By Marc Rogers
The Army Corp of Engineers completed Patoka Lake in 1978. It is the second largest reservoir in Indiana containing 8,880 surface acres of water at normal summer pool. At normal summer pool it has a maximum depth of 52 feet and an average depth of 22 feet. The Army Corp of Engineers controls the lake’s water level with a spillway for flood control purposes. The lake also provides drinking water for the surrounding areas. Patoka Lake is located approximately 10 miles from French Lick, Indiana.
Patoka Lake was formed by the impoundment of the Patoka River and there are 11 named and unnamed tributaries throughout the lake. The dam is located at the west side of the reservoir. The normal summer pool level is 536 feet above mean sea level. This level is normally stable but can fluctuate between 506 and 548 feet above mean level. The Army Corp of Engineers control over 17,000 acres of land surrounding the lake. The land is leased to the State of Indiana and managed for recreational purposes including hiking, hunting, camping and fishing. Most of the shoreline is wooded and there is little development close to the water.
The lake receives heavy fishing and boating pressure. Therefore, some areas are posted with skiing restrictions and speed limits. The areas are clearly marked with buoys. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources close some areas of the lake during waterfowl hunting seasons because they are designated as nesting areas. The areas include portions of the Patoka River arm, Little Patoka River and Lick Creek arms. Bald Eagles have been known to use the area around the lake for nesting and these areas are also posted as restricted areas.
During construction many trees were left uncut around the shoreline in most of the tributaries. This has left many large areas of standing timber in the lake but boat lanes were made for navigation into the main lake area. Patoka Lake is a lowland lake with the bottom consisting of mainly mud and clay. There are areas where the bottom is gravel and rock near some of the channel bends as the wave action has washed away the mud and clay. There are still many areas of deep water where stumps and broken limestone can be found. These are areas where anglers should concentrate when fishing the deeper water of the lake.
The dominant fish specie in Patoka Lake is the Largemouth Bass. The lake also has a good population of Bluegill and Redear sunfish. The sunfish provide good angling opportunities and a good forage base for the Largemouth Bass. Northern Pike and Tiger Muskie were stocked just after the impoundment filled but failed to reproduce.
Bass Fishing in Patoka Lake is popular due to the catch rates and sizes available. There is a 15-inch length limit on Largemouth Bass. This length limit has helped the fishery produce many 3 – 5 pound Largemouth Bass and the catch rates are above the state’s average. I have personally taken many legal size bass from this lake with the largest weighing in at 7.5 pounds.
During the spring (March and April) anglers should concentrate on shallow water first. Many legal size male will be preparing for the spawn during this time and are eager to feed. When the surface water temperatures reach the middle 50-degree range this shallow activity will begin. If shallow water bass are yet active the bigger females can be found preparing for the spawning activity in depths of 8 – 12 feet. Crankbaits and spinnerbaits are a good choice for locating these bass. Anglers are advised to use a slow presentation during this season, as the bass will generally not chase a fast moving lure. Once bass are located, a jig is ideal for taking bigger bass. Jigs can be presented in shallow water by flipping and pitching or with a deep slow approach.
As the water temperatures reach the low 60’s anglers should try jerk baits and flukes for shallow water bass. Again, start with a slow presentation and speed up if the bass are active. Site fishing for spawning bass is popular among anglers at Patoka Lake because the water is generally clear in the spring. Anglers should always be looking for nests and bass when fishing in the shallow water along the shoreline. When fishing beds, shaky worms, tubes and lizards are always a good choice. Bass immediately released will generally return to the bed and little harm is done to the fishery.
Bass do not all spawn at the same time. The larger females can still be found in the 8 – 12 feet of water near spawning areas throughout the spawn. With water temperatures in the 60’s slow rolled spinnerbaits and crankbaits are a good lure choice to target these bigger bass.
When the water temperatures reach the middle 70-degree mark, the spawn, for the most part, is over. There may still be some males guarding nests but they will be few and far between. The females have moved off into the deeper water near the spawning areas. Crankbaits running in 10-foot depths are a productive presentation for the post-spawn females. In the clear water of Patoka Lake bluegill pattern crankbaits will be the best producers since the bass rely on the bluegill for a food source. However, if water is heavily stained to muddy fire tiger patters seem to work better. Also, chartreuse spinnerbaits with double gold blade are a great produced in dirty water conditions.
Once the water warms into the 80’s bass will hold in and near deep water. The river and creek channel ledges with deep water in close proximity can hold large schools of bass in tightly concentrated areas under these conditions. The areas most productive are channel swings close to the shoreline. These steep banks allow bass to move up to feed and back down to more comfortable water temperatures and oxygen levels. Anglers should concentrate on the ends of the channel swings where broken rock and timber is often present. The thermocline in Patoka Lake develops between 20 and 25 feet deep. The area just above this is often the most productive depth for summertime bass fishing. Large plastic worms of 10 – 13 inches will be productive on the larger bass holding near the thermocline.
Fall fishing on Patoka Lake can be phenomenal. Bass chase the sunfish, shad and golden shiners that are abundant in preparation for the cold winter ahead. The first indication for these circumstances is the large schools of baitfish swimming just below the surface. When the baitfishes start jumping above the surface it is due to predators chasing them. Shallow running crankbaits, flukes and top-water lures are most effective at this time. However, a lipless crankbait left to flutter below the schools of baitfish will produce the bigger bass. The bigger bass will suspend below the baitfish and take the injured baitfish that fall through the water column. Spoons like the Johnson Silver Minnow allowed to slowly descend after the cast is also very effective. The best way to find fall bass is to keep your eyes and ears open for feeding activity while on the water. Also, birds diving at the water will indicate where the baitfish schools are located.
Winter at Patoka Lake is quite slow for bass fishing. There are times when the lake freezes enough to allow ice fishing. When the water falls into the 40-degree range I use a jig and work it slowly along the bottom in and near deep water. My most productive presentation is a slow crawling motion to mimic a crayfish. The water is usually clear during the cold months and crayfish colored jigs are the top producers. The steep shorelines are the most productive during cold conditions.
Anglers that are not familiar with it often overlook Patoka Lake. It is located off the beaten path relative to other popular reservoirs. However, a trip to this lake is well worth the drive for an avid angler.