Author: Leah Guggenmos
The Red River Gorge is known for many things- towering cliffs, miles of hiking trails, world renowned climbing opportunities, pizza, and, of course, cozy cabins. But one question we at StayOver receive quite often is “what about the fishing?” Unfortunately, I’ve never had a very good answer for these curious folks. Even as a lover of the outdoors, I have never been exposed to many opportunities for fishing, especially fishing beyond catch and release. After the most recent inquiry, I decided it was finally time to round out my knowledge about this mysterious pastime.
Learning about a new hobby is best done in two phases– I. Research, and II. Execution. If you’re interested in fishing the gorge during your upcoming trip, I hope to make phase I a breeze for you, so you can dive right into the good stuff!
Phase I — Research
What can I fish for?
We can basically divide this into two categories, fish for releasing, and fish for eating. Of course, the details get more complicated than that, but for our purposes we’ll keep it simple. If you’re looking to eat the fish you catch, there are opportunities for Rainbow Trout, Channel Catfish, Bluegill, Crappie, and Brown Trout. Before you get your hopes up, as a beginner in this area, you’ll probably only have luck with the first three. Of course, all of the above can also be released back into the water for a quick and easy outdoor adventure, along with Sunfish and Largemouth bass. You can add the beautiful Brook Trout to the catch and release list as well. This species is in the process of being introduced to the area, and is therefore illegal to harvest for food at this time. Learn more about this interesting Fish and Wildlife project here.
If you’re not familiar with the process of cleaning fish, releasing may be your best bet, at least for your first few times. Cleaning fish requires some nerve (at least for some), and while it is not always difficult, it does take some practice and equipment. If you are interested in trying this, here are some videos to get you started. (Content warning for gore.)
The availability of fish species is also seasonal and differs from location to location. More on that to follow.
What will I need?
Getting ahead of themselves, the first question people ask about fishing in the gorge is often “where should I do it?”. Well, hold on there! Let’s take a step back and discuss the supplies you’ll need to be successful in the area.
For starters, anyone fishing in Kentucky on any day other than the first weekend of June (Free fishing weekend) will need a KY fishing license. This does include fishing ponds and streams on private property (unless you or your family owns that property). Residents and non-residents can purchase licenses online here. Residents of Kentucky may purchase single day or annual passes ($7 & $23), while non-residents may purchase single day or 7-day passes ($15 & $35). Kids 15 and under do not need a fishing license. Additionally, if you plan to catch any trout for eating, a separate $10 trout permit is required. You’ll want to keep either a printed or electronic copy of any licenses or permits with you on your outing.
Once you’ve got your license in order, you’ll need your pole, bait, and tackle! This part is easy. Your pole does not need to be fancy, and many stores sell inexpensive kits that come with a pole, reel, line, and basic tackle. Your pole should come with instructions on how to set it up. If you’re having trouble, videos abound online for every style of rod. Basically, you’ll need to thread the rod with your line, and set the end with a sinker, a bobber if you prefer, and your lure or hook and bait. For beginners I recommend using live or food bait, like mealworms, nightcrawlers, or corn. Corn is especially effective if you’re seeking trout that have been stocked from a hatchery, often the case with rainbows. Be mindful of baits that are and aren’t allowed during certain seasons and in certain areas.
If you’re in need of bait, it can be purchased at several locations in the area. Ledford’s Bait Shop is located on Hwy 11, and offers a wide selection of live and artificial baits. They also stock other fishing supplies, like poles and lines, if you’ve broken yours, or just decided to give fishing a try last minute! Be aware, they are a cash-only shop. Another suitable place to buy bait is the Shell gas station in Slade. You may also come across other locations. Stores around here tend to have a little of everything. Even Ace Hardware in Stanton carries bait!
Ledford’s Bait Shop- Slade, KY
It’s always a good idea to bring a bucket (haul your stuff, turn it over and sit on it, fill it with water to hold your catch), and your tackle box with extra sinkers and lures, scissors, and pliers. You will inevitably find your line stuck on a rock or a tree branch, and you’ll be glad you brought these handy tools. With that said, always do your best to not leave behind fishing line, hooks, lures, sinkers, or really anything! “Leave No Trace”also applies to fishing and all of these things can negatively impact wildlife, and other people who visit these natural areas. Keep in mind that most sinkers are made of lead. If ingested, these sinkers will kill, not only the animal that ate it, but any animal that feeds off of the animal that died. If possible, try to use steel sinkers!
Where should I go?
Rivers and Streams
The Red River, and adjacent streams and creeks, are shallow and rough, with most banks being difficult to access and crowded by overhead branches and brush. This makes any fishing other than fly-fishing rather difficult. Fly-fishing (fishing with an extra-light artificial “fly” or “invertebrate” as bait) is a specialized skill, too complex for this starter guide. Here we focus on the more traditional spin and bait fishing that most of us are familiar with. Therefore, I don’t recommend rivers or streams in this area for beginners, unless you can find a deep, slow-moving stretch of water with good bank access. Let us know if you do, and what you catch, and we’ll feature it in this blog!
If you’re an experienced fly-fisherman or woman, it is helpful to know that Swift Camp Creek is stocked with rainbow trout in March and October. All trout caught from October 1 through May 31 must be released immediately and only artificial baits can be used during this period. Chimney Top Creek is stocked with brown trout in June, which are legal to harvest year-round. Most of these creek and stream locations are somewhat off the beaten path, and will require a hike to reach. Rules and regulations here are subject to change, and I suggest you check the KY fishing guide to ensure you’re up to date with any new requirements or limitations. The guide includes stocking schedules, if applicable. You can also visit KY On the Fly for additional fly-fishing information.
Red River Gorge Creek and Stream Fishing
Mill Creek Lake Slade, KY
Lakes and ponds
Fly-fishing aside, we’re left with a couple of lake and pond locations to try. The first and most convenient is Mill Creek Lake, located 15 or fewer minutes away from most of our cabins, and right next door to Natural Bridge State Park. Fishing is probably what this small lake is best known for! (No swimming or gas-powered boats are permitted.) It is stocked several times a year with rainbow trout, and the next scheduled drop is next month! The best time to catch stocked trout is during the several days immediately after the drop-off. Channel Catfish are stocked every other year. Sunfish, largemouth bass, bluegill, bullhead, and crappie are also reportedly found. This lake offers plenty of bank space for casting, trails, or even take a kayak to access the far end of the lake.
Don’t have your own kayak? Rent one from Red River Adventure, located right in the parking lot, and take your angling up a notch (or possibly complicate the situation)!
Check out all of the available fish and guidelines with the link below!
Cave Run Lake- Salt Lick, KY
Cave Run Lake is not quite in the Red River Gorge, but it’s close enough, and impressive enough, to do a day-trip! Not only does this lake offer more fishing opportunities, but it also has prime spots for swimming in warm waters, stunning views, and even large boat rentals. It’s easy to accidentally spend an entire day on the water here! Not only can you find a wider variety of fish on this lake, including white and black crappie, largemouth, smallmouth, white, and spotted bass, and even muskellunge, but fishing tournaments that are open to the public are also regularly held. If you’re staying in the area for longer than a day or two, Cave Run Lake is definitely a must-see for fishing and more.
If you’re lucky enough to be staying in one of the Cabins of Birch Hollow, you’ll have exclusive access to fishing in Sundance pond. Located right across the road from Sundance Cabin, Sundance pond is a quaint little spot, surrounded by reeds and the sound of rushing water from the hills overhead. If you need to drive from another Birch Hollow cabin, you’re welcome to park in the gravel space by the black barn nearby. For the longest time, guests have been asking what kinds of fish you can catch in this little pond. I don’t yet know the answer, since it’s been years since it’s been stocked, but I am determined to find out in phase II of this project.
Sundance Pond- Cabins of Birch Hollow
Phase II– Execution
Ok, so, I’ve done my research. Time to find out if I can be successful based on the information in this guide. I am not going to get into fly-fishing, at least not for now, so my selected fishing destinations are Mill Creek Lake and Sundance pond. I’d like to try fishing from the seat of a kayak, and also find out once and for all, what, if anything, you can catch in Sundance pond. On a mild September morning, my partner Thomas and I packed up our kayaks and headed the Red River Gorge.
It was cloudy, even drizzling a little on the drive. I had checked the weather 15 times before we left, and Google was telling me there should be no rain. I put my full faith into this, and we continued on our way. Twenty or so minutes later, we exited the Mountain Parkway at 33 and made a quick detour to Ledford’s bait shop. I had lures, and even some corn-scented bait paste at the ready, but wanted to check out the shop and pick up some live worms while we were at it. Mr. Ledford (I assume) was friendly and advised we try wax worms for our trip. “Anything will bite wax worms”, he said. Since I didn’t rightly know what we were fishing for, that plan sounded as good as any to me. With our waxworms in hand, we headed on to Mill Creek Lake.
When we arrived, the clouds overhead were dark and swirling. We didn’t come all this way and drag our kayaks out of storage just to turn around. After all, Google said it wasn’t going to rain! In a bit of a hurry, we threw all our fishing gear in the kayaks and made a quick take off. Once in the water, I realized I had done nothing to set up my pole. Doing so proved to be a challenge in a motion-limited, seated, position. After expending way too much effort, I finally strung the pole and set my hook. So I thought. In my hurry I had the line running out of the spool the wrong way, making reeling completely ineffectual. Just as I discovered this, it started to downpour. I frustratedly handed my pole to Thomas, and paddled as fast I could to the cover of the brush on the sides of the lake. Not a great start! The rain continued to fall, so we decided to call it, and paddled furiously back to the launch. Of course, once we got there, the rain began to slow, and the sky was clearing. Already soaking wet, we decided to leave the fishing gear behind, and go for a more relaxing paddle around the lake to dry in the sun. Lesson learned here, if you’re going to fish off your kayak, set it up before you’re in the water! And you should probably pay attention to what the sky is telling you, too.
After our little jaunt, we got back to business and tried fishing on the bank. My pole was finally set up correctly, and with a wax worm on the hook, I sent out my first cast. Within 30 seconds I had some nibbles. Attempt 1, I reeled in too soon. Attempt 2, I reeled in too late and lost my bait. Rinse and repeat five or so more times, and soon the fish were full, and it was approaching 12 noon. The bites stopped coming. I tried different lures, different baits. I imagined them giggling at me just below the surface. Bored, I started feeding the minnows, and tried to see if they would swim into my hands. No matter, despite the rain we had a good time anyway, and we still had another destination to try.
Walking back to our truck, we said goodbye to a man running the kayak rental booth at the lake. He asked us if we caught anything, and when we said no, he looked somewhat surprised. Pulling out his phone to show us a photo, he mentioned he had caught a huge bass in the same area not too long ago. He suggested trying earlier or later in the day, and mentioned that sometimes the fish didn’t bite as well after it rained. Words of wisdom I’m passing on to you!
Next we tried the pond at Birch Hollow. This time we were ready to go, so the setup was a breeze. At this point, I still wasn’t sure if there were fish at all in the pond, and at first sight, it didn’t look promising. The water level was low, and the water was pretty murky. I cast my first line out anyway, and hoped for the best! After a few minutes, there was not even so much as a nibble. I was quickly losing confidence and patience. Just then, I saw a fish! It wasn’t by the bait, but it did come up to investigate the fishing line much closer to the dock. Excitedly, I reeled in and tried casting in the same area as the fish appeared. We waited, and waited. If you think this story is going to have an inspirational, happy, ending about the virtues of patience, it does not. Despite all the waiting, we didn’t catch anything. But the good news is that there are definitely fish in there, awaiting anglers better than me. In fact, the following day, guests at Sundance Cabin reported catching many fish, all Bluegill. Check out Nathan, Brecken, and Emersyn, obviously better fishers than we are! They caught 30 fish during their stay. Nathan believes there may even be a big ol’ bass in the pond, as something broke his line one day!
Fishing at Sundance: Nathan, Brecken, and Emersyn
Sadly, we didn’t catch anything all day, but I do think we learned a lot! Next time I’d go earlier, with a goal of arriving at the fishing location by 9 AM. I’d try to wait for a day with a clear sky. If I wanted to try to use the kayak, I’d set everything up before getting on the water. Maybe at some point I’ll update this blog with a more informed attempt and I’ll actually have something to show for it! Best of luck out there to old and new anglers alike. If you have any Red River Gorge fishing tips, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below!