The following is from an interview with Lee McClellan, associate editor of Kentucky Afield magazine.
McClellan, who loves smallmouth fishing above all else, has won several national awards for his writing. Follow along now as he takes you down one of Kentucky’s most beautiful whitewater streams.
“OK, Sam, here we go down the Rockcastle River, which forms the border of Rockcastle and Laurel counties. It has something to offer just about everyone who loves the outdoors, especially those in pursuit of smallmouth bass. It’s one Kentucky’s best whitewater streams. The river also holds good populations of smallmouth bass and rock bass.
It offers something for just about everyone, whether it’s mild water for anglers and family trips, or challenging whitewater for the kayaker.
The floatable section begins after the confluence of the Middle Fork and South Fork of the Rockcastle at the community of Livingston. The section of the Rockcastle from Livingston to Billows is a good float for anglers, beginners, families and canoe campers. All boaters should wear a life vest while floating Rockcastle River, or have enough on board for every person.
This middle section features long, gentle pools interspersed with drops. A few of the drops are challenging for canoeists and kayakers, but they serve as good tutorials for basic water reading and boat maneuvering skills. This section includes two day-long floats.
To begin this section, launch at the old Wilderness Road Ford, located south of Livingston, just off U.S. 25. The launch site is visible from the main road. This is a 6-mile float to the take-out under the I-75 bridge, off KY 1329. The next section is a 10.6-mile run from the I-75 bridge to the KY 1956 bridge at Billows.
Fishermen should downsize their line and lure selection, as this section of the Rockcastle runs extremely clear in dry weather. The water clarity tends to make the smallmouth bass jumpy.
Small tube lures or curly-tailed grubs in black, pumpkinseed or watermelon rigged on 1/16-ounce leadhead jigs work well for smallmouth.
The next section gradually picks up speed after the KY 1956 bridge at Billows. The section from Billows to the KY 192 bridge is designated as a Kentucky Wild River. The scenery grows more gorgeous as you float further into the Rockcastle.
Boaters will travel 10.7 miles before reaching the next take-out, referred to on some maps as the Old Howard Place. It is located at the end of Bolthouse Ridge Road, via Acorn-Ano Road and KY 1675 in Pulaski County. You’ll need four-wheel-drive with high ground clearance to reach the Old Howard Place access.
Now you’re entering the whitewater section of the river. It’s about to turn mean. It picks up speed and gradient to become one of the most challenging whitewater runs in Kentucky. House-sized boulders line the banks and alter the river’s path for the rest of the run.
This section is only for experienced boaters with excellent technical and water reading skills. Open boats, such as canoes or sit-on kayaks, are not recommended.
Don’t float this section alone. Smart boaters will wear helmets and personal flotation devices. Because the Rockcastle’s many blind turns can fool the uninitiated, you must scout rapids before floating them.
About one mile downstream from the Old Howard Place access, the river tumbles over a series of steep ledges known as the Stair Steps. These rapids are rated Class II to borderline Class III.
Roughly the next 3-mile stretch of the run holds fairly long pools with some good rapids at the end of each.
Now begins the hairy part of the adventure — the beginning of the Beech Creek Narrows, a set of Class IV rapids that boaters must scout beforehand if they choose to shoot them.
All but the most experienced boaters should use the portage on the right side of the river and bypass the rapid. The river constricts itself through two humongous boulders and drops about four feet with a keeper hydraulic (a standing wave with reverse current) at the end that can trap boats. Set up one of the group with a rescue rope that can reach a trapped boater with one throw before floating this rapid.
The Rockcastle calms for a bit before seemingly disappearing again. The river turns hard to the right and makes a big drop. This marks the beginning of the Lower Narrows, a series of rapids rated up to Class IV.
The next mile or so of river is only for the most experienced and skilled whitewater paddlers. The Lower Narrows consists of many twists, turns and large drops that will test the skills of the best paddlers. Boaters must scout each rapid of the Lower Narrows.
A portage trail runs along the left (east) side of the river and most who run this section should use it. After the Lower Narrows, the Rockcastle holds several Class II and Class III rapids that must be scouted. Soon, the river calms down until the take-out at the Bee Rock Boat Ramp at the KY 192 bridge.
Get out and enjoy one of Kentucky’s most overlooked whitewater floats this fall. The scenery and the outdoor adventure rival anything found in the eastern United States.
Jim Honchell at Rockcastle Adventures Canoe Livery rents canoes and runs shuttles for boaters. Bee Rock Campground and Rockcastle Campground offer camping pads, toilets, water and other amenities.
Some contact numbers: Rockcastle Adventures Canoe Livery (606) 865-9407; Bee Rock Campground (606) 865-4163,and Rockcastle Campground (606) 864-4163 or (606) 864-5225.
Reach G. SAM PIATT at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 932-3619.