List of Common Kentucky Lake Fish Species [Updated]
Kentucky Lake sits right in the crook of Kentucky’s western “tail” and runs along the border between Kentucky and Tennessee. It is a major recreational destination for locals and visitors, with a lot to offer. Outdoor activities and attractions are abundant, from picnics to golfing, boating, and swimming. If the outdoors is not your thing, or if the weather is less than agreeable, indoor activities such as bowling, theaters, museums, and even a local bourbon distillery are also available. Kentucky Lake is serviced by several marinas and boat launches, making access to the lake convenient and easy. Additionally, several cabins and campgrounds are available for visitors who want to experience the lake’s natural nightlife.
Some animals that make Kentucky Lake and the land surrounding it their home include rare songbirds, adorable river otters, reclusive bobcats, and stunningly large elk. As with any wildlife, observe them only with your eyes and follow all posted signs or regulations. Lake goers will find lush forests with a variety of sturdy oaks, willows, and cypress trees along the shoreline and into the nature parks surrounding it.
The fishing at Kentucky Lake is phenomenal, with plenty of classic sportfish present alongside unique native species. Anglers with a Kentucky or Tennessee license can fish most of Kentucky Lake. There are general fishing regulations for this water body, but since Kentucky Lake lies on the border between two states, additional state-specific restrictions may apply.
List of Fish Species in Kentucky Lake
1) Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)
Due to its large size, aggressive temperament, and high-quality table fare, the largemouth bass is one of the United States’ most well-known and commercially important sportfish. While the smallmouth bass maxes out at around 27 inches (69 cm), the largemouth bass can reach sizes up to 38 inches (97 cm). As a result, they are often stocked throughout the United States in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs for angling. Like the smallmouth bass, this species constructs large nests and the males protect the nest after spawning in the spring.
They can tolerate a wide range of habitat types, from swamps to rivers, and eat any suitably sized fish, crustaceans, or amphibians. Largemouth bass are even known to be cannibalistic. Their flexibility in habitat and diet make them excellent competitors in any body of water; however, they require warm water, more than 50°F (10°C), to reproduce successfully.
Anglers are limited to any combination of 5 largemouth, smallmouth, or spotted bass each day on the Tennessee side. On the Kentucky side, this limit is 6. Additionally, any largemouth taken from Kentucky Lake must be at least 15 inches (38 cm) in length. Largemouth bass tend to occupy nearshore areas during the spawning season and when feeding. During most other seasons, anglers will require a boat to find largemouth bass hiding in deeper waters. Anglers can use a variety of baits and lures to catch one.
2) Smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu)
A common catch in the United States’ lakes and rivers, the large smallmouth bass is ubiquitous throughout the country. Credit for its extensive range is due to intentional introductions as sportfish stock. Smallmouth bass are solidly greenish-gray and have striking red eyes. Their mouths do not extend past the farthest edge of their eyes, whereas the mouths of largemouth bass do.
Anglers can expect to catch smallmouth bass along rocky beaches and gravel beds. They are voracious predators and will consume most types of bait. Anglers are limited to any combination of 5 largemouth, smallmouth, or spotted bass each day on the Tennessee side. On the Kentucky side, this limit is 6. Additionally, any smallmouth bass taken from Kentucky Lake must be at least 15 inches (38 cm). This species will construct nests during the springtime spawning season to protect their eggs. Male smallmouth bass will defend the eggs until they hatch and can often easily be seen during this period. Some sources recommend targeting these protective males or using them as a clue that there are other smallmouth bass in the area.
Non-native smallmouth bass are responsible for reducing populations of native fish species via competition or predation. As with many other non-native species, they also hybridize with native relatives.
3) Spotted bass (Micropterus punctulatus)
At the top of the food chain in many small river habitats is the spotted bass. It is similar in appearance to other black basses, like the largemouth and smallmouth basses, with its light belly, dark sides, and spotting. An angler should look for a series of spots following the lateral line to distinguish a spotted bass from smallmouth and largemouth basses. Spotted bass have small mouths compared to the other two as well. Hybrid black bass may be present at the lake, which may make some species determinations challenging.
Typically, spotted bass inhabit faster-flowing rivers with warmer water than other black basses. Like the other black basses, spotted bass have a generalist diet and consume various aquatic insects, fish, and crayfish. They typically come in at around a foot (30 cm) in length and have the same nest-building spawning habits as other sunfish species.
Anglers are limited to any combination of 5 largemouth, smallmouth, or spotted bass each day on the Tennessee side. On the Kentucky side, this limit is 6. There is no minimum length or maximum length limit for spotted bass.
4) Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)
While largemouth bass put on quite the fight for experienced anglers, bluegill can be exciting for beginners. The bluegill is a popular small sunfish with a greyish-brown colored body and fins tipped with blue and orange. Unlike other piscivorous sunfish, the bluegill does not accumulate as many toxic metals and is, therefore, generally safer to eat. However, its small size means that it is more often returned to the water.
They are primarily insectivorous but will also consume snails, worms, and small fish. In addition, they readily take live insect baits or artificial lures. Spawning occurs in warm water between May and July. They observe the same courtship rituals as other sunfish. Male bluegills tend to be particularly aggressive during the breeding season. While they are not dangerous, they will try to attack swimmers if they come too close to the nest.
5) Redear sunfish (Lepomis microlophus)
Where there’s largemouth and bluegill, there’s usually redear sunfish. These three often co-occur, but unlike the other two generalist feeders, the redear sunfish specializes in snails. Redears are smaller, mottled, green-colored sunfish with a black and red eyespot at the top of their gill covers. Their pectoral fins are also longer than other similarly sized sunfish.
Redear sunfish are best targeted using insect baits like waxworms or earthworms. During the spawning season, mature adults congregate in reed beds where visitors can easily fish them. First, adult males make popping vocalizations to gain the favor of nearby females. Then, like other sunfish species, the males construct nests and care for the eggs.
6) White bass (Morone chrysops)
Despite sharing the same name, white basses are not closely related to smallmouth or largemouth basses. White bass are somewhat smaller than their relative, the striped bass. While the average length for white bass is 12.5 inches (32 cm), the striped bass comes in as a whopping 47 inches (119 cm) on average. The two species appear superficially similar with a silver body and black stripes, but the white bass is shorter and rounder than the striped bass, with a slight hump behind its head. Lines on the white bass also are not as complete as those on the striped bass. This species loves deep, clear water where they hunt for invertebrates and fish, mainly native shad species.
Temperate basses are scattered spawners and do not make a nest. Instead, they congregate in large groups, migrating upstream to swift streams before mating. Once in spawning territory, females release thousands of sticky eggs that settle in the substrate. White bass are known as aggressive fighting fish. Flies, spinners, and small plugs come in handy when targeting this species.
7) Striped bass (Morone saxatilis)
Striped bass are a temperate bass species and are not black basses. One key difference between the two groups is their spawning behaviors. Temperate basses scatter their eggs and observe no parental care behaviors. Meanwhile, male black basses typically construct a nest and defend it until the young are old enough to leave it.
The striped bass is silver with dark stripes running down its sides and a slightly forked tail. Most temperate basses also have two separate dorsal fins, one with stiff spines and one with mostly softer rays. It is native to the East Coast and has been introduced as a sportfish throughout the country. Sometimes this can negatively impact native populations of small fish since they are piscivorous and primarily predate upon small fish.
An angler looking for a striped bass should target them during the fall. One source recommends fishing strategies like trolling, jigging, and targeting feeding groups, commonly called “boils,” close to the surface.
8) Blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus)
This next species is the largest catfish species in North America. The blue catfish can grow to enormous sizes, with a recent record weight of 143 lbs (65 kg). However, the typical blue catfish will reach an average weight of around 4 pounds (2 kg). Not quite monstrous, but still sizeable and plenty to eat. They possess a deeply forked caudal fin which distinguishes them from bullheads. They are similar in appearance to the channel catfish, and the edges of their anal fins can help identify this species. In blue catfish, the anal fin is generally straight, whereas in channel catfish, the anal fin is somewhat rounded.
Unlike the bullhead, blue catfish enjoy clear streams. Like other catfish, they are nocturnal hunters and consume a mix of invertebrates and fish. This species reproduces annually in the spring. This species is a highly sought-after food fish and are often caught using rods and trotlines. One source recommends using fresh fish, shrimp, chicken liver, or processed catfish bait to get a blue catfish on the line.
9) Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)
This species has a forked tail like blue catfish but has a round anal fin as opposed to a straight one. The average length for this species is 10 to 20 inches (25 to 51 cm). Like the blue catfish, the channel catfish thrives in clear streams but can tolerate turbid water. They can also survive in brackish water. Young channel catfish have the typical invertebrate diet seen in other catfish species. The adults consume various prey items. Channel catfish reproduction is temperature-dependent and is initiated when the water temperature reaches at least 75°F (23.9°C). When temperatures are favorable, male channel catfish construct a nesting area for females to lay their eggs. Males protect and care for the eggs until they hatch.
The National Parks Service suggests using live fish and nightcrawlers to catch a tasty channel catfish. However, they will accept a variety of meat-based bait, from squid and shrimp to hotdogs and processed baits. There is a 25 fish bag limit and a 12-inch (30 cm) minimum size limit.
10) Flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris)
With a distinct protruding lower jaw, the flathead catfish has one of the most curious appearances of any catfish. This catfish is mottled, olive-colored, and immature individuals may appear black. Young fish may be confused with bullheads as they are both rather dark in color, but bullhead catfish do not possess a protruding lower jaw at any age. This species is also larger than other species on this list, with an average length of 30 inches (76 cm) and weights exceeding 100 pounds (45 kg).
Most catfish are sedentary, nocturnal hunters that spend most of their time in deep pools. When hunting, they will travel to shallower areas in search of prey. This species primarily consumes invertebrates and fish. They spawn once in early to mid-summer.
Flathead catfish are famous for eating fish on the dinner plate and have a remarkable flavor. Live bait is best. Some examples of excellent bait fish include smaller sunfish, mudcats, or other appropriately sized bait fish.
11) Slender madtom (Noturus exilis)
The slender madtom, a member of the bullheads, can be found in Kentucky Lake. They are quite small compared to relatives like the channel catfish. The slender madtom has a light grey body with black-edged fins and several sets of barbels. Barbels pointing upwards tend to be dusky colored, while those facing downwards are lightly colored. Interestingly, fin color tends to be duller on individuals found in turbid streams. Another essential characteristic is the presence of a light spot behind the dorsal fin. Compared to the massive channel catfish, the slender madtom is tiny, with a maximum length of 6 inches (15 cm), although individuals are usually found around the 4-inch (10 cm) mark. They are invertivores.
They can be found in clean rivers, typically those smaller in size, amongst riffles and occasionally in areas with vegetation. They are generally reclusive and hide from people, although anglers may accidentally catch one when fishing for other stream fish.
12) Chain pickerel (Esox niger)
While they may look like gar with their pointed snouts and arrow-like body shapes, pickerels and pikes belong to a different group of fish and are more closely related to mud minnows. They occupy a similar predatory niche as gar, using the same sit-and-wait strategy to catch prey. In addition, they have large, backward-facing teeth that ensure any unfortunate prey items cannot escape. The chain pickerel can sometimes be seen in Kentucky Lake.
Chain pickerel are the smallest Esox species, with an average length of 19.6 inches (50 cm). Males and females pair up to spawn and deposit their eggs over the substrate or patches of vegetation. They can be found in slow pools and deep holes. According to one source, live bait works best for chain pickerel, but crankbaits and spoons might also land you one.
13) Sauger (Sander canadensis)
The sauger, or the sand pickerel, is a slender predatory fish with distinctive black spots on its fins. Overall, they are dark brown. They inhabit cool water, most often streams or water bodies that are deep and turbid.
Their preference for deep water is coupled with a nocturnal hunting strategy wherein they do not use their eyes to find predators. Instead, saugers use their lateral line to sense vibrations in the water column. Predators of sauger include larger fish species and birds. Their eggs are also an important food source for other fish species like the smallmouth bass and spottail shiner. Adult saugers migrate to spawning areas and broadcast their eggs over loose substrates, and only a tiny percentage of those eggs end up making it to the next stage of development. At Kentucky Lake, one source recommends looking for sauger in the Duck River and Coffee Landing.
14) Freshwater drum (Aplodinotus grunniens)
Freshwater drums are unassuming silvery fish with a rounded caudal fin. This species’ complete lateral line that extends into their caudal fin is a defining characteristic. The most striking feature of the freshwater drum is its unusual teeth which look like a series of molars and are specially designed to crack open sturdy mollusk shells. These teeth are not uncommon in other species of fish, but they are particularly pronounced in freshwater drums. Using muscles to vibrate their swim bladder, this species can produce a deep, throaty noise that they use to scare off predators and communicate.
This species can be large, achieving a maximum weight of around 50 pounds (23 kg). Freshwater drums are bottom dwellers and eat similar prey as catfish. This diet includes insects, fish, crayfish, and mollusks. They enjoy slow currents in deep reservoirs and lakes. Spawning occurs in schools annually from late spring to early summer. Thousands of offspring are produced in one spawning event and left to fend for themselves in the open water.
15) Crappie (Pomoxis spp.)
Like many other popular sportfish, crappies have been introduced throughout the United States to stock sportfish fisheries. Black crappies are sunfish with a dark, mottled appearance. Crappies are typically small, with black crappies having an average length of 10.8 inches (27.4 cm).
Crappies are crepuscular hunters, meaning they feed during the morning and evening, so anglers should search for them during these times. They are also schooling fish, so more are sure to be present where one is found. There is a limit of 20 crappies per angler per day at Kentucky Lake, with no length restrictions.
16) Creek chub (Semotilus atromaculatus)
The creek chub is just one example of the many minnow species found at Kentucky Lake. They have a rounded appearance with blunt heads and lobed fins. They are olive-green to brown with a lightly colored underbelly and orange blushing on their gill covers, and pectoral, pelvic, and anal fins. In some individuals, the colors are not very bright.
Invertebrates make up the entire diet of creek chubs. Some prey items include snails, crayfish, and aquatic invertebrates. Very occasionally, they predate upon small fish. Creek chubs prefer streams with gravel beds because they use gravel to construct their nests. Sexually mature males develop large tubercules on their heads, and during the breeding season, they build nests. It is relatively common for minnows to share or steal nests from other minnow species. Males make a ridge around the nest out of gravel to protect the eggs from predators and strong currents.
Creek chubs are edible, but the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends only eating one meal per week due to the bioaccumulation of mercury in bottom-dwelling species.
17) Blotched chub (Erimystax insignis)
The blotched chub is a small minnow that is very narrowly distributed throughout Tennessee and surrounding states. It averages 2.4 inches (6 cm) in length. Anglers can find this fish in clean, shallow rivers with moderate currents and large substrates like gravel or rock. They thrive in high-quality rivers and do not tolerate pollution very well.
Blotched chubs have elongated, slender bodies that help them navigate swift streams. They consume microscopic organisms and insect larvae. Spawning is temperature-dependent; a minimum of 59°F (15°C) is required.
18) Longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus)
As its name suggests, the longnose gar possesses a skinny, long snout with rows of sharp teeth. Of all the gar species, the range of the longnose gar extends the farthest north, reaching areas up into Quebec. An average longnose gar is about 25 inches (64 cm) long.
Longnose gar can be found in slow-moving rivers, ponds, and impoundments, often in small groups. They hover, motionless in the water, until a prey item unwittingly approaches them. At this point, they sideswipe the prey item to impale it on their sharp teeth. Longnose gars are vital predators of sunfish, shad, and shiners, controlling populations of these prey fish. In addition, longnose gar can tolerate higher salinity, sometimes entering saltier waters to hunt menhaden in coastal estuaries. Populations of longnose gar are of least concern and are stable. To fish for longnose gar, one source suggests using minnows and artificial lures.
19) Alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula)
The alligator gar is the largest of the gars and is long-lived, capable of living longer than 50 years. Not only are alligator gar popular sportfish, but they are also stunning to observe and often attract visitors looking for a chance to watch one. Alligator gar are generalist carnivores known to eat crabs, turtles, birds, and small mammals. They are important apex predators in most fish communities. They are easy to identify compared to other gar species. The alligator gar has a blunter and broader snout resembling an alligator.
Female alligator gar mature at five to ten years of age. Compared to other sportfish, like sunfish or carp, which sexually mature within a year or two and reproduce often, alligator gar take considerably longer to reach this life stage and reproduce sparingly. They also live far longer than most other predatory fish. As a result, management practices to maintain healthy alligator gar fisheries are different from most other predatory gamefish.
20) Black buffalo (Ictiobus niger)
Sunfish and catfish are not the only sports fish available at Kentucky Lake. The black buffalo is a prominent member of the sucker family, Catostomidae, with an average length of 20 inches (51 cm) and a maximum competitive weight of 63 pounds (28.6 kg). Although less common, prominent individuals put common sunfish species to shame!
They prefer large rivers with some current and so are unlikely to be found in impoundments or still lakes. Black buffalo gather in groups when these rivers flood to spawn in the shallow water along the expanded river banks. This species almost specializes in mollusks, specifically clams, but they also consume other benthic materials like detritus, aquatic invertebrates, and algae. One source recommends using dough baits composed of cottonseed meal to catch a black buffalo.
21) Central mudminnow (Umbra limi)
Baitfish are an essential resource for sport anglers and predatory sportfish. One unique option for a bait fish is the central mudminnow. This small fish, coming in at approximately 3 inches (8 cm) in length, is a rare find at Kentucky Lake that makes a decent bait fish. It is dark in color with white striations and rounded fins. They are often found in cool, sluggish pools with dense swaths of submerged vegetation. While they do not tolerate swift water, they can survive in areas with low oxygen or high water temperature, making them resistant to summer fish kills.
Dense vegetation tends to congregate on the edges of streams, making central mudminnows easy to find along the shoreline. Flooding rivers trigger spawning as terrestrial vegetation is swallowed by riverbanks, increasing the area available for breeding adults to leave their eggs. Adults scatter their sticky eggs over patches of vegetation which shelters them from predators until they hatch. Their diet consists mainly of small invertebrates.
22) Rainbow darter (Etheostoma caeruleum)
One could accurately describe the rainbow darter as the peacock of the perches. The males of this incredible species appear painted with beautiful blue and orange stripes and bars along their bodies and fins. Females are lightly colored with brown mottling and only slightly orange and blue blushing. Darters are an exciting group of fish to observe as they dash from one stream area to another.
Clear streams with strong currents are perfect for rainbow darters. This species also enjoys larger substrates of rock or gravel and low turbidity. During breeding, females bury their eggs in the substrate while the male fertilizes them.
23) Cypress darter (Etheostoma proeliare)
The cypress darter is another small fish found in Kentucky Lake. Compared to the central mudminnow, the cypress darter has two sets of fins on the dorsal (top) and ventral (bottom), whereas the central mudminnow has only one dorsal fin but three sets of fins on its ventral side. Additionally, the cypress darter is much smaller on average than the central mudminnow, with a length of 1.3 inches (3.3 cm).
Cypress darters enjoy the same slow-moving, highly vegetated water systems that central mudminnows do, and the two species may be found in the same habitat. Loose substrates with a lot of detritus are a must for cypress darters, who like to hunt in the muck and leave their eggs amongst the debris at the bottom of the water column. They are insectivores and eat copious amounts of insect larvae and small invertebrates.
These fish age quickly, reproducing just after a year, and most individuals die before the end of their second year. Since they are so small, they are not the best bait fish, but they are interesting to observe.
24) Goldstripe darter (Etheostoma parvipinne)
Kentucky Lake resides in one of the northernmost regions of the goldstripe darter’s range. Compared to the cypress darter, which has a light coloration and very conservative spotting, the goldstripe darter has dark mottling all along its body. They appear more similar to the central mudminnow but possess the same fin arrangements as the cypress darter.
On average, the goldstripe darter is slightly larger than the cypress darter at 1.8 inches (4.6 cm). They can be found in clear, fast-flowing streams amongst exposed rocks or submerged vegetation. Goldstripe darters consume an abundance of aquatic insects. While global populations are of the least concern, some states observe marked population declines.
25) Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula)
This intriguing-looking fish has a long, flattened snout that resembles a paddle, hence the “paddle” in the common name. This species is found only in the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes and is considered vulnerable by the IUCN Red List in some of its range. Threats to paddlefish populations include channelization, pollution, and fishing pressures.
They are planktivorous, long-lived, and can grow up to 7 feet (2.1 meters) long. The long nose, or rostrum, is dotted with electroreceptors that allow the paddlefish to sense prey. Paddlefish infrequently spawn, once every two to three years, and produce thousands of tiny offspring while investing little parental care. The infrequency at which they spawn is one factor that makes it difficult for populations to recover.
26) Chestnut lamprey (Ichthyomyzon castaneus)
Occasionally, anglers may hook an aggressive sunfish or catfish and find small, brown, worm-like creatures attached to their sides. These organisms are known as chestnut lampreys. There is some debate as to whether lampreys are even fish. Most modern fish species belong to the group of ray-finned fishes and, with some exceptions, possess complete, bony skeletons, scales, and jaws. On the other hand, lampreys have cartilaginous skeletons, are scaleless, and do not have jaws.
Instead of jaws, chestnut lampreys possess a circular disk fitted with sharp teeth. They swim through the water column searching for an appropriate host and then parasitize the unfortunate fish. Their disk-shaped mouths allow them to stick to their host using suction; they then scrape the surface of the host with their sharp teeth and consume its bodily fluids.