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Bonus Brown Trout In Our State

Bonus Brown Trout In Our State

A continued aggressive brown trout stocking program has put many of Kentucky's finest streams and tailwaters on the map as great places to catch bruiser browns. Here's where you should try.

Photo by Tom Evans

A bluff-bound creek bend and small upstream drop form a huge pool along a small creek. The creek's current races toward the bluff at the head of the hole. A toppled tree spreads its branches into the deepest water, guarding a dark, bottomless-seeming eddy that's beside that rock wall. A big brown trout lurks in the bottom of the hole in a spot where no angler could possibly present an offering.

Adult brown trout like the deepest, darkest holes they can find and the thickest cover they can bury themselves in. They also tend to be warier than rainbow or brook trout and often become largely nocturnal as they grow older. These factors add up to make browns more challenging than their cousins, adding intrigue for veteran trout fishermen and increasing the likeliness of individual fish reaching larger sizes.

A little less domesticated than hatchery strains of rainbow trout, even stocked brown trout tend to do well in the wild, where the habitat meets their needs. A few individuals usually escape early harvest for a few years and grow to large sizes, creating high-quality fish that look and act like wild trout, despite being hatchery raised.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) began stocking brown trout in Commonwealth waters in 1982. That first stocking occurred in Lake Cumberland's tailwater. The immediate success and obvious appeal of brown trout caused the department to consider ways to expand the brown trout program, and in 1986 they began stocking browns in other streams.

Brown trout waters currently include four tailwaters and nine free-flowing Kentucky streams. In addition, the KDFWR stocks brown trout in two streams on Fort Campbell, which fall under special management. These waters are actually in Tennessee, but the licensing is reciprocal.

All Kentucky brown trout streams stay cold enough and have sufficiently good habitat to support brown trout throughout the year, and the fisheries are managed for put-grow-and-take opportunities. Minimal natural reproduction appears to occur in a couple of streams, according to Jim Axon, assistant chief of fisheries for the KDFWR. However, all of Kentucky's brown trout populations are primarily dependent on hatchery efforts.


Except on Chimney Top Creek, where fingerling browns are stocked, all brown trout are stocked as 8-inch fish, once per year, on an unannounced date, which is typically in the fall. With a statewide 12-inch minimum size on brown trout, the fish are not yet legal for harvest when they are stocked and typically will not be for another year. This allows the fish to get acclimated and creates "semi-wild" brown trout populations.

Brown trout stocking densities are generally lower than rainbow stocking densities and smaller fish are used because they are put in the streams with the purpose of creating populations, as opposed to stocking fish that likely will be caught out quickly. Catchable-size rainbows are also stocked in most of Kentucky's brown trout streams.

Kentucky has a statewide three-fish limit for brown trout (part of a combined eight-fish limit for rainbow and brown trout) and a 12-inch minimum size. Additional protection is afforded on a few other streams, and more special regulations are being considered with an aim of creating more high-quality brown trout fisheries.

All streams included in the brown trout program provide cold enough water through the summer and good enough habitat to sustain brown trout populations, and all provide good fishing opportunities, according to Axon. The Cumberland, without question, is the best of the group, both in terms of the amount of opportunity and the sizes its fish can reach. However, the other streams provide very different types of experiences.

Except in the Cumberland, most brown trout range from the size they are stocked to about 15 inches, with occasional trophies in the 18- to 20-inch range, Axon said. Brown trout over 15 inches are common on the Cumberland, and anglers sometimes land fish of double-digit weights. The Cumberland is managed as trophy brown trout waters, and only a single brown trout may be harvested in a day, with a minimum length of 20 inches.

Not surprisingly, Kentucky's state-record brown trout came from the Cumberland River. Thomas Malone caught the 21-pound giant in 2000. Most Cumberland River fishing veterans are certain that even bigger brown trout call the river home.

Brown trout are unlike other kinds of trout. They are known for being more cautious than their cousins and they favor slack areas, whether behind current breaks or in deep pools. Because adult fish become somewhat nocturnal, they feed far better on gray days than on sunny days, and serious brown trout fishermen -- like duck hunters -- favor miserably drizzly days.

Adult brown trout also convert to eating bigger meals overall as they reach larger sizes. While big browns do eat tiny insects, any fish of more than 13 inches is far more likely to eat a crawfish, a sculpin or a big hellgrammite.

Anglers who target brown trout need to keep the species' behavior in mind at all times. They need to watch for deep eddies, dark spots and tangles of timber, and fish those areas thoroughly. Often anglers need to risk losing flies or lures to even attempt putting offerings into the places where browns are most apt to be lurking.

Generally speaking, brown trout anglers also need to upsize their offerings from what they might throw for rainbows, although the size of the stream also makes a difference. For tailwaters, minnow-imitating plugs and baitfish-imitating streamer patterns are tough to beat. On smaller streams, Woolly Buggers often are very good choices.

Maybe the biggest adjustment an angler needs to make when he takes on the pursuit of brown trout is in his expectations. Browns can be tough customers, even when good fishermen fish good areas. Sometimes getting them to bite can be tough, especially if the day is bright.

That extra challenge, however, is a big part of what gives brown trout an extra intrigue for many veteran trout fishermen. And a large brown trout that has escaped harvest for two or three seasons is even more of a trophy. Let's look at some of the waters where Kentucky anglers can take on the challenge of brown trout fishing.


The Cumberland River below Lake Cumberland constitutes a massive fishery, in terms of the amount of opportunity it provides to trout fisherm

en. The river is large, and trout waters extend 75 miles from the Wolf Creek Dam, which forms Lake Cumberland, to the Kentucky/Tennessee border. The KDFWR annually stocks the Cumberland with 60,000 brown trout, which is more than 10 times the combined number stocked into all of Kentucky's other brown trout rivers.

Six generators in Wolf Creek Dam and unpredictable generation schedules make the Cumberland a complicated river to fish. A huge range of possible river conditions affects both access and the way the river fishes. Along with the actual river level, anglers must consider whether the river is rising, falling or stable and how quickly.

While preferences vary by angler and by style of fishing, most brown trout fishermen like moderate flows -- neither rock bottom nor raging. When too many generators are running or it is surging up and down too dramatically, fishing can become impractical, if not impossible.

The Cumberland offers a tremendous forage base for trout, which includes many types of mayflies, stoneflies and caddis flies, plus high numbers of midges, scuds and sow bugs. The big stoneflies are of particular interest to larger browns, as are Japanese beetles and other terrestrial insects, crawfish and various forage-sized fish, including sculpins, shad and alewives.

Productive trout fishing techniques are as varied as the fish's forage base; however, serious brown trout anglers, who target the river's largest fish, typically use either spinning tackle and minnow-imitating plugs or spoons or fly-fishing outfits rigged with sinking lines and large streamers.

Plug fishermen tend to like sinking models of minnow-imitating baits in the 2- to 4-inch range. Good color choices include white or silver to imitate shad, green to imitate sculpins, or rainbow or brown trout color patterns.

Big striped bass move into the Cumberland from Cordell Hull Lake in Tennessee each spring, and anglers use the same streamer patterns to target 40-pound stripers as they use for the big browns. Gerald McDaniel, a long-time Cumberland River guide, favors Mylar Minnows, Zoo Cougars, Clouser Minnows and various big streamer patterns of his own design for big Cumberland River browns and for stripers.

McDaniel fishes big streamers on fast-sinking fly lines so he can get his offerings quickly down among the crowns of big downed trees, which line the banks of the tailwater and hold the river's biggest browns. He likes 9-foot, 6X rods, both for delivering large flies and for battling Cumberland River brown trout.

McDaniel uses a large, customized johnboat to fish the Cumberland. Having fished the river for more than 20 years, he knows when to run upstream or downstream to find better water conditions, when to adjust strategies for what the river will allow and when to simply stay home.

To learn more or to set up a Cumberland River fishing trip with Gerald McDaniel, give him a call at (502) 473-0080 or (502) 895-3182.


Other tailwaters that get stocked annually with brown trout include the Dix River below Lake Herrington and the Laurel River below Laurel River Lake. The Laurel River is fairly small by tailwater standards and very shallow and clear during low flows, especially right below the dam. It gets stocked annually with 500 brown trout.

The Dix, which is annually stocked with 1,000 brown trout, falls under special regulations. Through the first two miles of the river downstream of Dix Dam, only artificial lures may be used or possessed, and a 15-inch minimum size applies to brown trout.

Access to the Dix can add its own challenge. High bluffs and private lands bound both sides of the river, eliminating all possible banks access. The only way to get to the tailwater is from the Kentucky River, by boat. Boats with outboards can travel up the Laurel River, which is generally quite deep. However, it does turn rocky and both water levels and the amount of current vary, so boaters must be very careful. An aluminum jet boat is the ideal craft for fishing the Dix River effectively.

In addition to the Herrington and Laurel River Lake tailwaters the KDFWR will begin stocking browns into Paint Creek downstream of Paintsville Lake, Axon noted. This section of river will be managed with special regulations, with only artificial lures permitted, a one-trout limit and a 16-inch minimum size.

The 3.6-mile section under special regulations has demonstrated good conditions for carry-over trout. So there is potential to produce trophy fish if trout are afforded extra protection, according to Axon. The stream is small, by tailwater standards, but Axon anticipates that it will produce good brown trout fishing over time.

Stream access is from bridge crossings and through a park immediately downstream of the dam. Below the dam, long riprap banks and a series of artificially formed pools provide anglers access to good trout habitat.


Most of Kentucky's free-flowing brown trout streams are fairly small mountain creeks. Annual stocking rates range from 200 to 700 fish, depending on the length of the section managed for browns and the amount of quality brown trout habitat.

Fishing may be somewhat down on some of the mountain streams this spring, Axon noted. Three major flood events in much of Kentucky's mountainous region likely took a toll on brown trout populations, although no specific surveys have been conducted to show that. Habitat remains good in all the streams and the fisheries will come back after a couple years' stocking classes get added to the mix; however, numbers of larger fish are apt to be somewhat down this year.

Slabcamp and Minor creeks in Rowan County and Chimney Top Creek in Wolfe County are distinctive among the state's brown trout streams by the fact that only browns are stocked in these streams. Slabcamp and Minor are small streams that are part of the headwaters to the North Fork of the Licking River. While access to and casting along these streams gets pretty tight, both tumble through fair amounts of Forest Service land and create nice backcountry-type brown trout opportunities for fishermen.

On Chimney Top, only fingerling brown trout are stocked, and the browns have done very well, according to Axon. He said Chimney Top generally is one of the state's best brown trout streams. Chimney Top Creek is remote and rugged, and access to the stream can only be gained by wading up the creek or hiking. The creek's remoteness, along with the fact that no catchable-sized rainbows get stocked in its waters, keeps fishing pressure quite light. Chimney Top, along with East Fork Indian Creek, is part of the Red River Gorge Natural Area.

The East Fork of Indian Creek, although small, has some big holes scattered along it. The East Fork is stocked annually with 700 brown trout. It also gets stocked heavily with rainbow trout and is part of the popular delayed-harvest program. Although located in a very rugged wilderness-type area, the West Fork of Indian Creek has a Forest Service road running close to it and is easy to ac

cess in several places.

Otter Creek in Meade County stands out from most other brown trout streams in a couple of ways. First, it is located in the north-central part of the state, away from any mountains. Also, it flows through Fort Knox. Otter Creek offers good brown trout fishing at times, and also is stocked heavily with rainbows. It is a delayed-harvest stream as well. However, since much of the stream does run through Fort Knox, special permit requirements apply. Call (502) 624-2712 for more information.

Other streams that the KDFWR stocks include Bark Camp Creek, a small tributary of the Upper Cumberland River in Whitley County, Big Caney and Laurel creeks in Elliott County and Trammel Fork in Allen County.

Axon notes that while each stream has unique characteristics, all have been selected because they offer good brown trout habitat, and fishing can be good on each. Anglers, therefore, are wise to try the stream or streams closest to home before moving on to other waters.


The Kentucky Sport Fishing & Boating Guide, available from fishing license dealers or online at, includes a guide to Kentucky trout fishing, which details regulations, stocking figures and other information about trout waters throughout the Commonwealth. The KDFWR Web site also offers a wealth of additional fishing information.

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