Elkhorn Creek

The two forks of central Kentucky’s Elkhorn Creek join just east of Frankfort to form one of the state’s best-known streams for floating and fishing for smallmouth bass.

Visitors love the Elkhorn for its beauty and its fishing. Paddlers find it perfect for canoeing and kayaking. From the Forks of Elkhorn to its end at the Kentucky River, the Elkhorn Creek provides 17 miles of adventure.

Two businesses located on the creek offer canoe and kayak rentals for visitors. The main stem of the creek is not suitable for johnboats. The creek is ideal for one-person, pontoon-style float boats.

Crayfish are king in the creek. Anglers should try small, crayfish imitating crankbaits cast to rocky areas in slower water. Small, 3-inch plastic grubs in crayfish colors are good below riffles and jigged around bank side tree roots.

White in-line spinners, such as Rooster Tails, white spinnerbaits or silver-and-black floating baits teased along shady banks and current breaks also work well. Even a piece of worm on a hook is a deadly bait in the creek.

The first seven miles of the Elkhorn Creek’s main stem contains the best whitewater. For safety, floating anglers should always wear a life vest while paddling, especially in the whitewater sections.

Anglers can start their float at a parking lot and put-in at the Forks of the Elkhorn bridge, located at U.S. 460 and North Scruggs Lane in Franklin County. Anglers using this launch site must pay a $3 fee at the Elkhorn Campground, located further down North Scruggs Lane.

Look for a bourbon distillery on the right shortly after this float begins. Keep to the left while rounding the right-hand bend in the creek, being careful to watch for a dam ahead. Portage the dam on the left – this requires carrying the boat down a stepped rock cliff – and launch far enough downstream to avoid the powerful reverse current of the dam. The first good rapid of the float lies downstream. Floaters should be prepared.

This section continues through towering limestone cliffs carved by the waters of Elkhorn through the millennia. After passing an abandoned railroad bridge and long riffle, anglers enter a deep, long hole. This is a great place to catch smallmouth bass from your boat.

Soon afterward, the Elkhorn begins a Class l-II rapid as the stream crashes hard left into a small bluff. Ride the pillow of water to move the bow of your boat downstream to your right. A similar situation occurs a little further downstream after you float by the ruins of the Steadmantown Paper Mill to your left. This mill printed money for the Confederate government during the Civil War.

This time the creek takes a hard right against another small bluff. This rapid can be treacherous in high water. From there, the Elkhorn remains relatively calm until the first take-out at Knight’s Bridge, located at Peak’s Mill Road (KY 1900).

Floaters may use property owned by American Whitewater as a take-out, according to club member Philip Sisk. The American Whitewater property, located downstream and to the left of the bridge, has a parking lot and changing stations. This access is for boaters only - it is not for wade fishing access. Be mindful of property boundaries if you use this take-out area.

Continue downstream for another 1½ miles to the public access at T.N. Sullivan Wildlife Management Area (WMA), owned by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. This is located off KY 1262. The Sullivan WMA take-out, however, requires a long hike up a strenuous ridge. Anglers wishing to carry boats up the hill should be in top physical shape.

The next six miles are primarily mild water, suitable for beginners and families. This is also one of the best sections to fish for smallmouth bass.

Roughly halfway through this run is a boat-flipping strainer known as The Claw. Signage on the left side of the creek warns floaters to portage left. Canoeists should take the advice and portage on the left side of The Claw, which is formed from the roots of a mid-stream sycamore tree. The tree’s roots often catch the bow of a canoe while the swift current flips it.

The take-out for this section is at Peak’s Mill Bridge, located near the junction of Peak’s Mill Road and KY 1262. This bridge may also serve as the put-in for floating the lower Elkhorn. Canoe Kentucky, which offers full-service canoe and kayak rentals, is located nearby.

Downstream is another public access spot: Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s Pfeiffer Fish Hatchery, located north of Frankfort on Indian Gap Road (KY 2919), off U.S. 127. The hatchery is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays, so plan accordingly if you want to use the hatchery as a put-in or take-out. It is also an excellent area to wade fish.

The final section of the main stem extends to a take-out at the boat ramp at Stillwaters Campground. The campground is located off U.S. 127.

This section features long holes punctuated by riffles and holds some of the better smallmouth bass in the stream. Stillwaters Campground charges $3 to use their ramp. The campground also provides canoe rentals and shuttle services.

Anglers and other paddlers should always check the creek’s water levels prior to a trip. The United States Geological Survey maintains the stream flow of creeks and rivers across the country at their Web site: waterdata.usgs.gov. Click on the “real-time data” tab, then “statewide streamflow table.” Search the Kentucky River basin for “Elkhorn Creek near Frankfort, Ky.” The site lists the creek’s current water level and flows for the main stem.

Beginners and intermediate paddlers will enjoy the creek most when the flows run between 300-1,500 cubic feet a second. Higher flows are best left to experienced paddlers.

For more information about private boat rentals and put-in fees, call: Canoe Kentucky at 1-888-CANOEKY; Stillwaters Campground at (502) 223-8896; or Elkhorn Campground at (502) 695-9154

(Note: This column is the first in the periodic Blue Water Trails series, highlighting the floating, fishing and tourism opportunities on Kentucky’s streams and rivers.)