Copyright 2020 James Marsh
Fly Fishing The Cumberland River In
The Cumberland Lake tailwater in South Central
Kentucky near the Tennessee state line is a popular
brown and rainbow trout fishing destination. Its water
flows from the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Wolf
Creek Dam. Lake Cumberland is a huge lake and one of
the deepest lakes in the South. The water stays cool a
long way downstream from Wolf Creek Dam. The river
boast of seventy-five miles of good trout fishing. The
Cumberland is a heavily stocked trout stream. Fly fishing
the Cumberland River usually produces some good
catches in terms of numbers and size.
This is one tailwater where you must pay close attention
to the water releases and levels. It changes drastically
and within a very short time. The link on the left side of
this page will take you to the schedule for releases.
If you wade any part of the river, you should always pick
out a target and watch it carefully for a change of the
water level. If it starts to rise, get out of the stream. We
suggest a wading staff as you will see in our gear
section. It is possible to step off into a deep hole. I know
because I have done it twice not paying attention. The
staff will let you probe ahead. It would have done me
little good because I would probably be watching the
water at a distance and not be probing ahead.
The rate of rising water flows on the Cumberland River
is much slower than most tailwaters. It generally travels
only about four miles an hour. This is such a long
tailwater and such a slow rate of travel for the rising
water that it could be rising at the dam and falling a few
miles downstream. In other words, you can usually find a
place to fish even when they are generating power
running the turbines. If the flows are moderate or low
and they begin to generate power, you have a long time
to fish if your a few miles downstream.
As with most any trout stream, trout are easier to catch
on a dry fly during a hatch. More hatches occur in April
and May than any other period of time but you can fish
the Cumberland River year-round. The most important
factor is the generation schedule. The water levels can
rise a bunch, like a few feet when they are running
water. There are four generators at the Wolf Creek dam
and any number of them can be operating at any given
time. In general, the lower the water level on the lake,
the better the fly fishing is on the Cumberland.
It's without question that the best way to fish the river is
from a drift boat. Although there's a lot of water that can
be waded on good generation schedules for wading,
there are many areas of the water too deep to wade.
Canoes, john boats and pontoon type drift boats can
also be used.
Cumberland River Kentucky
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Photo Courtesy of David Knapp Photography
Recommended Tackle & Gear
5 or 6 weight
Dry fly: 9 ft., 5X, Nymphing: 71/2 ft., 3 or
4X, Midges 6X
Dry fly: 5X, Nymphing: 3 or 4X, Streamer
Best Fly Rod:
Perfect Fly Superb Five or Ultimate Six
For 5/6 line size
Fly Floatants and Misc Items:
Loon Floatants, KISS Strike Indicators
Tools & Accessories:
Nippers, forceps, retractors, etc.
Something different about the Cumberland and
many other tailwaters is the fact a motor can
come in real handy. There's places you can
launch a boat and run upstream to drift across
some of the better areas of water. Winfrey’s
Ferry is just one of them.
Another good reason a boat is generally
preferred is due to the fact there are areas of
the Cumberland River than runs for miles
without any road access. It flows through some
wild country in places as well as many private
farms. Areas of water to wade are scarce. Most
of the water that can be waded is found in the
uppermost ten to fifteen miles of the tailwater.
One of, if not the most preferred method of
fishing, is streamer fishing. Not only do they
allow you to cover a lot of water fast, they
produce big fish. There's a one trout per day
regulation and it must be a minimum of 20
inches long. These regulations have resulted
in the Cumberland River having a lot of big
trout. Five pounders are common. Although
most of the trout are holdovers, there's some
Fly Fishing The Cumberland River can be
You can fish the Cumberland River all winter
long. The water stays near the same
temperature close to the dam.
Springtime is good provided the discharges
are acceptable. Heavy rains upstream can
create heavy spring discharges.
Fly Fishing Guide to the Cumberland
The methods and strategies you use on the
Cumberland River not only varies with the
discharges but also the trout you want to
target. This river is managed by the state of
Kentucky as trophy trout water. There are a
lot of large browns in the river. They may
average as large as fourteen or fifteen
inches. Drifting the river is by far the best
method to use.
The river discharges determine the methods
and locations you should fish the stream. If
the flows are too high, It can become
impossible to fish it at times. This is a huge
river and the population of the trout and the
food supply varies greatly from the dam to as
far as seventy-five miles downstream. The
Cumberland is open and fished year round.
Usually the months of April and May have the
best hatches but the fishing is completely
controlled by the generation schedules.
Water flows around four or five miles per
hour and even when they begin to run a
good bit of water, you can often drive a few
miles downstream and find suitable water to
fish for a good amount of time. It doesn't
mean your day suddenly ends.
Although the stream has a surprising number
of aquatic insect the larger brown trout feed
mostly on other foods. Sculpin, shad, and
other baitfish represent the bulk of the diet
but there is also a good population of
crayfish and scuds in the river.
Don't be surprised if you don't hook a
striper fishing streamers. There's plenty of
them in the river as well as trout.
Although streamers generally account for
the largest size trout, they don't usually
produce better than nymphs and other
smaller subsurface flies. The Cumberland
River is known as a nymphing stream.
Nymphs produce the most trout. Midges are
also very important. The Cumberland is
unusual for a southern tailwater because it
also has stonefies, including the Giant
stoneflies. There's also plenty of scuds and
sowbugs. Dry fly fishing is at its best during
the relatively few caddis and mayfly
hatches. As with most any trout stream,
terrestrial insects can be important during
the late Summer and Fall. There's much
more information on this in our Hatches and
Trout Flies section
There is several areas you can wade the
Cumberland but the best way to fish the
river is from a boat. Most of the places that
provide wading opportunities are within the
first ten to twelve miles below the dam.
Even on low water levels, the big river is
too deep to wade in many places. All types
of boats are used on the river. Drift boats
and even canoes are common. Many
anglers use small aluminum boats. Having
a motor is often an advantage. It allows
you to fish water you othrwise may not be
able to fish strictly drifting.
Often the only way to fish the big river
successfully seems to be when water is
running. Drifting down the banks and
casting to cover is a good way to hook one
of the Cumberland's big brown trout. You
want get many strips on the fast water,
and it requires a lot of plain work, but it's
often very productive. There is a lot of
cover along the banks of the river and
that's where the big browns get to grab a
bite to eat. Tree tops, stumps, and sunken
logs are common.
Cumberland River Hatches and
Our information on aquatic insects is based
on our stream samples of larvae and
nymphs, not guess work. We base fly
suggestions on imitating the most plentiful
and most available insects and other foods
at the particular time you are fishing. Unlike
the generic fly shop trout flies, we have
specific imitations of all the insects in the
Cumberland River and in all stages of life
that are applicable to fishing. If you want to
fish better, more realistic trout flies, have a
much higher degree of success, give us a
call. We not only will help you with
selections, you will learn why, after trying
Perfect Flies, 92% of the thousands of our
customers will use nothing else.
The Cumberland Lake tailwater near the
Tennessee state line is a popular brown and
rainbow trout fishing destination. Its water
flows from the U. S. Army Corps of
Engineers Wolf Creek Dam on Lake
Cumberland. Although there are few mayfly
hatches, you'll find plenty of midges and
black flies. If you want to consistently catch
trout on the Cumberland River, make sure
your prepared to fish the little flies that
imitate the midge larvae, pupa and even the
adults. The same goes for the black flies.
They are very plentiful. We have Perfect Fly
imitations of Black Fly larvae, pupae and
Unlike most tailwaters, the Cumberland
River has less baitfish than most. There are
some sculpin, shad and other forage fish
but the river also has plenty of stripped bass
and the shad don't last long.
Crayfish are plentiful and eaten by the
larger trout regularly. Sowbugs and Scuds
are also in the river and represent a good
portion of the trout's diet.
The is a bi-brooded Blue-Winged Olive
hatch that begins in the late Winter and last
about a month and then another generation
hatches in the Fall, usually in October. They
can appear most anything from Fall until
Sulphurs are also present but they are
not massive hatches by any means.
There's also some Pale Evening Duns
called Sulphurs by the locals that are
slightly larger than the sulphurs. These
hatch from around the middle of May
Caddisflies are very plentiful. The Little
Black Caddis, or Brachycentrus caddis,
are plentiful. These hatch during the late
Winter and early spring but the hatch is
often affected by high water levels and
discharges from the dam. Starting about
the middle of April you will find some large
Cinnamon Caddis hatches. Just following
the first Cinnamon hatches will be the
Little Sister Caddis. They are very
plentiful and can last up to two months at
different sections of the river.
We have report of stoneflies in the
Cumberland River but we have yet to
verify that. We have only taken a few
stream samples of aquatic insects but
what we have done so far, failed to show
any stonefly nymphs. At this point, we are
unable to say whether they are present or
Don't forget your streamers. You'll need
them that imitate sculpin, baitfish including
shad and crayfish. Often streamers are
about your only choice. Most everything is
determined by the amount of water being
discharged and when its high, streamers
are often the only choice that makes
We plan on doing some more stream
samples and obtaining some more
information about the food in this
tailwater, so keep in touch.
Summer can be a good time provided the
releases are acceptable. The cool water
discharges keep the fish active
throughout the summer.
Autumn can be the best time to fish the
river. The brown trout spawn during the
Thumbnails: Click To Enlarge
Property of David Knapp
Cumberland River Fishing Report - 03/22/20
Discharges and stream levels have been high but should settle down later this week. Be
sure to check the discharge schedule. The new man made stream (Hatchery Creek) is in
good shape and can be fished most anytime.
7 Day Weather Forecast: Partly sunny Weds. and Thurs, otherwise chance of rain and
thunderstorms. Highs will range from 60 to 78 and lows from 47 to 58.
Recommended Trout Flies:
Midges: Blood (Red), sizes 20/22, larva, pupa and adults
Midges: Cream, size 20/22, larva, pupa and adults
Midges: Light Green, size 20/22, larva, pupa and adults
Brown Sculpin, White Belly Sculpin & Articulated patterns, size 4/6
Black Matuka and Olive Matuka Sculpin, size 4/6/8
Blue-winged Olives: size 18/16, nymph, emergers, duns and spinners
Aquatic Worms, size 12, pink, red, and others.
Black Flies, size 18,20, larva, pupa and adults.
Strategies, Techniques and Tips:
Be sure to check the TVA release schedule shown above. Various species of
Blue-winged Olives are hatching, especially on cloudy, overcast days.
Our Brown Sculpin, White Belly Sculpin and Artculated patterns work great anytime.
The Black Matuka and Olive Matuka Sculpin are good flies to use for the larger size
As long as the water levels are decent, a good strategy is to fish a tandem Midge
rig under a small strike indicator with the midge lava as the bottom fly and the midge
pupa as the top fly. Fish the adult midge only when you observe trout feeding on the
surface. Aquatic worms are working. Great Autumn brown sedge caddis are hatching.
Black Flies are hatching.
Fishing Report Updated 03/22/20
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with a budget for flies and we will select
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