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Dam removals build river habitat 

KENTUCKY IS HOME to some great waterways that offer plenty of recreational opportunities. Green River and Barren River are no exception. These two river ecosystems offer canoe and kayak adventures, hiking, camping and great smallmouth bass fishing—and they’re about to get even better. The removal of century-old dams on the two rivers has created a safer environment for paddlers as well as better habitat for fish like the smallmouth bass. 

Dams on the Green and Barren rivers were built to allow the passage of steamboats and other watercraft to move goods along the river. While the dams were crucial to area commerce at one time, they eventually outlived their usefulness and were removed. The most recent dam removal was on Barren River in the fall of 2022. The dam removals not only provide added public access for paddlers and anglers, but also help restore sections of the two rivers to a more natural state. This improvement to the ecosystem will only enhance vital habitat that benefits all fish in the rivers. 

I spoke with Jason Herrala, a research biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, about what to expect from the fishery in light of these recent dam removals. My focus was on one of my favorite fish species, the smallmouth bass. Herrala says data was collected to compare the affected sections before and after dam removal. While the removals are recent, he says there are already noticeable improvements for smallmouth bass in these sections. 

“The slow-moving water created by the dams causes higher water temperatures than in flowing sections,” Herrala says. “Returning these sections back to normal will reduce temperatures in these sections and flush out the built-up sediment that accumulated for so long. This will improve the smallmouth fishery. It will take time, but the river bottom will eventually return to its natural state and provide the smallmouth more habitat as well as the minnows and crayfish that they love to eat.” 

Herrala also shared his favorite lures for catching smallmouth bass on the rivers. His go-to bait is a green pumpkin-colored worm rigged wacky style. He prefers this versatile bait because it catches smallmouth both big and small. “There are times when a small topwater bait is the way to go,” he says. “The most important thing for catching smallmouth bass on these rivers is to keep your bait profile small. The baitfish on these rivers aren’t very big, and your bait should match that to get more strikes.”

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