Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Not often do waters become known as “trophy” fisheries. There are so many factors involved in creating — and then maintaining — a favorable environment to grow consistently big fish that it’s unusual for a lake or river to earn that reputation.
First of all, before any fishery can be tweaked and managed for optimum production, Mother Nature has to deal the water a good hand. If you don’t have that base to work from, managing for trophy fish won’t be as effective. Habitat, good water conditions, forage and weather patterns also play a role in getting the most out of an established fishery.
In recent years, the portion of the Cumberland River below Wolf Creek Dam in south-central Kentucky has blossomed into perhaps the highest-quality rainbow and brown trout fishery in the southeastern United States.
All the necessary characteristics are present in the environment, and the management has been right on target for the delicate balance required to create trophy trout.
Dave Dreves is a research fishery biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) who monitors the Lake Cumberland tailwater trout fishery.
“Our most recent data,” he said, “indicates that our catch rate for quality trout in the Cumberland River puts us right there with more well-known fisheries, such as the White River in Arkansas, for example.”
Why is this portion of the Cumberland River better for trout than anywhere else in Kentucky? According to Dreves, the primary reason is the supply constant of cold water from the lake. This becomes vitally important during the summer months, when ambient air temperatures usually warm the water in most rivers and streams above the 70-degree mark.
Above that point, it’s pretty hard to grow trophy trout. In temperatures in the high 60s, trout begin to suffer stress. When the mid-70s arrive, that stress leads to death pretty quickly. But not so in the Cumberland River.
To get an idea of how crucial the coldwater factor is, you only have to look at this past summer’s drought. The drastic lack of rainfall caused a reduction in the amount of water that could be released downstream from the lake.
While the drawdown continues for dam repairs on Cumberland, taking the lake level any lower than it already was just wasn’t a good option.
The result was that slowly but surely, as the summer got hotter and drier, the water temperatures began to creep up. Not enough cold water was coming through the gates from the lake to maintain the colder downstream water needed. Soon trout in the lower portion of the river were scrambling to find water cold enough to survive.
“We found that all the trout downstream were going to the mouths of tributaries, where the water coming in from the feeder streams was a little bit cooler, until they practically stopped running,” said Dreves.
“We were fearful that we might lose some or all of our fishery in the lower portion of the river just because the water temperatures were borderline too hot. But fortunately that didn’t happen.”
Dreves said that a decent rain, coming at just the right time, allowed the Corps to release water.
That was enough to pull the temperatures back down and remove the threat in the main stem of the river. He also noted, however, that the prolonged period of high temperatures caused most of the trout to move into the upper portion of the river, which had remained cooler despite the minimal flow out of the dam.
“We found some evidence of trout that were pretty stressed and hadn’t been feeding normally, in spots where fish had always proven chunky and healthy in past studies,” he said. “We collected some fish that looked pretty thin in the gills, along with trout that were fat and sassy.
“We didn’t see a die-off anywhere. But it appeared that some of the fish living where the hotter water was were continually moving upstream to find the temperature they needed to survive, and the stress affected their feeding levels and growth.
“Fish that lived in the upper part of the river looked great. In fact, we found some of the highest densities of both rainbows and browns — and higher quality trout than we’d recorded in several years. I expect the stressed fish will bounce back,” he added. “But we had a pretty good scare for a long while. I hope it’s a normal rainfall year this summer so we don’t run that risk again.”
Interestingly, Dreves says that the Cumberland River isn’t really all that productive in terms of food sources for young trout. It does have some particular types of aquatic “bugs” –caddis flies and stoneflies, for example — for small fish to feed on and grow.
Dreves believes that the Cumberland River receives less fishing pressure than other high-quality trout waters in the region.
“This area does have good mayfly hatches, too, which provide recurring sources of food that trout prefer,” said Dreves. “Some anglers will use those hatches to their advantage in picking good times to fish.”
The increasing numbers of bigger trout in the upper 35 miles of the river, from the dam down to around Burkesville, are affected by having good habitat and cold water year ’round. But that’s also greatly due to the management strategy being used in this stretch of the Cumberland.
The trophy management approach is aimed primarily at growing monster brown trout, like the 21-pound state record caught in 2000 by Thomas Malone of Crofton. It’s really the only place where trophy management can be applied for this species, and it has worked amazingly well.
The stocking approach, along with the 20-inch minimum-size limit and one-fish daily creel limit, has created a fishery for big browns that is a shining star for the state compared to any of its fisheries anywhere else. Each year, the KDFWR stocks just shy of 40,000 brown trout at various locations in the Cumberland River to maintain a supply of fish.
Brown trout are not released at the dam, but rather from Helm’s Landing (four-plus miles downstream), and then downstream for the next 30 miles or so. No browns are stocked in the first four miles or so because this portion gets the most fishing pressure. Bio
logists want to try to protect these browns from immediate harvest.
That way, more of these fish have a chance to get bigger before being caught. Browns are 9 inches long when released.
“We depend on the rainbows to provide for the demand for put-and-take fishing, which mostly occurs immediately below the dam in the first mile or two of the tailwater,” said Dreves.
“Now that’s not to say some browns won’t move upstream and find a place to live. But it’s largely going to be rainbows available down to Helm’s Landing. Then after that point, both species can be caught.
In this particular waterway, the number of 8-inch rainbows released each year is 161,000. While that sounds like a huge number, Dreves says this rate is a little below what’s received by some other well-known quality fisheries in the Southeast.
At times, he notes, the Wolf Creek National Hatchery also drops in additional fish. During some years, that may push the total number of rainbows up to around 200,000 fish.
“I think the lower rate may also have something to do with how quickly our trout grow and why this fishery has developed into one with a lot of trophy potential,” he said.
“There may be a little less competition for food and space, which means bigger-sized fish show up sooner.
“In our trout, we’re seeing over half-inch growth rates each month of the growing season, which adds up quickly.”
Lastly, Dreves believes that the Cumberland River receives less fishing pressure than other high-quality trout waters in the region. He says there are days when you can do a five-mile float trip and not come across another angler. And though 95 percent of the fishing in the river is for trout, it’s not a free-for-all — other than right below the dam, where bank- and wade-fishing can be a little hectic on weekends.
To fish in the better stretches for big browns and rainbows, you’ll need to put yourself in a stretch of river about 30 miles long between Helm’s Landing and Burkesville.
In years of normal water flow, most of this has deeper pools and is deep enough for boating. Last year, when the water level was down, Dreves noted that it opened up several places to wade-fishing that weren’t usually available. And at times, boaters had to be very careful navigating upstream or downstream.
“About the best place to encounter trophy fish is in the Rainbow Run area, which is about 11 miles downstream from the dam,” said Dreves. This is the area where biologists conduct a lot of fish collection studies, and they’ve seen excellent numbers of high-quality browns and rainbows.
The section from Rainbow Run down to Big Willis or Crocus Creek has deeper habitat that browns like, and a lot of browns are stocked in or close to this section.
“A good day-long float trip,” said Dreves, “is to carry in at the Rock House, which is about 10 miles or so downstream, and float to Winfrey’s Landing.
“It’s five or six miles of water. But if you don’t have a second vehicle, you can walk back on the road from Winfrey’s to the Rock House, and it’s only about a mile or so.”
This trip takes you through the Rainbow Run section, which is one of the honeyholes on the river. It starts just after the deep Rock House hole and runs a half-mile or so after the pebble rock island. The Rock House is located off state Route 379, along the Cumberland and Russell county lines.
Said Dreves, “I continue to expect great things for trophy trout fishermen this spring, despite the strange year last summer, particularly in that first 35 miles of the river.
“We’re on an excellent trend upward for more higher quality fish. The low, clear water of last summer gave us a higher algae content. That may have also helped create more food availability, and the trout probably actually benefited from that.”
Last fall, Dreves says, the drought might have possibly caused a natural brown trout spawn. Under normal conditions, natural spawns for either species don’t happen because daily water levels are up and down. This constant fluctuation wreaks havoc on the laying and fertilizing of eggs.
“It would be great if we got a natural spawn,” Dreves said. “But the probability of having wild trout is pretty low. There’s even a chance rainbows might have spawned, but we’ll wait and see.”
He attributes an upswing in bigger rainbows over the last two years to the slot limit the agency imposed in 2004. The slot protects the 15- to 20-inch rainbows from harvest, and lets anglers keep five under 15 inches and one over 20 inches. Based on growth rates, Dreves suspects it will take another two years to fully realize how the slot will improve the average-sized rainbow being caught.
“It takes about five years for a rainbow to reach 15 inches in the Cumberland River,” he said. “So for us to see how many more fish 15 inches or larger we can expect in the population should be known after a couple more growing cycles.”
“What we’ve seen the first three years is pretty encouraging so far, and I believe trout fishermen are really going to enjoy having more large rainbows to catch than in past years.”
For trophy browns and rainbows, no other place in Kentucky can match what you’ll find along the Cumberland River.
Trout angler Lee McClellan has fished the river often with good success for rainbows and browns. He recommends choosing days that are overcast with maybe a little light rain dimpling the surface.
For big browns or rainbows, his top trout-catching lure is a Yo-Zuri Pins minnow jerkbait.
“I have particularly good luck on the green-backed, silver version or the baby-brook-trout patterns. But others work well, too.
“One key,” said McClellan, “is not to fish these kinds of lures as you would for bass. A lot of people do it that way, and it’s just not as effective on big trout. You want to rip this lure in a series of two or three hard, long jerks and make it flash and turn on the side, not wobble back to you in little twitches.”
This approach, he says, will attract attention from fish that are deep down, or some distance away in cover. After jerking the lure a few times, he lets it just rest in the current and waits for the trout to come get it.
“These lures suspend underwater rather than coming back to the top,” he said. “I highly recommend that you make sure you feel the fish solidly on the line before you set the hook. If you jerk too quickly, it will just pull out of his mouth, and you’ll miss more than you’ll hook.
“And it’s hard not to, since oft
en you can see the fish coming in that clear water, and you tend to anticipate the moment to set the hook.
“Wait until it tightens that line up pretty goodbefore you pull back on it. Most of the time, the fish will sort of set the hook for you, if you let it.”
McClellan says to fish along rocky areas for rainbows and woody places for browns, and that fish may be near cover or out in the middle of the river. Try both areas.
As a back-up when fish aren’t after surface offerings, he will use a brown/black/olive 1/16-ounce marabou hair jig with a red head. Crappie jigs sometimes work, especially when tipped with a mealworm.
Live-bait angling is permitted in the Cumberland River, and some anglers prefer catching alewives from the lake. They’ll use them to catch big trout by drifting an alewife along in deeper pools on a Carolina rig.
You can also use small shiners or minnows, since alewives are sometimes hard to come by.
Finally, McClellan says good fishing can be found along the series of gravel bars at the mouth of Crocus Creek and Bakerton and near the Burkesville Ramp, to name a couple of places.
For trophy browns and rainbows, no other place inKentucky can match what you’ll find along the Cumberland River. Remember that if fishing in the Cumberland below the dam down to the Tennessee state line, or any tributaries in between, you need a trout permit, whether or not you plan on keeping any fish.
This is a special requirement on this waterway. Elsewhere in the Bluegrass State, the permit is needed only if you want to take fish home. Remember, too, that culling trout is not permitted, which is in place to protect this fishery and to help keep it as Blue Ribbon as it can be.