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Our State's Overlooked Stream Smallies

Our State's Overlooked Stream Smallies

Kentucky's large lake smallmouth fishing gets most anglers' attention, yet excellent action can be found in many of our state's streams as well. Read on for one near you. (April 2006)

Bam! The angler feels a sudden jerk and the rod tip surges into a dramatic bend. A few cranks on the reel and the surface of the water explodes in a shower of water and a fighting fish. Yes, it's another scene from our state's great smallmouth action.

Kentucky has many streams that offer excellent smallmouth fishing. Trouble is, neither biologists nor anglers know as much about the stream smallies as they would like. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) is working to change that, though.

There has been only a limited amount of management done on smallmouths in our state streams. However, biologists with the KDFWR have started doing various studies to determine the success of spawning, health and longevity, as well as stocking needs and options.

Jeff Ross of the KDFWR said district fisheries biologists have been making a concerted effort to collect as much data as possible on stream smallmouths. Although angling is great now, they hope to be able to better enhance the stream fishery in the future.

The biologists intend to study the streams extensively. They want to identify any problem areas and also which streams are doing well. Information gained from the various research projects will be used to rank the best streams for smallmouths, determine management regulations, and develop stocking strategies.

Biologists know they will find that stocking will be the best fix for some streams. They will be collecting genetic information to determine which particular strains of smallmouths are doing best in individual areas. Some strains of smallmouths may be better suited for a particular type of habitat and water condition. The biologists can then use this genetic information to know what strains of smallmouths to stock in order to ensure the greatest degree of success.


These studies may result in some dramatic new information in the near future. Until then, the KDFWR has an excellent publication available for smallmouth enthusiasts. It covers stream smallmouths in Kentucky and was compiled by Jeff Ross. The publication has much information on our streams, including smallmouth biology, stream locations and accessibility, floating opportunity and fishing tips.

There are dozens of streams where anglers can enjoy smallmouth fishing in Kentucky. The smallmouth publication lists them, as well as highlights the KDFWR's picks for the top 25 best streams. Following is a look at three of our top picks.


One of the best-known smallmouth streams in Kentucky is Elkhorn Creek. It has been a favorite with anglers for many years and has received much acclaim. As with most any fishery, the stream has seen up and down years with its smallmouths.

There were some drought conditions that really helped the spawns. Reproduction is better during years with dry conditions. High water and flooding has the opposite effect on the success of the spawn.

That was the case in the late 1990s. In those years, there was much flooding that resulted in poor reproduction. This left the stream with some poor year-classes of smallies.

The chain of events over these years created a natural ebb and flow with the fishery. From about 1995 to 2000, anglers enjoyed the peak of good fishing because of the spawning success in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There were ample numbers of fish in the 16- to 18-inch range.

Then between 2002 and 2003, fishing began to drop off some and anglers wondered why. Is something wrong with the creek? Is it being overfished? Unfortunately, it was just one of the naturally occurring downsides of a cyclic fishery. The poor spawns and limited year-classes had finally caught up and most of the big fish from the earlier great reproduction years had been caught out or died of old age.

Now the creek is on the rebound. There were some great reproduction years in 1999 and 2000, which resulted in excellent year-class production. The last two to three years have seen many small fish showing up in catches. It's nearing time for anglers to really see a dramatic increase in the quality of fish coming from Elkhorn Creek. Within the next one to two years, the creek should really start peaking for anglers.

Elkhorn Creek is divided into three sections. The North and South forks are not as good as the main stem. The main stem is 18.2 miles long and runs from the forks of Elkhorn to the Kentucky River. This section has much more suitable habitat for smallmouths with its higher gradient and good ripple-pool combination. The main stem is floatable.


The Cumberland River offers some 134.6 miles of smallmouth stream. The bulk of the river flows 116 miles from Cumberland Falls to Harlan County. Another 18.6 miles of smallmouth stream runs from the Bell and Harlan county line to the confluence of Martins and Clover Fork.

Although smallmouths can be found throughout the river, the upper Cumberland can be very productive. Just above Cumberland Falls is an especially popular location with smallmouth anglers.

Much of the Cumberland is floatable. However, many areas offer limited access. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is required to access some portions of the upper Cumberland area.

The Cumberland River falls within the jurisdiction of district fisheries biologist John Williams. "I think you could pick about any area to float and it would be fairly productive for smallmouths. I have float-fished some of the sections near Williamsburg and have caught smallmouths. I know people that wade-fish just above the bridge at Cumberland Falls State Park with good success."

It's very difficult for biologists to rate the quality of the smallmouth fishery in the upper Cumberland because of the difficulty in obtaining survey data. "We have collected smallmouths throughout the upper Cumberland River from Cumberland Falls to Bell County. We never seem to get many fish when electrofishing, but we get at least a few (smallies) everywhere we go. I think we are pretty limited in the areas we can shock and our shocking data may not be indicative of the smallmouth fishery."


Anglers are not only treated to excellent smallmouth fishing on the Gasper River, but may also enjoy a very scenic area as well.

"Historically, the Gasper River has been one of the best, if not the best, smallmouth stream in the southwestern district," said fisheries biolo

gist Eric Cummins. Angler interest also indicates smallmouth fishing to be topnotch at this stream.

Cummins said the upper half of the river seems to be the best for smallmouths, according to angler reports. On the lower section, especially the last couple of miles, people report catching more largemouths than smallmouths. Anglers typically run into bigger smallmouths from Gasper on down.

There have been no surveys done on smallmouths in the Gasper River. However, Cummins said they do expect to do some sampling in the future. Angler reports have indicated some very good success and catches of some quality fish. Cummins said anglers can certainly catch fish up to 15 inches or even better. In fact, he has seen some in excess of 18 inches pulled from the creek.

Around five or six years ago, there was a fish kill on a portion of the river. Some "dandy smallmouths" turned up, according to Cummins. It was very surprising to see the quality of fish coming from an area of the river, which is quite small in size. The river has rebounded from the fish kill and angler success is very good.

The Gasper River runs from the backwaters of the Barren River all the way to the Warren County line. This provides around 21 miles of good stream with much of it floatable. Some parts of the river will require anglers to float a ways, portage, and then float again. Anglers are required to gain landowner permission before portaging across private land.

Many of the biologists also stress the need to treat our public use areas with respect and do a better job of policing those who treat these areas poorly.

The smallmouth publication mentioned earlier can be obtained at many sporting goods shops and places where hunting and fishing licenses are sold. It can also be obtained by calling or writing the KDFWR. Those with Internet access can view and print the entire publication in PDF form at the KDFWR's Web site at The KDFWR can be reached toll-free on the information line at (800) 858-1549.

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