Kentucky Lake

It was warm summer June night in the 1950s. No other sports writer landed the scoop on this. Now, almost 60 years later, it is a true story worth writing about.

Kentucky Lake was at its peak, and the B.A.S.S. circuit did not exist. The fishermen there were weekend and summer anglers on vacation. My grandfather, my grandmother, my aunt Pat, and her brothers Joe and Jon, were among them. This was the spot my grandparents chose to visit every June. My grandad spent the whole month pursuing bass.

Kentucky was hot and humid in June. You could sweat a quart of water or more per hour if you went out in the direct sun. Grandad quickly learned this and found he preferred evenings and nights better. After a few late-night stints with success, he did not spend as much time on the water during the day.

It took him as much as a week with a guide before he located the schools and discovered what they would hit. He then headed out on his own to enjoy the catching. My dad and uncle were not much into fishing unless it involved sandwiches and cookies. My aunt Pat was a sport and even went out for the whole night on a few occasions. On one of those hot and humid post spawn nights, my grandfather and aunt would win the Kentucky lottery, so to speak.

Grandad and a guide did all the work leading up to the catching episode. They located the schools of post-spawn bass and their feeding locations. Grandad did the nighttime work of targeting their patterns. My aunt’s first night out was a set-up she did not realize until years later.

Grandmother did not ask questions when Grandad slept a long nap one June afternoon, and Pat did the same; she knew what they were up to. Grandmother had a lunch packed for them in the fridge when they headed out around midnight. Pat’s young eyes were a bit blurry as she and her dad strolled down to the dock with gear in hand, but she had said she wanted to go, and her brothers wouldn’t.

The crickets and frogs made a huge racket in the underbrush of the Kentucky Lake shoreline, thick with varieties of grasses and trees. Kentucky was a living, breathing entity in the summer, full of creatures, bugs, and chomping mosquitoes.

Kentucky was not known for big bass. The lakes in the region held northern largemouth bass of good size and some excellent Kentuckies, also known as spotted bass. River systems are also not known for trophy bass; in fact, the Tennessee and Ohio River Systems typically do not grow bass over five pounds. An eight pounder is considered a trophy of a lifetime. A six pounder is a hawg.

The night before, Grandad had caught two big bass and that’s all, but they were brutes. He did not figure out the pattern until 4:30 a.m., but when he did, he had the feeling he could duplicate it and catch more, so he asked the kids to come along. Pat was the only taker. Even seeing the size of the bass did not convince Joe and Jon that they would be able to partake in the catching, nor did it interest them that much. They would rather sleep. Pat saw the size of the fish and knew she would be haulin’ in at least her share. She had done a bit of “haulin’ in” before. One of the bass that Grandad caught was teetering close to six pounds, and you don’t often see fish that size. She knew, because back then, fishermen kept the keeper fish on stringers or else their wives thought they were lousy fishermen and providers. A man’s catch was considered a measure of his worth.

The 14’2” aluminum boat got up on plane, and they headed out toward Blood River. The main lake had a slight breeze with a ripple on the surface. Grandad and Pat were the only people on the lake, with the exception of a few houseboats anchored off in quiet coves, unseen.

He turned toward the opposite side of a point where they started fishing medium-running baits.

“It seems like they started going crazy about 2:30. That’s when I figured out top water would work. You can try it now, but I have not seen any action right off,” he told Pat.

Pat threw toward the point. On the second cast, she landed a small white bass and threw it back.

“Not what we’re looking for tonight, though if we were in a mess of them, I would eat ‘em,” Grandad said.

They fished for about an hour and only landed a few small ones. The water was flat and quiet on that side of the point. Pat paused for a minute. Then she saw and heard what he must have been referring to.

“There,” Pat said. “On the other side of the river on that point. They’re going crazy.”

Grandad saw a few big top water explosions there. The bass started feeding on the adjacent point. They motored across the river, and pulled out the top water baits. Pat had a Jitter Bug for an even retrieve. Grandad had a Hula Popper. Both baits were made by Fred Arbogast.

Pat’s bait hardly hit the water before a bass flew through the air, hooking itself in the side. She awkwardly pulled it in and strung it on the metal stringer. A fat two-and-a-half-pound largemouth, just about average. She had a feeling she would be throwing it back later.

Three or four pops of the Hula Popper and Grandad hooked a much bigger bass that sucked the lure off the surface. He had to play it, and it even pulled out drag. A four pounder. He was all smiles.

Pat did not take long watching her dad pull it in. Her bait was back in the water crawling across the point with extremely slow and measured speed. “Ka-booey!” The explosion of water was equivalent to a giant beaver flopping its tail in the water, but she realized a fish had taken her bait as her drag sang into the night.

Grandad laughed. Even in the dark, he could see the look of Pat’s surprise and amazement at the strength of a bass. She was using braided line and a heavy rod, and the fish was pulling out drag—strongly! She quickly reeled it in after a couple of those short runs. Grandad’s netting job was sloppy on this one. I still heard about it 50 years later. He must have banged into the side of the fish’s head about six times before he netted the fish for her, a five and three-quarter pound fish, the biggest they had seen all summer, and Pat’s personal record.

The crazy thing is…the action did not stop all night. They spent about two and a half hours on that point before it slowed down, and they moved to a third location. They had a big stringer of 20 fish, all largemouth, all hawgs of four to six pounds—not something anyone could shake a stick at in those days.

They were still on the first point when they started culling fish, not a common occurrence back then. Usually you caught your limit and went in, or more often, caught all you could catch and went in, tired of trying. When they left for the next point, the smallest fish on their stringer of 20 was slightly over four pounds. Pat had long ago thrown the two pounder back in. Grandad’s best was six and a quarter, the first fish at the top of the stringer. It took a long time after that before he put down his rod and suggested another spot. The feeding frenzy had long since died out where they were.

“There was another spot about a mile from here where I saw something similar but didn’t get to fish it,” he said before pulling the cord of the Johnson outboard. They taxied over and threw out their top water baits on a long woody shoreline with erosion damage. Flooding had pulled huge trees into the river with the soil and made for some prime-looking bass haunts.

Pat’s lure was stuck on a log before they had a chance to catch any. While untying her bait from the tree, she heard the first splashes down the way. Grandad rowed them closer to where they heard the fish start feeding. He tossed his Hula Popper well past the deadfall branches of a tree by its base, where the shoreline met the exposed roots. He popped it a few times along the trunk. Once his bait reached the sprawling branches, some of which jutted into the air, he paused. He let it sit there a while to drift a few inches naturally. When he was about to pop it again, there was a giant splash. Another six pounder! He pulled it in with only a few brush-ins with underwater branches. The fish would head straight for the deeper water if you let them.

Pat caught a few more, but none were big enough to cull a four pounder. She paused her Jitter Bug and started it again. It disappeared with a big swirl under the surface. The force of the fish was astounding.

Grandad netted the bass with only a few bangs to the fish’s head this time. He laughed deeply and loudly. “Looks like you’re culling another four pounder.”

“How much do you think it weighs, Dad? Is it bigger than that other one?”

“Oh, sure. Seven pounds or better!”

Pat smiled. She could visualize her mom’s face when she returned. She could show her the one she caught herself, big enough to make any angler back at the dock quite jealous.

The peak fishing came around 5:00 a.m. Same area, just as much action. Grandad now had the retrieve figured out. Cast to the base of the tree, pop, up a bit, pop, pause, pop, pause, pause, pause, pop, up the trunk, pop, up more, pop, reach the branches, long pause, HUGE POP!

The fish wrapped around a tree, and Pat had one arm around a branch with her fingers holding the line as she tried to pull it over while drag tore out. Suddenly, she dropped it and a big loose loop flew in the air. Grandad reeled frantically and held his rod tip high. The fish was hooked well. It stayed on.

Pat rowed to deeper water away from the snags while her dad gave instructions, as if she could do any better. His drag started to sing a bit here and there as the fish headed for its deepest run. It became simply a matter of time. Run, reel, run, reel, run, reel. The bass pulled up motionless at the end, making it an easy job for Pat to grab it. She was better at netting anyway. She could stand up and see the fish’s whole profile, even in the dark. It lay still in the bottom of the boat with the net around it. Pat stared at the size of it, significantly larger than her seven.

“Wow,” she said. “That’s the biggest I have ever seen or even heard of. How big is it?”

Grandad smiled and wiped his brow and nose under his glasses from the sweat of the night. “Maybe not as big as one I caught at Lake Charles one time, but surely the biggest I’ve caught here. Maybe not nine, but eight something.”

Pat went to take out the hook and remove the fish from the net but changed her mind when she saw its powerful tail lift up. Grandad clenched the jaw of the fish sternly and wiggled the treble hooks loose.

The bass froze motionless, glistening wet in the night air.

“I guess we can cull another four pounder.”

Pat pulled up the stringer and found the smallest fish of the 20. She estimated it weighed four and a half pounds as she released it. Normally, that would be considered a “good summer” trophy—just one four pounder!

Grandad took the stringer as she handed it to him with great effort, most of the fish remaining in the water. Dragging it along had become an impediment now with the danger of it breaking off the side clamp of the gunwale. The stringer was not made for fish of this size. Pat had a bad feeling as her dad dropped the eight and three quarter pound fish into the water with the others.

The action was light at the tail end of their run as they neared the shallower water. They headed to their first point, where they had not seen much action initially. The sun peeked over the horizon in a magnificent display. Pat felt elated, despite being tired. Her stomach growled for the sandwiches they never ate. What would she tell her mom? “Forgot to eat,” I guess.

She smiled and even laughed a bit to herself, imagining Jon at the other end of the fishing pole. She thought back to that smallmouth he caught trolling. His expression was sheer fear of losing the fish. His chubby cheeks were serious up until that final moment when they poked out in a big grin as he held up that three-pound smallmouth.

The sun was red, orange, and then yellow, all mixed together with a light pink as the sun came up over the water. The fishing was nearly dead at that point, and Grandad returned to a medium diver “just for fun.”

“I think the action is about over,” he said.

“Yeah, I agree. I’m about ready to go in whenever you are,” Pat said, the words followed by a noticeable growl from her stomach as she imagined a warm pancake upon her return. Forget the dead cow sandwiches, she thought. I can say those were Dad’s leftovers.

“Yep. Let’s go,” Grandad said, reeling his wet plug to the side of the boat where those big fish hung underneath.

Another boat rounded the corner of the point. One guy was in the front casting, and another guy was rowing. They must have only started fishing.

“Catch anything?” the guy on the bow asked.

Grandad restrained a big laugh. Pat could tell he wanted to say something, but that he wanted to maximize the moment. She reached down in the water and helped him as she could see he was going to pull up the stringer to leave. He lifted his side, and she grabbed one end too. They pulled it up together in one monumental effort.

“Oh, we caught a few,” Grandad said loudly over their way, with as little emotion as he could.

The guy in the front of the boat dropped his jaw in wonderment; his tongue bugged out a little too as a reflex. His cast turned into some kind of freakish movement that more closely resembled a shot put than a smooth cast from a casting rod and reel.

The guy rowing saw the huge stringer of fish and stopped in disbelief. His astonishment turned to doubt and criticism. “What did you catch those with? Kentucky fishin’ poles?” he accused, meaning dynamite, a common practice back in those days.

“No,” Grandad said, dropping the huge stringer of fish on the bottom of the boat with a big effort. “Just those divers,” he said. He held up his rod and stuck his lure toward them so they could see it.

“Oh, I see that’s the same color your buddy’s using. That’s the one I’ve been usin’ all night,” Grandad lied.

One of their oars fell in the water as the guy reached for his pole and began a frantic slapping motion for a cast. It resulted in a backlash one might see after a child gets a hold of his old man’s casting reel for the first time.

The other guy continued to cast successfully, but at the most frantic pace in the most erratic manner, almost to the point that his bait more or less skimmed the water like a dragonfly skimming across the surface of a Midwest pond.

As Grandad cranked up the motor and idled away from the point, Pat laughed, seeing the fishermen’s oar floating away without their notice, while the guy in front tried in vain to pull line out of the backlash. The other guy was fly casting with his bait caster to the speed of 30-plus miles an hour.

Grandad leaned forward with an embarrassed grin as they now faced away from the other fishermen. “Those clowns are gonna get skunked if they can even keep their baits in the water long enough to say they tried.”

Pat burst out laughing as her dad turned the handle full throttle, and they raced back home over the glistening sunrise-lit water.

Read the story on the world-record catch

Copyright 2012 Jason Covington
U.S. Library of Congress