Department of Fish and Wildlife
Kentucky Afield Outdoors: Blue Water Trails: Big South Fork
(This article is the sixth in the periodic Blue Water Trails series highlighting the floating, fishing and tourism opportunities on Kentucky’s streams and rivers).
FRANKFORT, Ky. – It looks like the gods stomped their feet in anger to make the Big South Fork of Cumberland River. They stomped so hard a large crack appeared in the southernmost part of the Cumberland Plateau in Kentucky and into Tennessee. The rumble sent building-sized boulders down the sides of the cavern, nearly choking the river’s flow and giving rise to rapids later named Broken Rib, the Washing Machine, Snaggle Tooth and Devil’s Jump as a tribute to their rough character.
The Big South Fork labors through those humongous rocks and continues to cut down into the Cumberland Plateau as it flows north from Tennessee to the backwaters of Lake Cumberland in McCreary County. Paddlers on this river will all but swoon with the incredible beauty of floating on the waters that cut the Big South Fork gorge. Towering cliffs surround your boat as it floats over water the color of the shallows of the Caribbean. No other float in Kentucky holds such scenic wonderment to a paddler.
The confluence of the Clear Fork and New Rivers in Tennessee form the Big South Fork of Cumberland River. The 10.2 mile section of the river from the Tennessee state line to Blue Heron is a designated Kentucky Wild River.
The Big South Fork of Cumberland River flows through the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. Paddlers do not have to worry about trespass or access issues when floating the Big South Fork. It is publicy owned.
Paddlers have two options in floating the Big South Fork: an overnight wilderness float that begins in Tennessee or much milder and shorter floats starting at the restored mining community of Blue Heron. Paddlers planning a trip to the Big South Fork should watch the weather forecasts closely. A storm in the headwaters of the New or Clear Fork rivers sends a cascade of hog-pen water downriver. The tightness and sheer sides of this valley give rainfall little room to spread out, resulting in a river that quickly changes from gently flowing and green-clear to a raging coffee-colored froth.
Paddlers should avoid the Big South Fork at flood stage. On the Internet, log on to www.waterdata.usgs.gov for water levels and flow information for rivers all over Kentucky. If the Big South Fork flows under 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) at the Stearns gauge, expect to drag bottom in shoals and riffles. The best flow rate for casual floating is 100 to 500 cfs at Stearns. Between 500 and 1500 cfs at Stearns offers more interesting and faster floating for open boats. Only experienced paddlers in kayaks and other closed boats should attempt this river above 1500 cfs at Stearns. Flow rates in excess of 3,000 cfs create extremely dangerous conditions on the Big South Fork.
The put-in for the wilderness float begins in Tennessee at the Station Camp Canoe Launch via U.S. 27 south and TN 297. Nineteen miles of Big South Fork flow between Station Camp Canoe Launch and Blue Heron. This float holds several shoals and rapids that make for interesting paddling, but nothing overly dangerous at normal water levels. This is a good stretch for those with some paddling experience, but aren’t up to Class III and higher rapids.
The enormous rock known as Shiprock lies almost in mid-river at the mouth of Troublesome Creek. This milestone marks roughly the halfway point of this float. Eight more miles of river course between Shiprock and Blue Heron. Some sandy banks near the mouth of Troublesome Creek make good camping spots.
At the end of this run lies the Devil’s Jump, a scary Class IV rapid. The Devil’s Jump should be portaged by a trail on your left (facing downstream).
The next section begins at Blue Heron and ends at Alum Ford boat ramp. This part of the river offers some different floats. A family could make a half-day 2 ½-mile float from Blue Heron to Worley or continue on to the KY 92 bridge at Yamacraw for a 5-mile float.
Families and beginners should try the 8-mile stretch from Yamacraw to the Alum Ford Boat Ramp. This mainly flat-water section covers the headwaters of Lake Cumberland; although the lake’s lower level makes this section more interesting than in the past. Be prepared to encounter motor boats on this float.
The Big South Fork between Blue Heron and Yamacraw offers excellent fishing, especially in spring. The area just below Devil’s Jump produced smallmouth bass over 21 inches long and in excess of 5 pounds in the past decade.
Native walleye also find a home in this stretch. Joe Shoal, located about one mile into the float, holds trophy walleye. Fisheries biologists with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources found walleye over 13 pounds from this shoal in years past. They see many 3-to-5-pound walleye in this section.
The Big South Fork usually runs turquoise-clear. Lines heavier than 8-pound test spook fish in water this colorless. Smallmouth bass crush in-line spinners worked above and below riffles. They also strike Rapala-style minnow baits in hues of silver, bone or gold with a black back. These lures work well from Station Camp Canoe Launch to Blue Heron.
Knowledgeable local anglers fish crappie minnows behind boulders between Blue Heron and Worley with circle hooks and a few small BB-sized split shots pinched on the line 18-inches above the hook. This presentation produces more trophy smallmouth bass in the Big South Fork than any other.
Walleye hit minnows as well, but also like white, pink or neon green curly-tailed grubs rigged on 3/16 and 1/4-ounce leadheads. The strong current of the Big South Fork dictates the use of heavier leadheads than an angler would use in most floatable rivers in Kentucky.
A local favorite is 3-to-4-inch chartreuse and silver soft-plastic swim bait available pre-rigged with a leadhead embedded in the plastic. This lure produces trophy walleye and smallmouth bass in the section of the river between Blue Heron and Yamacraw. Cast these lures behind boulders and any submerged current break.
The snag strewn nature of the Big South Fork means anglers often hang their lures in rocks and boulders. Try and retrieve as many as you can so you don’t leave soft-plastic or lead in the river, but also bring plenty of lures just in case.
The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area isn’t nearly as well known as other bordering state rivers such as the New or Gauley in West Virginia or the Meramec or Current in Missouri. The Big South Fork rivals all those in beauty, floating and fishing, but without the crowds. Floats this fall should be spectacular.
Campers may use the campgrounds at Station Camp, Blue Heron and Alum Ford in the Big South Fork River and Recreation Area. Paddlers should stop by the visitor’s center just south of Whitley City on KY 92 for more information, or log onto their homepage at www.nps.gov/biso/.
Nearby Stearns, Kentucky offers hotel accommodations or you can stay less than an hour away at General Burnside State Resort Park on U.S. 27 just south of Somerset.
General Burnside State Resort Park: 1-606-561-4104 or on the Internet at parks.ky.gov.
The Blue Water Trails series supports Gov. Steve Beshear’s Adventure Tourism Initiative. Log on to Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s Blue Water Trails webpage at fw.ky.gov for a map.