March Madness more than basketball

February 23, 2013

G. Sam Piatt

PDT Outdoors Writer

My father and I knew very little about Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley when we first fished them in the late 1970s. We tent camped for several days and nights in a Corps of Engineers campground in Land Between the Lakes.

We had great luck with largemouth bass and crappie, having a couple of camp fries and putting some on ice to take home.

It was in the fall because I remember we also had good success at squirrel hunting in the woods surrounding the campground.

We carried a rifle in the boat and popped a few squirrels as we fished along the wooded shorelines, but I’m not sure whether we were legal on that.

One day we were tied to a bridge pier in the canal that connects the two giant lakes and had caught a dozen eating-size channel cats on minnows when we looked down the canal and saw a startling sight – a towboat pushing coal barges was headed straight for us!

We quickly untied and moved around to the protected side of the pier to keep from being washed against the pier by the waves thrown by the towboat.

I had no idea at the time that towboats like those that run on the Ohio River traveled Kentucky and Barkley lakes. But yes, each of the two lakes, separated by the strip of land appropriately called Land Between the Lakes, has a dam and locks providing access by boats from the Ohio River.

The Cumberland River, which was dammed to form Lake Barkley, flows into the Ohio at Fort Smith. The Tennessee River, which was dammed to form Kentucky Lake, runs into the Ohio a few miles farther downstream, just above Paducah.


Last fall, a commercial fisherman on Kentucky Lake saw a sight far more startling than a towboat pushing coal barges.

“Right about dusk,” said Ron Brooks, fisheries director for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, “he saw a huge school of carp just underneath the surface. He reported there were fish from bank to bank, and as far up the lake and down the lake as he could see.”

They were Asian carp and they threaten to destroy sport fishing by disrupting the food chain.

“Asian carp are a threat to our native species and habitats because they compete with other fish for the plankton which forms the base of the food chain,” Brooks explained. “They grow large - a bighead carp caught in Missouri weighed 111 pounds - and they breed prolifically. Young sport fish like crappie and bass, and other plankton feeders such as paddlefish, shad and buffalo, are being robbed of the food they need to thrive.”

These fish also root out and destroy underwater weed beds that provide cover for panfish.

Asian carp species of concern include bighead carp, silver carp and black carp. These fish were brought to America by fish farmers in the 1970s. They escaped into the wild soon afterward and soon became established in the Mississippi River.

These carp first appeared in the tailwaters of Barkley and Kentucky lakes in 1987. Since then, Asian carp have spread throughout the entire 665 miles of the Ohio River bordering Kentucky. They also have spread into the Kentucky River, Green River, Salt River and the Rough River.

Nationally, Asian carp have spread throughout the Mississippi River basin and could threaten the Great Lakes if they make it past electrical barriers.

In Kentucky the term March Madness usually refers to the boys and girls high school basketball tournament – the Sweet Sixteen state championship.

But Kentucky Fish and Wildlife officials are unleashing a full-court press against invasive carp.

The Carp Madness Tournament will get teams of commercial anglers competing in a contest to corral the growing population of Asian carp in two of the state’s largest and most popular fishing lakes. Five teams that bring back the highest poundage of fish will split $20,000, with the top prize being $10,000.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources is putting together this unique event for March 12-13 at Kentucky and Barkley lakes in the western end of the state.

“We believe this is the first freshwater tournament for commercial anglers in the country,” said Brooks. “Commercial anglers are the most effective way to control Asian carp, so we thought that we’d make a competition out of the effort.”

Plankton feeders such as bighead and silver carp are not very susceptible to being caught with bait on a hook, although they are often caught by snagging. Netting is the most effective means to harvest large numbers of these fish.

Kentucky’s tournament is being held in the middle of the week to avoid conflicts with recreational anglers. Volunteer observers, consisting mainly of sport anglers, will keep records of anything other than rough fish turning up in the nets. Sport fish, such as bass, will be released.

Officials did not say how the carp netted will be disposed of.

But apparently they will be buried or sold for fertilizer?

Brooks said the tournament is being held in mid-March so that fish can be removed before they have a chance to spawn. “We want to impact that next generation,” he added. “That’s why this tournament is so important.”

For more information about registering for the tournament or to volunteer to be a spotter, visit the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Website at fw.ky.gov or call 1-800-858-1549.

G. Sam Piatt can be reached at (606) 932-3619 or gsamwriter@aol.com.