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7 Best Bets for Kentucky Brown Trout

7 Best Bets for Kentucky Brown Trout

Anglers who are interested in tangling with tackle-busting browns need look no farther than these magnificent seven streams, starting with the Cumberland tailwater.

Cumberland Lake's tailwaters now contain a near 50-50 population of rainbow and brown trout. Photo by Kurt Finlayson

By Norm Minch

When fishery biologists with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) decided to get in the business of providing trout-fishing opportunities many moons ago, they did so with a vision of trying to develop as many different types of fishing experiences as possible.

The people in charge of overseeing the trout program today continue to use that approach, and have greatly expanded opportunities to catch trout in Commonwealth reservoirs, smaller lakes, streams and tailwaters. They've established fisheries for rainbow, brook and brown trout, and trout fishermen have particularly welcomed the development of the latter in recent years.

Fishery resource managers, as well as fishermen, view trout anglers as a slightly different breed than those who fish for more widely available species like bass and crappie. Whatever species we prefer to fish for often dictates the kinds of settings and preferences we'd like to be available.

Trout anglers may be the group who desires the broadest range of experiences. For example, crappie and striped bass fishermen aren't generally too interested in bolstering fishing in small streams and creeks. The majority of largemouth anglers are much more concerned about good lake fishing only with the use of a high-powered boat. Not many pursue bass from the bank.

Trout fishermen are just as likely to fish from shore, wade-fish or use a boat to catch their favorite species. Trout fishing is a diverse sport to say the least, and the KDFWR has worked hard to provide all the types of fishing opportunities that trout anglers like.

Brown trout fisheries have been established in some 10 streams and three tailwaters. Let's take a look at some of the best opportunities for browns in Kentucky, so you'll be up to speed for whatever type of trout fishing experience you're planning this spring.


The first place the KDFWR began to work with brown trout, the largest and most heat-tolerable of our three trout species, was Lake Cumberland's tailwater. In 1982, the department got things rolling with an initial stocking, and has gradually brought the fishery along and developed it as one of the best in the country today.

"We wanted to develop a supplemental fishery to the rainbow population, and the Cumberland tailwater has the ideal habitat for brown trout to do well," said biologist Jim Axon. Axon oversees the trout program for the KDFWR, and was recently named the Fishery Biologist of the Year by Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Using various management approaches, such as stocking volume adjustments and experimenting with different sized fish, the result of the effort to get a high-quality brown trout fishery going in the Cumberland River has fared very well. And the state has been quite protective of what is now a trophy-level fishery, going to a 20-inch minimum size limit on browns in 1997.

"We should about be reaching the plateau in terms of the numbers of bigger browns in the population," said Axon, "and anglers have really benefited by catching some exceptionally nice fish the last several years."

Nice fish, indeed! Using the state's trophy fish records as an indicator, as well as what biologists have been seeing in their electroshocking studies, the quality of the fishery is highly impressive by any standard. Trophy browns recorded last year from the Cumberland tailwater included a 4-pounder taken by Chris Grimes of Hodgenville, a 7-pounder nabbed by Kenneth Davis of Burkesville last May, and an 8-pounder reported by Gary Glenn of Jackson - all over 23 inches long. In 2002, records show a huge 15 1/2-pounder was coaxed in by Floyd Graham of Bowling Green, along with nine other trophy-class browns. Fish of this caliber are still available, without a doubt.

Axon says now the ratio of browns to rainbows in the Cumberland tailwater is about 50-50, which is what the agency wanted to achieve. Many more rainbows are stocked than browns (60,000 a year), but more rainbows are harvested annually due to a legal higher daily creel limit. There is also no minimum size limit on rainbows. The 20-inch, one-fish daily limit on browns reduces harvest and promotes more carry-over, and now the balance between the species is nearly equal.

"Judging by the surveys we've done lately, I think many anglers, and not just trout anglers, have become aware of the potential of this stretch of the river.

"Since 1995, the fishing pressure has tripled and the harvest doubled, and that doesn't happen unless really good things are going on and anglers are catching fish," the biologist noted.

All the water from Wolf Creek Dam to the Tennessee state line is considered fishable for brown trout, but the deeper pools and spots with more shoreline cover are more to the brown's liking. There is pretty good access at various intervals down the 75-mile corridor, including both boat and walk-in. Boat ramps are available at the dam, Helm's Landing, Winfrey's Ferry and Burkesville among others. You can walk in at the junction of Little Indian Creek, the Rock House near Creelsboro and farther downriver near Crocus Creek at Bakerton.

The KDFWR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been putting 300 browns in Chimney Top Creek in Wolfe County each year for several years now. More than likely, this generous stocking creates a holdover fishery for anglers.

Fish are about 8 inches long when released. But brown trout grow quickly, and by the second year, most will be up to the 12-inch minimum size limit for browns. According to angler reports, fish up to 18 or 19 inches are caught with some regularity, which biologist Axon says is good for a stream like Chimney Top. The logic that larger waterways would tend to produce bigger trout does apply, he says, at least for brown trout.

Chimney Top provides a wade-fishing opportunity, and is one of several suitable trout streams in the Red River Gorge area. To some degree by design, it is not the most easily accessible stream, and takes about a half-mile hike to get to from the Koomer Ridge Campground vicinity. There are, however, about 3.5 miles of good fishing waters, and sometimes fish can be found in feeder creeks such as the Right Fork of Chimney Top Creek.

"You'll generally want to loo

k for the heavier cover and pool areas, and I would suggest choosing overcast conditions and times when the water should be murky for better action," said Axon.

"Catching browns is a little tougher than rainbows, and this kind of fishing is a challenge even for experienced anglers. This type of fishing is different from our put-and-take opportunities with rainbows, where we announce the stocking date so people can be there when they go in, stand right where they hit the water and jerk them out pretty quickly," Axon cautions.

"We publish the month each waterway is scheduled for a release, but not the day and time. You're going to have to work a little harder for this species, but you'll be more likely to take a higher quality fish and have less competition while you're trying it," he said.

Interestingly, Axon says that some natural reproduction has been documented in Chimney Top, which is unusual for brown trout in all but the best of trout streams. With what appears to be pretty suitable habitat, the agency has increased the stocking volume, which may translate into more fishing opportunity than in past years.

Anglers will find a good amount of pool habitat and heavier cover in the East Fork of Indian Creek in Menifee County. This brown trout stream is located north of Slade in the Daniel Boone National Forest. This waterway is a little larger and suitable for wading and fly-fishing. The KDFWR and USFWS have been releasing 700 brown trout in this stream each May for several years now, and there are holdover fish available. Actually, besides the Cumberland and Herrington lakes' tailwaters, the East Fork Indian Creek receives more browns than any other stream.

"Anglers need to remember that after a little while, browns will disperse into whatever available habitat they can find," said Axon.

"They won't stay in just the spot where we release them, and they will move up and downstream, searching for good food supplies and aquatic insects, which should be hatching in early summer. Use lures that imitate insects or something in a crawfish pattern that will look like natural prey.

"You may find more activity on top at times, but most of the time browns tend to stay closer to the bottom, so getting your lure down there might be the most effective tactic," said the biologist.

The East Fork of Indian Creek is one of a handful of Kentucky streams where a delayed harvest management approach is being employed for trout fishing. From October through March, all trout fishing must be catch-and-release, which helps to maintain a population of fish able to grow for a while before becoming susceptible to the creel.

To further protect a portion of the population, during the no-harvest period, only artificial flies and lures are permitted. Using artificial baits vs. organic or live bait reduces the mortality on fish that must be released.

Trammel Fork in Allen County is about the westernmost trout stream in Kentucky. It is also one of the best for rainbows or browns. If you study the KDFWR's Trout Streams brochure, you'll quickly notice there aren't a lot of streams cold enough in the western half of the state to support trout year 'round. Most of the cold water in Kentucky is in the eastern and southeastern parts of the Commonwealth.

Trammel Fork is marked with signs and is fairly easy to find just south of Scottsville. Take state Route (SR) 2160 south about seven miles to Concord Church Road, turn right and you should run right across the creek. You can also stay on SR 2160, go another mile or so, turn right on the first gravel road that also crosses the creek.

Remember that some property along the creek is private land, and the law requires anglers to have the landowner's permission before fishing on private land.

Trammel Fork receives a release of 400 browns to supplement the 1,600 rainbows it gets annually. It is wide in many spots, with a series of fast and slow water interchanges. The stream offers a variety of fishing in the bank cover, as well as wading through riffles and pools.

Wading is possible and in most places the canopy cover is high enough that long casts with long rods shouldn't be too much trouble. Expect clear water conditions most of the time, unless a significant rain has occurred.

Laurel Creek runs through parts of Elliott and Rowan counties in northeastern Kentucky. If you come in off I-64, take the exit at Grayson onto SR 7, go south to where it merges with SR 32; next, proceed west for a few miles until you find Carter Church Road between Dewdrop and Ordinary. You'll now be in the vicinity of the creek. Follow Carter Church Road until you find Laurel Creek.

Laurel Creek is in some of the steepest, most difficult, gorge-like territory, according to Axon. You will probably want to travel light and pay particular attention to proper footwear. Laurel gets a 500-fish booster brown trout shot each year, in addition to about 1,000 rainbows.

Close by, using a county map book or a Kentucky Atlas & Gazetteer, you can also locate Big Caney Creek. It runs on the north side of SR 32 in Elliott County and eventually becomes a tributary of Grayson Lake. It likewise gets stocked with 500 browns, and should present some better quality fishing opportunities.

As with most stream fishing, you simply have to get into the territory and spend some time learning the stream and finding the most "potentially good-looking" water. It takes time and effort, but you likely won't have to do much sharing if you're willing to do the on-foot research. Most anglers aren't going to hike and climb and exert themselves to try this kind of fishing experience.

In the Dix River below Herrington Lake, about two miles of trout water meanders down to the Kentucky River. Besides offering pretty good trout fishing, it is also some of the most scenic country in Kentucky.

The high cliffs and rugged terrain is one reason why access is limited to boats that launch in the Kentucky and travel up the Dix to the dam. The cold water coming from the bottom of the lake through the dam maintains a suitable environment for trout, and the singular access helps increase the chances of some larger trout being able to remain in the population. Growth has been found to be good, and fishing by casting or drifting artificials only out of a boat or while wading is workable here.

While the Dix River is occasionally subject to a washout when the Kentucky River floods, the KDFWR has altered its stocking time to try to avoid the spring high-water period. Axon says that trout that get flooded out into the Kentucky aren't usually able to find their way back, but from midsummer on, what trout that are released generally stay in the tailwater. When the following spring rainfall is normal or light, it gives these

browns even more time to grow to the 15-inch minimum size limit. The Dix River from the dam downstream to the Kentucky River also carries a lower three-fish daily limit on browns, and can be fished with artificial lures only; so leave the worms and cheese at home on this trip.

There are a few other streams stocked with brown trout as part of the put-grow-take program. Most are located in the Daniel Boone National Forest. All of Kentucky's trout streams are listed in the 2004 Kentucky Trout Waters brochure, and usually any changes in regulations are highlighted in that brochure, as well as in the Sport Fishing & Boating Guide. You'll note in these publications that brown trout fishing opportunities also occur on the Ft. Campbell and Ft. Knox military reservations. You may want to pick up a post hunting/fishing permit on these lands and try their trout fishing streams.

While Axon believes most of the brown trout fishing opportunities have been fleshed out over the last few years, he does note that laws to help maintain quality brown trout fishing (and rainbow) continue to be fine-tuned.

One major change being considered in the Cumberland River below Wolf Creek Dam is to require all anglers to have a trout permit while fishing this tailwater and any feeder tributary up to the first riffle. According to Axon, the majority of anglers who fish in the tailwater will go after trout at sometime during the year, and need the permit to keep trout anyway. Likewise, a permit may be required for fishing Hatchery Creek below the national fish hatchery facility, regardless of whether trout are kept or released.

If the change is adopted, it would likely take effect in March 2005, so stay tuned.

Kentucky's trout fishing program has been greatly enhanced by the inclusion of brown trout in streams and tailwaters wherever possible. If you're looking for a new experience, investigate these streams as some of the better spots to try. You may find some surprisingly good fishing you never realized existed.

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