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Fly Fishing the Cumberland River

Fishing the Cumberland River by Tom Morford and Bill Allman

Many of the best fly fishing experiences that we have had in Kentucky have come from the Cumberland River tailwaters of Cumberland Lake. Wolf Creek Dam, located 12 miles from Jamestown, is the beginning of great trout fishing that extends for approximately 385 navigatable miles. The river offers many access points for wading, and for canoe/kayak put in. It is stocked with rainbows, browns, and within the last several years, brook. The Cumberland River holds state records for rainbow and brown trout. Generation schedules can be accessed through the Corps of Engineers, which need to be watched very closely for planning an outing. This river is where I learned to fly fish and have enjoyed the sport ever since.

Float trips provide many opportunities to fish different types of water. When you catch a no generation slot, shallow runs, deep runs along banks, and deep pockets all become available. One particular spot that we enjoy fishing is called Snow Island, or Long’s Bar, an island that is easily accessible by foot when there is no generation. It can be accessed by a short hike down the river bank from a parking area. Short wade across the get to the island, then about a quarter of a mile hike through trees and growth will get you to the point of the island toward upstream. Upon arrival, the choices of water to fish are at the end of your fly rod. From upstream, shallow flows give way to the swifter run on the opposite bank, and just a little downstream, the same scenario is available. Across the stream, the run is fairly deep but is easily reachable with a good long cast. It was here that I managed to attain the trifecta of trout; a rainbow, a brown, and a brook, all in the same water, the average size of 12”. Flies used were Copperjohn, bead-head pheasant tail, and of course my go-to fly, the black woolly bugger. San Juan worms are also very successful fish on the sinking tip lines.

Our Cumberland River trout are not usually too picky about the nymph patterns we use, but the fishing can be tough if you don’t pick up on where the fish are feeding within the water column. Current seams are always a great place to start if you don’t see anything happening on top, or when you haven’t yet located suspended fish. When you’re in search mode, try a 2-nymph rig and get the point fly as close to the bottom as possible, and add a dropper (a 2nd nymph tied further up the tippet) between 12 and 16” above the point fly. An adjustable indicator helps to change the depth of the flies as you cover new water. Keep the selection simple with a combination of proven patterns like these (3) nymphs: Bead Head Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail (Sz. 14-16), Barr’s Copper John (Sz. 16-18), and the Bead Head Prince (Sz. 16-18).

When you see the rises are at the surface but not through the surface film, the fish are probably feeding on emergers. Try tying on a little nymph called the Barr’s Emerger in a size 18-20. To rig this, use a 9’ 5x leader and tie on about 3 feet of 5x nylon tippet. Grease the tippet with floating from the tippet-to-leader knot all the way down to 2- 3” before the fly. Don’t get floated on the fly. This ungreased section allows the emerger to sink just below the surface film, right where the fish are feeding. Note: When the fly is just under the surface, it can be tough to know exactly where it is. This uncertainty can make it hard to know if a fish just rose on your fly or next to it. A good solution to this is to tie on a high-floating dry fly about a foot or so up the tippet from your emerger. With the addition of the dry fly, you’ll now have a reference point to the location of your invisible emerger.

The Cumberland River has many guide services that are available for good long drifts, able to hit all the kinds of water that the river has to offer. Of all the choices of streams and rivers to fish in Kentucky, the Cumberland has to be my favorite.

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