The Cumberland River tailwater in South Central Kentucky has long remained a well-kept secret among local anglers. However, in recent years, the river’s reputation has begun to spread beyond the region.
Originating from the Wolf Creek Dam on Cumberland Lake, the cold, pristine waters of the Cumberland River tailwater provide an exceptional habitat for trout, spanning over 70 miles from the dam to the Tennessee border. This river is undeniably one of the premier trout fisheries in the United States. Its scenic banks are adorned with lush hardwood forests, towering bluffs, and farmland. The predominantly limestone riverbed fosters a fertile ecosystem, resulting in abundant hatches of caddis, mayflies, and stoneflies. Sowbugs are also abundant, serving as a rich protein source that allows the river’s trout to grow rapidly. During the warmer months, terrestrials like Japanese beetles offer additional sustenance to the thriving fish population. These trout are not only stunning but also robust and vigorous, making them a dream catch for any angler.
If you have a penchant for streamer fishing, the Cumberland River should be at the top of your list. The presence of shad and a high percentage of large fish in the river make it a prime destination for those who enjoy throwing big flies. Using a 7-weight rod or heavier is a common practice here, especially if you happen to hook into one of the formidable stripers that also inhabit these waters.
The Cumberland River has been the stage for multiple state records. In the summer of 2000, a colossal 21-pound brown trout shattered the old Kentucky state record by nearly 3 pounds. Additionally, in 1999, Gerald McDaniel achieved an IGFA line class world record with a striped bass weighing a whopping 45 pounds. Fishing pressure varies depending on the specific section of the river, but the overall quality of angling opportunities remains consistently exceptional throughout its course in Kentucky.
Fly-fishing in the Cumberland River System
Mentioning the Cumberland River and trout in the same sentence makes most anglers in the Blue Grass State immediately think of the tailwaters below Lake Cumberland in Russell and Cumberland counties. The reaction is understandable since that portion of the river is widely considered Kentucky’s premier fishery for trophy trout. It is also some of the most heavily stocked trout water in the state, receiving almost 100,000 fish each year.
If, however, one is talking about mountain trout fisheries in Kentucky, that portion of the Cumberland is located too far west and is not part of southern Appalachia. The upstream portion of the river above Lake Cumberland is the major waterway of southeastern Kentucky and along with its large tributary, the Big South Fork, is fed by the bulk of the better trout streams of the area. Neither the Cumberland nor the Big South Fork, however, are trout streams themselves.
Bark Camp, Beaver, Dog Slaughter, Laurel, and Rock creeks make up the fly-fishing waters feeding into the Cumberland system. Although there are a number of other streams that flow into the river system and contain trout, they either are mostly on private land, are quite small, or do not resemble mountain trout water.
Beaver Creek is a small stream that empties into the Cumberland River at the point where the river becomes the border between McCreary and Pulaski counties. Located on the southeast side of the river, Beaver Creek’s entire watershed is in McCreary County and the Daniel Boone National Forest.
There are a couple of facts about Beaver Creek that set it apart from most of the trout streams in Kentucky. First of all the stream is located in the Beaver Creek Wilderness Area, which was established by the Eastern Wilderness Act back in 1975. It was the first such federal reserve set up in the Blue Grass State. Secondly, although the stream has been stocked with trout for more than 20 years, there are also some indications that natural reproduction may be taking place in the creek’s headwaters.
Part of the reason that Beaver Creek was ideal for inclusion in the wilderness system was that the 5000 acres of land making up the creek valley have been owned by the state since the 1930s. That ownership protected the stream’s water quality from falling victim to the pollution associated with mining that has affected many eastern Kentucky waters.
Today only foot or horseback travel is permitted in the wilderness area. Naturally, the wilderness regulations make the fishing pressure quite low. Add to this the stocking of only about 2,000 subadult rainbow trout every other year and the fishing on Beaver Creek holds appeal for only the purist, wilderness angler. The meat-on-the-table anglers can find easier pickings on other waters.
Another oddity in the management of Beaver Creek is that only rainbow trout can be stocked there. Since they were the only trout species present when the wilderness area was established, introduction of other species is prohibited. Although rainbows of up to 14 inches have been reported, during the months of low water in the summer, trout are outnumbered by panfish and bass, especially in the lower half of the creek. During the hotter months the water temperatures on the creek hover around the marginal level for trout. In spite of the fact that the lower and middle sections of the creek are open enough to allow some casting room, it is tight fishing. These areas of the stream valley do not have much of a grade so the creek does not have a great deal of shoal water.
A concrete and wood bridge still stands across the stream near the midpoint of its course. The two miles of water below it down to the Cumberland can best be described as marginal. Upstream the creek is small and heavily foliated for the 2.5 miles to where the Middle Fork of Beaver Creek is joined by Freeman Fork and Hurricane Creek to form the main stream. While Beaver Creek offers one of the more interesting wilderness fishing experiences in Kentucky, it cannot be called a blue-ribbon fly-fishing destination in southern Appalachia.
Access to Beaver Creek is via FS 50 to the east off US 27 south of Somerset. Watch for FS 51 entering FS 50 from the east. Follow FS 51 to its end and then take the foot path that is between 0.75 and 1.0 mile long, down to the old bridge. The trail can be fairly overgrown from lack of use in the summer when flies, ticks, and warm temperatures make the walk uncomfortable. Another trail splits off FS 51 (it is marked FS 51C) that leads to the Three Forks area where the main stem of the creek is formed.
Bark Camp Creek
Bark Camp Creek is a small, heavily foliated stream that flows through Whitley County to join the Cumberland River. Although it constitutes a difficult fly-casting destination, and because of its small size, a marginal fly-fishery, it still merits mention, since virtually all of it is on Forest Service land.
Through much of its course it is a rocky tumbling flow that offers some good shoal water. In places it drops over some picturesque falls with plunge pools that occasionally yield impressive trout.
Only one Forest Service road (FS 193) crosses the stream and in the vicinity of the bridge some in-stream structure work has been done to improve the trout habitat. This portion of the creek is completely canopied and perpetually shaded, which, no doubt, keeps summer water temperatures cooler. Both rainbow and brown trout can be found around the structures.
Above the road crossing, the creek parallels the road, but is not visible from the gravel track. It is also a very small flow in this upper stretch, and not a practical fly-casting area. Below the bridge the creek is paralleled by a foot trail, FT 413, all the way to the Cumberland River. This trail intersects the Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail (FT 100) at the Forest Service’s Bark Camp Campground by the river. The trace trail, which winds for 250 miles through eastern Kentucky, gets its name from the Indian name given Daniel Boone by Chief Blackfish of the Shawnee Tribe and means”Big Turtle.” Blazes for this trail appear as white turtles painted on trees and rocks along the path.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stocks Bark Camp with catchable-size rainbow trout monthly from March through June. Due to the relatively light angling pressure applied and better-than-average habitat conditions, some trout are available all through the warmer months. Kentucky adds a planting of 400 brown trout to the stream, usually in the fall each year.
Trout of 12 to 13 inches turn up regularly, but the average fish in Bark Camp is a stocker of 9 to 10 inches and probably a rainbow. In the deep holes of the lower part of the creek, fish of up to 16 inches have been reported.
To reach Bark Camp Creek, take US 25 to the southwest out of Corbin. Turn to the right on County Road 1277. After passing Young Chapel Church on the left, begin watching for FS 193 on the left as well. Follow this gravel road until it crosses Bark Camp Creek. The end of CR 1277 is at its junction with the Sheltowee Trace at the Cumberland River. It is possible to hike upstream from here to the mouth of Bark Camp.
Dog Slaughter Creek
Lying just over the ridge to the south of Bark Camp Creek, Dog Slaughter is a smaller version of its neighbor stream. Like Bark Camp, it is located mainly on Forest Service land in Whitley County.
The creek is fishable downstream of the point that FS 195 crosses the flow, but for three-quarters of a mile below the crossing the creek is small, level, sluggish, and tightly canopied. After dropping over a 20-foot waterfall, the final one-quarter mile down to the Cumberland River is steeply graded with several cataracts, potholes, and large boulders. This lower portion runs through a short gorge with steep bluffs on both shores, is fairly open, and offers the best fishing.
Dog Slaughter is stocked with rainbow trout each month from March through June. It presently gets no brown trout plantings. Trout of 10 to 13 inches are taken regularly from the creek.
Access to Dog Slaughter Creek is via FS 195, running north off KY 90 a few miles east of Cumberland Falls State Park. A small sign marked 195 is at the intersection of the highway and this gravel road. The creek goes under the road through a pipe and the water is not visible from the roadway.
On the south side of the creek there is a parking area that also serves as the trailhead for a path that parallels the creek all the way to the Cumberland. Blazed with white diamonds, the path crosses a bridge over the South Fork of Dog Slaughter just a few yards from the trailhead. There is a trail intersection here and turning right leads to the main branch of Dog Slaughter Creek via FT 714. The trail is moderately strenuous down to the river, where it intersects the Sheltowee Trace. The junction of the creek and river can also be approached by hiking north from Cumberland Falls State Park on the Sheltowee Trace.
Not to be confused with streams of the same name that are in Elliot, Johnson, and Lawrence counties, this version of Laurel Creek is located in McCreary County. While those other Laurel creeks are stocked with trout, they are also on private land. This McCreary County stream is located almost entirely on Forest Service property, as it winds its way down to Marsh Creek, which in turn joins the Cumberland River south of Cumberland Falls State Park.
Laurel Creek is a small stream, but does offers some (very tight) fly-casting conditions. The streambed is fairly rocky and provides some holding water and ripples. Water temperatures in the lower portion seem rather marginal in the summer.
Laurel Creek is stocked only once each year with subadult rainbow trout by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As a result, fishing pressure is quite low.
Access to the creek is via KY 478 to the east of US 27. An old logging road parallels the creek downstream of the bridge, while the Laurel Creek Trail runs upstream along the flow. The trail starts at a parking area and is blazed with white diamonds. A footbridge carries the path over Bridge Fork then upstream along Laurel Creek.
It is also possible to get to the headwaters of the creek at the dam on the McCreary County Reservoir. It is a very small stream this far up and can be reached via Reservoir Road off US 27 south of Whitley City.
Flowing south to north, Rock Creek is a tributary of the South Fork of the Cumberland lying in McCreary County. It is probably the best-known and most popular trout creek in the commonwealth. It is also a stream that has been designated a Kentucky Wild River and offers roughly 15 miles of public water that provide a variety of fishing options.
Located entirely within the Daniel Boone National Forest, the creek is large and open enough to allow fly-casting all the way from White Oak Junction upstream to the Tennessee border. One peculiarity of the stream is that it does not actually make it all the way to the junction with White Oak Creek. Just a few yards short of this destination Rock Creek plunges into a limestone cave, leaving the stream bed dry downstream to the junction.
From the cave mouth upstream the creek is paralleled by FS 566 all the way to Bell Farm (a Forest Service campground designed for campers with horses) and consists of a string of deep sluggish pools with an occasional bit of shoal water. Through this area the creek is of medium size and holds a mixture of rainbow and brown trout, along with a healthy dose of smallmouth bass. The distance by road is 8.0 miles along this part of the stream, and there are a few parcels of private land located through here.
It is possible to paddle a stretch of the Rock River in the spring.
Above the Bell Farm camping area, the creek runs along FS 564 for a distance though a large patch of private, posted land. Next the creek follows FS 137 and more closely resembles a mountain stream, tumbling through rocky shoals between deep, but current-flushed pools. There are 7.0 miles of stream along FS 137 to the end of the road. A footpath then follows the creek on up to the Tennessee border. This upper portion of the stream has two Forest Service campgrounds, Hemlock Grove and Great Meadow, located on it. The Sheltowee Trace joins the creek at Hemlock Grove and runs through Great Meadow as it follows the creek on to the headwaters in Tennessee’s Pickett State Park and Forest.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service annually stocks 9- to 11-inch rainbow trout in Rock Creek each month from February through October. More than 25,000 fish are usually planted in the stream during the year. Kentucky officials also add another 1500 to 2000 brown trout to the stockings in October. Finally, the federal stockers release about 2000 subadult rainbows in the upper reaches of the creek above Great Meadows each fall. As a result of these plantings, fish are plentiful year-round, and trout of three to five pounds have been reported in the lower portion of the creek.
For the fly caster, the headwaters, where the fingerling rainbows grow into streamwise adults, hold the most promise. The stream is small above Great Meadows but gets much less fishing pressure than further downstream. It is ideally suited for either dry or wet flies, with adequate room for casting. All in all, the upper portion of Rock Creek has the most natural fly-fishing setting and conditions to be found in Kentucky.
To reach Rock Creek take KY 92 to the west of Whitley City. Immediately after crossing the South Fork of the Cumberland, turn left onto KY 1363. At White Oak Junction take another left on FS 566, which follows Rock Creek up to Bell Farm. At the Bell Farm intersection go left on FS 564 for about a mile to the junction with FS 137. Yet another left turn onto FS 137 leads to Hemlock Grove, Great Meadow, and the headwaters of Rock Creek.
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