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Cumberland River Still Great Trout Fishery

After record water levels, river has rounded back into great fishing shape

Cumberland River Still Great Trout Fishery
Cumberland River Still Great Trout Fishery

From Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources

FRANKFORT, Ky. – Monsoon rains this past spring pushed Kentucky Lake, Lake Barkley, Nolin River Lake, Rough River Lake, Cave Run Lake and Taylorsville Lake to water levels never before witnessed. Water flowed over the emergency flood spillway at Rough River Lake for the first time.

Lake Cumberland rose quickly as well, prompting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release a great deal of water through Wolf Creek Dam, creating strong currents in the Cumberland River below it. The high water created miserable fishing conditions, but now the Cumberland River is rounding into great fishing shape.

“It is definitely a good time to fish the Cumberland tailwater,” said Dave Dreves, fisheries research biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “The water levels right now are decent for boating. You can put in at the dam and make a long run. You can certainly get everywhere you want in an average sized fishing boat, but be careful in the shallow areas and shoals.”

Due to ongoing repairs on Wolf Creek Dam, the Corps must keep the Lake Cumberland 40 feet lower than normal summer pool. Once the lake reaches that level, they only release enough water to keep the water temperatures cool enough to support the world class trout fishery in Cumberland River.

“They should shut off this flow relatively soon and go to releasing a minimal amount of water,” said Dreves, who oversees the fisheries management of Cumberland River. “That will create good wading conditions for fishing.”

Few better ways exist to escape the summer heat than wading the Cumberland River early on a mid-summer morning, casting to rising trout. However, the low summer flows in the river are a double-edged sword. Low water in both Lake Cumberland and Cumberland River created uncomfortable summer and early fall water temperatures for trout over the past several years. The bountiful rainfall this spring helped.

“The condition of the water this year in the river is closer to normal compared to the past several years,” explained Dreves. “We saw a noticeable improvement in the condition of the trout this year. This should help with growth.”

Cumberland River still produces excellent fishing, although size and growth diminished slightly from stress created by warm water temperatures over the last couple of summers.

“The numbers of trout are good,” said Ron Brooks, director of fisheries for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “I think there are plenty of fish.”

Brooks recently fished the river and caught many trout. “Some of those trout went nuts,” he said. “They acted like tarpon. I saw people using spinning gear and doing well.”

Anglers using spinning gear should catch rainbow trout with small in-line spinners and spoons fished over flowing shoals. Spinning anglers after brown trout should target pockets near woody cover and deeper rocky banks with small suspending jerkbaits worked erratically.

“A lot of the same places you fish when the water is low are still good,” Dreves explained. “Shoals such as those around Helm’s Landing and Rainbow Run still hold trout; they just have two more feet of water on them. Try and figure out what they are hitting that day.”

Dreves said fly anglers should cast nymphs and streamers right now, but vary their retrieves to find what works.

“The trout may like it stripped really fast just under the surface or a slow dead drift,” Dreves said. “Usually, a faster retrieve works best when the water is low and clear. Right now with decent flow, slower is better.”

Anglers fishing Cumberland River also have a healthy chance to set a new state record. The fisheries division stocked about 12,000 brook trout in the Cumberland River earlier this year, giving anglers a chance to break the 15-inch long, 1-pound, 5-ounce brook trout state record. Louisville’s R. James Augustus caught the record fish from Martin’s Fork in 1982.

“As soon as the brookies get to the 15-inch minimum size limit, they’ll have a potential state record,” Dreves said. “It could happen soon.”

This hot July is the perfect time to get to the Cumberland River and enjoy the cool water and excellent trout fishing. You may even set a new state record in the process.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources manages, regulates, enforces and promotes responsible use of all fish and wildlife species, their habitats, public wildlife areas and waterways for the benefit of those resources and for public enjoyment. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife is an agency of the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. For more information on the department, visit our website at

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