Warmer weather signals time to go floating

​​​This is the sixth and final installment of the “Spring Fishing Frenzy​” series of articles by Kentucky Afield magazine associate editor Lee McClellan, detailing productive fishing techniques and opportunities across Kentucky.​​​

Summe​r-like ​​weather floated into Kentucky over the past week or so. An obvious sign is when you notice people venturing outside in T-shirts and shorts still wrinkled from being stored away since last fall.

Hotter weather also drives people to get their kayaks out and paddle a stream. Many a first kayak purchase is made when the first real short-sleeve weather of the year hits.

With the Memorial Day weekend on the horizon, scores of Kentuckians will take to the rivers and streams for the traditional start of the summer boating and paddling season. Whether you're a first-timer or an experienced paddler, float trips require planning and execution for a safer and more enjoyable experience. Following are some tips and resources for a better float.

Getting started

Consult the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources' Canoeing and Kayaking Page before floating any stream in Kentucky. Here you'll find helpful links, including the Stream Fisheries page. The fisheries page provides excellent information on access points (including location photos), fish in the stream, best water flow levels for paddling and fishing tips.

The new license year started March 1, so remember to purchase a fishing license if you plan to fish. Licenses and permits can be purchased online via and in person at various locations throughout the state.

The link to the Blue Water Trails page profiles three dozen floats across Kentucky, with fishing tips, some local history and a printable map for planning.

Safety is paramount when kayaking. The Canoeing and Kayaking Page also contains a link to a free Paddle Sports Safety Course that beginning floaters should take before their first paddling trip.

Check water flows

Floating a moving stream requires an awareness of the water conditions. There are resources available for you to do some scouting from your computer before you go.

To start, consult the United States Geological Survey water levels online at This will help you determine whether the stream is currently floatable. Click on the Kentucky image on the map, then “Statewide Streamflow Table" to show streams in the different river drainages.

The streamflow table chart is expressed in cubic feet per second (CFS) – how much water is moving down the stream. The blue line on the chart shows the current water flow. The triangles represent the median, or midpoint, of flows over the years.

A blue line well above a triangle likely means high, and potentially dangerous, flow levels. A blue line near the triangle usually means good flows for kayaking. Flows well under the triangle mean low and clear water, which is often excellent for fishing.

If you're at the stream trying to decide if the water conditions are right for a paddle, use this rule of thumb: if the water is flowing brown, turn around. High, muddy water gets many inexperienced kayakers in trouble. If a paddler's boat hits an unseen, submerged snag, it can quickly lead to a flip.

Study the route

Use online satellite imagery to study unfamiliar water. Look for foamy lines across the stream – this usually indicates a low-head dam. If this is the case, consider another section or another stream. Low-head dams are incredibly dangerous.

If you haven't scouted an unfamiliar stream beforehand, listen for any roar in the distance while you're on the water. If you do hear it, slow down and look downstream for a rapid or a dam. From the water, a low-head dam looks like a straight line across the horizon.

Take out immediately if you spot a dam. Carry your boat around the dam and put it in well downstream. Water flowing over a low-head dam creates a reverse current that can pull a canoe or kayak back into the dam. Even the strongest paddler cannot break free of this current.

Look for landmarks toward the end of the float when studying satellite imagery: remember a particularly sharp bend, a bridge, power line or any unique feature that can alert you that the take-out is just downstream. When you park a shuttle vehicle at a take-out, be sure to pay attention to nearby landmarks while you're there. Few things in the outdoors make for a worse situation than floating past your take-out - and your vehicle.

Try to not bite off more than you can chew when deciding on the length of the float. Most floats should be 8 miles or less until you gain experience. A paddle under 6 miles will give you time to enjoy yourself, fish, pull over for lunch or take a break without worrying about darkness falling before you reach the take-out.

Be prepared

Keep your keys, cell phone and valuables in a waterproof dry bag secured in the boat, along with a small first aid kit. Remember, too, to keep your fishing rods secured when running rapids and paddling underneath overhanging trees.

Keep track of your time, because floating in the dark should be avoided at all costs. You cannot tell the water's depth in the darkness. You can't negotiate rapids. It is easy to float past your take-out.

Your float kit should include a waterproof flashlight in case you are delayed in reaching your take-out. A turned ankle, a tree blocking the stream or just fishing too long can lead to a dark float. Keep track of your time to ensure your group does not dilly-dally too long at any one spot to avoid paddling in the dark.

For those who have little experience floating streams, practice paddling in the shallow water of a small lake near the ramp. Always wear your life jacket when you paddle. Get comfortable with the kayak, learning not to panic when the boat leans to the side. It is supposed to lean a bit; the leaning is called secondary stability, and keeps the boat upright while floating through rapids. A rigid boat flips easily.

While practicing paddling, learn to grasp the paddle about a shoulder's width apart and spread your fingers out to distribute the stress of paddling more evenly. Use the big muscles of your back and torso to propel the boat, not your arms. Make sure the rounded end of the paddle blade strikes the water first with the more pointed end on top for the best efficiency.

Enjoy the Memorial Day holiday by paddling one of Kentucky's many streams. With study, practice and preparation, you can avoid problems and have a more enjoyable time. Paddling is an incredibly fun way to spend a warm summer day.​

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