Cumberland River Fishing

Cumberland river fishing

cumberland river fishing

Cumberland River Fishing Experience

This year the Hoosier Outdoor Writers conference was my second and it was a blast. I reconnected with a few members I met last year and met a couple of new ones. We shared stories and laughs and a great gathering of, if not like minded at least shared interest and passions. That’s the outdoors and writing. It was with one of these acquaintances that a trip was planned. The Cumberland River fishing experience is a product of that trip. With great lodging with a kitchen to cook some delicious meals, we were set for a few days of great fishing on the Cumberland River. 

Many people in my life wondered about my sanity early on when it came to fishing. The best way I can describe it is to recall a fishing show on cable. A man was fighting a giant blue marlin. In the middle of the fight with the marlin jumping and drag screaming the man yelled at the top of his lungs “everyone out there watching please find a passion.” I recite that story anytime someone asks me why I fish so much. Then I add that fishing has provided me an avenue paved with memories and experiences just like this trip to the Cumberland.

HOW President Bob Sawtelle and I enjoyed a great day on Lake Monroe shortly after the conference. The fishing was slow but the experience was great. We shared stories of our days out west, he in Idaho myself in Alaska. We did have a few things in common. The thing that brought us together on Lake Monroe was fishing and the HOW conference. Since I left Alaska to live in the lower 48 I’ve found that time is precious. Making time to meet new people can be a challenge but is important. When Bob texted me and asked if I was interested in a trip to fish the Cumberland River. Without hesitation, I accepted.

cumberland river fishing
Preparing for a day of fishing on the cumberland river. Ken McBroom

I researched the section of the river we were headed. I gathered up my poles and reels and met Bob at his park in Corydon. It felt great finally getting together with a group of anglers and just fishing and hanging out. This was something I did in Alaska. I even had a group of old-timers that I fly fished with every summer. They came from Minnesota, Massachusetts, and South Dakota, and other parts unknown. We all had fun creating memories and experiencing our passion for fishing and that is what the trip to the Cumberland was. You can read about one of those anglers from Alaska  The Lifelong Angler. It ties in well to this story and I didn’t realize it until I read it again myself. I wrote the story around 2005.

One of the anglers in the group brought his beautiful home-built custom boat. It was a small boat and obviously meant for fly fishing. It brought back memories of a canoe I fly fished from in Alaska. Those memories of fly fishing with my friends. It left me wishing I would have had time to find all my fly fishing gear. The boat was a work of art really and I wanted one myself.

I talked with Dean about how he built it and I knew from looking at that boat that these guys were passionate anglers. I knew it was going to be a good trip. In the end, I was glad to be in Bob’s flats boat because of the size of the river. Dean made it upriver to some skinnier water where they could wade fish and caught a few trout and had a great day. They managed some trout and Bob and I enjoyed the stories and photos that evening at the cabin. 

cumberland river fishing for smallmouth bass
Bob Sawtelle with a nice Cumberland river smallmouth bass. Ken McBroom

Everyone caught fish on our trip to the Cumberland River. However, there was far more to the experience than the fish we caught. The cabin we stayed in was awesome. It was right on the river and deserves an article all its own. The road to the cabin was a creek bed meandering through the woods and the rustic decor might just help persuade your wife to take a trip to the Cumberland River, I know mine wants to go.

There was a momma Woodie nervously directing her two ducklings down the river bank where giant stripers lurked beneath. This could be why she only had two ducklings to tend to. There was the King Fishers, my favorite bird, that swooped down to catch minnows. There was one that followed alongside the boat at 5 or 10 MPH. He followed far enough that I mentioned to Bob it must be playing with us. There was the cormorant rookery that marked a good stretch of river where we had caught some fish.

There was one experience that I wish we all could have enjoyed. When two stripers rose to engulf my swimbait, one of them got it. I was able to set the hook solidly. The second striper was bigger and trying to eat the swimbait off the side of the other’s mouth. This memory was only a few seconds in time and was one of those that moves in slow motion and stays with you forever. 

Cumberland River Rainbow Trout
Bob Sawtelle with a trophy Cumberland River Rainbow Trout

I wanted to see the big stripers that live in the Cumberland and it finally happened. When big Stripers feed on the surface it’s like an explosion. This activity is a memory, an experience, from those days of old when I chased Rockfish in Tennessee. I recall those explosions that signaled to us that it was going to be worth the trouble we were in for skipping class. It was the middle of the day and it only lasted a few seconds, but it was awesome. A school of big Stripers hammered some skipjack a couple of hundred yards upriver. The sound was unmistakable and the adrenaline unstoppable. Bob asked me sometime during our trip why I joined HOW and I just looked at him and said. “For the experience Bob. Thanks.”

NOTE: I want to thank Bob for his impeccable boat control and his superb netmanship. I couldn’t have done it without you.

About The Cumberland River

One of the best places in the southeastern United States for trout fishing is the Cumberland River below Lake Cumberland. The 75-mile Kentucky section of the Cumberland tailwater rivals the White River in Arkansas and the Caney Fork in Tennessee for the state record 21-pound brown trout and 14-pound, 6-ounce rainbow trout.

When the mighty waters from Cumberland Lake are released it is a dangerous place to be. The Wolf Creek Dam holds back the waters from the lake but is released every so often to lower the levels. Be careful and know the generation schedule for the river. However, the Cumberland is ideal for small boats at lower water flows and when the dam’s turbines are not generating electricity.

From Lake Cumberland’s Wolf Creek Dam to Winfrey’s Ferry, the first 16 miles of water are a great place for canoeists, kayakers, and small johnboat owners to float and fish. This section has a few shoals that are only moderately difficult, making it ideal for beginning kayakers and canoeists to improve their skills.

Numerous trophy brown trout and rainbow trout swim in the Cumberland River. Additionally, the river is home to sauger, walleye, and oversized striped bass.

A red, white, or chartreuse in-line spinner attracts strikes from trout for anglers using a spinning rod. Jerkbaits that suspend on a smaller scale also work. A few other tried and true baits for fishing the Cumberland River are redworms, corn, and salmon eggs.

For summer rainbows, fly anglers should try beadhead pheasant nymphs or smaller midge patterns. Larger olive, brown, or black wooly buggers, shad-colored streamers, and crayfish patterns fished close to woody cover are the primary targets of browns. The Chicago fly, a generalist beadhead nymph that resembles a sparser version of a black Mohair leech, is sought after by both species.

Floaters can launch at the Kendall Recreation Area ramp, off of U.S. 127, below the dam, for intense fishing without a lengthy shuttle. At the end of Ray Mann Road, just off the road leading to the recreation area, is the former Kendall Ferry landing that serves as the takeout. This results in a float of approximately 1.75 miles and a brief shuttle.

The hatchery creek outflow is a good fishing spot. It is located in the section at the end of Ray Mann Road is Boyd’s Bar. A productive rainbow and brown trout wading shoal.

The next takeout is at Helm’s Landing Boat Ramp, which is about 4.5 miles downstream from Wolf Creek Dam and is accessible via KY 55 and U.S. 127 off KY 379. This section of the Cumberland River offers excellent fishing opportunities for rainbow trout.

There will be two rock walls on either side of the river toward the end of this float. People are said to have taken rocks and stacked them near the riverbank to help steamboats get over a shoal in the river, according to legend. It’s important for anglers to know that this shoal on the Cumberland River is one of the best places to catch rainbow trout.

It is a 5.8-mile float from Helm’s Landing to the next take-out at the Rockhouse Natural Bridge, off KY 379. The river is a series of long pools and shoals in this section. Rainbow and brown trout are caught by anglers who work the rocky edge of the pools and shoals that flow.

Floaters will be able to see the river make a sharp left turn at a high bluff near the end of this section. The Rockhouse H The island on the downstream left, just above the Rockhouse Hole, was recently purchased by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Long Bar is the name of this island shoal, but some people call it Snow Island. On this stretch of the Cumberland River, it is one of the best shoals for wading. To fish this area, anglers can moor their boats on the island.

You must carry your boat through the arch and up a steep slope to the parking area at the Rockhouse Natural Bridge take-out. Anglers traveling in johnboats should not use this take-out. Additionally, the Rockhouse serves as the river’s put-in for the following section.

The shuttle travels just 1.5 miles, whereas the float travels 5.5 miles from the Rockhouse to the next take-out at Winfrey’s Ferry. This is due to the fact that the road connects the neck of a significant river bend.

A single paddler could drop off a boat in the Rockhouse parking lot, drive down KY 379 to Winfrey’s Ferry, and walk back to the beginning of the float with the car parked there.

Just downstream of the Rockhouse is Rainbow Run, one of the best fishing shoals on the river. Rainbow Run is on your right as a long gravel bar. This shoal’s entire length is worthy of numerous casts.

Paddling is fun in this area’s downstream Class I rapids. Winfrey’s Rocks can be found downstream left on this float, a little bit further along. During the steamboat era, boat pilots used these rocks as compass points.

A deep hole that is home to bruiser brown trout can be identified by the rocks halfway through the float. Additionally, striped bass frequent this section downstream. Until Winfrey’s Ferry, the remainder of the float is a long, deep hole. Attempt to locate a cable that crosses the Cumberland River. This cable will tell you where the take out is.

When the dam starts producing electricity, the Cumberland River rises quickly. The river is unsafe for paddlers due to the strong current generated by multiple generators. Search for the schedule for the Lake Cumberland generator on the Nashville District website of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at www.lrn.usace.army.mil/. Check out Wolf Creek Dam’s 24-hour generation schedule that is included in the daily fishing report. Boaters can also get the most recent information by calling (606) 678-8697.

On U.S. 127, just a few miles north of Wolf Creek Dam, you can spend the night at Lake Cumberland State Resort Park (1-800-325-1709), where floating enthusiasts can enjoy the Cumberland River. Tent sites, hot showers, electrical hookups, and drinking water are available at the Kendall Recreation Area (270-343-4660), which is located just below Wolf Creek Dam for those who prefer camping.

Rainbow Trout On Mouse Fly

About Ken McBroom 306 Articles
Ken McBroom is an accomplished outdoor writer and photographer. Growing up in Lynchburg Tennessee allowed him many opportunities afield as a boy and young man. Later in life, after Desert Storm, Ken’s wanderlust took him to Alaska to live and work and experience the last frontier. Married now with two beautiful children, Ken now calls Kentucky home where he continues to communicate our American outdoor traditions and the lifestyle it offers.

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