Monday, April 27, 2015

Barkley Dam and Carlyle Dam

Last weekend was one of those trips where success was far from guaranteed, but the stars were aligned and everything ended up falling into place.  Garren King and I drove south to the Barkley Dam in Kentucky, which is on the Cumberland River just upstream from the Ohio River.

Barkley is one of the largest dams I've fished, and to be honest it was intimidating.  We quickly gave up fishing baits on the bottom - the current was too powerful and unpredictable, and the bottom was covered in rip-rap that snagged our lines right away.  That was ok though, because our priority was skipjack herring, so we focused on casting jigs near the spillway.  Garren was the first to hook up with a couple of white bass, and soon I caught one as well.  I've never seen a white bass with such bold lines!

White Bass (Morone chrysops)

We were determined to find our skipjack.  A family of four showed up and began casting sabiki rigs next to us, but they weren't having any luck.  I think their sabikis were staying near the surface, whereas our jigs were dropping down a little deeper.  Then I got another hit - the fish felt light but it fought like crazy for the few seconds it took to real it in.  Skipjack!

Skipjack Herring (Alosa chrysochloris) - new hook & line species #268

A few casts later and I caught another one.  They were nailing these jigs!  Both of mine were caught on the first of two jigs, which is an indication of how fast these fish are.  For most other species, the first jig grabs their attention, but they end up hitting the second one because it's easier to catch.

A little later Garren hooked up with a double, but one of his jigs broke off.  The one skipjack he landed was quite large though!  It measured 15 1/2 inches.  We gave our fish to the family so they'd go home with something (they'll likely use the skipjack as catfish bait).

We tried jig colors other than white, but either they didn't work, or the bite had died down.  Feeling good, we switched gears and drove around the area for a while to check out the local creeks.  We found one with good access and took turns fishing with my 5 foot ultralight rod rigged with an Owner Tanago New Half Moon hook.  This was Garren's first foray into the world of microfishing, and he took to it like a duck on water.  His first fish was a chubby little creek chub.

Creek Chub (Semotilus atromaculatus)

We switched our focus to darters, and soon we began seeing heads poking out from under rocks.  They couldn't resist a bit of redworm, and before long we had each caught several fringed darters, my second new lifer for the day!

Fringed Darter (Etheostoma crossopterum) - new hook & line species #269

The fringed darters showed quite a bit of variability.  The first photo below is a female, and the next two are males showing different colors and patterns.  The blueish purple iridescence on the sides of the darker males was really cool.

We tried one more creek.  This one flowed into the Tennessee River instead of the Cumberland River, so we hoped to find different species.  Garren took this photo of me trying to catch a darter, and I have to say it captures the essence of micofishing perfectly.  Complete and utter focus trying to catch a two inch fish!

We caught darters that at first looked very similar to the fringed darters.  The big difference, though, was their second dorsal fins.  These darters, which we identified as guardian darters, had long fingers with knobs on their second dorsal fin, whereas the fringed darters had a dark ragged second dorsal fin.  I had a hard time getting any of them to cooperate in my hand, but you can still see the difference in the photo below.  The guardian darters were smaller in size .

Guardian Darter (Etheostoma oophylax) - new hook & line species #270

Garren caught his lifer guardian darter as well as a blackspotted topminnow.  He really wanted one of the stonerollers we saw, but they refused to cooperate.  Next time!

With a few hours of daylight left, we went back to Barkley Dam to try fishing bottom rigs a ways downstream from the spillway.  However, we were still getting snagged, so again we abandoned the idea.  I switched to casting the same two jigs that I had used for the skipjack.  I felt bites - something was shaking its head hard and throwing my hook.  Other times I'd feel weight on my line and then nothing.  The culprits turned out to be silver carp.  When I felt steady weight I think I was snagging them by accident, but the vigorous head shakes were likely bites.  I landed two fish, one fair hooked in the mouth and the other snagged by the dorsal fin.  I know there is plenty of controversy over whether or not these catches are legitmate.  All I know in this case is that one of the two carp was fair hooked in the mouth, and a lot of the other hits felt like bites.  Fortuntely, silver carp is not a new lifer, so I don't have to lose sleep fretting over whether or not to count it.

Silver Carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix)

The next day I ventured on my own to Carlyle Dam in Illinois, a spot I've been visiting for several years.  The water level was the lowest I've seen.  I had never seen the rock ledge up near the spillway, which explains why people get snagged so much there when the water is higher.  There's no way a heavy sinker and hook can make it over that sharp lip!

I set up quite a ways downstream to avoid the crowds.  I chummed the area in front of me with alfalfa feed and canned corn.  While I waited for buffalo and carp to move in, I cast out nightcrawler halves to see what else would bite.  The three species I caught were freshwater drum, black bullhead, and flathead catfish.  There's always something biting at Carlyle!

Freshwater Drum (Aplodinotus grunniens)

Black Bullhead (Ameiurus melas)

Flathead Catfish (Pylodictis olivaris)

After a half hour I switched both of my rods to canned corn hoping to catch more buffalo, in particular a black buffalo.  It was a nice day to sit and watch bank rods for bites.

The buffalo never showed up, but the common carp did!  I caught about 20 of them over the next few hours.  There were some real odd looking ones.  Some were dark, some were light, some were lumpy, some had messed up scales, some were fat, some were skinny, some had tall backs, and some were torpedo shaped.  Their tail colors ranged from black to gold to red.  The common carp gene pool must be pretty funky in this stretch of the river.

Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio)

I promise to never again post this many common carp photos in one report!  I hope you enjoyed the post, and be sure to stay tuned for more to come as spring transitions into summer.


  1. Fantastic species Ben but please keep your promise. What a nuisance are those common carps over there...

    Kind regards,

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