June 11, 2023
Eight years ago, I moved sight-unseen to a tiny little town called Dover, Tenn. Sixty-seven miles northwest of Nashville, Dover sits at the southernmost entrance to the largest inland peninsula in the United States.
The Land Between the Lakes, or the "LBL" as it's affectionately known, is bordered on the west by the Tennessee River, which was dammed to create Kentucky Lake, and on the east by the Cumberland River, dammed to create Lake Barkley. This 170,000-acre National Recreation Area is a fishing, hunting and outdoor paradise, teeming with wildlife both in and out of the water. If you love the outdoors, you should consider a trip to the area.
While anglers who follow professional bass fishing are no doubt familiar with Kentucky Lake, many overlook its lesser-known younger brother, Lake Barkley, and its parent watershed, the Cumberland River. Named by explorer Thomas Walker of Virginia in 1758, the Cumberland is a major waterway in the Southern United States.
This 688-mile-long river flows west from the Appalachian Mountains all the way to the Ohio River near Paducah, Ky. Along its 18,000-square-mile course, it dips its footprint well into Tennessee for 300 miles, serving up 11,000 square miles of fishable water in the Volunteer State.
The Cumberland River initially played an important role in the U.S. as a passage for settlers and hunters back in the late 18th century. By the early 19th century, as was common of other major river systems in the United States, the Cumberland had become a major shipping route. This area also played an important role during the Civil War. On February 16, 1862, the Confederacy’s unconditional surrender took place at the Dover Hotel on the Cumberland River. The event not only earned General Ulysses S. Grant the nickname "Unconditional Surrender Grant," but also a place in history that would eventually lead to his presidency. The Dover Hotel, aka Surrender House, still stands on the banks of the Cumberland to this day.
As tourists and history buffs tour the Surrender House and nearby Fort Donelson battlefield, anglers can fish the eerie banks below the cannons.
Lake Barkley is a relatively shallow lake, with an average depth of 15 feet and a maximum depth of around 70 feet. The majority of the portion of the reservoir in Tennessee is riverine habitat and holds an abundant and varied population of largemouth and smallmouth bass, white and black crappies, bluegills, redear sunfish, white bass, catfish and saugers.
In spring, when the yellowtop flower is in bloom, you can catch bass on bladed baits along this beautiful shoreline, which is edged in brightly flowering yellow marsh marigold. In the summer, when the fishing gets tough, there are a number of locations for ledge fishing, especially in the bends of the river or along the limestone bluffs.
Stick baits are a must during this time of year, when fish are tight to structure along the shoreline of the main river channel and in creeks around boat docks. When the water starts to fall after July 5th, or following any high-water event, current will concentrate fish in the mouths of the embayments. This is when throwing a lipless crankbait is the ticket. Fly anglers will see the most success with a sinking-tip line and articulated baitfish patterns with a lot of movement.
Deepwater fish attractors have been installed in the reservoir to concentrate fish, and recently there has been a transition to artificial structures. Shallow-water fish attractor sites are marked on the lake with PVC pipe, and deep-water sites are marked with a buoy. Fishing these attractors is very productive; however, they can receive considerable pressure.
If you love your crappie fishing, then Lake Barkley, with its countless natural brush piles that dot the waters, is the place for you. Often, the locals at the ramps will share a bit of their insight with visitors, so don't be afraid to ask. Generally, a small, silver-pattern baitfish fly works well, as does jigging a soft-plastic curly tail in and around hard structure. In the springtime, crappies, like bass, move up into the creeks and bays to find shallower water to spawn. When they do, they become easy targets.
While you can fish from the shore in places, having a boat is your best bet for finding fish on Lake Barkley. There are numerous boat ramps in the area, including one in downtown Dover, and they are all open to the public and free of charge.
The Cumberland River has five major tributaries along its Tennessee route, and each area is worth exploring. If time is of the essence and you can only fish one area, you're best off choosing between the Obey, Harpeth and Caney Fork rivers.
- Obey: The Obey River joins the Cumberland near the town of Celina, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impounded the Obey to create Dale Hollow Lake. With 27,700 acres of water and 620 miles of shoreline, this impoundment holds a special place in the hearts of bass anglers. In 1955, this world-class fishery produced the world-record smallmouth, weighing 11 pounds, 15 ounces. Since then, anglers have made the pilgrimage to Dale Hollow to catch the next record, which many locals believe swims there. The fishery also has thriving populations of everything from trout to muskies, so anglers who like to target different species will find plenty of action here.
- Harpeth: If you're visiting Nashville for the music scene but still want to wet a line, you’re in luck. The Cumberland River runs smack through the city. Its tributary, the Harpeth, is a biodiverse river that includes more than 50 species of fish. An angler's paradise, the river also offers great kayak fishing and is easily accessible. My favorite public-access wading water is located in Franklin, just south of Nashville. Situated in this rapidly growing metropolitan city, the Harpeth River Conservancy is dedicated to preserving the water quality and biodiversity of the river. There are 26 public wading spots located along the banks of the Harpeth River. While this river is easily wadable, make sure you're in public water. In Tennessee, if you're on the bank or bottom of the river where it flows through private property, you’re trespassing. However, it is legal to float through private water; just don’t get out of the boat.
- Caney Fork: If you drive east on I-40 outside of Nashville, you’ll cross the Caney Fork River often. The river meanders back and forth underneath the highway, and is home to some of the prettiest trout in this part of the state. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency stocks over 100,000 trout in the Caney every year, so if it's trout you're looking for, this is your river. Heading to Center Hill Dam is your best option for finding bigger fish, which hold in the consistently deep and cold water. This is also a great place to launch your boat for a miles-long float downstream. The Caney Fork is a beautiful river with many twists and turns and holes that hold fish along its banks. Like other tributaries of the Cumberland, this river is easily accessible, but if you're targeting trout on the Caney with a fly, hiring a guide might be your best option. Southern Brookies Fly Fishing (southernbrookies.com) is owned by certified fly-casting instructor Susan Thrasher. The Cumberland River and its tributaries snake their way through small towns and large cities, and the waterways offer more than just fishing, so bring the family and explore all that the region has to offer.
The small town of Dover, Tenn., is the perfect home base for big Cumberland River fun.
Tucked away in northwest Tennessee, the quaint town of Dover is an excellent place to base a Cumberland River adventure. It’s located on Lake Barkley, and the river's tributaries, as well as the city of Nashville, are within driving distance.
While there aren't a lot of options for elegant dining in Dover, you will find good food at Mama Mea's, which specializes in American cuisine. Barbecue lovers should give Rick's Bar-B-Que a try. The pulled pork sandwich is a local favorite, as are the twice-baked potatoes. For those who enjoy the occasional adult beverage, be advised that Dover is in Stewart County, which is a "moist" county. That is, you can buy beer there, but if your tastes run to wine or liquor, you must bring your own. While in Dover, stay at the Shiloh Cabin at Dixieland Cabins for a rustic adventure. The cabin sleeps two and has a kitchenette ($100/night; dixielandcabins.com).
A word of warning for those driving through the area: Dover is ranked as one of the most active speed traps in the nation. As the locals say, “to get pulled over in Dover, go 3 miles over.”
Nashville is home to one of the best fly shops in the country.
Fly South is a full-service fly shop that offers everything imaginable for the avid fly angler, and sits directly across the street from the world-famous hot chicken restaurant Hattie B's. The shop is staffed by folks who are knowledgeable and as passionate about their fly-fishing as you are. Expert casting instruction, fly-tying classes and fly-fishing schools are available at Fly South. If it's a day on the water you're looking for, call the shop and book a guided trip. They offer both warm- and cold-water trips and can accommodate multiple anglers. Fly South also offers a Gear Upgrade Program. The program affords anglers the ability to receive store credit by "trading in" their current equipment for new, upgraded fly-fishing gear.