Lake Cumberland Tailwaters
'A day-to-day chase'
Changing river levels dictate location of striped bass in Cumberland tailwaters
By Art Lander Jr.
HERALD-LEADER OUTDOORS WRITER
BURKESVILLE - The rise and fall of water levels in the Cumberland tailwaters creates a daily rhythm for anglers and the striped bass they pursue.
Cool, green waters, discharged from the depths of Lake Cumberland, mix with summer's heat and humidity above the river's surface, sending out ribbons of fog from the shaded banks.
In the late afternoon on sunny days, the fog emerges and envelopes the river as darkness falls. But as the sun rises above the wooded hills the following morning, the emerald waterway is once again revealed, heralded by shafts of sunlight that break through the trees at the water's edge.
Big silvers, striped bass in the 20- to 40-pound range, roam the tailwaters in small schools, searching for shad and skipjack herring, feeding most heavily in low light of dusk and dawn, or during the afternoon rise of the river level.
"The nomadic tendencies of the stripers is what makes the fishing so interesting," said Cumberland County native Randell Gibson. "It's a day-to-day chase."
The summer strategy is to go back to where fish were located the previous day, and start fishing. But, as Gibson is quick to point out, there are no guarantees fish will still be there.
"Some areas of the river historically hold more fish, but stripers could be anywhere (in the 75 miles of river in Kentucky)," said Gibson, a licensed guide and partner in the Kentucky Trophy Fishing guide service.
The constant discharge of cool (low 50s), highly oxygenated water makes ideal habitat for striped bass, but it's the river level that often dictates fishing success.
"Some people think it's a seasonal fishery, but striped bass are here year-round," Gibson said. "At times they're just harder to catch. When the river is up, the fish are scattered, and boat control and lure presentation gets tough."
Summer offers more consistent fishing because daily river fluctuations, and levels, are more predictable, and stripers become easier to find. "In low water, stripers stick to the deeper holes of water, because they feel safer there," said Gibson, who has learned from experience which banks the fish prefer at certain river levels.
The striper fishery in the Cumberland tailwaters in Kentucky is considered incidental because the population is not supported by annual stockings of fish, as is Lake Cumberland, and there are no special regulations for size or creel limits.
Then where do the stripers come from? No doubt some come through the dam from Lake Cumberland, which is stocked with more than 350,000 11/2-inch stripers a year, a stocking rate of seven per acre.
But most of the stripers in the Cumberland tailwaters are probably migrating upstream from Cordell Hull, a 11,900-acre reservoir near Carthage, Tenn., which has been stocked with striped bass since 1984. "That potential is there, but we've never done a telemetry study to find out how many stripers come from the lake and how far up the Cumberland River they go," said Tim Churchill, reservoir manager for the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency.
Cordell Hull is a long, narrow lake that is about 72 river miles long. Its headwaters actually extend about four miles into Kentucky.
"It's ideal habitat for striped bass, cool water with high levels of dissolved oxygen," Churchill said. "We consider Cordell Hull, and 22,500-acre Old Hickory Lake (downstream on the Cumberland River) to be the epicenter of trophy striped bass fishing. They are our best striper waters."
Each year Cordell Hull is stocked with 5 to 10 fingerling striped bass per acre, Churchill said.
Tennessee's management of striped bass in the Cumberland River is a contributing factor to the high number of big fish on the Kentucky side of the state line. In Cordell Hull, striped bass are managed in a protective 32- to 42-inch slot limit, with a two-fish daily creel, but only one fish can be over 42 inches. "The idea is to conserve the big fish potential," Churchill said. Some of those big fish eventually wind up in Kentucky waters.
"The average size of stripers caught in the tailwaters is much larger than stripers taken from Lake Cumberland," Gibson said. "In the river, 20 pounders are near average and a 30- or 40-pounder is possible on any given day."
It doesn't take long to realize that striper fishing in the Cumberland tailwaters is more difficult than on Lake Cumberland. "You have to be willing to work for your fish, and that could mean hours of casting," Gibson said.
In 20 hours of fishing over two days we boated four stripers, but the two largest fish weighed more than 24 pounds each. Two stripers were caught casting, and two were taken fishing skipjack herring on planer boards.
Anglers have three tackle options for catching stripers -- live bait rigged on planer boards, casting artificial lures on spinning or casting tackle, and fly fishing with large streamers. Gibson has caught stripers up to 40 pounds on a fly rod, fishing with a sink tip fly line. "I think the fly has to be a foot or two below the surface to be most effective."
Skipjack herring, which can be caught casting small crankbaits, and shad, which are usually netted at night over lights, are the preferred live bait. Rig the bait so that it's about six feet below the planer board. "I don't like to use any weight so the bait can go where it wants to," said Gibson.
Crankbaits like the Cordell Redfin, Rapala Sliver or Storm Thunderstick are good choices when casting for stripers. In recent years, Gibson has caught lots of stripers casting the Fin-S-Fish, a soft plastic jerkbait, made by Lunker City. "Its profile resembles a shad or skipjack herring, which are their preferred food," Gibson said. "I rig it with a barrel swivel to prevent line twist."
The 10-inch jerkbait is retrieved with a steady twitching motion, which makes the lure dart and roll like an injured baitfish. "I don't think color makes much difference."
Casting can be really exciting, and frustrating at the same time, because stripers often follow lures to the boat, but won't strike. "There's nothing quite like catching a big striper casting," Gibson said. "When you're taking a striper on top, you're looking right at the fish when it takes the lure."
If you go
? To book a striper fishing trip on the Cumberland River with Randell Gibson telephone (270) 433-7395.
The rate is $325 a day for two anglers, and includes bait and tackle.
Gibson fishes out of a 23-foot Carolina Skiff powered by a Yamaha V-Max outboard motor.