Friday, July 8, 2011

The Challenge of Big Water: Fly Fishing Kentucky's Lake Cumberland

For the second straight summer, my family spent part of July at Kentucky's Lake Cumberland. One of the largest lakes in the country, Cumberland contains over 1,000 miles of shoreline, beautifully cascading waterfalls, unlimited geological wonders, and state record catches of walleye, sturgeon, and striped bass (otherwise known as rockfish to my Chesapeake Bay-based readers). The lake's size and diverse fish species create a significant dilemma for fly fishers: how do you fish a body of water that big, with that many different kinds of fish, with the rod-and-fly?

As many of you know, I routinely seek out small, often unrecorded, wild trout fisheries. I'm a voracious reader of maps, an undeterred seeker of local knowledge, and a mildly-obsessed internet scavenger. Wherever wild trout live, I trek. Indeed, my love of wild trout extends back to my childhood, when I would ride my bike to a tiny Pennsylvanian trout stream, and fish for small native brookies. But I also cut my fishing teeth on lake water, taking in yellow perch, chain pickerel, largemouth bass, crappie, and bullhead catfish on worms, minnows, Rapalas, Jitterbugs, and plastics. In many ways, then, I'm a lake fisherman by birth (if not necessarily by creed or practice). Nevertheless, I always end up stymied by the immensity of lakes and their surprising (at least to me) diversity.

See, when I think about bodies of water, I usually employ an arbitrary - and admittedly false - binary. That is, I think of rivers/streams/creeks as dynamic, always-changing ecosystems, while at the same time consigning reservoirs/lakes/ponds to the realm of static, stagnant fisheries. Embedded in this binary is an inescapable, and unfortunate, bias. I confess, I enjoy rivers more than lakes; I'd rather fish a mountain trout stream than a massive Kentuckian reservoir. Lakes, however, are constantly in a state of flux: weather conditions, temperature, and moon phases wreak havoc on lake fishermen's best-laid plans, and they make lake fishing a fun and unpredictable enterprise. Because I prefer northeastern mountain streams, then, does not mean that these waterways are intrinsically better than big southern lakes; instead, my preferences are underscored by personal, empirical, experiential moments. They are not right, and they are not wrong. They merely are.

Leaving my fishing preferences aside, I exhaustively fished Lake Cumberland during the past week. Not all of this fishing included flies. In fact, my two sisters and I turned to nightcrawlers, red worms, and captured minnows for bait. I don't love plunking, but I do love catching big catfish and panfish (true to form, we pan-seared some white perch and bluegill in lime juice, butter, and red-pepper flakes).

I did, though, rig up my fly rod. My strategies included locating rises in enclosed, cove-like areas of the reservoir (lake fish eat as many, if not more, insects than their river counterparts), slowly-working large popper flies along the shoreline, and floating tandems of nymphs and dries. With the right equipment and knowledge, lake fishing can be a fly fisherman's paradise. I encourage you to head to your local lake, and see what kind of fish you can land on the fly. I promise it'll be worth it.

Image #1: A Lake Cumberland waterfall.
Image #2: One of my bigger catfish.

More to come soon

I apologize (once again) for the large gap in between posts. Now that my summer schedule has freed up, I will be returning to (hopefully) a once-a-week posting schedule.