Main image photo by Pam Funk
Flowing from Lake Cumberland and the Wolf Creek Dam, upstream from the tiny crossroad village of Creelsboro, the Cumberland River is rapidly and deservedly regaining its reputation as a world-class trout fishery. How “world class” you ask? How about anglers, several of whom I know and trust, reporting 100+ fish days? How about rainbows that won’t turn any heads until they exceed 20”? How about browns better measured in pounds than inches? How about an emerging brook trout fishery where anglers catch and release state -record-size brook trout almost weekly? That is world-class trout fishing in any angler’s eyes. “So if it’s really so ‘world class’,” you ask, “why haven’t I read about the Cumberland in the mainstream outdoor media, or seen any of the fishing personalities singing its praises on the Saturday morning outdoor shows?” In a couple of words the answer to that question is, “It’s complicated.”
The logical starting point for any discussion of trout fishing in the Cumberland River starts in 2007. That is the year that the Army Corp of Engineers, after years of monitoring seepage below the dam, declared Wolf Creek Dam to be under a “high risk of failure”. Steps were taken to rapidly and significantly lower the water levels of Lake Cumberland above the dam while repairs took place. Lake levels were dropped and held almost 70’below full pool for the next seven years while concrete was pumped into the voids below the dam.
The subsequent reduction in water flow below the dam turned what was a very good trout fishery into a so-so trout fishery. There was still enough cool water flowing to maintain the fishery, but it was limited to the first three or four miles below the dam (as opposed to the more than twenty five miles of trout water available today). It took until March of 2014 for the dam to be repaired and the lake to be returned to full pool.
In anticipation of the dam repairs being completed, an aggressive effort to replenish the fish population began in the summer/fall of 2013 in the Cumberland River below the dam. Steps to rebuild the fishery have included a slot limit in conjunction with what some people would call massive restocking efforts. The result so far has been spectacular. The fish stocked last fall have grown dramatically to the point where 15” - 20”“slot” rainbows are quite common, with even bigger fish landed almost daily. Toss in bruiser brown trout and feisty brookies, and there are opportunities for some spectacular fishing.
Photo by Pam Funk
The trout fishing (and fishermen) on the Cumberland runs the gamut. Because of the relatively inconvenient location, not to mention being bordered by private property along most of its length, shore fishing can be quite limited for those without a kayak or power boat. For most people, this means accessing the water at four or five well-known but generally uncrowded locations along the river. My experience on the river has been that these locations are the domain of the bait fishermen, and they seem to have considerable luck using the usual cast of characters: Berkeley PowerBaits®, red worms, and corn fished “tight line” on the bottom.
While it can be a hindrance to the shore angler, this relative lack of access makes the Cumberland a kayaker’s dream. Unlike other rivers where one fights a steady stream of boat traffic and other anglers, it is possible to spend a day on the Cumberland and not see more than a handful of other boats, canoes, or kayaks. This is particularly true on weekdays.
While the bank-fishing locations seem to belong to the bait fishermen, those anglers I’ve observed fishing from boats, canoes and vessels seem to be evenly split between fly and spin fishermen. There is a small cadre of fly fishing guides on the Cumberland as well as a large handful of dedicated fly fishermen who regularly ply their skills. My days on the water, as well as the time I spent working in the fly fishing department for a major outdoor retailer, have shown me that (during most of the year) fly fishermen will have better luck using sub-surface offerings than dry flies. The most popular patterns are the (beaded) Prince Nymph, Hare’s Ear, Copper John, and Zebra Nymph. These are typically fished using a two fly “dropper” method. My personal experience has been that just about any nymph pattern with some kind of “flash” will put fish in the boat.
Photo by Pam Funk
Any discussion of fly fishing the Cumberland should also include mention of the various egg patterns. They are quite deadly, to the point of being the “go to” pattern for one of the areas better guides. Combine a small box of these patterns with a 9’ 5/ 6wt rod and some floating line, and you have covered 85% of your needs. For more detailed information on fly fishing the Cumberland River I suggest you call the nice folks at Lexington Anglers (859) 389-6552.
When it comes to spin fishing on the Cumberland there really aren’t any secret baits, nor is any special equipment necessary. My personal preference is for a 7’ to 7.5’ light-action rod, paired with a quality spinning reel spooled with 6lb test line. The longer length allows me a much more natural and controllable drift. You can go with lighter line but you’ll lose fish, and you can go heavier but probably won’t see as many strikes. In-line spinners (Mepps, Blue Fox, etc.) as well as smaller 2”-3” slim Rapala-like baits are extremely popular. The hard baits are generally accompanied by a small spilt shot or rubber-core sinker 18” to 20” in front of it. My personal “go to” technique for this kind of environment is to drift artificial eggs and/or weighted flies behind a “slinky sinker” through the faster runs. This is a deadly technique once you get the hang of it.
Photo by Pam Funk
Like most quality water, fishing the Cumberland River isn’t easy. Maybe that is another reason it hasn’t appeared on radar for a lot of fishermen. While the river is within a full day’s drive of several large metropolitan areas - Nashville, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Charlotte, etc. - it is not within what I’ll call an easy drive of virtually anywhere. From my home in Louisville, KY it is a full three-hour drive down to the Cumberland. Even Lexington, the nearest “big city”, is almost a two-hour drive from the river. Once you get to the Cumberland, there is the issue of where to stay. The options can be a hit and miss, and require some preplanning. The simplest option by far is to camp at the Kendall Campground. It’s immediately below the dam and within walking distance of a launching ramp, and near some of the best fishing along the river. I have stayed at Kendall several times and have always found it to be clean, relatively quiet, and certainly convenient. Like any large campground, the more desirable sites go quickly, so I would encourage folks to make reservations as far in advance as possible. This can be done on the Reserve America website: http://www.reserveamerica.com/
Next in terms of fishing convenience would be one of a very small handful of private rentals near and along the river. One such rental opportunity is located right next to Helms Landing, one of the more popular put in points. I suggest that a little research here; I’ve never stayed at any of these places, and feedback I’ve gotten from other anglers has been mixed. My best advice would be to pull up the Google search engine and let your fingers do the walking when it comes to locating and contacting individuals who have overnight rentals available.
There are motel options available in both Russell Springs (sixteen miles from the dam) and in Burkesville, which is located on the river twenty-odd below the dam. Of these two options, Russell Springs would be my choice despite not being located on the river. Staying in Burkesville requires either an upstream tow in order to paddle back downstream, or a long drive on back country roads in order to put in and paddle downstream.
Another reason the Cumberland has not seen its popularity skyrocket (I’ll call this reason the “800 lb gorilla”) is the inconsistent generation schedule maintained by the Army Corp of Engineers. Like all Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) dams, the primary purpose of the Wolf Creek Dam is electrical power generation. As a result, changes in the water level on the Cumberland River can be huge and fast. For example, with no generators running the water level on the river is typically around 543’above sea level. With “two or more” generators turning (which in Corp of Engineers speak usually means four or more) the water can quickly rise to 560’ (or more) above sea level. To put this into perspective, that rock you are standing on at noon can be under more than 17’ of water at 1pm.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Lee Roberts
These changes in water level are important to kayak anglers for a couple of reasons First, the fish tend to “go off the bite” as the water rises, or at a minimum the fishing becomes more challenging. More important is the safety aspect. Most people I know who spend a lot of time on the river will caution paddlers not to be on the water when they are running more than two generators. This can be hard to predict, even with knowledge of the generating schedule. One of the things that make planning a trip to the Cumberland difficult for anglers in distant cities is the lack of a long-term generation schedule. The schedule is released daily and only covers the next twenty-four hour period. To access the generation schedule, visit the Wolf Creek Dam – TVA website: http://www.tva.gov/lakes/wch_r.htm Users can also download a mobile app from this website.
I realize I may have scared a few people off. Yes, the Cumberland River is a little hard to get to. Yes, the unpredictable water levels can make long-range planning difficult, and accommodations can be hit and miss. With all that said, kayak anglers are resourceful people. I have no doubt many of you can do some additional research and work your way through these inconveniences in order to enjoy some spectacular trout fishing.
Resources and starting points for learning more about trout fishing the Cumberland River:
Double D Outfitters (Dave DeBold) (502) 538-8919