If these rivers could talk
If the streams that bisect the northern Cumberland Plateau — New River to the east, Clear Fork to the west — to form the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River could talk, what secrets might they offer up?
These streams have seen cultures, ways of life, come and go — from days before mankind first pushed through the plateau’s virgin forests to the deep gorge encasing the Big South Fork, to the days when Native Americans fished the streams and hunted the wildlife that was abundant here, to the days when white settlers began setting up subsistence farms along the river banks.
There’s one sure-fire way to get the Big South Fork and its major tributaries talking and offering up at least one of their best-kept secrets: there’s good fishing in these waters.
You won’t find the Big South Fork on the wish lists of very many anglers. But a few hard-core fishermen know the truth: catch the conditions when they’re right, and know which baits are most attractive to the smallmouth, and fishing in these local streams is hard to beat.
Fish are plentiful in the Big South Fork, and in the Clear Fork and New River further upstream, making an ultralight rig and a couple of reliable lures the perfect combination for a fine morning on the water — especially in late summer, when conditions are right.
Ask anglers in the know and many of them will tell you the same thing: there’s no better way to play this game than by getting up close and personal with the fish. Wading-and-casting is the name of the game, and its results are hard to beat . . . which is just as well, since the best conditions for late summer bass fishing find the streamflow too low for open canoes on much of the Big South Fork, particularly on the upper reaches of the river system.
Those same anglers will tell you that the secret is to get to the water early. Real early.
“Too many fisherman roll out of bed at eight o’clock, drive to the closest spot they can get a truck to the water, cast a few times, then complain because they didn’t catch any fish,” says Corey Andrews, who has fished these waters for years. “If you aren’t on the water at the break of dawn, you might as well stay home.”
With the best stretches of river for wading-and-casting often located a mile or more from the nearest access road, that means setting out on foot from your parked vehicle as the first light is just beginning to show in the eastern sky.
Ideally, you’ll be slipping into the water before sunrise. There’s no need for waders with the early August water temperatures climbing well above 70 degrees, but that first step in waters up to your waist is still a harsh wake-up call on a chilly morning.
On a good morning in late summer, the thick fog that rises off the river during the overnight hours will obscure the sun for a while after the yellow ball has climbed over the top of the gorge. With the right bait and the right conditions, the action is often fast and furious. On a good morning, you might catch as many as 30 bass within a couple of hours and with only a mile or so of river territory to work with.
By the time the sun starts to burn through the mist at mid-morning, the action tends to slow in a hurry. A few fish continue to hit in the shaded areas, particularly the areas where the water is moving faster, but the magic happens before most people are crawling out of bed on a Saturday morning.
Different anglers have different preferences for bait. Andrews says it’s hard to go wrong when the smallies are good and hungry.
“If I wanted to pack a bucket of crawldads or creek minnows to the river, I could catch more fish than I could say grace over,” he says. “But a rooster tail will work just fine. Some folks scoff at a rooster tail because you don’t see the pros on television using them, but every fish in the world has been caught on a rooster tail.”
Indeed, it isn’t hard to imagine that if Jonah had a rooster tail in his tackle box back in Old Testament days, he might have caught that old whale instead of the other way around.
But rooster tails aren’t the best lures for these waters, nor even the best spinner baits. There are others that work better — some way better.
Anglers who cut their teeth on these rivers will tell you that the best places to catch smallmouth are generally anywhere along Clear Fork and immediately downstream of Angel Falls on the Big South Fork.
But there’s good fishing even in the smaller streams that flow into the Big South Fork. South White Oak Creek near Historic Rugby, and north White Oak Creek near the historic Oneida & Western Railroad grade are two examples. And there are a few mountain streams in the Big South Fork, for those who know where to look and what to look for, where a few trout can still be found.
You likely won’t have much luck convincing local anglers to give up the secrets of these streams. Fishermen are peculiar in that way. But those who are lucky will find that a few early mornings and a little trial and error will convince the streams themselves to start talking.
And their secrets will be told.