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Trophy Trouting on the Cumberland River

Trophy Trouting on the Cumberland River

With many miles of stream to explore and big trout to boot, there are plenty of reasons to cast your fly or lure in this top-rated river. (April 2009)

Flowing out of Cumberland Lake's Wolf Creek Dam are the cold, clear waters of the Cumberland River. The river flows 75 miles from the dam to the Tennessee state line and contains some of the best trout fishing found in the entire eastern United States.

The Cumberland River is heavily stocked and monitored by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), which helps maintain the river as a premier trout water in the southeastern part of the state.

The state instituted slot limits in 2004 to protect an age and size class of trout with true trophy potential. All trout in the 15- to 20-inch range must be released back into the river to fight another day. The real trophies, those over 20 inches, have an allowed limit of one fish per day, per angler.

Additionally, a creel limit of five fish per angler, per day is in place to prevent overharvest. Combined with heavy stocking, fertile waters, a slot limit, and moderate creel limit, the scenario for excellent trophy trout fishing is in place. The results speak for themselves.

The rainbow trout 15- to 20-inch protective slot limit, the five-fish creel limit, the minimum 20-inch size limit, and one-fish creel limit on brown trout have worked very well, says KDFWR fisheries research biologist Dave Dreves. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of brown trout 20 inches and over since the institution of the trophy regulations in 1997.

The rainbow trout slot limit and reduced creel limit has just been in place now since 2004. Its full effect has not been realized yet because it takes about three years after stocking for results to be fully observed. But already the catch rate of 20-inch rainbow trout has increased and is near an all-time high.


The outlook for trout moving up the size scale and approaching trophy size is also increasing and promising. The survey also found that there continues to be exceptional numbers of fish in the 12- to 14-inch size classes that should move into the protected slot size over the next year. There should also be increasing numbers of 20-inch rainbow trout as fish move through the protective slot limit.

The catch rates and relative abundance of trout was considered extremely high according the recent creel survey. The slot limits and overall program appears to be working. Undoubtedly, it is solid evidence that the more restrictive regulations implemented in 2004 are having the desired effect, the survey stated.

The KDFWR and nature is doing all it can to produce high numbers of big trout for Bluegrass anglers. While some anglers may reluctantly release a fat 19-inch trout back into the water, doing so gives that fish a good chance of becoming a real trophy and reaching the lofty 20-plus-inch range and beyond.

All that techno-speak seems to be good news, but what does that mean to the average angler trying to get a few tugs on his line? It simply means that your chances are well above average of not only catching a limit of fat trout, but also catching a trophy is a high probability. Even if you don't boat the elusive 20-inchers, sliding your hand under an 18-inch rainbow or brown, admiring and photographing it, and easing it back into the river is a very enjoyable experience, too.

The tailwater is fishable throughout its 75 miles flowing through Kentucky with fish throughout this long stretch. There are five landings on the river to launch your boat. At mile 5 is Helms Landing where you can fish just below and downstream of the dam. Winfreys Ferry Landing is at mile 16, state Route 61 at mile 40, Cloyds Landing at 53, and McMillans Ferry (closest to the state line with Tennessee) is at mile 69. Float tubes, wading and bank-fishing are all allowed, but most fishermen will use a boat to access the river.

During the hot summer months, the temperatures farther downstream may rise and be close to levels that are not comfortable for trout. The coldest water and the portions with the most consistent highly dissolved oxygen content will be found closest to the dam.

Rainbow trout are stocked at eight sites in the Cumberland tailwater. Most of these fish are stocked just below Wolf Creek Dam, according to what the 2007 creel survey revealed. Even though good fishing can be found throughout the tailwater, the best catch rates and consequently the most fishing pressure will be the first few miles below the dam.

Fishing guide Chris Scalley has been fishing the Cumberland since 1999. It's teeming with fish, Scalley reports; he's seen a dramatic increase in quality fish over the past three years. Scalley guides anglers on the river every year and observes that his clients catch their limit on every trip.

It's a classic southern tailwater, Scalley notes. The fish feed year-'round and the water has the same temperature, much different from the freestone streams. He also notes that the KDFWR has managed to satisfy both demands of anglers, the trophy fishermen and the hook-and-cook crowd.

Some anglers fish the Cumberland hoping to catch a limit of fish, so they can take some home for a tasty trout dinner. For those, the five fish per person limit is in place so these folks can enjoy a trout dinner or two. But at a limit of five, instead of eight or 10, there is a cap on the total number of trout that will be removed from the river.

Those fishermen who are seeking the power and drama of battling a fat trophy rainbow or brown are also catered to on the Cranberry River. The slot limit protects the age- and size-class of fish that have been able to survive long enough to reach a respectable size. A few fish will continue to grow and survive to the elite trophy status of 20-plus inches. For those targeting the thrill of a true trophy, those fish inhabit the Cumberland in reasonable numbers.

Scalley has noted two major staple foods for trout in the Cumberland. Sow bugs and black fly larvae are available year 'round to hungry rainbows and browns. Sow bugs can be mimicked with Orvis lightning bugs and Kauffman's Scud nymphs. Using either of these flies will draw strikes the entire year since the trout are accustomed to seeing and feeding on them 12 months a year.

Black flies have a four-stage life cycle: egg, larvae, pupae and adult, and they hatch repeatedly throughout the year. Because they reproduce frequently, usually several times per year, some stage of black flies is always available to fish in the river. Black flies are imitated with black or brown zebra midge flies. These flies and nymphs can be used throughout the year with good results on the Cumberland also.

Seasonal baits for spring and summertime are those that look like caddis, mayflies and stoneflies. These three categories of insects or trout food can be replicated with surface dry flies or underwater nymphs.

Starting with the caddis group, use Dunn Elk Hair, Tan Elk Hair and Scalley's Cripple Caddis on the top of the water. In the subsurface Caddis group, LaFontaine's Deep Pupae and the beadhead soft tackle pheasant tail work well. The Scalley's Cripple Caddis is a specialty of the guide Chris Scalley, and instructions on tying it yourself can be found at www.chattahoochee

Mayflies are also a popular bait for trout and trout fishermen. For mimicking mayflies under the water, Scalley recommends beadhead pheasant, Hair's Ear nymph, and Copper John nymphs. For going on the surface with dry flies, go with Parachute Silver, Sulfur Sparkle and Bunny dun flies.

Stoneflies are additionally a tempting trout treat and should be cast into the Cumberland. The stonefly group is represented underwater with Kauffman's Stonefly and Black Girdle bugs. Stay dry with Elk Hair Caddis and Stimulator flies to draw trout to the surface for a bite.

Spin-fishermen can also catch limits of rainbows with the right lure and presentation. Scalley recommends using inline spinners such as Panther Martins and Rooster Tails. Minnow-style crankbaits are deadly, such as Rapala countdowns in sizes 3 and 5. Yo-Zuri Minnows in rainbow colors will draw strikes. A funny-shaped spoon called a Super-Duper works especially well in the Cumberland. Scalley reports that that it has the right reflection and small profile and is just deadly.

Not to be left out, bait-fishermen can catch their limit using worms, corn, salmon eggs and the Berkley PowerBaits or similar enticements. Tossing one of these irresistible offerings with a weight to keep it down in the water is a good bet to get bit.

I fished with Chris Scalley last year along my son, Tucker, who was 9 years old then. We launched the boat at Helms Landing and motored upstream toward the dam. While Chris was setting up the tackle, Tucker tossed a basic Rooster Tail spinner into the flow and caught two rainbows right from the start.

But most of our angling was with fly rods, which Chris is happy to provide instructions. He was very patient and encouraging with Tucker who had never used a fly rod before, and eventually my son caught some fish with it. We fished beadhead nymphs under strike indicators for most of the time. Casts would be made upstream and the nymphs allowed to naturally drift downstream with the current. At times, we would mend the line and roll it back upstream.

By watching the strike indicator, we would know when to set the hook, but that's easier said than done. One had to have the slack line out, a good grip on the line and rod, stay focused on the indicator, and have quick reflexes. Many strikes are missed when currents and reflexes come into play.

Still, we boated our share of Cumberland River trout. By the end of the day, we brought about 20 in and kept our limit of 10 chunky rainbows headed for the grill. I caught one rainbow trout about 16 inches long that had to be released. It was a pleasure to catch, admire and slide the magnificent trout back into the chilly Cumberland

Over and over, we would cast out our nymphs to drift downstream as the boat flowed downcurrent on the river.

Then we would motor back upstream and do it all over again. Other anglers chose to anchor and stay in one spot and concentrate on thoroughly fishing a section. We also tried some surface dry fly-fishing, but the bite was not there.

It is obvious that Chris Scalley loves fishing the Cumberland River. He makes frequent trips here every year and keeps clients happy with tight lines on those trips. When asked what made Cumberland so special, Scalley replied, "Calcium carbonate."

Calcium carbonate is the key, the building block for all food webs in the river, Scalley informs. The food chain substrate is enhanced and the pH is buffered. A stable pH and environment helps invertebrate life to thrive, which means big-time groceries for trout; hence, Cumberland River rainbows and browns feed year 'round, Scalley said.

The Cumberland has limestone geology, and cold, clean, highly oxygenated water, Scalley noted. "I love the rural charm of the area; it's fairly remote with no big city around, and Jamestown is a sleepy town," he added.

Scalley almost gushes when writing about the Cumberland River. On his Web site, he states: It is truly one of the finest trout fisheries in the United States. The banks of the river are lined with hardwood forests, high bluffs, and farmland. A mostly limestone riverbed creates a fertile ecosystem that produces prolific hatches of caddis, mayflies and stoneflies.

Sow bugs are also quite numerous and provide an excellent source of protein for the trout in this river to attain size quickly. Terrestrials such as Japanese beetles provide even more food for the fish in the warmer months. These fish are gorgeous, healthy and strong.

The closest towns to great Cumberland River fishing are Burkesville and Jamestown. Lodging is available in these towns and at Cumberland Lake State Park and Dale Hollow Lake State Park. Other guides also service the river fishery and local anglers are common participants, but the fishing pressure is still not too bad, according to Scalley.

If you love trout fishing, the Cumberland River is the place to go. Whether bait-, spin-, or fly-fishing, keeping a limit for the frying pan, or targeting a trophy rainbow or brown, this river has it all. The creel limit and slot limit are in place to ensure that it remains that way.

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