Barren River Below the Dam

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When pioneers first saw the section of south-central Kentucky south and east of what is now Glasgow, the vast grasslands confounded them. They felt the soil too poor to support trees and believed the region barren. The grassy area attracted many bison, elk and deer, and also Native Americans who often hid in the tall grass of these prairies to ambush unsuspecting settlers as well as game.

The pioneers soon referred to this nearly treeless region as "The Barrens" and the river that drains it the Barren River. The early pioneers settled the wooded ridge tops first because they believed the Barrens infertile, but now the region is one of Kentucky’s richest agricultural areas.

The section of Barren River from Barren River Dam toward Bowling Green is one of Kentucky’s overlooked smallmouth bass waters. Fisheries biologists with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources have uncovered smallmouth bass in excess of 18 inches in this section of the Barren. The river also holds good numbers of spotted bass, rock bass, bluegill and surprising numbers of muskellunge.

This enchanted section of river gave rise to legends of a buried treasure in a cave, provided an important transportation corridor for early Kentucky businesses and now gives paddlers several gorgeous, gentle floats to enjoy. This stretch of the Barren is suitable for families and beginners with just a few mild stream drops to make the paddling interesting.

The best floating levels for Barren River are when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers release at least 100 cubic feet per second of water from Barren River Lake Dam. Paddlers can float the Barren at lower flows, but will face a practically current-free river and may require dragging over shallow shoals. Consult the Louisville Corps District homepage at Click on the "Recreation" tab, then the "Fishing" tab, then on "Lake Levels."

Starting in mid-October, the Corps severely draws down Barren River Lake to winter pool, resulting in heavy releases from Barren River Lake Dam. This situation is fun for kayakers and paddlers who enjoy swift water, but is not much for fishing.

The first float begins at the Tailwater Recreation Area just below Barren River Lake dam and ends roughly 13 miles downstream at the Barren River #3 Voluntary Public Access Area (VPA) under the KY 101 Bridge. The Tailwater Recreation Area lies near the historic ford at the lost community of Port Oliver, where bison and Native Americans crossed Barren River for centuries before the arrival of Europeans.

This section is ideal smallmouth bass habitat with long stretches of gravelly shoals rimmed with water willow. Several small islands and sandbars punctuate the river in this stretch at lower water levels.

The flowing braids just above and below these islands are excellent places to gently bottom bounce a skirted double-tailed grub in the motor oil color, rigged on a 1/8-ounce Shakey head. Those who plan to float this section and fish should launch at daybreak and plan to take out near dark.

The next float begins at the Barren River #3 VPA at the KY 101 Bridge and ends at the Claypool Ramp on Martinsville Ford Road off KY 234 (Cemetery Road) in Warren County. The road to Martinsville Ford runs on the north and south sides of Barren River, but for shuttle length and parking, the Claypool Ramp on the south side of the river is much better.

This section of Barren River has many subtle turns with outside bends strewn with gravel. Target these rocky bends with a 4-inch green pumpkin curly-tailed grub rigged on a 3/16-ounce leadhead. This stretch also has several islands and rockbars that pinch the Barren and increase its flow. These are highly productive areas to slowly work a pumpkinseed and chartreuse tube jig rigged on a 1/4-ounce leadhead along the bottom.

About three-quarters of the way through this float, Little Difficult Creek enters the Barren on the left (looking downstream). The points at the mouth of this creek are excellent spots to throw a gold and black minnow-shaped stickbait for muskellunge.

Just downstream of Little Difficult Creek, the Barren flows around a large island. This island should be run on the right. A short distance downstream from the island, Bays Fork enters Barren River on the left. The mouth of Bays Fork often holds muskellunge.

The lower reach of Bays Fork is a productive place to fish brush, root wads and sunken trees with 4-inch black finesse worms for spotted bass, some of which run longer than 14 inches.

The next float begins at Martinsville Ford and ends a little more than 5 miles downstream at Iron Bridge on Iron Bridge Road. Martinsville at one time was an important shipping center for tobacco, timber and farm produce bound for Evansville and Louisville. It was one of the most economically vibrant cities on Barren River in the early 1800s until Bowling Green rose in prominence and Martinsville faded into extinction.

The river flows into what old timers call Wickliffe Bottom just after the put-in. A long-forgotten legend held that Native Americans in the decades before the arrival of the pioneers buried gold and treasure in a cave in this area. A newspaper account from the early 1900s stated several local people searched for this lost treasure, but like the legendary Swift’s Silver Mine in the Red River Gorge region, the treasure remains elusive to this day. This stretch of Barren River grows more scenic as it flows toward Iron Bridge. About two miles downstream of Martinsville Ford, the Barren makes a sharp turn to the right, forming impressive bluffs. The rocky flowing water at the base of these bluffs makes a productive area to fish a 1/4-ounce white spinnerbait for large smallmouth bass.

After a straight stretch, the Barren turns back to the left and flows around some islands. The holes formed where the flowing braids of river converge again downstream of these islands make fantastic areas for smallmouth bass. Those laced with sunken wood likely hold muskellunge as well.

The Barren again turns left around an arching bend with a large, scenic bluff greeting the paddler on the north shore of the river. The take-out at Iron Bridge is just downstream. The carry-out for boats at Iron Bridge is on the south side of the Barren; however, extremely limited parking exists at this access.

A fun, roughly 4-mile side float is on Bays Fork of Barren River. The put-in is on the KY 234 (Cemetery Road) Bridge with the take-out on Barren River at Martinsville Ford. The Bays Fork flows small and intimate, but offers good smallmouth fishing and is perfect for those who prefer using a fly rod. Parking at the KY 234 Bridge is limited and requires a substantial carry to put in a boat.

Barren River Lake Resort Park offers excellent accommodations and is ideally situated for those wanting to float Barren River. Visitors may combine a day of floating Barren River with a few days of enjoying Barren River Lake. The Tailwater Recreation Area has an excellent campground. Accommodations are also available at Scottsville, Glasgow and Bowling Green.

Barren River Lake State Resort Park: 1-270-646-2151

Bowling Green Area Convention and Visitors Bureau:

Scottsville/Allen County Chamber of Commerce:

Glasgow/Barren County Tourist Commission:  

Author Lee McClellan is an award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.

(Editors: Please email for photos.)

Media Contact: Lee McClellan 1-800-858-1549, ext. 4443

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