Battling the stripers of Lake Cumberland

G. Sam Piatt

The striped bass – also identified as “rockfish” – is still one of the most powerful battlers to swim in freshwater lakes. Two local anglers found that to be true on a recent trip to Lake Cumberland, a gigantic body of water covering more than 65,000 acres in south-central Kentucky.

Deb Bentley, 53, and husband Billy, 54, pulled away from the Jamestown dock with a guided service before daybreak on Oct. 1. An hour later they were into the action.

The method of catch was a simple one. A four-ounce sinker was tied to the end of the line, with a hook on a short leader tied to the line about a foot above the sinker. The hook was baited with a lively six-inch shad. The sinker hit bottom in 85 feet of water and was then raised three cranks on the reel handle.


“They hit so hard that they take the end of the rod right down to the water,” said Deb, who manages the Lloyd BP station off the Kentucky approach to the Jesse Stuart Memorial Bridge crossing atop the Greenup Locks & Dam.

Billy battled up the first one, a 34-incher that weighed 15 pounds.

Then Deb bettered him with one measuring one inch over three feet and weighing 19 pounds.

She said they battle all the way up and it’s a task – a wonderful task – to hold on to the rod and crank the reel handle.

In short order Billy brought one in that was 33 inches ad weighed 14 pounds and Deb caught another measuring 34 inches and weighing 15 pounds.

The size limit on the rockfish in Lake Cumberland is 22 inches and the daily creel limit two fish per fisherman.

This size seems to be about the norm now – nothing near the size of rockfish the lake was producing during its first 30 years of existence.

In 1985, Roger Foster caught a striper from the lake weighing 58 pounds, four ounces, which still stands as the state record.

In years past catch-and-release was encouraged on the big stripers in Cumberland. But studies showed that the fish so totally exhaust themselves in the battle that they did soon after being returned to the water. Now fishermen keep their catch.

Deb and Billy Bentley were on a family camping trip at Grayson Lake when they drove to Lake Cumberland for the long-anticipated striper trip.

Back in camp, they deep-fried the chunks of white meat and served them with hushpuppies, coleslaw and all the fixings.

“I soaked them overnight in milk and let me tell you those fish were simply delicious,” she said. “We had enough to feed the whole camp.”

It does make a fishing trip better when it ends up with a good fresh fish fry. The guides cleaned and packaged the fish for them.

Deb’s biggest qualified for Kentucky’s trophy fish list and will be listed in a future issue of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources’ Kentucky Afield magazine.

Deb is the daughter of my old friend and member of the original Cave Run Crappie Crew, Gary Lee of Boyd County.


Lake Cumberland was created in 1952 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by construction of Wolf Creek Dam across the Cumberland River. It’s 101 miles long and more than a mile wide at its widest point. It encompasses parts of six counties and its shoreline measures 1,255 miles, making it the 9th largest impoundment in the nation.

The dam’s six turbines are capable of supplying enough electricity to supply the needs of a city of 375,000.

The dam cost $15 million to build. In 1967 a leak was discovered in the

limestone bedrock of the dam. Repairs were made in the late 1970s at a cost of

over $96 million.

In 2007, fearing a breach that could cause billions of dollars in damage

downstream, the corps began lowering the water level. By 2011 it was 43 feet

below normal.

A $594 million project to build a new wall inside the dam was completed in 2013.

The work was finished and the lake was returned to its normal level in the

spring of 2014.

G. Sam Piatt

Reach G. Sam Piatt at or 606-932-3619.

Reach G. Sam Piatt at or 606-932-3619.