Lake Cumberland tailwater offers great winter trout fishing

By Lee McClellan  

Consistency is a trait all anglers love in a body of water. Most Kentucky lakes and rivers go through seasonal temperature swings that make fishing tough during the hottest and coldest months of the year.
The Cumberland River below Lake Cumberland fishes as consistently as any body of water in Kentucky. The water temperatures of the Cumberland River at Burkesville ranged from 56 degrees Dec. 5 to 55.5 degrees Dec. 9 to around 54.5 degrees Dec. 11.

“There is no reason not to do well in winter on the Cumberland tailwater as the water temperature is pretty controlled by Wolf Creek Dam,” said Ron Brooks, aquatic nuisance species director for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “The fall and winter are the best time of year for big trout. As long as it is not too cold to be outside, anglers should do well.”

Brooks likes winter fishing on Cumberland River because of the quality of daylight. “At this time of year, big trout move to the shallows and stay there to feed because the sun is not directly overhead like it is in summer,” he said. “The fish are a little less spooky.”

Releases from Wolf Creek Dam predicate the best areas of the river to fish. Anglers must check the generation schedule on the Nashville District webpage of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before planning a trip. On this chart under the “Wolf” column, the number 45 means one turbine of generation and 90 means two turbines of generation. Releases of more than two turbines equates to high and swift water for the upper river, making fishing nearly impossible. 

Brooks fishes in the Bakerton and Crocus Creek area in fall and winter. 

“With normal winter generation schedules, you can have either all morning or all afternoon to fish with good water in this stretch of the river,” he said. “Most anglers want to fish up by Wolf Creek Dam because they think that is where all of the fish are stocked, but this stretch isn’t as impacted by releases as the upper river.”

Cumberland River trout feed heavily when the water first rises from a dam release. This is prime time to catch numbers of trout, but wading anglers must soon move to the bank after the water begins to rise. It does not take long for a wading angler with a mind consumed by catching another trout to get into a hairy situation from high, swift and cold water.

Anglers have boat and bank access all along the Cumberland River, some with a fee. The “Find a Place to Fish” page on the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife website at also provides driving instructions and links to Google maps for each access.

“The river is coming back to its glory days,” Brooks said. “I fished Rainbow Run recently and trout were surfacing everywhere. I caught great numbers and every now and then a nice trout. It was like the old days on Rainbow Run.”

Brooks likes beaded flies with a sinking line for better quality fish in fall and winter. Pheasant tail and Hare’s Ear’s nymphs with a gold beadhead in sizes 10 and 12 work well. He also likes fishing scuds as well as the Adams wet and Hendrickson wet flies.

“If the water is low and clear, I drop down to an 18 or 20 size fly,” Brooks said. “It is amazing how a big fish will eat such a small bug.”

Anglers using 4-pound test line on spinning gear can catch just as many as those using fly gear.

“I believe anglers throwing inline spinners catch more trout than fly anglers because they cover more water,” Brooks explained. “You don’t have to be an expert to catch trout on the Cumberland. I saw a couple on a recent trip holding up a huge trout in a boat. They were not expert anglers, but they caught a huge fish just the same.”

Shake off the winter blues with a fat trout pulling your line. A little planning and extra clothing can lead to the best fishing day of the year.