Department of Fish and Wildlife
Kentucky Afield Outdoors:Polar Vortex brings float and fly time on Kentucky reservoirs
Meteorologists called the recent cold snap that sent air temperatures plummeting to subzero levels all over the Ohio Valley a “Polar Vortex.” Old timers used to call Arctic winds “severe cold fronts” or “freezes,” but Polar Vortex sounds much sexier.
It froze the ground hard, burst water pipes, numbed fingers, increased heating bills and generally caused misery across Kentucky.
The vortex also sucked the heat from Kentucky’s smallmouth reservoirs, sending water temperatures below the 40 degree mark for a time, a rarity for most Kentucky winters. The water temperature at Burnside on Lake Cumberland on Jan. 10 read 39.4 degrees, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website. The water temps hovered in the low 40s on Laurel River Lake this past Monday.
The shad and alewives that live in reservoirs such as Lake Cumberland, Dale Hollow, Laurel River Lake and lower Green River Lake don’t feel so good in water this cold. They twitch in stressful spasms and swim on their sides as they fight to survive winter’s stress. The recent extreme cold created made to order conditions for the float and fly presentation. The colder the water, the better the presentation works.
Smallmouth bass suspend in the water column over points, channel drops or along bluffs waiting to pick off winter-stressed baitfish in January and February on these lakes. Large female smallmouth bass must eat now to nourish the eggs growing inside them.
“The small fly has enough action to trigger a response, but isn’t a huge energy investment on the fish’s part,” said Jeff Ross, assistant director of fisheries for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “It is a perfect imitation of a thermally stressed shad.”
The float and fly presentation is a fun way to fish. It brings you back to the early days of fishing with an older relative, intently waiting for a bobber to disappear. You’ll need a spinning rod between 8 and 11 feet long and a spinning reel with a good drag. Many manufacturers now offer affordable spinning rods of this length.
The system employs 4-pound test line, but many float and fly enthusiasts use a spinning reel designed for heavier lines. The larger reel’s heavier weight helps better balance the long rod and the bigger spool grants much more line capacity, imparting a little extra casting distance.
The term “fly” is a southern smallmouth angler expression for a hair jig. A bucktail jig with a pork trailer is called a “fly and rind” in the upper South. The fly in the float and fly is a two-inch long, 1/16- to 1/8-ounce jig dressed in either craft fur or duck feathers or a combination of both. The fly is suspended anywhere from 8- to 14-feet deep under a bobber.
Some anglers use specially weighted foam bobbers designed to turn on their side if a fat suspended smallmouth engulfs the fly and doesn’t move, a common occurrence in winter. Others use a 7/8-inch pear-shaped hard plastic bobber, but these crack and become worthless if they strike shoreline rocks. A cracked bobber will slowly sink like a huge smallmouth engulfed the fly; a foam bobber that hits a rock just gets a dent and still floats.
Many float and fly enthusiasts spool their reels with 4-pound green monofilament or clear fluorocarbon line, attach a bobber and tie on a fly. Others use braided lines equivalent in size to 2-pound monofilament with a much higher breaking strength tied to a 3-way swivel. They tie a 4-pound fluorocarbon leader to an open loop on the swivel, tie the fly to the leader and clip on a bobber to the other swivel loop.
Proponents of this rigging believe the swivel and braided line grants more casting distance and gives the fly more action. Those who prefer just line trust one knot over three. Plus, adjusting the depth of the fly is much easier with this method.
Eight feet deep is a good depth to suspend the fly and adjust shallower or deeper as conditions dictate. Windy, overcast days call for a shallower fly depth while shimmering, bright days may require a depth up to 14 feet.
Cast the fly to a main lake point, channel drop or bluff wall and let the bobber ride the waves and impart action on the lure. Employ an overhand cast and allow the fly to hit the water on the back cast, providing slight resistance that increases casting distance.
On calm days, shake the rod tip and make the bobber wink at you in place to impart action on the lure. The erratic movement is what fools the big smallmouth into thinking your fly is a winter stressed shad. Reel the offering in about 10 feet and repeat.
The small V-shaped coves are overlooked smallmouth lairs on these reservoirs. Cast the float and fly right into the middle of these coves as smallmouth often suspend right over the cut in the bottom that formed them.
Craft hair jigs in combinations of sky blue, chartreuse, white and red work well for the float and fly, the blue and chartreuse combination works extremely well on Lake Cumberland. Jigs tied with the flank feathers of a mallard duck combined with strands of pink, red or chartreuse crystal flash excel in colder water.
Anglers often rub a petroleum jelly based scent known as dope on the head of their flies. Some trim their craft hair jigs to follow the bend of the hook and liberally dope the entire fly until it looks like a stick in the water. This works especially well on sunny, clear days when winter smallmouths are most finicky.
The float and fly out performs live bait when the smallmouth suspend in the coldest water of the year in mid-to late winter. The next six weeks will be the best time in several years to try it.