Kentucky Afield Outdoors: March Fishing Madness Good muskellunge fishing spots for late winter and early spring
Photo: Sarah Terry, age 14 at the time, looks in awe as her step father, Scott Salchli, hoists her 54-inch long, 47-pound Kentucky state record muskellunge on Nov. 2, 2008 from Cave Run Lake. The Cave Run Lake tailwater along with the Green River Lake and Buckhorn Lake tailwaters make some of the top late winter and early spring muskellunge fishing destinations in Kentucky.
FRANKFORT, Ky. - The winds still blow from the north and many days produce cold temperatures and leaden skies, but now is the time to catch big muskellunge in the tailwaters below Cave Run, Buckhorn and Green River lakes.
The smaller tailwaters give bank anglers and owners of small boats a chance at a trophy muskellunge.
"We had a report of a muskie caught from Cave Run Lake tailwater that was 52 inches long and weighed close to our current state record of 47 pounds," said Fred Howe, northeastern fishery district biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
Sarah Terry caught the current state record, a 54-inch-long 47-pounder from Cave Run Lake in Nov. 2008. The Cave Run Lake tailwater holds an excellent population of large muskellunge.
"My brother Wes crappie fishes below Cave Run Lake regularly," said Mike Hardin, assistant director of fisheries for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. "He's had a couple of days this year where he's observed people catching several muskellunge around 45 inches long and saw one caught right at 50 inches. Those are nice muskies."
Anglers must catch a muskellunge of at least 40 inches in length to qualify for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife's Trophy Fish/Master Angler program.
Live small bluegill and suckers draw the most interest from muskellunge in the Cave Run tailwaters. "They hit the Suick jerkbaits and a large soft plastic lure called a Bulldog up there," said Hardin, who has fished Cave Run Lake and the Licking River since childhood. "But, live bait produces best."
Hardin said anglers should concentrate on the mouths of tributaries in the Licking River just below Cave Run Lake when the water flowing through the dam is a little high.
"The best water level for them is between 900 and 2,000 cubic feet per second going through Cave Run Lake dam," Hardin explained. "This level pushes them into those tributaries seeking that warm water at this time of year. They are no doubt going through their pre-spawn behavior and they congregate in those tributaries."
To find out the flow through Cave Run Lake dam, go to the Louisville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers webpage at www.lrl.usace.army.mil, click on the Lake and River Reports tab and then on "Cave Run."
A public boat ramp accommodates boaters just below Cave Run Dam with ample bank access. A canoe, johnboat or fishing kayak would be ideal for fishing this section of the Licking River.
Another great muskellunge spot to try right now is the tailwaters of Buckhorn Lake, a 1,230-acre lake 28 miles west of Hazard formed by damming the Middle Fork of Kentucky River. The tailwater of the Buckhorn Lake holds an excellent population of 30- to 40-inch muskies. February and March are two of the most productive months to fish for them.
There's no boat ramp below the dam, but there's room to launch a fishing kayak, float boat or small johnboat with a take-out a few miles downstream at the KY 28 bridge.
The Middle Fork of Kentucky River just below Buckhorn Dam also provides limited bank fishing opportunity to chase muskies.
In the early spring, if the water is clear and levels aren't too high, some anglers launch bass boats in Beattyville and motor up the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River to fish in the lower tailwaters
Be careful while navigating this section of the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River because it is full of deadfalls that can damage the lower unit of a boat motor. Muskies congregate around flooded wood cover and are caught by casting jerkbaits to this structure.
Muskie guide Chris Haley fishes white, chartreuse or silver-colored lures in the spring, which mimic the colors of shad. Later in the year, he switches to larger yellow and orange-colored lures when muskies fatten up on carp and suckers.
The extreme drawdown of the lake to winter pool (25 feet) and the rapid, unpredictable rise to summer pool in the spring, have a big effect on fishing. The lake is often muddy and unfishable in the early spring. This makes the tailwater a much more attractive alternative for muskie fishing at this time of year.
Heavy discharges from the lake in the fall keep the tailwaters stocked with muskellunge as well.
Another productive spot to try for muskellunge is the Green River tailwater just below Green River Lake, near Campbellsville off KY 55. The Tailwater Recreation Area gives anglers ample bank fishing opportunity and a boat ramp accommodates small boats, canoes and fishing kayaks.
Anglers using a motorboat on the Green River Lake tailwater should be extremely careful as this section of the Green River contains riffles and shallow shoals. A canoe or fishing kayak would make a much better choice. For more information on floating the Green River Lake tailwater log on to Kentucky Fish and Wildlife's webpage at fw.ky.gov, click on the "Fishing and Boating" tab, then the "Blue Water Trails" tab.
Shad-colored jerkbaits draw strikes from Green River muskellunge in the deep holes that have woody structure in them. Live small bluegills or shad worked in the same areas also work well. The area immediately below Green River Lake is relatively small and would be an excellent spot to live bait fish for muskellunge from the bank.
"Whether you use live or artificial baits, if you plan to release your muskellunge, handle them as little as possible and release them back into the water as quickly as you can," said Gerry Buynak, assistant director of fisheries for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife.
Remember the current license year expires Feb. 29. If you plan to fish after March 1, you'll need to buy a new fishing license, available in the sporting goods section of department stores and tackle shops. You may buy one by visiting the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife homepage at fw.ky.gov or by calling 1-877-598-2401.
Author Lee McClellan is an 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.
This is the first installment of a seven week series titled "March Fishing Madness" profiling productive early fishing spots across Kentucky.