Sports

Crystal ball often galling to anglers

Later this week, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources will release the 2009 Fishing Forecast.

It's the Poor Richard's Almanack of Kentucky fishing, and to many pent-up anglers, it's a must-read before spring fishing begins in earnest. Simply pick your favorite lake or species, find it in the forecast, and you can get the state's best guess for what your fishing success might be this year.

Here's what the forecast can predict for certain:

Which water bodies have good fish populations. Biologists figure this out by interviewing anglers while they're fishing, assessing stocking figures, gill netting and electrofishing, in which they send a small shock into the water and count fish that float to the top temporarily.

Here's what the forecast can't predict:

An angler's skill. The weather. How much the fish have already had to eat. The moods of fish. The moods of anglers. In other words, it can't predict any of the things that drove humans to call this sport "fishing" instead of "catching."

But who cares?

In early February, if you can't be out fishing, you might as well be reading about it.

The forecast, which the state will post on the Internet and begin distributing at boating and fishing shows this month, can be tough on the ego, especially when it predicts the potential for good fishing in a lake where you haven't had any. But if the forecast is good or excellent for the body of water you're interested in, that means the fish are there.

"If fishermen could see what we see, they would be humbled," said Jeff Crosby, a state fisheries biologist who does a lot of sampling in streams and reservoirs in Central Kentucky.

Virtually all fisheries biologists tell stories of being on a lake or river and having anglers tell them there are too few fish in the lake. The biologists will pull up and do some electrofishing on the bank or in the cove near the anglers and fish will float up everywhere.

"Whether we see them and whether they catch them are two different things," said Jeff Ross, assistant fisheries director.

Kincaid Lake in northern Kentucky illustrates how the forecast often can differ from anglers' experiences. Every year, biologists see a lot of big largemouth bass in sampling. But every year, anglers report that they have a tough time catching them.

Reasons exist for the disparity. Ross guesses it is because there is an abundance of baitfish in the lake for bass to eat. By the time they see an angler's lure, they're already satisfied.

Flooding or drought can also wreak havoc on a body of water and mess up fishing.

Otherwise, one year's forecast often can sound like another's. That's because fish populations don't necessarily change much from year to year, Ross said.

"Only if you watch them over time will you start to see the changes," he said.

Still, every few years either an experiment with stocking, a natural change in a body of water, or the introduction of an invasive species will change a water body's fish population for better or worse.

In 1997, a flood washed over pools at the Frankfort Fish Hatchery on Elkhorn Creek in Franklin County. Hundreds of fingerling catfish spilled into the creek. Catfishing was rated excellent for years after that.

In another instance, someone introduced shad into Corinth Lake in Grant County. The shad, a rapidly growing baitfish, competed for food with shellcrackers, or redear sunfish, which the lake had been known for. The number and quality of fish has decreased ever since despite an unsuccessful attempt to kill off the shad.

Crappie fishing always has been legendary in Kentucky Lake. But a few years back, anglers started reporting that they were catching fewer fish.

After testing, biologists found that the lake's crappie population was switching from being predominantly white crappie to having a significant number of black crappie, which prefer clearer water and gravel bottoms.

Kentucky Lake has become clearer as it has aged. The problem is that black crappie move in different patterns than white ones.

Biologists have produced a number of studies and have conducted several campaigns to try to educate anglers on the different fishing methods needed to catch black crappie.

The big difference the studies found is that black crappie moved shallower sooner in spring, and many anglers were still fishing deeper. They also stay in shallower water longer and spook easily. Anglers should cast instead of fishing vertically below or near the boat.

This year's report notes a number of significant changes.

Blue catfish at Taylorsville Lake (Spencer/Nelson/Anderson counties): Taylorsville has an enormous shad population and always has had good numbers of largemouth bass and channel catfish.

Biologists guessed that the shad population would be perfect for blue catfish, which prefer shad. A stocking program started several years ago has taken off. Twenty-pound fish have been caught and sampled in the lake after just six years of stocking. Biologists also anticipate that the first blue cats stocked will begin to reproduce soon.

Channel catfish at Lake Cumberland (Clinton/Russell/Wayne/Pulaski/Whitley/Laurel counties): Cumberland is known for smallmouth and striped bass. But more and more, anglers and biologists are reporting good numbers of nice channel cats. John Williams, the biologist for the district that includes Cumberland, loves to fish for walleye using a bottom bouncing worm rig. But he says he is pulling up nice channel cats in the process.

Crappie and largemouth bass on the Kentucky River: In years when the Kentucky River is flowing more, largemouth and crappie don't do as well because they prefer calmer waters. But after several years of drought, crappie and largemouth have been able to thrive in the river, and anglers are reporting more catches. A big shad population also helps.

Largemouth bass at Bullock Pen Lake (Grant County): This lake is beginning to rival Kincaid for numbers of big bass. The lake has lots of shoreline without cover. Avoid those areas, biologists say. The larger fish are camping out on banks and in coves that have lots of cover.

Smallmouth bass on Green and Barren rivers: Neither stream has been known for great smallmouth fishing in the past. But portions of each stream have begun to see more and more smallmouth. Check the forecast for the most productive sections of streams.

Largemouth on Yatesville Lake (Lawrence County): For three years in a row, biologists have noted good reproduction among largemouth. The largemouth fishing is still rated as good, but it's improving rapidly.

Chris Poore, a former Herald-Leader staff writer and editor, is the editor of KentuckyFishing.com, a new online fishing magazine. Reach him at cpoore@mac.com.

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