The best-kept secrets of Cumberland Plateau streams


By Ben Garrett –

The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and its tributaries that cut deep into the Cumberland Plateau have seen a lot of history over the years. From the days when Native Americans fished the streams to when white settlers began establishing subsistence farms and building communities — complete with grist mills, one-room schools and general stores — along its banks, these streams have witnessed plenty.

If they could talk, the rivers could likely offer up plenty of secrets that they’ve long kept all to themselves. But here’s a truth that only a few are aware of: there’s a sure-fire way to get these rivers started talking about one secret in particular, and that’s just how good the fishing is around here.

Scores of smallmouth bass anglers travel off the plateau for lakes in any direction on weekends, often traversing the Big South Fork or one of its tributaries without realizing the bronzebacks lying beneath the surface of these free-flowing mountain streams and just waiting to be caught.

The smallmouth don’t grow as big in these streams as at nearby Dale Hollow . . . but, then, few do. Dale Hollow, after all, is home of the world-record smallmouth bass.

But catch the conditions just right and know what lure to throw at them, and there are plenty of fish here for the taking. The best way to fish for smallies in BSF country is to get up close and personal with them. Wading-and-casting is the name of the game, and, as it turns out, late summer is when the game is best played.

The key is getting to the water early, as day has just begun to break, says Corey Andrews, who has spent years fishing the Big South Fork and its tributaries.

“Lots of people roll out of bed at 8 a.m., drive as close as they can get to the river, cast a few times,  then complain because they don’t catch any fish,” Andrews says. “If you’re going to wait until the sun is up to get on the water, you might as well stay at home.”

Dawn on the water comes early in late summer. Add to the fact that the best fishing is often a mile or more from the nearest river access point, and that means leaving the truck for a hike before the first shades of gray have begun to permeate the landscape.

Ideally, anglers will be stepping into the water before the sun has ever broken the horizon. With water temperatures this time of year climbing well above 70 degrees on the main river (and into the 60s on the streams that feed it), waders aren’t necessary. But that first step into waist-deep water is still a wakeup call on a chilly morning before the sun has begun to warm the day.

As for bait, a wide variety will work.

“If I wanted to drag a bucket of crawdads or creek minnows to the water with me, I could catch more fish than I could say grace over,” says Andrews. “But a plastic lure will work just fine.

“Lots of self-righteous anglers don’t want to use a rooster tail because it doesn’t seem fancy enough; it’s too common. But every fish in the world has been caught on a rooster tail,” he adds.

Indeed, it’s easy to think that if Jonah had packed a rooster tail in his tackle box, he might have caught that ol’ whale instead of the other way around.

But while a rooster tail will produce plenty of strikes, it isn’t the best bait for these waters . . . nor even the best spinner-bait.

There are plenty more baits to try, some better than others. The key is finding the right bait for the right conditions.

My brother and his fishing buddy, Tim Gray, discovered a lure that is guaranteed to catch fish on any given day on  the river in late summer. It’s called a . . . nah, better not. If I let the cat out of the bag, they’re liable to leave me stranded on our next fishing trip. But here’s a tip: you’ll have to go to Bass Pro Shops to find it. Local retailers don’t stock it.

With the right bait and the right conditions, it isn’t uncommon to catch 30 or 40 smallmouth apiece during the couple of hours when fishing is right, while covering a mile or two of streambed. Most are released back into the streams’ crystal-clear waters to strike at another angler’s baits on another day. A few have a date with a skillet of hot grease and aren’t as lucky.

During the late summer, a thick fog usually rises off the water overnight, obscuring the early morning sun. By mid morning, however, the sun will burn through the fog, and it’ll be as if someone flipped a switch. A few fish will continue to strike in shaded areas of the stream but, for the most part, the day is done as most folks are just beginning to crawl out of bed on a Saturday morning.

Most anglers who have had success on the local streams will tell you that the best smallmouth fishing is anywhere between Brewster Ford and the confluence on Clear Fork and in the vicinity of Angel Falls on the Big South Fork.

But the main rivers are just the start. Helenwood’s Larry Goodman tells tales of fishing South White Oak Creek near Rugby, using certain lures and a certain presentation to catch scores of panfish and redeye (rock bass) in the creek’s shallow waters. Oneida’s Micky Cordell knows the proper technique for catching smallmouth along particular stretches of North White Oak Creek upstream from the O&W crossing, towards the old Zenith mining community.

They, too, have sworn me to secrecy.

But while local anglers may not be willing to give up their secrets for catching fish on these streams, the river knows. And those who are willing to pay their dues, and endure a little trial and error, will likely find a way to make the river talk.

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