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The Aging of America's Bass Waters

Updated: February 15, 2008, 5:41 PM ET
By Ed Harp | BASSMASTER Magazine, March 2008
It's no secret that America's bass waters are aging. As a practical matter, new reservoir construction is at a standstill. The hot bass fishing that most impoundments experience in their first decade is now a memory. There are few, if any, first decades anymore.


What does that mean for bass anglers? Is it true that largemouth are being replaced by smallmouth and spots in most of our major bass waters? Is the fishing really not as good as it was in "the old days?" And do we, as bass anglers, need to rethink our fishing strategies?

Two of the top fisheries biologists in the country have considered those questions while managing two of the most productive  although very different  impoundments in the country. Their experiences and conclusions help shed light on the state of other older reservoirs throughout the nation.

Paul Rister is a fisheries biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources. He's in charge of western Kentucky, including Kentucky Lake. Tim Churchill of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency spent a decade and a half managing Tennessee's smallmouth reservoirs. His responsibilities included Dale Hollow, home of the newly reinstated world record.

Kentucky Lake, a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) project, was impounded in 1944. Despite its name it's really a reservoir. Its job is to improve navigation on the Tennessee River and to help with flood control throughout the region. That's important; it's the first thing Rister talks about when he discusses this storied body of water.

"Immediately after the dam was finished fish populations increased. There was a lot of shoreline grass, cover and structure to support the increased populations of forage and predators for a few years. The fishing was great," he says.

But Kentucky Lake was built for flood control. Water levels were rising and falling every year. Over time, sediment and water movement caused the creek channels to lose their definition; ledges disappeared. Stumps and timber began to rot because of exposure to the elements and oxygen-rich water.

Recreational demands made the situation worse. Holding water levels high later in the summer and dropping them lower during the winter accelerated the process. Shoreline brush and vegetation paid a heavy price.

"The fishing changed. It really didn't fall off so much as it changed. It was still a great largemouth bass fishery, but not like it was at first. A lot of the original habitat was gone. The fish moved. They didn't live shallow like they once did," Rister says.

But is it true that smallmouth began to take over? Is Kentucky Lake becoming a smallmouth venue? No, according to Rister; their numbers are simply a matter of natural population cycles. Over time the water has cleared and the grass and brush have come and gone. A couple of years have produced especially productive smallmouth spawning conditions.

"This is a largemouth lake and it'll remain that way for a long time, assuming conditions do not radically change."

Grass and forage also are working against the smallmouth and spots. The TVA is out of the weed control business on Kentucky Lake. The lake now supports a reasonable amount of native grasses as well as some areas of milfoil and hydrilla. The grass has moved some of the largemouth back toward shallow water where they do best.

Dale Hollow is a very different venue. Impounded in 1943 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, this Obey River reservoir is deep, clear and full of big smallmouth.

"The lake has always been clear and rocky with very little sediment. We have a relatively small watershed with almost no shoreline development and very little agriculture in the immediate area. Like all waters, sediment has entered the system over the years, but it hasn't been as big a problem as in some reservoirs," says Churchill.

Dale Hollow also is a flood control impoundment. As such its waters rise and fall. But because the water is so deep, the fluctuation only affects the immediate shoreline, something of little or no importance to the smallies.

The lack of heavy sediment and minimal offshore water movement — along with low levels of deep water oxygen — have allowed the creek channels and deeper structure to remain largely unchanged for decades. Bare rock drops and stable standing timber can be found — much as they were 50 years ago — throughout the lake.

One change that has occurred since 1943 is the weed growth. It's been extraordinary and has radically changed the fishing. Vegetation grows in tiny cracks and crevices —with minimal amounts of sediment — nearly everywhere. Once barren rock flats now look like California truck farms, sometimes at depths of 40 feet or more.

"It's changed the fishery," says Churchill. "The smallies relate to weeds now much like they once did to drops and channels, at least sometimes. The best anglers are now fishing weeds like they once fished other types of structure. The fishing is better than ever for those who have adapted."

But are the weeds turning the Hollow into a largemouth lake? After all, there's been a lot of talk over the last two or three years about all the big largemouth being caught. Churchill answers that question with an emphatic no!

"I don't see Dale Hollow becoming a largemouth body of water. The conditions aren't right. The weeds are too deep. There's not enough good shallow water. What we do see is an occasional year when spawning conditions are just right for the largemouth. We get big year classes from that and the largemouth fishing improves for a while. But it's temporary."

Kentucky Lake and Dale Hollow are two very different aging reservoirs. And yet, at their core, they have much in common. Both Rister and Churchill point out that their waters are what they are; changing conditions may force behavioral changes in the primary species but the basic character of the reservoir doesn't change.

Do all reservoirs age in the same way? Probably not, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from the experiences of two of the best. One thing is certain — old doesn't necessarily mean unproductive.

The FIVE Best

Picking the five best old fisheries is not for the faint of heart. The best, much like beauty, is often in the eyes of the beholder. Still, a reasonable argument can be made for this selection. To qualify, a venue must be a public impoundment and at least 40 years old.


1. Santee Cooper— This South Carolina two-lake combination—Marion and Moultrie — has produced some of the heaviest largemouth catches in BASS history. It's a living testament to the importance of shallow water cover and vegetation.











2. Dale Hollow — This Tennessee venue can fish tough; deep, gin clear waters aren't for everyone. But you can't ignore a lake that holds the world record smallmouth title and has produced three of the four largest smallmouth on record.











3. Lake Guntersville —This Alabama big bass factory produced three of the top 20 largest bass caught in a BASS tournament through 2005, including entries from Florida and California.











4. Wheeler Lake— This north Alabama selection holds spots in both the top 10 total number of limits and the top 10 total number of bass caught in the BASS record book. Those records were set in 2000 and 2001. The lake is as good today as it ever has been.










5. Kentucky Lake — This western Kentucky body of water has given up huge catches of largemouth for decades despite almost unimaginable fishing pressure. Currently it's in an up cycle for smallies and spots.





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