FRANKFORT, Ky. - The people of the city of Pikeville and Pike County can move rivers and cut through mountains if it improves the quality of their lives. The Levisa Fork of Big Sandy River once cut a horseshoe-shaped loop around the toe of Peach Orchard Mountain. The city of Pikeville rose up inside this loop in Peach Orchard Bottom, but the nearly 90-degree turn of the river created a bottleneck that resulted in regular flooding.
City leaders devised a plan using the resources of over 20 federal, state and local agencies to move the Levisa Fork by cutting through Peach Orchard Mountain and rerouting the river's flow away from downtown. After 14 years and over 18 million cubic yards of material removed, the Pikeville Cut-Through is one of the largest civil engineering projects in United States history. Only the Panama Canal moved more material for a civil engineering project in the western hemisphere.
Tourism officials with the city of Pikeville are now showing the same visionary leadership by creating the Hatfield-McCoy River Trail, an 8.5 mile stretch of the Levisa Fork with the some of the best paddling access and infrastructure in the state of Kentucky.
The Levisa Fork holds gentle riffles and flowing shoals, perfect floating conditions for families and beginners. This section is ideal for canoes, kayaks and small one-man pontoon boats. Since the Levisa Fork receives the waters of Russell Fork along with releases from Fishtrap Lake Dam upstream, the river has great flow all summer long.
The Levisa Fork rarely flows under 200 cubic feet per second (cfs), but should be avoided at flows above 1,500 cfs. Swift currents and bountiful woody debris in the water make this current level dangerous. Check the flow levels at the United States Geological Survey's website at http://waterdata.usgs.gov under the "Levisa Fork at Pikeville" gauge.
The blue-green waters of the Levisa Fork hold excellent populations of smallmouth and rock bass along with sunfish, catfish, spotted bass and an occasional largemouth bass. Floaters should wear protective shoes to prevent cuts from the many mussel shells lining the bottom of the river.
The Hatfield-McCoy River Trail has four excellent access points along the U.S. 23 corridor, where U.S. 23, 119, 460 and KY 80 converge. Floats can be as short as a couple of hours or last all day long. All the access points have ample parking with easy carries to launch boats.
The first access point is along U.S. 23 south of Pikeville (S. Mayo Trail) at the Jubilee Christian Church on the right (going south). Paddlers may float nearly 4 miles to the Island Creek River Access for a leisurely half-day float with a short shuttle.
Although close to downtown Pikeville, this section flows through an intimate gorge with gentle riffles, deep pools and flowing shoals with good fishing for smallmouth bass and rock bass.
The take-out for this float lies just downstream of the Island Creek Bridge on the right (looking downstream). To reach it by vehicle, take KY 3496 off U.S. 23 and proceed immediately to the left toward the Holiday Inn Express. The road leading to the access lies behind the hotel. Those wanting to extend their float for another 1 1/2 miles may continue on to the Cedar Creek River Access.
Paddlers desiring a short two-hour float may launch their boats at the Island Creek River Access and float to the Cedar Creek River Access. About midway of this float, the river takes a slight left bend where the terraced mountainside informs the paddler they've entered into the Pikeville Cut-Through. Paddling through this section reveals the incredible feat of this engineering marvel. The boulders lining the bottom of the Pikeville Cut-Through are good places to fish for smallmouth and spotted bass. The take-out at Cedar Creek River Access is just downstream of the Cedar Creek Road Bridge (KY 1384) on the right.
Reaching the Cedar Creek River Access by vehicle is difficult for the uninitiated. Boaters using this access must travel south on U.S. 23 and look for a gravel road between exit 24 off U.S. 23 and a guardrail. This gravel road leads under the Cedar Creek Road Bridge and around to the access. Those wanting to extend their float to nearly five miles may proceed to the lower take-out of the Hatfield-McCoy River Trail at the Thompson Road River Access.
The Cassidy Boulevard Bridge (leading to the Wal Mart) has a sign hanging over the river alerting boaters the Thompson Road River Access take-out lies 1/2-mile downstream on the left. If you float under a highway bridge quickly followed by a railroad bridge, you've floated too far. To reach the access by vehicle, take Thompson Road off U.S. 23 and follow around to the Texas Roadhouse restaurant. The access lies directly behind the restaurant and is suitable for small trailerable boats at certain water levels.
The lower two miles of this float hold excellent smallmouth bass. Sean Cochran, director of attractions for the city of Pikeville, recently caught a smallmouth bass over 20 inches in this stretch.
Cochran recommends 3- to 4-inch tube baits Texas-rigged with 1/8-ounce bullet heads in crawfish colors, such as watermelon and red flake, pumpkinseed or green pumpkin for smallmouth bass. He also downsizes his line to 4-pound test during the warm months.
Fish a tube bait just downstream of streamside boulders and eddy areas just below riffles. If current carries your tube bait quickly away, use a slightly heavier weight.
A weightless blue and pearl soft-plastic jerkbait worked slowly behind boulders will draw strikes from smallmouth bass. Four-inch finesse worms rigged on 1/8-ounce leadheads crawled on the bottom above and below riffles work well for these fish. Three-inch green pumpkin curly-tailed grubs rigged the same way also produce.
Early and late in the day, smaller cigar-shaped topwater baits in bone or chrome colors worked with the "walk the dog" retrieve in eddies downstream of stream drops and behind boulders draw vicious strikes from smallmouths. This presentation gets better as summer melts into fall, peaking in September.
The city of Pikeville offers free shuttles for those who own kayaks or canoes each Friday, Saturday and Sunday from April through October at noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. at the Thompson Road River Access behind the Texas Roadhouse restaurant. They also offer kayak and canoe rentals.
The Hatfield-McCoy River Trail would make a great weekend getaway combining a morning Hatfield-McCoy Feud Historical Tour with an afternoon of floating. The city of Pikeville offers Main Street Live downtown with live music of a different genre every first and third Friday of the month through September.
For more information on Pikeville attractions, log on to www.visitpikeville.com. For information on kayak and canoe rentals, contact Sean Cochran at the Hatfield-McCoy River Trails at 1-606-794-4231.
The Blue Water Trails series supports Gov. Steve Beshear's Adventure Tourism Initiative. Log on to Kentucky Fish and Wildlife's Blue Water Trails webpage at fw.ky.gov for a detailed map.