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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Fish, wildlife and recreation resources abound on upper Cumberland River

Editor’s Note: This is part two of the sixth article in an occasional series profiling the river basins of Kentucky.

The Cumberland River Part Two: The Upper River Basin

The upper Cunmberland River Basin includes nine Kentucky Counties and 2,336 square miles. (Photo from cumberlandriverbasin.org)

The Cumberland River is about 700 miles long, arising in southeastern Kentucky near the Virginia line, flowing southwestward through Tennessee, then turning north, to its confluence with the Ohio River at Smithland, in Livingston County.

The Cumberland River basin drains 7,000 square miles in eastern and western Kentucky, and 11,000 square miles in north-central Tennessee.

The Cumberland River was named on April 17, 1750 by Virginia physician, surveyor and land speculator Thomas Walker, in honor of William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland, son of George II and Queen Caroline.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

Another early explorer in the region was Daniel Boone, America’s quintessential frontiersman, who first set foot in Kentucky in the fall of 1767, and in the years afterwards made several trips to hunt, and explore the interior. One of Boone’s most remembered quotes was “Heaven must be a Kentucky kind of place.”

The headwaters of the Cumberland River are three forks — Martin’s Fork, Clover Fork and Poor Fork — that converge in Harlan County.

In this article, the upper basin is defined as the Cumberland River from its headwaters, downstream to the Kentucky/Tennessee line. The upper Cumberland River basin includes nine counties in Kentucky, some 2,336 square miles.

Streamside woodlands support soaring timber, with rich, colorful under story vegetation — rhododendron, mountain laurel and wildflowers.

The highest point in the basin, and in Kentucky, is Black Mountain, in Harlan County, 4,145 feet above sea level.

Streams and Lakes in Kentucky

• Martin’s Fork Lake, a small reservoir in the Cumberland River headwaters, was impounded from Martin’s Fork of the Cumberland River, which arises in Bell County, in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, and flows northeastward.

The lake is four miles southwest of Cawood, in Harlan County. Its dam is at river mile 15.6 of the Cumberland River, backing up water over a flat valley on the Kentucky/Virginia line.

Martin’s Fork Lake opened in 1979 and is a 3.7-mile-long reservoir of 334 surface acres at a summer pool, elevation of 1,310 feet. Just above the dam, the lake is about 45 feet deep. There is a 10-foot drawdown to winter pool, elevation of 1,300, which reduces the lake to 274 surface acres.

• The three largest tributaries to the upper Cumberland River basin in Kentucky are the Laurel, Rockcastle and Big South Fork of the Cumberland River.

From Williamsburg, in Whitley County, downstream to Lake Cumberland, the Cumberland is classified as a Kentucky Wild River.

• The Laurel River is 42 miles long and drains parts of Whitley and Laurel Counties. The town of Corbin is located on the river about 15 miles east of its mouth.

The beach at Laurel River Lake (Photo from U.S. Forest Service)

Laurel River Lake is in Laurel and Whitley Counties, off Interstate-75, in Daniel Boone National Forest.

The dam is about 20 miles east of Corbin, and 2.8 miles above the Laurel River’s confluence with the Cumberland River.

The Craig’s Creek embayment is spectacular in the fall, when colored leaves are the backdrop for rocky islands and waterfalls.

The 5,600-acre reservoir, which opened in 1974, has 206 miles of shoreline and is 19.2 miles long at the summer pool, elevation 1,015 feet. The winter pool elevation of 982 feet reduces the lake to 4,200 surface acres.

The lake is 280 feet deep just above the dam and has an average depth of 65 feet, making it one of the deepest in the state.

• The Rockcastle River is 54.8 miles long. There are two forks. The Middle Fork arises in southern Jackson County, and the South Fork arises in Clay County.

The Narrows of the Rockcastle is one of the state’s top whitewater paddling destinations.

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (Photo from National Park Service)

• The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River is 76 miles long, arising from the confluence of the New River and the Clear Fork in Scott County, Tennessee, flowing northward into Kentucky, joining Lake Cumberland, in McCreary County, near Burnside.

Its tributaries drain about 1,252 square miles, 17 percent of which are in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

Encompassing 125,000 acres, the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area offers visitors a wide range of outdoor activities including paddling, rock climbing, fishing and hiking.

The scenic area boasts miles of gorges and sandstone bluffs, rich in natural and historic features.

For information visit the website at www.nps.gov

• Lake Cumberland, Kentucky’s largest reservoir, is in McCreary, Whitley, Laurel, Pulaski, Wayne, Russell, and Clinton counties.

Lake Cumberland has 50,250 surface acres of water. Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, which extend into Tennessee, are larger overall, but only 49,511 acres of Kentucky Lake is in Kentucky, and only 42,020 acres of Lake Barkley is in Kentucky.

Wolf Creek Dam was built at river mile 460.9 of the Cumberland River, 10 miles south of Jamestown.

Construction began in August 1941 but was delayed for three years during World War II. The project opened to the public in August 1952.

76 Falls on Lake Cumberland (Photo from Kentucky Tourism)

The main access highways are U.S. 127, Ky. 90, Ky. 192, U.S. 27, and the Cumberland Parkway.

The rocky, scenic lake, with its many islands and waterfalls, is one of Kentucky’s most significant tourism attractions, especially popular with houseboaters.

Lake Cumberland is 101 miles long, with 1,255 miles of shoreline at summer pool (elevation 723). The winter drawdown reduces the lake to 35,823 acres at elevation 673.

One of the state’s deepest impoundments, Lake Cumberland has an average depth of ninety feet and is about 180 feet deep just above the dam, at summer pool.

There are two state parks.

Lake Cumberland State Resort Park, open year-round, is about 13 miles south of Jamestown, off U.S. 127, in Russell County.

The park encompasses 3,117 acres and was established in 1951. Facilities include a sixty-three-room lodge, twenty cabins, restaurant, 129-site campground, indoor pool with hot tub, and two hiking trails. For information telephone 270-343-3111.

General Burnside Island State Park, open year-round, is just south of Burnside, off US 27.

Encompassing 430 acres, Kentucky’s only island state park was created in 1958.

Facilities include a 102-site campground, open seasonally, an eighteen-hole golf course, and picnic grounds with two shelters.

For information telephone 606-561-4104.

Geologic Features

Cumberland Falls (Photo from Kentucky Tourism)

The upper Cumberland River flows through rocky, mountainous terrain, over time carving narrow gorges, with valleys strewn with large boulders fallen from cliffs above, rock shelters and clifflines.

Cumberland Falls, in Whitley County, is 55 feet, and one of the few places in the Western Hemisphere where a moonbow can be observed on a clear, full moon night.

Cumberland Falls is the centerpiece of one of the oldest state parks in Kentucky, dating back to the 1930s. The 1,657-acre Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, southwest of Corbin, is in Daniel Boone National Forest.

Facilities include a 51-room lodge, 25 cabins and cottages, 49 campsites, restaurant, hiking trails, and swimming pool, open to overnight lodging and campground guests, with public access on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

For information telephone 606-528-4121.

Fish and Wildlife

Fish and wildlife resources abound.

The remote, mountainous counties in the headwaters of the upper basin support elk and black bear, and all the counties support populations of white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and small mammals.

Fishing opportunities are varied and abundant.

Martin’s Fork Lake has the unique distinction of being the only lake in Kentucky that has a population of Redeye Bass (Micropterus coosae), an introduced species obtained from Georgia, and stocked into the Martin’s Fork of the Cumberland River around 1950.

Thus, Martin’s Fork Lake is the only lake in Kentucky where an angler has a chance to take four species of black bass (Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass, Spotted Bass, and Redeye Bass).

The lake also supports populations of Walleye, Bluegill, two species of catfish (Channel Catfish and Flathead Catfish), and White Crappie.

Laurel River Lake supports Bluegill, two species of crappie (White Crappie and Black Crappie), three species of black bass (Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass and Spotted Bass), Walleye and White Bass. An angler attitude survey in 2018 found that 98 percent of anglers interviewed fished for black bass, 27 percent fished for Walleye, and 13 percent fished for crappie.

Lake Cumberland is rich in cool-water fisheries.

Its deep, clear, highly-oxygenated waters support the state’s best Striped Bass fishery, the state’s largest Walleye fishery, and a Smallmouth Bass fishery that ranks near the top with Dale Hollow Lake and Kentucky Lake.

The lake also supports populations of two other species of black bass (Largemouth Bass and Spotted Bass), two species of crappie (White Crappie and Black Crappie), Bluegill, White Bass and two species of catfish (Channel Catfish and Flathead Catfish).

A 2016 creel survey found that Striped Bass anglers accounted for 49 percent of all fishing trips to the lower lake, followed by black bass anglers, 34 percent, and crappie anglers, seven percent.

In the upper lake, black bass anglers accounted for 46 percent of all fishing trips, crappie anglers, 17 percent, and striped bass and white bass anglers, 11 percent.

To get information on special fishing regulations on rivers and lakes in the upper basin, launching ramps for trailered boats, and carry-down sites for fishing kayaks and other small boats, visit the KDFWR waterbodies page.

The upper Cumberland River basin has it all — breathtaking scenery, whitewater rivers, demanding hiking trails, rustic campsites, houseboating lakes, state and national parks, and some of the best fishing lakes in the state for Smallmouth Bass, Striped Bass and Walleye.

The eastern Kentucky mountains are calling.

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