The cold, muddy water coursing through many rivers in Kentucky right now brings another round of dread in anglers. This situation seems depressing, but for anglers with level 10 cabin fever after this long, dark winter, it is good news.
When the rivers clear and stabilize, the sauger and walleye fishing will take off downstream of Green River Lake, Lake Cumberland, Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley.
“I think the fish are there right now,” said Ryan Oster, fisheries program coordinator for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “It is just a question of flow now. When the tailwaters come down to a fishable level, the fish are there and will bite.”
The Cumberland River below Wolf Creek Dam is one of the hottest places to fish for walleye and sauger in late winter and early spring, especially for those anglers who don’t own boats.
“There is good bank access down there and we’ve seen some really large walleye just below the dam,” said Marcy Anderson, southeastern fisheries district biologist for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “We see nice sauger down there as well.”
The state record sauger came from the Cumberland River below Wolf Creek Dam, a 7-pound, 7-ounce brute caught by Rastie Andrews in 1983.
The extreme cold snaps producing below zero temperatures this winter severely stressed baitfish such as threadfin shad and alewives in Lake Cumberland.
“The winter-stressed alewives and shad are coming through Wolf Creek Dam right now,” Oster said. “The walleye are waylaying those shad and alewives and so are big brown and rainbow trout.”
Oster recommends a medium-sized minnow-shaped jerkbait that suspends in the water column. “Work the jerkbait forcefully and you can make them hit it,” he said. “I like natural colors that imitate shad or alewives such as silver and black, but if they don’t hit them, I go with the most outlandish color I have such as fire-tiger or the clown color. Let the fish tell you.”
The Green River Tailwater Recreation Area just downstream of Green River Lake is another excellent bank angling destination for sauger and walleye during late winter and early spring.
“That thing is loaded with fish,” said David Baker, stream fisheries biologist for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “With high releases from Green River Lake, they are pulling a lot of fish through the dam. It is putting a lot of additional walleye in the tailwater adding to those that will migrate upstream from the river. It is a perfect storm for great spring fishing.”
During population sampling in late January, Baker saw hundreds of walleye with some trophy-sized fish observed. The river also has sauger in fair numbers up to 15 inches long.
“It is probably the single best bank walleye fishery in the state,” Oster said. “In the Green and in the Cumberland River as well, a curly-tailed grub rigged on a leadhead works well for walleye and will catch sauger, too. I like orange, chartreuse and green for my grub colors.”
Rig the grub with a light leadhead for walleye in both of these tailwaters, as they are shallow. “Find a change in water depth,” Baker said. “In the Green, that means water that drops from two feet deep to six feet deep.”
Periods of low light are best for sauger and walleye fishing. “Walleye and sauger are sensitive to light,” Oster said. “Early morning, dusk and night are good times to fish. Overcast days are much better than bright, bluebird days.”
The best bank opportunities for sauger are in the Tennessee River downstream of Kentucky Lake and in the Cumberland River below Lake Barkley.
“They are both phenomenal bank fisheries for sauger,” Oster said. “The only lure I would throw would be an orange or chartreuse curly-tailed grub if I were fishing from the bank.”
Anglers should use a leadhead heavy enough to occasionally touch bottom in the current. Start with a ¼-ounce leadhead and move up to ½-ounce or heavier, depending on the flow. You can cast a leadhead and grub combination much further than live bait or most other lures. Plus, grubs are much easier to free when they get hung on the bottom.
“With modern soft plastic baits impregnated with salt and scent, you don’t need live bait anymore,” Oster said.
You can check the flow rate of these rivers by checking the Kentucky page of the U.S. Geological Survey’s statewide streamflow table at waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/rt.
You don’t need an expensive boat to catch walleye and sauger over the next few weeks. Hit these tailwaters for bank fishing as good as from any boat. Remember to buy your fishing license as they expire Feb. 28.
Author Lee McClellan is a nationally award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.