of angry anglers who seem to have a disproportionately large share of conspiracy theories.

I think part of the problem with what has happened at Kentucky Lake is not just invasive species but also the cautionary tale of disconnects in the process.

Asian carp, which collectively refers to Silver Carp, Bighead Carp, Black Carp and Grass Carp, are fish originally from China and parts of Russia which were introduced to American farming and aquaculture ponds to control unwanted algae growth in the 60s and 70s. It is believed they later spilled into major river systems during times of flood waters in the 80s. The Mississippi River being the major contributor to the prolific spread of Asian carp.


Most believe the carp have been in Kentucky Lake for at least 10 years. I remember seeing them for sure 8 years ago near the dams on Kentucky Lake and Barkley Lake, and they were likely in here before we started seeing large groups of them. According to Adam Martin at West Kentucky Fisheries Division, they believe the carp were first in the system in 2004 and they first spawned in the system in 2010. 

Carp getting all the blame for tough fishing

Fisheries cycle. Fisheries change. It's happens all the time all over the United States. Take Lake Erie for example. It was a tough fishery many moons ago. Then came the zebra mussels and gin clear water. And the goby proliferated. All invasive species. And after several tough years the smallmouth and walleye fisheries exploded. Today, it's a favorite fishing destination for anglers all over the world.

I suspect they still see tough fishing at times though. We are too at times here on Kentucky Lake.

This has been a brutal winter on Kentucky Lake weather wise. And while the Asian Carp certainly affect gamefish every day here now, this winter we have seen extremely high, dirty cold water, that warmed, then cooled, then fell, then cooled some more. There were periods of great fishing. But then it got tough. Really tough. The fishing has been tough like this in years past before there were Asian carp though.

The Jet-A-Marina and recent BFL tournaments attest to the extremely tough fishing with 20 limits being caught between 300 boats in two different events the last few weeks.

The Asian Carp immediately got the blame. But I've fished Jet-A-Marina tournaments where 10 pounds was strong and 16 pounds won. I've fished some where 13 pounds put you in the top 10. There have been many April tournaments on Kentucky Lake where 6 pounds got you a check. That was all before the carp explosion. Just tough weather patterns, fluctuating water levels and bass not sure what to do. A lot like this year.

We have 52 degree water temps still in places. But I suspect by Friday, we will see 60 degree temperatures. And my guess is fishing will get a lot better like it always does in the spring when the water finally warms up. And we'll all question if we were jumping to conclusions.


Food chain disrupted

But make no mistake, the Asian carp have certainly disrupted the food chain on this lake. Two years ago, I noticed I wasn't seeing hardly any threadfin shad in the lake. And the ones I was able to snare were paper thin and tiny. That was in August of 2016. I found bass schooling on tiny threadfin shad that summer. All of the bass I caught in the area that month were emaciated looking. I made a collage of some of the fish because I had never seen so many poor looking bass in one group like that before on the lake. Many looked like they had their stomachs carved out with a spoon. Eating shad with no substance apparently wasn't very filling.

I'm pretty sure if I offered $100 for pictures of threadfin shad now on Kentucky Lake with something that proved a current date, I wouldn't ever have to pay. I have questioned dozens of good anglers on the lake, and not one of us have physically seen a threadfin shad since 2016.

Used to, there were so many in the lake, it would be annoying to fish in the fall because every creek was choked full of them, and you were afraid the fish would never see your lure. And we would complain how bad the fishing was because there was too much food. I could regularly snatch them up in the spring, summer, fall and find them dying in the winter.

Now it's the exact opposite. We complain because there is no shad anywhere we look. There is nothing but Asian carp now when we scan and look for bait in the usual places.

While I'm not a biologist, I would offer that I have more hours on the fishery then most, as I make all of my living making fishing content, most of it on Kentucky Lake. My theory is that the shear biomass of carp on the system pilfered the zoo plankton that young threadfin shad needed to survive. Quite frankly the carp were much more efficient eaters being that carp can consume up to 20% of their bodyweight a day of microscopic organisms. A baby threadfin doesn't stand a chance in that buffet line next to millions of 20-pound carp.

The lack of threadfin is the single biggest factor affecting our fishery right now in my opinion. The bass and crappie are going to have to relearn how to feed on this lake. And we're going to have to relearn how they are relearning to feed to catch them. The best crappie anglers told me this winter that they had not cleaned a single crappie this fall or winter with shad in there belly. 

UPDATE: Nov. 11, 2018. Since this article was first written the threadfin shad population has seem to come back very strong over the summer. There are still a lot of emaciated looking game fish in the system but the bait seems to be back in a much bigger way.

(Photo: Jason Sealock)

Changing behaviors for fishermen

What will that mean for fishing? We might have to fish for more suspending, roaming bass. Which if you fished in places that have forage that roams, the fishing is generally pretty average compared to the "heydays" of Kentucky Lake ledge fishing.

I've read posts of guys complaining about how bad the fishing is, and how they used to pound the bass on the flats with a Rat-L-Trap this time of year. But that bite has been gone this year. That's because there is no reason for the bass to go there if the food isn't piling up there anymore. Their behaviors are changing now. Because what their food is and where it goes is changing. Maybe that's due to water clarity and temperature as much as carp and food.

I also contest this is why so many anglers talk of catching non-keepers and then a big bass. Then a lot of non-keepers and then another big bass. A 3- to 7-pound bass can eat a big gizzard shad. So those big bass are as healthy as I've ever seen them on Kentucky Lake. There have been a ton of big fish caught this year already. Because those bass are still eating big meals. But a 10-inch bass can't go eat a 6-inch gizzard shad. So those little fish are readily biting your little bait up on the bank.

The anglers I've questioned all agree there is a void of those 2-pound keepers we all complained about catching just a few years ago. "I only caught 50 2-pounders today; no good ones. It was pretty slow." You don't hear that complaint as much anymore. Now you hear, "I got 7 bites today. And none of them were 2-pounders."

That's not uncommon, however, with the cyclical nature of good and bad spawn classes over the years. It just seems more compounded this year for whatever reason, be that carp, clear water, fluctuating levels, and this abnormally long winter weather.

The big disconnect

Being a biologist on or around Kentucky Lake is undoubtedly a thankless job. Anytime the fishing gets tough, they no doubt have to listen to a thousand conspiracy theories of carp eating bass, the grass all being sprayed and killed, crappie being overfished, bass having the virus, etc. Because most anglers don't accept cycles on fisheries. Everyone wants it to be good all the time. And if it's not, it's the DNR's fault.

Likewise anglers seem to think that fixing the carp issue or just explaining a rapidly changing ecosystem is an easy answer, and the DNR just doesn't want to do anything about it. I don't think that's it at all. I know there are some very good people working on the problem diligently now. Folks from the Hancock Biological station have corresponded with me. As well as biologists, professors, students and others that are tagging carp, tracking them, sampling fry and now preparing to implement measures down on the Barkley Lock and Dam to test ways to stop carp from coming in from the Cumberland River.


The Western Fisheries Division with Adam Martin have been doing a tremendous job communicating on their projects, coming out and speaking to the public and corresponding with peoples inquiries and concerns and pictures they share on Kentucky Lake. If you're concerned about this issue and don't follow them you should. Western District Fisheries Facebook Page. And Watch Adam's video on 4 Reasons to be Optimistic about Tackling the Carp Problem.

The problem is on a massive scale not seen before on any other fishery. We are in unprecedented times for sure. But there still seems to be a disconnect between anglers and biologists who all, near as I can tell, care deeply about our ecosystem. And the frustrations on all sides are mounting. Heck, bring up the topic of whether carp spawn on Kentucky Lake and see how hard it is to find agreement.

Where do they spawn

I have been told for years the carp don't spawn in Kentucky Lake. But I know in 2015, I saw acres of small 4 to 5-inch carp swimming on the surface in Bee Springs. I snagged them with a Rat-L-Trap. Millions of them. I thought they were shad. So I was snagging them to photograph next to some baits for match the hatch pieces. Until I figured out they were carp. I have had that confirmed since initially writing this article. Biologists now tell me they successfully spawned in 2010 and 2015. 

Last year, I was told the carp are not spawning in Kentucky Lake because 40,000 fry were sampled and none were found to be Asian carp. That's a broad conclusion to draw from a very small data set. I think the more logical conclusion is the carp did not spawn where fry were sampled. It's well known that Asian Carp spawn in current. My guess is they have spawned on the main river on Kentucky Lake and Barkley Lake, and it's likely months before we see them in any of the bays. Collecting them on the main river would prove difficult at best around their spawns I'm sure.

Hard to prove either way and thus the disconnects on all sides. The DNR agencies in Ky and Tenn. have been very engaged with anglers on Facebook asking for their help in capturing and freezing and taking pictures of any small bait they thing are asian carp when on the water to help better assess when a spawn has occurred on the lake.

(Photo: Jason Sealock)

Biomass issue now

I have posted some of my screen shots of the carp over the last couple of years. Hundreds of thousands of them, everywhere you idle a boat. I posted the screen shot above from this winter that got a lot of traction on social media. There are hundreds if not thousands of carp in the screenshot. Large ones. They occupied every foot of water looking a hundred feet in either direction for miles in Big Bear creek. I have no doubt there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of carp in Big Bear Creek alone. And they are in every bay and all along the main river.

Part of why fishing is tough now is because of the sheer numbers of carp. A bass cannot physically occupy the space a 20 to 40-pound carp is occupying. And if they are literally carpeting the bottom in places, we aren't going to find many bass there. Or crappie. Or anything else. Maybe suspended above or below. But hard to catch because of the obstacles nonetheless.


Compound our issue with the zebra mussel explosion on the lake last fall. Of which I'd be curious to know if that's because so many carp filtered the water so well that the zebra mussels found the perfect growing conditions as a result. The zebra mussels have been in the lake for years, but now they cover entire bays. Little Bear creek is covered in zebra mussels now.

Since this article was written, the Zebra Mussels have seemed to die off this summer in big numbers. And they lake has periods of stained to clear water throughout the year.

(Photo: Jason Sealock)

What can be done

I believe Mother Nature will have to help us with this issue, hopefully for the betterment of the fishery. There are a lot of ideas and plans and finally money after so many of us worked together to shed a bigger light on the issues this year. And now a really good concerned team of biologists from local agencies and federal agencies are working together to fight the problem. And it's not to say that the ecosystem won't simply change and correct itself as the new normal. Again other fisheries have faced big changes that ended up with improved fishing in the long run. 

Be that as it may, you could take 100,000 pounds of carp out of Big Bear and not even be putting a dent in the carp in that single creek. So this is not an overnight fix no matter what is done. It's thousands upon thousands of man hours to do this. A hundred thousand pounds sounds like a lot. But that's just 5,000 20-pound carp. I saw thousands of carp that size every day I fished last summer and fall in just about any creek. I can capture that many in a screenshot in 30 seconds right now in any creek or pretty much anywhere on the main lake.

I would love to see them start harvesting the carp in massive numbers. There are some people trying to get carp harvested on Kentucky Lake. I'm interested to see if the testing of pheromones on carp that has been done on other fisheries will give harvesters a way to lure them into nets better. But this massive effort would have to be federally subsidized or privately commercialized to have a large enough impact to make a difference. And we need to figure out the source and see if we can stop that to make removal most effective. 

Here is a good video on plans to eradicate the carp.

I would love to see threadfin shad restocked in the lake at some point. But again the shad have to compete to eat with so many carp in the system. So until the carp are curbed, implementing repairs doesn't make much sense.

We know the carp don't like rapid temperature spikes. We see them die and act crazy in the spring with rapid water temperature increases. We've seen them die en masse below the dams when an influx of cold or hot water hits. It's also obvious they are startled and scared by sound or commotion, hence the jumping in your boat. So it will be interesting to see how well the bubble and sound barriers work at the dam. But I think that's the first step in a solution or maybe the fix for another fishery.


Will the carp run out of food? Lord let's hope. Will they adapt and start eating other things? That's an even scarier notion. I had several anglers swear they saw carp eating mayflies last year. I think that's similar to folks below the dam saying that carp eat lures because they have caught them in the mouth.

If you put thousands of large fish in a small area all sucking gallons of water in and out every second, there is a strong probability that a lure or a mayfly will get sucked in. That doesn't mean they are feeding on those things. Again broad conclusions from small data sets.

Personally, I think grass could be our saving grace. Grass makes the fishing in an ecosystem better. I've been to enough good fisheries across the country that always seem to have grass as a common denominator. I think if the grass gets established on Kentucky Lake again, we might find some balance in the ecosystem at a faster rate. I'd love to see more efforts in that arena as I know the DNR have grass patches placed in strategic places all around the lake now testing their viability. But much of grass getting established on this lake has to do more with the timing of heavy current and high muddy water at the time of germination and of course seed to germinate. We are one of the highest fluctuating fisheries on the TVA, which means permanent grass is much more difficult to maintain. 

There's as much debate, however, about why the grass disappears here as there is about what the carp are doing to this lake. In either case, I hope people will work together to find and support solutions. I would be happy to take biologists out with me to show them the ecosystem from the scanning viewpoint as someone who doesn't expect the worst or knee jerk react to every change in the ecosystem.

I'm as well versed with scanning and imaging technologies as there is and would be happy to help the right people. And I plan to do a lot better job documenting changes or patterns I find on the lake this year as many other good anglers on the lake have said they will do as well. I regret not doing a better job the last several years just from a data collection standpoint to help others who are studying the issues from all sides.

We will have good days of bass and crappie fishing this year. I bet the Elite Series tournament here will be a good one because even the toughest fisheries fish better in the spring. Maybe not by our Kentucky Lake standards, but I think bass fishing will be good again like it is every spring here. I have no doubt we will catch them like we always do when they move out to the ledges. I hear crappie fishing is already coming on stronger in the last week.

And maybe improved fishing means nature will readjust this situation in due time. But it seems like those windows of good fishing or a consistent bite get smaller and smaller every year. There is less food, lower numbers of gamefish that are constantly being displaced by larger nuisance fish, changing water clarity and no drop in angling pressure even in tougher conditions.


I believe gamefish find ways to survive and fisheries have rebounded from bass viruses and other environmental factors that seemed bad at the time. There are still 4- to 8-pound bass in the lakes. So it's still likely we'll see some giant bags caught all through the spring and summer. But we shouldn't measure a fishery's health on the size of a single winning stringer of fish. Likewise we shouldn't overstate changes in an ecosystem as all bad. There is a learning curve for anglers.

The Tennessee River has seen its fair share of down cycles over the years. We have had tough years of fishing followed by really good years of fishing all along the chain. But there's no denying the number of catchable bass is down on Kentucky Lake right now. The threadfin shad population has trickled back compared to years past.

Maybe we will see a natural rebound this year or in years to come and this is another environmental cycle on a fishery that spoils us all regularly. Or maybe we will have to help create the rebound by understanding how the fish are changing and helping develop new patterns.

Anglers that learn how to adapt to clearer water and displaced fish and learn the new behaviors of game fish on this lake will be way ahead on a new curve. The first anglers to figure it out, will run roughshod in tournaments for a while here. That is my hope. That we're entering a new phase of fishing on this lake. Or maybe long winters make for better springs and summers of fishing. It will certainly be interesting to see what happens this year. And next.