Lake Cumberland on the rise

January 19, 2013

G. Sam Piatt

PDT Outdoors Writer

During the past six summers, fishermen learned how to catch black bass, striped bass, walleye and crappie from Lake Cumberland at its low water level of 40 feet below normal summer pool.

This coming summer the level will rise considerably above that and anglers will have to learn the new patterns of bait and sport fish movements.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced this past week that it plans to raise the level of Lake Cumberland during 2013 by 20 feet, a year ahead of schedule as it nears completion of repairs on Wolf Creek Dam.

I was there last spring with the Kentucky Outdoor Press Association. We spent the weekend on a moored houseboat at Conley Bottom Resort, one of 10 marinas located around the shore of the big lake.

Big is right. It stretches 101 miles from its headwaters to the dam. It has 1,255 miles of shoreline. At that normal summer pool level it covers 50,250 surface acres.

Cumberland is the largest lake in Kentucky. Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley are actually larger in whole, but part of both of those lake lies across the southern border in Tennessee.


Creighton Stephens and I fished in my Bass Tracker up the lake and down. Creighton caught some very nice smallmouth while I manned the camera.

You see, I always give my guest the front pedestal seat and the catching advantage that goes with it (let’s see now, what other excuse can I use for catching just one smallmouth?)

We saw great schools of 4- and 5-inch shad being driven against the shore by maundering striped bass, or rock fish as Lake Cumberlanders call them. That was frustrating in a way because we never hooked a one of the big stripers.

All in all, though, it was a good weekend of fishing at that lower lake level.

Fisheries personnel say bringing the level back will make the fishing even better.

The six-year exposure of new lake shore has created some great fish habitat. Gerry Buynak, assistant fisheries director for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said adding water atop the lake’s overgrown banks will boost fish populations in Lake Cumberland for the next three to five years.

“This will result in a ‘new lake’ fish population boom, with very good spawns of fish such as bass and crappie expected,” Buynak said. “This vegetation will also provide cover for young fish so survival should increase resulting in the production of very strong year classes.”

In 2007, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lowered the level of Lake Cumberland by 40 feet to ease pressure on the structure. The corps said the dam needed repairs because a failure of the nearly mile-long dam would flood communities along the Cumberland River, including parts of downtown Nashville.

The six-year dam repair has carried a price tag of slightly under $600 million.

Marinas and associated businesses relying on the lake suffered through those six summer seasons of low water. From 2007 to 2008 tourism dropped about 20 percent – from about 5 million visitors to less then 4 million.

Marina owners spent millions to relocate their docks as the water fell. Now they’ll be faced with the expense of moving them again as the water level goes up, although that will be easier and less expensive than lowering them.

The corps extended concrete launching ramps so boaters could reach the lake to put in.

Officials are anticipating a rise in business along with the rise in the lake level.

“This is great news for tourists, boaters, fishermen and the marinas and other businesses in the Lake Cumberland area,” Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear said. “The early completion of the work at Wolf Creek Dam will help bring back much-needed jobs in this area.”

“I think this is the best news we could have received,” said Carolyn Mounce, executive director of the Somerset-Pulaski County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The fishermen are going to be in fishing heaven. It’s going to make fishing on Lake Cumberland a premium.”

Kentucky Fish and Wildlife will stock 150,000 more walleyes and 150,000 more striped bass than normal this year. Altogether, the department will add 1 million walleye and striped bass to the lake this year to give fishing a boost.

Lake Cumberland, a three- to four-hour drive from the Ashland-Portsmouth area, should be on fishermen’s agenda as levels rise this spring.

The rule here on the Ohio River is that fish always bite better on the rise.


January is a good time for landowners to start their chainsaws and begin projects that can benefit wildlife.

Red cedars which grow so numerous to heights of 10 feet in both Kentucky and Ohio woodlands and pasture edges can become so thick in numbers that they block sunlight from reaching the ground, preventing the sprouting and growth of trees more valuable to wildlife.

Landowners can take up their chainsaws and cut some of the red cedars, crating openings among them.

The cut trees can be piled to one side and create nesting cover for wild turkeys and rabbits.

Felled cedar trees can also be placed in ponds or small lakes. They make great fish attractors since cedars resist rotting.

Large trees competing for space with more desirable species don’t need to be felled. They can be girdled or killed on the stump by making a 2-inch deep cut with the chainsaw all the way around the tree trunk.

The standing dead trees will be used as home for woodpeckers, owls, squirrels, and wild songbirds.


Landowners can receive federal money for completing eligible programs as an incentive for improving wildlife habitat on their lands.

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is now accepting applications for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program Wildlife Initiative. Land users may apply at any time. However, the second application evaluation cutoff date for 2013 has been set at April 19.

In Kentucky, the primary focus of the program is to improve early successional and forestland habitats for declining species and other wildlife.

Restoring remnant prairies, planting native grasses, shrubs and trees are some of the eligible practices for the program.

Other eligible practices include bush honeysuckle removal, creating patch clear cuts in forestland and creating shallow water areas.

Keeping livestock from streams and woodlands is also an important focus under Kentucky’s 2013 EQIP Wildlife Initiative.

Clover plots with certain limitations are eligible in 2013, but must be completed along with other practices such as native warm season grasses, tree or shrub plantings, edge feathering or patch clear cuts.

Program applications are evaluated and ranked to determine which provide the most beneficial habitats.

For more information about application requirements, visit your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office. Interested land users may also call the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources at 1-800-858-1549 to learn the name and telephone number of the private lands biologist serving the area.

G. Sam Piatt can be reached at (606) 932-3619 or Gsamwriter@aol.com.