Department of Fish and Wildlife
Kentucky Afield Outdoors: What Makes Laurel River Lake So Good For Smallmouth Bass?
FRANKFORT, Ky. – I’ve left Laurel River Lake so mad that I could’ve bitten through a railroad spike. Hours and hours of slowly, patiently working a jig down a rocky point or swimming a 4-inch smoke finesse worm above a channel drop gets just one 10-inch Kentucky spotted bass to hand. I swore many times that I would never go back, but I do as often as I can because I may catch the biggest smallmouth bass of my life.
Laurel River Lake can be as tough to fish as any place in Kentucky. The lake’s waters are as clear as the air. I’ve witnessed large gizzard shad swimming over boulders in 20 feet of water and felt I was at the Newport Aquarium.
Although the clear water of 5,830-acre Laurel River Lake is a tremendous challenge to an angler, it is worth it. The lake is arguably the most consistent producer of smallmouth bass over 5 pounds of any waters in Kentucky.
“The lake’s come into its own over the last decade or so,” said John Williams, southeastern fisheries district biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “You hear credible reports of several 6 plus pounders every year, plus I hear quite a few reports of smallmouths over 7 pounds being caught.”
One of those credible reports comes from Williams himself. He caught his personal best 6-pound, 3-ounce smallmouth bass from Laurel this past January while working a shad-colored soft plastic bait down a long, sloping point.
Laurel River Lake begets trophies. The lake produced the largest smallmouth bass submitted to the Trophy Fish/Master Angler Program in 2009, a 7-pound, 7-ounce brute. Coolie Williams fooled an 8.46 pound smallmouth bass into hitting a spinnerbait in the middle of the night in May of 1998, setting the Kentucky state record. This fish held the record until 2005 when Kentucky Fish and Wildlife reinstated David Hayes’ 11-pound, 15-ounce smallmouth taken in July of 1955 from Dale Hollow as the Kentucky state record smallmouth bass. It is also the all tackle world record smallmouth.
These fish would not surprise Ted Crowell, former assistant director of the fisheries division of Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. Crowell felt the superior genetics of smallmouth bass in the Cumberland River system, which includes Dale Hollow and Laurel River lakes along with Lake Cumberland, produced the largest specimens in the world.
The facts give strong credence to Crowell’s claim. Dale Hollow produced the top three biggest smallmouth bass on ESPN’s Top 25 smallmouth bass of all time list: the 11-pound, 15-ounce world record, a 10.875 pounder taken in 1969 and a 10.5 pounder caught in 1986. The lake also yielded six of the top 10 fish on the list. A Nicholasville angler submitted a 27 ½ inch long, 9-pound, 8-ounce Lake Cumberland smallmouth bass to the Trophy Fish/Master Angler Program in 2007.
Genetic seeds from Dale Hollow started the smallmouth fishery in Laurel River Lake. The fisheries division of Kentucky Fish and Wildlife stocked roughly 370,000 smallmouth bass in Laurel River in the mid-1980s.
"We collected smallmouth broodfish from Dale Hollow and propagated the fry at Minor Clark Hatchery,” said Gerry Buynak, assistant director of fisheries for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “Maybe there is something genetically about their size. Dale Hollow grows big fish and so does Laurel now.”
Laurel River Lake also possesses a variety of smallmouth bass habitats with an excellent forage base. “Laurel has chunk rock banks, sandy banks, long extended points, flooded timber and submerged islands,” Williams said. “It also has a good population of crayfish as well as threadfin shad, gizzard shad and recently alewives. Some of the behemoth smallmouths may eat the stocked trout.”
Those submerged islands and long extended points are the key to catching big smallmouths from Laurel. “Some of the points are really long and extend halfway across the lake,” Williams said. “You can be in the middle of the lake and think you are in 100 feet of water and it is 20-feet deep. Those are the spots I like to fish.”
A 3-inch boot-tailed pearl grub with a chartreuse tail rigged on a 3/16 or ¼-ounce leadhead is a highly productive lure for Laurel River Lake smallmouths. This lure perfectly imitates threadfin shad. A 4-inch curly-tailed grub in the smoke bluegill color looks similar to gizzard shad and alewives.
Small, compact 1/8- to 5/16-ounce jigs in hues of brown and green with strands of purple or blue draw strikes if crawled down or across a long, shallow point in spring. Jigs worked along drop-offs that fall into a major creek or the old Laurel River channel work well. Grubs also produce in this situation.
Big smallmouths hit deep-running crankbaits in shad colors worked over submerged islands. When seeking walleye, Williams hooked several smallmouths in the 4-pound range while trolling large deep-running crankbaits over submerged islands in the past.
Don’t go to Laurel River Lake expecting a strike every third cast. “Laurel can humble you or make it one of your best fishing days,” Williams said. “It is a fickle lake.”
But, if you get a bite, it may be the biggest smallmouth of your life. “I never see a skinny smallmouth from Laurel,” Williams said. “They are always robust and healthy. Once they get to 4 pounds, they start girthing up in Laurel. I don’t catch many smallmouths in Laurel, but if I catch one, it is a dandy.”
Overcast days with a low ceiling make excellent conditions to fish Laurel River Lake. A light rain is even better. March and April are the best months for catching a trophy smallmouth from the lake. Many smallmouth anglers on the lake practice catch, photo and release, ensuring plentiful fishing in the future.
Don’t fish lines heavy lines on this clear lake or you won’t get a bite. The newer, supple fluorocarbon lines offer better sink rates and near invisibility and make a great line for fishing Laurel River. They also work much better on spinning reels than the previous fluorocarbon lines.
Watch the weather and plan to fish Laurel when the forecast calls for light rain. Then pack your rain gear, spinning rods, light line, jigs and grubs and head to the lake that regularly produces 6-pound or better smallmouth bass.