In most states, one bass species usually takes a backseat to the other. You’ll find smallmouths dominating most northern lakes while largemouths take the lead in the major reservoirs down south.
Kentucky is perfectly situated where these zones overlap, making it an equally outstanding place to fish for both largemouth and smallmouth bass. The fact that spotted bass are also abundant is just icing on the cake.
There’s also something here for every type of angler and every fishing style. Small lakes and trickling streams are often just as good as major rivers and vast reservoirs.
Kentucky’s Dale Hollow Reservoir produced the world-record smallmouth bass back in 1955. The most recent state record largemouth was pulled from 6-acre Highsplint Lake—little more than a pond—in 2019. Bass fishing in the Bluegrass State is anybody’s game.
What follows are our picks for the best bass fishing lakes and streams in Kentucky.
A bass powerhouse in western Kentucky, 160,300-acre Kentucky Lake is a massive impoundment of the Tennessee River that extends across the state line from Tennessee. Bass populations tend to fluctuate here, but the big lake is always worthy of consideration.
Largemouths are the dominant black bass species, and they have a lot of great habitat ranging from deep water structure to expansive shallow beds of coontail, milfoil and naiad.
Late winter and early spring offer your best shot at a trophy largemouth as big pre-spawn females head from winter haunts toward spawning sites starting in March. The spawn usually takes place here from April into May.
The best spring bass fishing in Kentucky Lake is in large embayments along the west side of the lake, including embayments formed by the Blood River, Jonathan Creek and Bear Creek.
After spawning, largemouths go deep on Kentucky Lake, and the best summer bass fishing is usually along ledge structures leading to the main channel. Fish diving crankbaits along ledges during the day and try soft plastics on nearby shallow points and flats around sunrise and sunset.
Kentucky Lake offers excellent fishing for smallmouth bass, too. Though they are still vastly outnumbered by largemouths, smallmouths have been getting bigger and more numerous here as the lake has gradually become clearer since the 1980s.
The best smallmouth fishing is along the eastern side of Kentucky Lake, where the deep Tennessee River channel runs closer to the shore and decades of wind and waves have exposed more pea gravel and chunk rock along the banks.
Pisgah Bay, Duncan Bay and Sugar Bay are smallmouth strongholds, with rocky habitat at the mouths of the bays being prime areas.
Ned rigs, tube jigs and Float-N-Fly rigs are popular offerings for smallmouths.
Lake Barkley is a 57,820-acre impoundment of the Cumberland River in western Kentucky. It lies just a few miles east of Kentucky Lake, and with nearly identical north-to-south orientation, the two lakes are nearly twins.
As similar as the two lakes are, there are also important differences. First, Lake Barkley’s water is generally more stained than that of its neighbor. Second, it has more visible cover in the form of stumps, laydowns, shoreline brush and docks.
As a result, bass are more likely to be in shallow water more of the time. When the water level is at or above full pool, inundated brush and wood along the shoreline attracts bass like a magnet.
That said, ledge fishing patterns may still be in play in summer, when packs of largemouths often cruise the Cumberland River channel following gizzard shad. This is a good lake to always have diverse lure offerings handy, from cranks and spinnerbaits to plastic worms and jigs.
Points at the mouths of creeks and coves are key pieces of structure on Lake Barkley. Bass use them as they transition toward spawning sites in late March and early April, and again as post-spawn fish head back to the lake in late May.
The Little River arm of the lake has some great bass options, and the State Park Marina is a popular launch site here. Eddie Creek is great, too, along with flats in the Devil’s Elbow and US-68 bridge area.
Lake Barkley also supports a smallmouth bass population, but they are less prominent than in Kentucky Lake. Look for smallmouths primarily around rocky structure and riprap banks.
Spotted bass are in the mix as well.
Lake Barkley’s ample cover also helps make it one of Kentucky’s powerhouse crappie fisheries.
Dale Hollow Reservoir
Straddling the Tennessee state line in south-central Kentucky, Dale Hollow Reservoir is a legendary bass lake that spans 27,520 acres. Located on the Obey River, it’s easily the best trophy smallmouth lake in Kentucky, possibly the entire South.
Dale Hollow produced the world record smallmouth, weighing 11 pounds, 15 ounces in 1955. That clearly was no fluke because this reservoir has also kicked out six of the top 10 biggest smallmouths of all time.
The most recent of those fabled bronzebacks was caught in 1986, so you could be forgiven for thinking Dale Hollow is well past its glory days. But it’s still your best bet for catching smallmouths over 6 pounds.
Smallmouths thrive here thanks to clear water and an abundance of rocky habitat. In particular, Dale Hollow has gradually sloping banks covered in gravel, boulders, and chunk rock, perfect for smallmouths and the crayfish they like to eat.
The favorite season to target jumbo smallmouths here is winter, when smallmouths take advantage of chilly temperatures that disorient baitfish. Smallmouths in Dale Hollow often suspend in winter and will strike finesse worms and grubs.
Look for bass in small cuts and coves near the river channel, where rocky ledges and shelves provide a quick avenue between deep and shallow. Prime areas on the Kentucky side of the lake include Illwill Creek, Sulphur Creek and the Wolf River arm.
Dale Hollow has some good-sized largemouths, too, though they don’t get as much attention. Fishing docks and weed beds in spring and summer can be productive, with Illwill Creek being a prime area.
Green River Lake
Central Kentucky’s Green River Lake is one of the most well-rounded bass lakes in the state. Largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass are all abundant, and all three species offer trophy potential.
Green River Lake encompasses 8,210 acres and has two main arms formed by Robinson Creek to the north and the Green River to the south. The two arms meet just above the dam, each offering abundant deep and shallow cover and clearly defined channels.
Anglers targeting largemouth bass typically focus on the upper third of each arm, though largemouths are fairly well-distributed throughout the lake. They’re often caught close to the bank, especially in spring and fall.
Green River Lake has an abundance of timber in its coves, which attracts largemouths as they get ready to spawn. Spinnerbaits and creature baits are excellent offerings.
April is the month when largemouths start spawning, and the lake level is usually on the way up at this time. With water inundating shoreline wood and brush while bass are in various stages of pre-spawn and spawn, the shallow bite can be phenomenal.
Smallmouth bass are more common in the lower and middle sections of the lake. They tend to favor areas with easy access to deep water, so take a look at a topo map and look for spots where the river or creek channel swings close to a point or cove.
Green River Lake also produces some of Kentucky’s biggest spotted bass, many topping 15 inches. They’re most common in the lower lake near the dam and often suspend and chase baitfish close to the surface.
Often cited as the best largemouth lake in eastern Kentucky, 2,300-acre Yatesville Lake is equally known for its excellent fishing and picturesque mountain scenery. Despite getting quite a lot of fishing pressure, bass fishing continues to be very good.
Yatesville Lake supports modest populations of smallmouth and spotted bass, but it’s a largemouth lake first and foremost. Bass in the 15- to 22-inch range are quite common, and occasional bass over 8 pounds have been caught.
Highly fertile for a mountain lake, Yatesville has ample forage and lightly stained water that makes it easy to fish compared to most eastern Kentucky lakes, which tend to be gin-clear.
Largemouth bass in Yatesville Lake dine primarily on bluegills and gizzard shad, and lures that imitate either are likely to tempt some strikes. Creature baits and lizards also fare well here.
Constructed in 1988, Yatesville Lake is a relatively young reservoir and one designed with fishing in mind. Its bottom was graded prior to being filled, road beds were left behind, and ample timber was left standing in its coves.
The lake also has abundant shoreline willows and grass beds, which become prime feeding zones whenever rain brings the water level up. Beds of curly-leaf pondweed have proliferated lake-wide in recent years, offering great largemouth bass habitat.
Barren River Lake
A popular bass tournament destination near Bowling Green, Barren River Lake is a sprawling 10,000-acre reservoir with numerous meandering arms. It’s one of the most consistent largemouth lakes in the state, equally well-regarded for size and numbers.
Bass here are typically healthy and heavy for their size. It’s not unusual to have at least one or two 4- to 5-pound largemouths to show for a day’s effort. The Beaver Creek area of the lake is a particularly good largemouth hotspot, but bass are widespread throughout the lake.
When Barren River Lake was built, its timber was cleared and vast swaths of stumps were left behind. Bumping a crankbait or working a jig with a trailer among the stumps is a great tactic.
Gizzard and threadfin shad provide forage for largemouths in Barren River Lake, along with abundant crayfish. A lot of logs and downed trees provide cover in addition to stump fields, and fresh woody cover gets washed down into the lake every spring as the water level rises.
Bass tend to hang out among some pretty snaggy stuff here, so weedless rigs are helpful. Pitching and flipping jigs and soft plastics to individual pieces of shallow cover is generally a productive tactic, and there are a lot of great creeks and coves to explore.
Barren River Lake also supports a low-density smallmouth population. Anglers catch most smallmouths at the lower end of the lake near the dam and around rocky outcroppings.
Spotted bass are also available, and although they are not abundant, they are above average in size.
Barren River Lake also rates among our top choices for great catfishing in Kentucky.
Honorable Mention Lakes
Black bass have been overshadowed by Lake Cumberland’s striper fishery for many years. But this large lake in south-central Kentucky offers some solid opportunities for largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass as well.
Smallmouths might be the most compelling option here. This 65,530-acre lake—the largest entirely within Kentucky—produces some serious smallmouths in the 4- to 5-pound class, which anglers often catch on gently sloping points throughout the lake.
Spotted bass have also been increasing in both size and number in recent years, and some over 17 inches have been caught near the dam.
Largemouth bass are most common at the upper end of the lake, and night fishing for largemouths can be excellent in summer.
Spanning just 788 acres in western Kentucky, Lake Malone was a sleeper bass lake for a long time. These days, most Kentucky anglers are well aware of this diminutive reservoir and its surprising big bass potential.
Largemouth bass in all size classes are abundant in Lake Malone, with multiple fish weighing 7 or 8 pounds caught every year. The best months for trophy hunters are February and March, and many of the biggest bass fall for jigs.
Lake Malone can be a little tricky to fish due to its unique topography. Around much of the shoreline, the banks drop off sharply before flattening out at 20 to 30 feet. Where available, downed trees often hold fish.
Another small-but-mighty bass lake, 1,100-acre Dewey Lake is a hidden gem among eastern Kentucky’s densely wooded hills. This long, meandering reservoir on Johns Creek supports a fairly stable largemouth bass population that usually includes some giants.
Though Dewey Lake is more a numbers lake than a trophy fishery, largemouths over 20 inches are routinely caught. A few tiny coves and creeks feed the lake, but most of the action takes place in its river-like main body.
The lake is fairly shallow, and visible cover close to the banks provides solid bass action in spring. Dewey is an older lake, so its bottom contours are somewhat indistinct, but sedimentation has created excellent spawning habitat. Small gizzard shad are the primary forage.
It’s worth noting that Dewey Lake is also among a handful of excellent trophy muskie fishing lakes in Kentucky. Don’t be completely surprised if one of these toothy giants inhales your bass lure.
Taylorsville Lake is close enough to Louisville to be one of the most pressured fishing lakes in Kentucky. But bass fishing remains consistently good in this 3,050-acre Salt River impoundment. It’s a nutrient-rich lake with a tremendous population of gizzard shad.
Largemouth numbers are also excellent, though Taylorsville isn’t much of a trophy lake. Expect to catch lots of healthy bass measuring 12 to 16 inches. The lake has plenty of timber, and bass often fall for lizards, curly tail grubs and slow-rolled spinnerbaits.
A few smallmouths also call Taylorsville Lake home, and they are occasionally caught in the Salt River arm. Spotted bass are available, too, mostly at the lower end of the lake in the clear water near the dam.
Bass Rivers in Kentucky
Flowing across the heart of central and western Kentucky, the Green River offers some great bass fishing opportunities, especially for smallmouths. It’s an ideal river for float trips as well, and it’s a great place to fish from a canoe or kayak.
Bass inhabit virtually the entire river, but the best section begins at the Green River Lake tailwater and extends downriver to the dam in Rochester. The river flows through Mammoth Cave National Park along the way, and access is abundant.
Smallmouths measuring 12 to 18 inches are abundant, and some are even bigger. Focus on current breaks and mouths of smaller creeks and tributaries like Meadow Creek. A lot of smallmouths and the occasional largemouth fall for 4-inch Senkos and tube jigs.
The Ohio River isn’t widely known for bass fishing, but this major artery that forms Kentucky’s entire northern border supports excellent populations of largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. Smallmouth fishing is particularly good.
The best smallmouth fishing is usually in the tailwaters below each of the river’s locks and dams, with better smallmouth fishing in the river’s upper pools. The Greenup and Meldahl dams produce a lot of chunky smallmouths.
For largemouth and spotted bass, focus on sloughs and embayments off the main river. Largemouths head toward these areas in early spring, eventually spawning in the protected backwaters. Some bass stay in these sheltered areas year-round.
Almost certainly Kentucky’s most acclaimed smallmouth stream, Elkhorn Creek packs a lot of action into its scant 18.3 miles in the central part of the state. Smallmouth bass are exceptionally abundant, including good numbers of fish over 15 inches.
Elkhorn Creek offers picture-perfect riffles and pools, with lots of rocky structure and multiple put-ins and take-outs for paddling trips. Sullivan WMA is a great access site that is also well suited to wading and bank fishing.
In addition to spinners, jigs and soft plastics, fly fishing on Elkhorn Creek is also a great option. Wooly Buggers, Clouser Minnows and various crayfish and sculpin patterns tempt lots of smallmouths, along with rock bass and the occasional largemouth.