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Kentucky Afield Outdoors: Tail waters of Lake Cumberland offer excellent winter fishing

By Lee McClellan
Special to KyForward

Consistency is a trait all anglers love in a body of water. Most lakes and rivers in Kentucky go through seasonal temperature swings that make fishing tough during the hottest and coldest months of the year.

The Cumberland River below Lake Cumberland fishes as consistently as any body of water in Kentucky. The water temperatures of the Cumberland River at Burkesville ranged from 55 degrees Dec. 11 to 53.5 degrees Dec. 14 to around 53 degrees Dec. 18.

“There is no reason not to do well in winter on the Cumberland tailwater as the water temperature is pretty controlled by Wolf Creek Dam,” said Ron Brooks, director of Fisheries for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “The fall and winter are the best time of year for big trout. As long as it is not too cold to be outside, anglers should do well.”

Rick Hill, staff artist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, holds a trophy brown trout in excess of 20 inches caught from the Lake Cumberland tailwater near Bakerton in late winter a few years ago. Winter is one of the best times to catch big brown trout like this from the Cumberland River below Wolf Creek Dam. (Photo provided)

Population sampling by fisheries biologists this past fall show the Cumberland River recovering nicely from the impact of reduced flows and high water temperatures of the 7-year drawdown to repair Wolf Creek Dam that concluded three years ago.

“Just a month or so ago, they captured and released two brown trout over 10 pounds in one night during annual population sampling,” Brooks said. “I caught my biggest rainbow trout ever, at least 22 inches long, earlier this year.”

Brooks likes winter fishing on Cumberland River because of the quality of daylight. “At this time of year, big trout move to the shallows and stay there to feed because the sun is not directly overhead like it is in summer,” he said. “The fish are a little less spooky.”

Releases from Wolf Creek Dam predicate the best areas of the river to fish. Anglers must check the generation schedule on the Nashville District webpage of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before planning a trip. On this chart under the “Wolf” column, the number 45 means one turbine of generation and 90 means two turbines of generation. Releases of more than two turbines means high and swift water for the upper river, making fishing nearly impossible.

Brooks fishes in the Bakerton and Crocus Creek area in fall and winter.

“With normal winter generation schedules, you can have either all morning or all afternoon to fish with good water in this stretch of the river,” he said. “Most anglers want to fish up by Wolf Creek Dam because they think that is where all of the fish are stocked, but this stretch isn’t as impacted by releases as the upper river.”

This week, for example, most generation occurred in the morning and evening time, with light generation in the afternoon and no generation in the wee hours. Therefore, the Bakerton and Crocus Creek areas would offer the best fishing in the morning because they are 26 and 27 ½ miles downstream of the dam. It takes time for the slug of water from the releases to reach this stretch. The upper river from the dam down to the Rockhouse would fish best in the afternoon during light generation.

Cumberland River trout feed heavily when the water first rises from a dam release. This is prime time to catch numbers of trout, but wading anglers must soon move to the bank after the water begins to rise. It does not take long for a wading angler with a mind consumed by catching another trout to get into a hairy situation from high, swift and cold water.

Anglers have boat and bank access all along the Cumberland River, some with a fee. The “Find a Place to Fish” page on the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife website at www.fw.ky.gov also provides driving instructions and links to Google maps for each access.

“The river is coming back to its glory days,” Brooks said. “I fished Rainbow Run recently and trout were surfacing everywhere. I caught great numbers and every now and then a nice trout. It was like the old days on Rainbow Run.”

Brooks likes beaded flies with a sinking line for better quality fish in fall and winter. Pheasant tail and Hare’s Ear’s nymphs with a gold beadhead in sizes 10 and 12 work well. He also likes fishing scuds as well as the Adams wet and Hendrickson wet flies.

“If the water is low and clear, I drop down to an 18 or 20 size fly,” Brooks said. “It is amazing how a big fish will eat such a small bug.”

Anglers using 4-pound test line on spinning gear can catch just as many as those using fly gear.

“I believe anglers throwing inline spinners catch more trout than fly anglers because they cover more water,” Brooks explained. “You don’t have to be an expert to catch trout on the Cumberland. I saw a couple on a recent trip holding up a huge trout in a boat. They were not expert anglers, but they caught a huge fish just the same.”

Shake off the winter blues with a fat trout pulling your line. A little planning and extra clothing can lead to the best fishing day of the year.

Author Lee McClellan is a nationally award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.

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Author Lee McClellan is associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Get the latest from Lee and the entire Kentucky Afield staff by following them on Twitter at @kyafield

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources manages, regulates, enforces and promotes responsible use of all fish and wildlife species, their habitats, public wildlife areas and waterways for the benefit of those resources and for public enjoyment. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife is an agency of the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. For more information on the department, click here.

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One Comment

  1. Melissa P says:

    Would be interested to know if any of the Kentucky Lakes hold walleye or northern pike. Also wonder about typical pan fish. I’m a native Kentuckian, but haven’t lived there since very young. My husband and I both enjoy fishing and we love Kentucky. Retirement to my home state is a definite possibility and great fishing would add another facet.

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