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.


Unknown said...

Sounds like those northeastern streams would be great fun to fish. West coast here. Nice entry.


Nick K. said...

Hey Matthew,

I live in Lancaster County, PA and since you are so well rounded in your knowledge of PA streams, i thought i'd ask you for a good spot to go. Me and my wife want to do some fishing this saturday, but i'm not sure where to go, with the water being as warm as it is. I don't fly-fish though, yet. My wife wants to go somewhere "pretty", whereas i want there to be fish in stream, preferably trout. I will also do bass or crappie. I was thinking either Spring Creek near State College, or Little Lehigh near rt. 100. I heard the water is cold there and large amount of trout still in it. What would you recommend?

Nick K.

Keith Szymanowski said...

I think the pics in this blog are great. The writing is also great.....But if your ever down on cumberland need to fish the cumberland river...your a tout guy...the river hold massive browns...bows also....but the browns are really big....maybe a record in there....just time....float the river....also check out my blog and youtube...lots of eastern trout fishing going on in our stuff.

Tight Lines...go fish

Flyfishermanrichard. said...


Found your site today,will follow, it's really cool.


Carp bivvy said...

That looks like a very nice place to fish.

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sky said...

Cool site, I like the name and pictures. I have one too dedicated to finding the good bait

ketchikanalaskafishing said...

Wow! excellent post. keep posting such an interesting information.

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Rob Lev said...

Get blog, I am your former dccc student Robert leverage and have been trying to get in touch with you. If this is the English professor Matthew bruen, then please email me at thanks a lot and if this is not then sorry for the mistake