Fly Fishing The Cumberland River

Originally published in the June 2003 Fly Rod & Reel

For years rumors have persisted about a great Kenucky tailwater. As a native Tennessean I grew up among fishermen that lamented the damming of the legendary Little Tennesse River while they caught large trout from the Clinch, South Holston, and Hiwassee tailwaters. These icy waters are where the most serious southeastern head hunters typically go for large fish. However, stories of oversize trout and a huge river kept filtering south. Kentucky is where you find bourbon or race horses, but not trout…

Wrong…

The Cumberland River tailwater flows out from under Wolf Creek Dam. Lake Cumberland is one of the largest, deepest lakes in the eastern United States and is large enough to keep the large river’s water temperature suitable for trout even seventy miles downstream. That’s right, a seventy mile long tailwater south of the Mason-Dixon.

When I made my first trip to the Cumberland I was somewhat disappointed with the predicted generation schedule. The turbines kicked on at 11 AM and would run until 10 PM. I thought that even if I got on the water downstream of the dam I’d be flushed out by rising water just after lunch. That’s how it is on other tailwaters in the South. Fishermen have a few hours to linger before rising water reaches them several miles downstream. A Kentucky fly fisherman brightened my spirits when he pointed out that the Cumberland’s rising waters travel about four miles an hour. This meant that when the water began to flow out of the dam at 11 AM it was only beginning to fall somewhere far downstream.

After finding my way through a maze of country lanes I parked the Jeep in the foretold wide spot in the road and walked down to the promised shallow spot on the river. The long drive coupled with a few cups of coffee made my transition into waders more awkward than usual. A hen turkey clucked somewhere in the background while I scurried down the trail bounded by limestone bluffs. Rise rings dimpled the river’s surface but I was disappointed to see the wake of another wading fisherman. Loud curses drowned out the turkey and soft gurgle of running water.

When I emerged from the thick riparian vegetation I found what situation could draw such language from a fisherman on such a beautiful day. A 18′ Javelin bass boat was completely dry docked on the river bank. Apparently he anchored his boat in ample water and decided to wade into the shallows where he could cast a lure to the rising fish. Awash in the frustration of trying to get midging trout to eat a Banjo Minnow he had forgotten that the river was falling. Now his bass boat was twelve feet from the closest damp spot. When I left at the end of the day the hapless fisherman refused a ride, deciding to puff away a few Marlboros next to his boat the last three hours before rising water would finally send him afloat. I felt pretty bad for the guy but hoped he found some consolation in the fact that my small, carefully tied midge imitations worked only marginally better than his bass lure.

Hatches affect fishing on the Cumberland as they do on any river. However, generation schedules play a much greater role. Fred Pfister, owner of The Sporting Tradition fly shop in Lexington, has been fishing the Cumberland River tailwater in a variety of conditions for the past eighteen years. Fred hesitates to identify specific months when the fishing might be red hot or completely shut down. “The Cumberland is a year round fishery. April and May are when the best hatches happen on the Cumberland, but the quality of fishing is completely dictated by generation schedules.”

The Cumberland is a truly large river and water levels will rise several feet with one generator. Wolf Creek Dam can operate as many as four generators, a flow that totally shuts down fishing of any kind. Spring of 2002 saw a tremendous amount of rain in eastern Kentucky that ended up in Lake Cumberland. Generation at Wolf Creek Dam increased with the level of the lake and the highly anticipated caddis hatch got washed out. As much as trout fishermen hate it everywhere else, it usually equates to good fishing on the Cumberland where the mantra seems to be, “Drought means trout.” Low water levels in Lake Cumberland translate into less water available for generation.

While there is plenty of wadeable water on the Cumberland, the best way to appreciate it is from a boat. Much of it is too deep to wade even when the water is low, so boats are a valuable commodity. While drift boats and canoes are used, john boats are the preferred watercraft. Winfrey’s Ferry is a good ramp to launch a john boat and motor upstream to wadeable runs then float back when the river rises. Use of a motor also allows you to run upstream during generation. Most of the Cumberland still flows through wilderness or large farms so there are no roads that parallel the river for any distance. While there are some places to get out of your car and wade, they are few and far between. One strategy is to float the river in a personal pontoon, john boat, or canoe and spend time wading shoals as they come.

Some fishermen prefer to wait until waters begin to rise before they string their rods. Drifting with the current and punching casts under tree limbs can be exciting. This is classic big river streamer fishing, casting to a snag, getting in three strips, then casting to the next spot. If the water is moving well there are relatively few second shots at missed fish. Even relaxed streamer fishing takes on a quick tempo. Cast at the stump… strip, strip, strip…. pick up. Cast over the submerged log… strip, strip, POW… Hook ups are not as common as follows. It’s not unusual for large browns to swim figure eights around a fly stripped away from the bank or past a fallen tree. Trout up to five pounds are relatively common thanks to restrictive regulations. Several years ago Kentucky enacted a one brown trout per day, 20″ minimum size limit to boost the numbers of trophy fish. It worked exceptionally well and the entire brown trout population has boomed with some natural reproduction.
Belize 2007 Trip

Much of the best wadeable river on the Cumberland is found within the first fifteen miles or so downstream of the dam. The town of Burkesville, Kentucky is a good landmark to show the beginning of deeper water. Typically we’ll launch a boat there and float downstream, stripping streamers if the water is high. If the water is falling or already bottomed out it may be preferable to motor upstream and wade any of several shoals.

Big rainbows and browns aren’t the only fish to grab a fly in the Cumberland. I remember one float trip on the Cumberland when my wife Charity and I motored upstream to a favorite run and waded until the water came up. As the water rose we shed our waders in the john boat and changed lines and leaders for the float back downstream. We had made the decision to target only trophy size fish and stick to big streamers. We had already caught plenty of trout on small nymphs and were excited to lob saltwater size Clouser Minnows on sinking lines. Any strike might be the fish of a lifetime. Only thirty minutes into the float we had gotten four flashes that had the depth of golden yellow license plates. While none had resulted in a hook up, it was only a matter of time. At the top of the hour Charity called time and took over casting duties while I maneuvered the boat.

On only her tenth cast there was a tremendous flash. My first impression was, “That’s the biggest rainbow I’ve ever seen!” She corrected me. “That’s a brown! Didn’t you see the big spots!?” The reel kept humming as her fly line sizzled a rooster tail down the river. “There’s backing! Can’t we go faster?” By the time I managed to turn the trolling motor her reel was absent thirty yards of chartreuse backing. Finally, after about ten minutes the big fish rolled on the surface. “Striper!” Three other stripers schooled around the hooked fish which was the baby of the bunch. The largest was twice as long as the hooked fish. The striper pushed six pounds on the small scale we had in the boat and the one we saw swimming along side could have easily pushed twenty. Considering the fight the runt in the school gave her six weight, it is unlikely that the big boy could have been brought in.

Pfister says that stripers are common in the Cumberland River. Stripers as large as fifty pounds or more swim in the river but can be tough to find if you only have a day or two to get on the water. Fred tells me that the strpers are transients. “These fish migrate up the river from Tennessee. While they’re usually caught downstream of Burkesville, you might see them right under the dam. Most are caught by striper fishermen trolling 12″ shad but a few are caught on fly.”

However, if you’re hoping to catch a Cumberland striper on fly you should expect a slow day of fishing that may have a big payoff. Skipjack, sometimes called shad, are their primary prey. The largest stripers only eat skipjack in the range of 6″ or better. The romance of catching a trophy linesider on fly wears off after an hour of casting a fly that has the aerodynamics of a wet sock. Pfister recommends that newcomers to the Cumberland cast more conventional sized flies and target trout, keeping in mind that stripers are still a possiblity. Top streamer patterns are Woolly Buggers, Muddler Minnows, and Zoo Cougars as large as you want them. While sink tip lines have a definite advantage, the Cumberland’s clear water makes a floating line serviceable for weighted streamers in high water.

Streamers often account for the largest trout but not necessarily the most. Basic nymph patterns are far more important. Like most tailwaters, the Cumberland has an astounding density of aquatic foods. Fred Pfister says that Bead Head Prince and Pheasant Tail Nymphs probably account for the most fish caught on the river. “Those should be in anyone’s fly box any day of the year in a #14-#18. Midges are very important and #16-#20 Brassies also do exceptionally well in green and red.” Sow bugs are also important to trout in the Cumberland. They can be fished any time of year in a #16-#18.

The Cumberland differs from other southern tailwaters since it has a large population of giant stoneflies. Fred Pfister comments “Montana Stonefly Nymphs are a perennial favorite. #8’s and #10’s will probably catch the most trout but the nymphs get up to two inches long so you can throw them as big as you like.” Apparently the trout only eat the nymphs since there seems to be no surface activity directed at stoneflies.

Dry fly fishing is at its best during the caddis hatch that peaks in May but can be had at sporadic intervals throughout the year. Blue Wing Olives are most common fall through early spring but might make an appearance at any time. #20 BWO patterns are a must to keep on hand but Parachute Adams on the small end of the scale are the next best thing. Late summer will often find trout rising during low water conditions. This can often be frustrating, fishing midges, small nymphs, and emergers with only marginal success. These risers are usually keyed in on small flying ants that blow into the river. The tiny black bugs are easily overlooked or mistaken for midges.

Even though nymphs are the consistent way to catch fish, Fred Pfister encourages fishermen to keep dry flies part of the equation. “A Yellow Humpy in a #10 or #12 is a great strike indicator to fish over a beadhead. You’d be surprised at how often they’ll grab it. Hoppers and Wulff dry flies also work for a dropper combo.”

Float or wade, the fishing should be good. Just give yourself a few days on the river. Getting to the Cumberland is the greatest obstacle. It is in a relatively uncivilized section of the Southeast and crowds are at a minimum as a result. It would be wise to hire a guide to show you around and also to be sure you’re on the most productive section given time of year and water generation.

Sidebar – If you decide to go….

For the latest information on Cumberland River generation and hatches call the Sporting Tradition in Lexington, Ky. They can provide you with a pamplet they put together, Tips on Fishing the Lower Cumberland and arrange a guide for you.

The Cumberland River is in a fairly remote corner of Kentucky. Lexington is the most convenient large airport to the river and its guides, but you will still be around two hours from the water. Burkesville has a number of accomodations for the fisherman and you can even rent a john boat there. Call Traces of the Cumberland 502-433-5898.
Flies to bring along…

#14 Beadhead Prince Nymph
14-18 Beadhead Pheasant Tail Nymph
#16-18 Olive Sowbug
#20 WD-40 in Black, Gray, or Olive
#14-16 LaFontaine Sparkle Pupa
#16-18 Copper John
#16-20 Brassie in Green or Red
#18-20 Blue Wing Olive or BWO Parachute
#18-20 Parachute Adams
#14-16 King River Caddis
#14-16 Henryville Special
#4-10 Montana Stone Nymph
#2-8 Woolly Buggers in Black, Olive, and Brown
#2-8 Conehead Muddler Minnow
#2-8 Zoo Cougar
#2-8 Clouser Minnow
#2-8 Double Bunny