Kentucky's Hot Tailwater Trouting

Lots of trout -- and some trophy-sized ones, too -- are part of the package when anglers ply our state's fabulous tailwaters such as Nolin River, Cumberland

and others.

Rainbows and browns are present in our state's best tailwaters. Photo by Gordon Whittington

By Norm Minch

"One of the goals of our trout-stocking program is to provide anglers with as many types of fishing environments and experiences as we can, and as the available coldwater habitat will allow," remarked trout program coordinator Jim Axon.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) has followed that philosophy for several years now. It's pretty easy to understand, when you look at all that's available in terms of trout fishing across the Commonwealth nowadays.

Fish reared at the Wolf Creek Hatchery below Lake Cumberland are used for many different purposes, and in various types of waterways to give fishermen a chance, and a choice, to enjoy just about whatever type of trout fishing they prefer.

Kentucky's most popular type of trout fishing is associated with its stream put-and-take stocking program. Anglers can contact the agency and find out when a particular stream will be stocked, and shortly thereafter, find excellent success in catching harvestable-sized trout for the next several days. This kind of fishing is offered in more than 30 streams, more or less on a monthly basis starting in April and continuing into the summer.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for stocking about 15 more streams in the Daniel Boone National Forest, which offer a similar type of fishing experience from March through June in most cases. The KDFWR throws in a few brown trout on top of the rainbows in some streams that have higher quality habitat for trout.

The KDFWR has created another type of trout fishing by stocking more than 20 small and larger lakes anywhere from one to four times a year with rainbows. This maintains a year- round fishery, although most of the trout are caught at night during the summer months in deep water with live or organic bait under lights.

The newest adventure in trout fishing in Kentucky is the development of several brook trout streams in remote areas in a select few eastern Kentucky streams. The agency has also implemented a delayed-harvest strategy on some top-quality streams, to allow some fish in the population to live longer and grow larger. This gives fishermen a change to tangle with some bigger fish, opposed to just catching fish right out of the hatchery raceways.

A final opportunity, which we want to explore here in some depth, is what opportunities exist in the 14 major reservoir tailwaters currently receiving trout, and then select the best of those fisheries to examine. The stocking volume in these waterways ranges from 250 rainbows up to more than 160,000. Brown trout are also released in some of these waters.

"We've spent a considerable amount of time categorizing and determining which waters will support the varying levels of trout fisheries," explained Axon.

"Some of these tailwaters have marginal coldwater habitat and the length of the waterway where trout can survive is fairly short; others may have lots of miles of good trout water, deeper pools and the right temperatures where a higher quality fishery can be established and maintained," said Axon.

Through studies of the tailwaters, stocking levels indicate there are four that outshine the rest in terms of having a significant amount of good trout habitat. Three of these tailraces are in the eastern half of Kentucky, and one in the western quadrant.

Beginning in the west, the tailwater below Nolin River Lake Dam is the first of the hotspots, receiving over 16,500 rainbow trout each year. Although an angler could probably catch fish along the eight-mile or so stretch below the dam, the best habitat exists in the upper 1.5 miles closest to the dam. Axon says the agency does get reports of holdover fish being caught in this waterway, which are those trout that make it through for at least a season or longer and reach bigger sizes.

There is a ramp that allows float-fishermen to access this water. You can make it a nice day's trip as you work downstream for a few miles. A possible new development for this fishery is that the Corps of Engineers is considering removing a navigational dam some distance downstream from the lake dam, which could return this waterway to its more normal stream path and habitat.

Axon describes the area now as more of a pool-type habitat with water being backed up between the two obstructions. The volume of flow is less and slower, and widened out from the original track of the river. If the lower dam were removed, Axon says that might have a more favorable effect on trout, and that the fishery could blossom perhaps from the more natural streamlike setting this fish species prefers.

"I think anglers can have some pretty good luck in this tailwater, and a plus is that it has access down below the dam," said Axon.

"We know many trout are caught out of there not too long after it's stocked, but some do disperse downstream and continue to grow for a while before they get hooked and cooked," said the biologist.

Up to the northeast, the Paintsville Lake tailwater checks in with some 18,000 rainbows being released there annually, albeit in a pretty small stream. Paintsville also has a good bit of coldwater habitat, which is why the lake supports species like walleyes (and trout) that other lakes can't.

Trout can survive for about eight miles from the tailwater, but most of the fishing is concentrated in the area immediately below the dam down to about the one-mile point. Besides the deep spot right below the dam, most of the rest of the water is fairly shallow. Anglers can connect with trout along the riprap on either side of the stream while fishing from the bank.

The KDFWR has constructed a fishing pier along a portion of the bank to improve angler access, and Axon says anglers heavily utilize this addition. Casting is possible from the pier and bank, and lots of trout are caught quickly following the initial stockings.

"We pump a pretty good number of fish into the Paintsville tailwater because the water remains cold even during the summer months; so we keep providing fish spring through fall there," Axon said.

"Our usual stocking size is 8 to 12 inches, and many people like catching fish in that range. On this t

ailwater, the statewide size and creel limits for trout apply, so up to eight rainbows can be caught and kept in this spot, regardless of their length.

"It appears the public utilizes this fishery more than some of our others, so we work to meet that demand and we're lucky, I guess, that the habitat is there to extend fishing all through the year."

"For its size, we probably put more trout in the Carr Creek tailwater than any other," said Axon.

Carr Creek Lake is a small Corps reservoir located in southern Knott County. It is a typical highland reservoir with some cold, clear water where trout flourish. The stream below the dam is relatively narrow, but does have an access for small craft and spots for bank-fishermen. There's a deeper pool where the water comes through the dam, and most of the 12,600 rainbows stocked are caught out of this hotspot.

"Fish will disperse downstream, but most people fish where it's easiest to get to right below the dam," said Axon.

"One of the things people have recently been doing a little differently is using a crappie jig, like a marabou jig, or tying a fly using a leadhead with eyes, and casting it into the deeper water spots. These lures seem to be very productive on trout in pools and below riffles in the slack- water areas," said Axon.

"You can work these offerings slowly, which trout seem to like, by twitching them along the bottom. Since these lures appear to be an aquatic insect or an injured baitfish, lots of times trout will pounce on these baits.

"Of course, the live bait-fishermen will catch their share, too, using corn, cheese or worms rigged on a small hook so the trout can get hold of it easily," Axon noted.

Lake Cumberland is among the top tailwater trout fisheries in Kentucky, from below the Wolf Creek Dam. This incredible fishery provides just about every kind of trout fishing there is, from boat, bank and in some spots wading, casting or trolling or fly-fishing - it's got it all.

From the dam to the Tennessee state line, anglers have about 75 miles of fishable water to choose from. Various access points along the Cumberland River lend themselves to a float trip from point A to B, or a day-long excursion downstream and back to the dam. This tailwater is jammed full of trout, rainbow and brown, and it yields fish from eating size on up to trophy-class specimens.

"There's just so much habitat in that 75-mile stretch that trout can really expand and do exceptionally well," remarked Axon.

"First, we put about one-third of all the trout we stock in Kentucky in this one waterway, which is almost 250,000 every year. The bulk is rainbows, supplemented with 60,000-80,000 browns.

"We announce the rainbow stockings which take place at different points, from the dam to well downstream. However, we stock browns in late winter without making that date public so these fish can disperse before anglers begin fishing," the biologist said.

Axon notes that the brown trout are well below the minimum size limit of 20 inches when first stocked. By turning them loose without telling anglers helps keep down the mortality rate that might occur on the smaller fish, which are too small to keep anyway.

This approach has paid off, if the number of trout in general, and especially the good growth in the bigger-sized fish experienced the last three years or so, is any indication.

"We've been on an upswing in the percentage of both species that are quality-sized trout. Our latest studies showed that we now have a higher number of browns in the population than rainbows," said Axon.

If you want to be where the higher numbers of fish are, the biologist says their shocking studies show you should be fishing in the portion of stream closest to the dam. If quality is more appealing to you, the higher number of big fish is in the lower two-thirds of the tailwater.

"We're watching the development of these fisheries closely to make sure that the increasing percentage of browns doesn't get out of proportion with how many rainbows are present. We want to keep an acceptable balance, so anglers have a chance to catch both species," Axon explained.

The Cumberland tailwater gets 160,000 rainbows between 8 and 12 inches each year. Because the waterway is so big - containing more than three times the amount of habitat than all the rest of the state's tailwaters combined - the potential for holdover fish is excellent. Anglers know that the 14-pound, 6-ounce state-record rainbow came from this fishery. And that record has stood since Jim Mattingly caught that rainbow trout in 1972.

You can catch rainbows just about anyway you want to fish for them, including trolling and casting as you float downstream. You can work anything from the daintiest flies and tiniest spinners in the riffle areas to a magnum-sized crankbait in the deeper, longer pools. Rainbows will use open-water areas a good deal when looking for food sources.

Brown trout tend to be found around cover a little more than rainbow trout, but the areas of rock outcroppings, downed trees, overhanging vegetation and other cover where insects and minnows tend to congregate are almost endless. Many types of crankbaits, sometimes spoons fished slowly from running water spots into slow-moving or still pools, will work well when trout are focusing on baitfish instead of insects.

A final bonus hotspot that trout anglers may want to consider is the Herrington Lake tailwater, where about 4,000 rainbows and 1,000 browns are released each year spring through fall. Axon chooses this spot as his "best of the rest" pick for two reasons.

"This waterway is a little harder to get to. You have to put in to the Kentucky River, and then run a ways up to the Dix River and head upstream toward the dam," said Axon.

"I think the extra work it takes to access this waterway means there's a lot less fishing pressure, thus the fishery has potential for keeping bigger fish available. There's less competition with other anglers and your chances of taking a higher quality trout is greater, I think," said Axon.

"With both species in there, Herrington Lake's tailwater offers more trout to catch, and our 15-inch minimum size limit on the browns, makes for a trophy-class type of fishery. This type of fishery usually isn't feasible elsewhere," said the biologist.

"If I had one more choice on where to go fishing, that's probably where I'd go. I'd get up close to the dam and work what I could for about a half-mile or so down, then go back up and do it again," Axon concluded.

The KDFWR produces a publication called Kentucky Trout Wat

ers, which is updated each spring and lists all the trout-fishing waters in Kentucky. It is a handy guide to the spots where trout are, providing stocking rates and the months when fish are going to be released. Size and creel limits for trout, which may differ depending on the waterway, are provided in the 2003 Kentucky Sport Fishing & Boating Guide, available from license vendors.

For a copy of the Trout Waters brochure, contact the KDFWR weekdays 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., at (800) 858-1549.

Anglers are also reminded that if you want to keep trout for the table, you must have a trout permit in most cases. This permit is included, however, with the purchase of a Kentucky Resident Sportsman's or Senior Disabled Combination License.

Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Kentucky Game & Fish

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

Recommended for You


MLF Pros: What's Your Go-To Lure?

G&F Online Staff - May 20, 2019

When all else fails, here's what these pros tie on.


No Kidding: Angler Smashes Record for Lake Trout

Scott Bernarde - May 21, 2019

The Pennsylvania man's trophy fish was more than two pounds heavier than the previous record.


Quick Tips: How to Spot and Stalk a Hog

Ian Nance - May 28, 2019

Try these tips to improve your wild boar hunting skill set.

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Berkley's Frittside Crankbaits

World Fishing Network show host Chad LaChance had a chance to visit with legendary crankbait master David Fritts about his new Frittside crankbaits from Berkley. LaChance, host of the Fishful Thinker on WFN, also got a few cranking tips from Fritts, the former Classic and Forrest Wood Cup champion.

Lowrance Enters Trolling-Motor Market with Ghost

Lowrance's Lucas Steward shows OSG's Lynn Burkhead what all of the fuss is about in the brand new Ghost trolling motor being brought to market by the Tulsa, Okla.-based fishing equipment manufacturer.

Abu Garcia Virtual Rod with Bluetooth

Pure Fishing's Andrew Wheeler tells Outdoor Sportsman Group writer Lynn Burkhead all about the brand new Abu Garcia Virtual rod that integrates Bluetooth technology through a free ANGLR smartphone app.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories


How To Make Your Own Catfish Dough Bait

Keith Sutton - August 04, 2015

When it comes to fishing baits, you won't find a more unusual variety than the strange brews...


5 Ways To Catch Catfish on Lures

Keith Sutton - September 16, 2015

As most catfish anglers know, blue cats, channel cats and flatheads will eat darn near...

Other Freshwater

5 Great Lures For Bluegills

Stephen D. Carpenteri - March 10, 2011

Who needs live bait when the big 'gills are so eager to strike these lures?

See More Stories

More Other Freshwater

Other Freshwater

Augers to Tip-Ups: Best Ice Fishing Gear at ICAST

Drew Warden - August 01, 2019

It may be the middle of the summer, but it's not too early to think about winter ice fishing.

Other Freshwater

Troll to Cast for Muskies

Mark Sak - June 13, 2019

Increase your odds of hooking up by trolling, then casting in high-percentage areas.

Other Freshwater

Minnesota's Muskie Magic

Gary Korsgaden - June 24, 2019

The fish of 10,000 casts is a worthy adversary, and there are plenty of great spots to pursue...

See More Other Freshwater

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.