A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Art Lander’s Outdoors: The striped bass is now present in Kentucky’s lakes, tailwaters and rivers

The striped bass (Morone saxatilis), a sleek, powerful fish with firm, white flesh, has long been regarded as one of the most important game and food fishes in the U.S.

Until the late 1940s striped bass existed only as an anadromous species, a fish that was born in freshwater but spent most of its life in salt water, returning to freshwater to spawn. Naturally occurring populations are found along the Atlantic Coast, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, in Canada.

A sleek, powerful fish with firm, white flesh, the striped bass has long been regarded as one of the most important game and food fishes in the U.S. (Photo by John Lander)

But when a land-locked population developed and successfully spawned in the Santee Cooper Lakes (Marion and Moultrie) in South Carolina, hopes were raised among fishery biologists that this quality species could be established in other large reservoirs throughout the region. In its potamodromous form, the striped bass spends its entire life in freshwater, migrating to headwater tributaries to spawn.

In the late 1950s, the striped bass found a home in Kentucky, amid high hopes that they would reproduce and someday populations could be established throughout the state.

But, over time it became apparent that the absence of oxygenated water in the temperature range that stripers preferred was a limiting factor on the establishment of striper populations at some lakes. In waters with favorable temperature and oxygen profiles, fishery biologists found that quality populations could be maintained by annual stockings.

The preferred common name is striper, but some old-timers can probably remember when striped bass were called rockfish. This common name was based on its saltwater heritage, the fact that the anadromous version spawned in rocky rapids and fed along the rocky shores of coastal bays and inlets.

Striped bass are members of the Temperate Bass family, Percichthyidae.

Size and Coloration

The striper’s body shape is elongated and less compressed than the white bass (Morone chrysops), with a moderately forked tail and largemouth.

Coloration is dark greenish to bluish above, with pale, silvery sides that have seven to eight dusky longitudinal stripes. The base of the tongue has two parallel patches of teeth.

Stripers in excess of 50 pounds have been taken from Lake Cumberland, and 20-pounders are a realistic expectation in most waters in Kentucky where stripers are present today

Distribution in Kentucky

The story behind the first stocking of striped bass is unprecedented and unique in the state’s fishery management history. In 1957, a crew of employees from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) traveled to South Carolina and caught 12 adult striped bass on rod and reel. The fish were transported in a fish truck back to Kentucky, where they were placed in Lake Cumberland.

(KDFWR Graphic)

In the next five years, 2,792 striped bass fingerlings were stocked in Herrington Lake, Lake Cumberland and Kentucky Lake. In 1965, 540,000 striped bass fry, produced in South Carolina, were placed in Lake Cumberland. The stockings of fry from South Carolina continued for about four years, with some also placed in Kentucky Lake, Lake Barkley, Dewey Lake and Green River Lake.

Beginning in 1969, striped bass fry from South Carolina hatcheries were raised to fingerling size at the Frankfort National Fish Hatchery, now the Peter W. Pfeiffer Fish Hatchery, operated by KDFWR. That first year 21,872 fingerlings (2 1/2-inch fish) were placed in Herrington Lake and 42,350 in Lake Cumberland. In 1970, larger fingerlings, averaging 3 to 4 inches were stocked, with 9,555 going to Herrington Lake, and 9,080 to Lake Cumberland.

Through the decades striped bass, obtained from various sources, were stocked across Kentucky.

In recent years the source has been a hatchery operated by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA).

“The fry are raised up to 1 1/2-inch fingerlings at Minor Clark Hatchery,” said Dave Dreves, an assistant director in the Fisheries Division who supervises hatcheries and research for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR). “Waters stocked include the Tennessee River below Kentucky Dam, the Cumberland River below Barkley Dam, Lake Cumberland and the Ohio River.”

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

Muskie and walleye fry produced at the Minor Clark Hatchery are traded to TWRA for the striped bass fry KDFWR receives.

Dreves said the target stocking numbers for the Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley tailwaters are 50,000 each, and the Lake Cumberland stocking target is 350,000. “Every third year at Lake Cumberland is a pulse year, when 500,000 fingerlings, or about 10 fish per acre, are stocked,” said Dreves.

According to the 2020 Fishing Forecast, published by KDFWR, striped bass are now present in three lakes, Lake Cumberland, Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, and four rivers, the Tennessee, Cumberland, Ohio and Green.

Since striped bass are not stocked in the Green River, it’s reasonable to assume that the striped bass present in the lower Green River, from the dam at Rochester, Kentucky, downriver to the mouth, are likely fish from the Ohio River that seasonally run up the Green River.

Natural reproduction of striped bass in Kentucky waters never materialized, with at lease one notable exception. Biologists suspect that some natural reproduction may have occurred in 1980 in the Ohio River, during a period of drought, when there was high water clarity and increased current, as striper eggs need to float in current to hatch. In the late 1980s, anglers fishing the tailwaters below Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley noticed a higher than normal number of stripers.

For decades Lake Cumberland has been Kentucky’s top striper destination, and the Cumberland tailwaters offer the best chance to catch a trophy-sized fish (36 inches).

Food Habits

A streamlined, powerful swimmer, the striped bass is an open-water feeder that primarily feeds on shad and skipjack herring.

During the winter months, striped bass may travel many miles in search of food. A favorite tactic is to herd baitfish into shallow banks.

Fishing Tips

Striped bass may be caught by drifting live shad, casting or trolling crankbaits, or casting white deer-hair jigs tipped with plastic curlytails.

Other productive fishing techniques are vertical jigging slab spoons and casting topwater lures. The Cordell Redfin, retrieved so that it wobbles across the surface like a wounded shad, is a good choice for surface action.

During the summer months, striped bass seek out water that is about 68 degrees, and may go down to depths in excess of 50 feet in Lake Cumberland. At great depths trolling jigs on an Alabama Umbrella rig is a proven striper catcher.

But probably the most effective presentation for stripers at all depths is drifting live bait on planer boards.

Line is attached to the front of the planer board by a small clamp, called a pinch-pad release, and threaded through a snap swivel at the rear of the board.

Planer board (Photo courtesy of Off Shore Tackle)

When line from the rod and reel is fed out, the board “planes” away from the boat. This enables live bait or lures to be fished where wary fish won’t see the shadow of the boat or be spooked by engine noise.

The planer board in essence becomes a strike indicator, surging and sagging backwards when a fish is on the line. When a striped bass strikes there’s no doubt a fish has taken the bait.

Usually the entire board goes under momentarily. The board and fish are reeled in together (when rigged with snap swivel), or the board can be rigged to break free (pinch-pad on front and back of the board) of the line entirely, to be picked up by the angler after the fish has been landed.

The small, bright yellow boards are weighted so they sit upright and have a red flag to aid in visibility. For night fishing, boards can be rigged with lights.

Anglers use rod holders so planer boards can be fished hands-free. Typically, planer boards are fished on large boats equipped with a trolling motor, but boats as small as fishing kayaks, that are paddle powered, can be rigged to fish planer boards.

With multiple rod holders, it’s possible to troll several planer boards at once, on both the port (left) and starboard (right) side of the boat, in formation.

A slip-sinker rig is used when fishing live bait — either shad, alewives or shiners.

Very similar to the Carolina Rig used by bass anglers, the slip-sinker rig is easy to tie. Start by tying a circle hook onto one end of a 5-foot leader of monofilament line. Tie the other end of the leader to a barrel swivel.

On the mainline from the rod and reel, thread on a lead egg sinker, followed by a plastic or glass bead, then tie the mainline onto the other end of the barrel swivel. The sinker slides up and down the line, and the bead protects the knot from being damaged.

Creel Limits

Statewide the daily creel limit is five striped bass, with a minimum size limit of 15 inches, but special regulations are in effect on some waters. Consult the Kentucky Fishing and Boating Guide.

Striped bass are beautiful fish, put up a strong fight and are excellent table fare. Don’t overlook this classic game fish.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment