Caves that Flow Cold Air, Fog and Smallies
This article is the twenty-ninth in the periodic Blue Water Trails series highlighting the tourism opportunities on Kentucky's streams and rivers
Dr. Larry Kelley, of Richmond, Ky., holds a smallmouth caught on Buck Creek in Kentucky. Buck Creek offers incredible scenery comprised of bluffs, caves and crystal clear water. The creek also has bountiful populations of smallmouth and rock bass.
No other stream in Kentucky has caves that flow cold air and fog over the water, springs that gurgle fresh water along the bank and rugged beauty that rivals the Red River Gorge. Nothing else resembles Buck Creek in Pulaski County; it even has a tributary that appears from one cave, flows aquamarine for less than a football field before disappearing into another cave.
A series of floats on this remarkable resource immerses the paddler into the power of water in a karst environment and its ability to carve a steep gorge into the Cumberland Plateau through the millennia. The Buck Creek drainage has over 90 documented caves. The cleansing effect of water moving through rock contributes to the creek’s exceptional water quality.
Buck Creek’s pristine water is home to 77 species of fish and 30 species of mussels, nine of which are considered rare. The water of the creek nourishes the extremely rare cumberlandian combshell mussel, the little-wing pearly mussel and Cumberland bean pearly mussel, all listed as endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Paddling the creek in the usual low water of fall grants perfect water conditions for families and beginners; however, boaters can expect to periodically drag their boats over shallow shoals and stream drops.
Buck Creek is home to a healthy population of smallmouth bass and an incredibly strong population of rock bass. The fishing for both of the species is some of the best found in streams in southeastern Kentucky.
The first float begins at the Dahl Road Access (KY 1677), which is actually located just a short distance down Rainey Road, which forks south at the Dahl Road Bridge. The access is located on the left, so look for the “No Dumping” sign. The take-out is a little over 4 miles downstream at the old KY 80 Bridge in the community of Stab. This makes an excellent half-day float.
The creek flows to the left just after the put-in along a bluff and the craggy rocks along the right bank (looking downstream) hold smallmouth bass. The water of Buck Creek flows exceptionally clear in fall. Downsizing line selection to 4-pound-test fluorocarbon line lends a great degree of stealth.
Buck Creek smallmouth bass like minnow imitations in the fall. Soft plastic jerkbaits rigged weightless in the smoke-bluegill color draw strikes as well as chrome and black floating-diving minnow lures such as a Rapala.
After flowing straight over shallow bars, the creek then bends hard to the right and some gorgeous, bulging exposed rocks appear. The shady water under overhanging rocks is a fantastic smallmouth hide on Buck Creek in autumn. The Rapala is a productive choice in these areas.
The stream makes a long bend to the left and the bluffs that rise on the right signal Buck Creek’s descent into the northern edge of the Cumberland Plateau.
The creek then bends to the right and back left with exposed rock high above the paddler. After another sharp bend to the right, the KY 80 Bridge comes into view. The take-out is on the right at the old KY 80 Bridge (Stab Road), immediately downstream of the new bridge.
This is also the put-in for the next float that constitutes some of the best smallmouth bass water in Buck Creek. The take-out is about 7 ½ miles downstream at the Bent Road bridge (KY 1003).
Just downstream of the put-in, Buck Creek takes a nearly 180-degree turn to the left, the water’s force through the centuries scouring a gorgeous blue-gray bluff. This rock-strewn water at the base of the cliff holds smallmouth bass.
Buck Creek then flows straight for a time before a hard bend to the right and enters a doorknob-shaped bend, signaling the beginning of what is known as The Bent, and some of the most scenic paddling in Kentucky.
The Bent makes nearly a half square as Buck Creek carves its way down into limestone of the St. Genevieve and St. Louis formations, formed by ancient seas millions of years ago.
At higher flows, Buck Creek wants to push boats up against the base of these bluffs. Paddlers should watch out for strainers such as fallen trees that can quickly flip a canoe or kayak.
Anglers should probe any woody cover in the deeper holes in this stretch with 2-inch black curly-tailed grubs for rock bass. Rock bass in Buck Creek run larger and more robust than in other streams.
Just after the second 90-degree turn of The Bent, soaring terraced bluffs come into view on the right with the Bent Road Bridge in the distance. The take-out is just downstream of the bridge on the right. High clearance 4-wheel drive vehicles are recommended for driving to the creek at this access, but those in other vehicles or in rainy weather should park at the top of the access and carry out. Make sure to not block the road for other users.
This also serves as the put-in for the next float that ends 5 miles downstream at the Dykes Road Bridge (KY 192) or at the Poplarville Access one mile further downstream. This stretch abounds in geodes.
The stream flows into a more entrenched gorge in this section with terraced bluffs lining the stream, often on both sides. In fall with leaves changing, this section of Buck Creek transports a paddler into views of the foothills not much different from what greeted the pioneers or the Cherokee before them.
The bluff and overhanging bank on the left side of Buck Creek downstream of the Bent Road Bridge is an excellent fall smallmouth bass spot. The smoke bluegill-colored soft plastic jerkbait works wonders in this stretch. The creek bends to the left and then gently back to the right. The drops in this stretch offer some excitement to paddlers, especially at higher flows.
The creek flows straight for a time through a karst area known as The Sinks that produced saltpeter for black powder during the 1800s. Whetstone Creek, one of the few above ground tributaries of lower Buck Creek due to the karst geology, soon enters Buck Creek on the left. Whetstone Creek also marks the boundary of the Daniel Boone National Forest.
Soon, Buck Creek makes a sharp turn to the right. The rocky bank on the left against the bluff should be probed with a medium-running brown and orange crankbait for smallmouths. The creek then makes another sharp bend to the left, followed by a shallow bar. This water above and below this bar holds smallmouths as well.
The creek then deepens for a stretch and fallen trees hold rock bass and spotted bass. After receiving the cool waters of Baker Branch and a spring, Buck Creek makes a hard “U”-shaped bend to the right and then again left. Dykes Bridge comes into view. On early summer mornings, the cool air blowing from Dykes Cave at the bridge places a blanket of fog over Buck Creek here, called “cave smoke” by locals.
The take-out is at Dykes Bridge via a 4-wheel drive road on the left. A small parking area just west of the bridge accommodates users. Paddlers may continue for another mile to an easier take-out at the Poplarville Access on KY 3269, a short distance from its intersection with KY 192.
The parking area is on the right, across KY 3269 from two sandstone chimneys that once warmed long gone log structures. The entrance to Wells Cave on the left denotes the take-out for paddlers.
The next float begins at the Poplarville Access and ends 6 ½ miles downstream at Hail’s Haven Boat Ramp. At fall water levels, paddlers encounter the headwaters of the Buck Creek arm of Lake Cumberland early in the float. This relaxing paddle is perfect for families enjoying the fall scenery and the spectacular bluffs of lower Buck Creek.
The mud flats exposed by the recent drawdown of Lake Cumberland grew up in trees that are now flooded in lower Buck Creek, providing excellent fishing for largemouth and spotted bass as well as crappie.
Visitors can combine paddling Buck Creek with boating on scenic Lake Cumberland for a great fall weekend getaway. Nearby Somerset and Lake Cumberland offer accommodations for visitors. General Burnside Island State Park has 94 campground spots available until Oct. 31.
The Blue Water Trails series supports Gov. Steve Beshear’s Adventure Tourism Initiative. Log on to Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s Blue Water Trails webpage at fw.ky.gov for a detailed map.
Somerset-Pulaski County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau:
General Burnside Island State Park:
Editor’s Note: Author Lee McClellan is an award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.