A grinning boy reels quickly as his rod tip jiggles frantically, and his dad kneels beside him with landing net in hand. The fish at the end of the boy’s line — a 10-inch rainbow trout — looks much like half a dozen others the father/son duo has fooled already, and it will soon join those fish on a stringer. Fishing from the banks of small tailwater, these anglers are enjoying the steady action they have come to expect from this section of stream.
Eleven of Kentucky’s 16 tailwater trout streams are managed specifically as put-and-take rainbow trout waters. Every trout stocked is adult size and most fish are caught and harvested the same season they are stocked. These river sections, which together offer 10 miles of stocked trout waters, provide predictable opportunities for anglers to catch trout to take home — especially during late spring.
Neither growing big trout nor providing angling solitude is a management objective in these waters, and most don’t have year-round habitat to support trout from one season to the next. Instead, these are waters that seasonally run cold enough for trout and offer good settings for fishermen to enjoy fish-catching action. The streams get stocked when conditions are good, with expectations that anglers will take the trout home.
We’ve selected three Eastern Kentucky tailwaters that offer fine put-and-take trout fishing opportunities. The Yatesville, Carr Creek and Fishtrap tailwaters all have the common denominators of good access to regularly stocked rainbows, but each is a little different in its specific offerings. Stocking numbers and the months when trout get stocked vary by river and are based on normal water temperatures and water quality, according to Kevin Frey, the Eastern Kentucky district fisheries biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR).
None of these are hydroelectric dams so water flow variations don’t tend to be as severe and sudden as below power-production dams. That said, the amount of water discharged from the dams does vary substantially based on the amount of rainfall in the watershed in recent days, and high flows can shut down the trout fishing or at least cause the fish to hold very tight to the bottom.
“If water is rolling pretty swiftly when you show up, you may want to have some alternative available that would allow you to present your lure or bait at the bottom,” Frey said. “The trout will hold or hug the bottom when tailwater outflows greatly increase. The swiftest water will be near the surface or top and require more energy than fish want to expend.”
Most fishing in all three tailwaters is done from the bank, with wading being the next most popular approach. A canoe or very small johnboat could be hand-launched to drift these rivers, according to Frey, but he noted that an angler probably would not gain enough advantage with a boat to justify the extra effort.
We’ll look specifically at each of the three tailwaters, examining normal stocking schedules, the character of the stream section and opportunities for access. Then we’ll look at the best approaches for catching trout on all three rivers and valuable considerations for all of Kentucky’s put-and-take tailwaters.
CARR CREEK LAKE’S CARR FORK
Both the lake and the creek are interchangeably referred to as Carr Creek and Carr Fork, but by either name, this small tailwater flow in the mountains of Knott County serves up a large dose of opportunity to trout fishermen. Despite offering only 1/2 mile of what the KDFWR considers trout waters, Carr Fork gets stocked with 8,400 trout per year. The department stocks 800 trout per month from April through September and 600 trout per month during October and November.
The combination of heavy stocking rates and excellent public shoreline access makes Carr Fork extremely popular, so visiting anglers should expect company, especially on weekends. Most anglers will crowd around a long, narrow pool at the foot of the dam. Not only do trout densities tend to be the highest in the pool, but also its banks are riprap lined, making for easy access. Two fishing platforms provide additional access. That said bank-fishermen and wading anglers alike would find additional room to fish along the flowing portion of the stream immediately downstream from the pool.
Carr Fork is part of the headwaters of the Kentucky River. The creek adds its flow to the North Fork of the Kentucky River. Carr Creek Lake, which was built in 1976, is fairly small at 710 acres. The lake is best known locally for its walleye fishing, and anglers who fish for trout in the tailwater will also encounter some walleyes, along with occasional crappie.
Carr Fork is located near Hazard. Travel to the southeast on state Route (SR) 15 out of Hazard; turn left on Sassafras Creek Road to access the tailwater. In addition to fishing platforms, facilities below the dam include restrooms, a picnic area and a campground.
FISHTRAP LAKE’S LEVISA FORK
The tailwater of Fishtrap Lake, which is located in extreme eastern Kentucky, gets heavily stocked during the spring, receiving 1,800 rainbows per month from April through June, However, all stocking efforts are ceased through the heat of the summer to be resumed at a much lower level (600 fish per month) during October and November.
Fishtrap Lake, which covers 1,131 acres and was built in the mid-1960s, impounds Levisa Fork, a tributary of the Big Sandy River. It’s the most volatile of these three tailwaters in regards to water flows after heavy rain events; in fact, it can get far too rough and muddy to fish on occasion. It is also the longest of any of Kentucky’s straight put-and-take tailwaters, with 1.7 miles of trout waters.
Water pours from the base of the dam through a big concrete tunnel, and the immediate outflow is flanked by concrete fishing platforms on both sides. Downstream of the platforms the stream flows between riprap banks before widening a bit more, turning shallower and slowing. The largest concentrations of anglers fish from the platforms or the riprap, but public access along Corps of Engineer lands continues well downstream, and anglers who don’t mind walking a bit find good opportunities to get away from the crowds.
The Fishtrap tailwater offers diverse angling opportunities, which can be handy when the trout won’t cooperate. In addition to rainbow trout, anglers are apt to catch hybrids, white bass, sauger, walleyes, sauger or even flathead catfish from this stretch of river, according to Frey. The other species become extra important in the summer, when the tailwater becomes too warm for trout and most stocked fish have been caught and taken home already.
The Fishtrap tailwater is located near the community of Shelbiana. From U.S. Route 460/state Highway 80, just southeast of town, turn east on Fishtrap Road.
YATESVILLE LAKE’S BLAINE CREEK
The 1/2-mile section of stocked trout waters below Yatesville Lake earned one of the best ratings of Kentucky’s put-and-take tailwaters, based on six different factors that are used to systematically evaluate all trout waters in the state. It’s a small stream, and the habitat is only suitable for trout a few months of the year, but during those times it provides fine opportunities. The KDFWR considers the first 1/2-mile of stream downstream of the dam as trout waters, but some trout likely spread a bit farther downstream during May.
Yatesville Lake, which is located in Lawrence County near the West Virginia border, impounds 2,314 hilly acres. Normal May conditions leave the lake at summer pool and the outflow stable and at a good level for trout fishing. The tailwater section gets stocked with 600 rainbow trout per month during April, May and November. Through the summer it gets too warm for trout and then it becomes a better place to fish for spotted bass, crappie or bluegill.
Riprap banks bound the immediate outflow from the dam on both sides, and the riprap again provides good access to waters that typically hold fish. Below the riprap, there is a launch suitable only for canoes or other small hand-launched boats and additional bank access, some of which can be reached only by walking downstream from parking areas. Parts of the banks are wooded, making fishing access more challenging. Assuming modest flows, the upper portion of the small tailwater run can also be fished by getting out in Blaine Creek.
The Yatesville Lake tailwater is located just northwest of the Louisa, which is very close to the West Virginia border. Access to the tailwater is off SR 1185, which is accessible off SR 3 out of Louisa.
Tactics for Tailwater Rainbows
Fishing with natural offerings is by far the most popular approach for working the tailwaters Yatesville, Carr Creek and Fishtrap dams. Effective offerings include live worms and crickets, corn and commercially produced trout baits such as YUM TroutKrilla. An advantage of manufactured trout pastes or nuggets is that they break up in the water, creating a chum line of sorts in the current.
During periods of low flow, a simple and effective way to present a worm or a night crawler is to suspend it a couple of feet beneath a float, adding a split shot or two just up from the hook to hold the bait down in the water column. The rig can then be cast slightly upstream and drifted downstream along riprap banks, over slightly deeper runs or along the edges of trees.
Depending on the number of anglers fishing an area, however, drifting bait can become challenging. A popular alternative is to use some sort of bottom rig and to cast out the bait and let it settle on the bottom. If the trout are nearby, they’ll find the bait. Many anglers prefer an egg sinker or other sliding style of weight, with a swivel tied to the line below the weight and then a short section of leader with the hook at the end of it. Such a rig allows buoyant baits to suspend just off the bottom and allows trout to take the bait without feeling any pressure on the line.
Anglers who are fishing off the platforms immediately below Carr Creek and Fishtrap dams might opt for an even more vertical and stationary rig. A three-way rig, anchored with a bell sinker that’s heavy enough to hold bottom in the current, works nicely for keeping lines from getting tangled with those belonging to anglers on either side and for suspending a night crawler or a nugget of trout bait just the bottom.
For any rig that’s designed to hold a natural offering near the bottom, the amount of weight needed will vary according to the amount of flow and the depth of the water. For low flows, 1/8-ounce of lead might be plenty to do the job. When more water is running, 3/4 ounce might be needed to fish the same waters. Hooks with small gaps (No. 8 or 10) and long shanks work well. The long-shank design is helpful for unhooking trout. Light spinning or spin-casting gear and 6- to 10-pound test typically works well for tailwater trout fishing.
Although bait-fishing is the most popular tactic used in these tailwaters, it’s by no means the only way to catch these trout. Anglers who favor a more active approach or who like to try to fool fish with artificial lures can find very good action by throwing small in-line spinners, marabou jigs or tiny crankbaits and jerkbaits. At times, in fact, the flash of a spinner or the wobble of a crankbait will draw reaction strikes from trout that aren’t really feeding and that are rejecting most natural baits.
Flies will also draw strikes, but the fly-fishing approach is somewhat challenging in these waters because of the popularity of the fishery and the number of anglers who typically set up in stationary positions with bait lines out. Neither drifting flies nor working up a stream is practical under such conditions. A small streamer that can be cast straight out and worked back with line strips — as opposed to being drifted, works best for fly- fishing among other anglers.
Whatever technique an angler chooses, a willingness to be mobile can provide a real advantage over other anglers, most of who will pick a spot and camp out there — win, lose or draw. There’s nothing wrong with fishing from a stationary position. However, trout tend to find little pockets they like, and often they won’t wander far. Therefore, fishermen who are willing to move when the bite slows or when the fish don’t cooperate often can find more fish and continue catching trout while others continue staring at motionless rod tips.
Where access to certain banks is excellent, as is the case along each of these tailwaters, an angler can also gain an advantage at times simply by fishing areas that are even a little bit tougher to reach. That might mean walking downstream, fishing from less open banks or wading out into the stream, when water levels allow.
Of course, the need to move about and the enhanced value of fishing from less accessible spots depend largely on how recently trout have been stocked in the rivers. Shortly after stockings, the fish tend to be abundant and easy to catch for everyone!
Before You Go
The Yatesville, Carr Creek and Fishtrap tailwaters are all managed with general trout regulations. The rainbow trout limit is eight fish, with no minimum size. For more information about these streams and other put-and-take tailwaters, plus weekly updates on where trout have been stocked, visit the KDFWR online at fw.ky.gov.