My brother is a horseback rider. He rides fast, jumps over anything that stands in his path, and loves the animals. While we grew up around horses hunting in South Georgia, Parker enjoyed the fancy kind of riding, with a coat and tie, judges, ribbons, and all the other hoopla that comes with it. Turns out, he is pretty good at it too, and at some point, when you reach a certain level of prowess in the horse world, you end up riding in Kentucky.
For him, Pony Finals was the pinnacle opportunity to show his horse and skills. Riders came from across America, Canada, and Mexico. There were white tablecloths and grandstands surrounding the ring. Hundreds of horse trailers sprawled across manicured field, with horse girls and moms to fill them. They all had their pigtails, groomed their ponies, and polished their tack. The show meant two days of waiting around for him to be in the ring for a couple of minutes. There is a lot of hurry up and wait, and then a few seconds of glory. While I love my brother and was immensely excited for him to be competing on the highest stage, and although I did not mind being surrounded by girls, I needed something to do during the drama and waiting.
One afternoon, dad and I ventured into town, driving through beautiful neighborhoods lined with oak trees and soft, green grass. I looked out the window at rows of houses and store fronts, and a sign flashed by my window. I had just enough time to make out the spelling of “Angler.” We threw the car in reverse and found ourselves in front of The Lexington Angler. Intriguing. We walked in and started chatting with the guys in the shop as one does anytime they enter such an establishment. I learned about carp fishing, small mouth, and pan fishing in the local streams and ponds around town. This was right around the time the carp craze was picking up, and to date I had never imagined fishing for them with anything other than bread or corn. I picked up a small assortment of carp flies, mostly out of interest. We then landed on the subject of trout.
“Oh yes, the Cumberland has some serious trout in it. Some of the biggest in the Southeast,” I was told. I thought to myself that maybe the whole horseshow thing would turn out not such a bad gig. Though there was not enough time left to get out that trip, and more disappointingly, we had arrived rodless, I was excited for the opportunity to return and spend some mornings on the tailwater during the next show.
Of course, as fate would have it now that I had found a nice outlet for the horse shows, Parker stopped riding.
But three years later, Mom and I made our return. As I was planning a trip for Catch50, I connected with Brandon Wade, operator of the Cumberland Drifter guide service. Mom and I were making a road trip through the Ohio River Valley states, fishing our way from Georgia up and around to Virginia. Mom came to describe our journey as “seeing America, one waterway at a time,” after this 5 state in 6 days excursion. Our first stop was at the Cumberland River State Resort Park.
We drove through torrential downpour up through Tennessee and into Kentucky, ending up at the lodge close to midnight as wind smacked rain against our windows. Thankfully, the forecast looked clear for the next day, and Brandon called to say that he was ready to go!
I spoke with Brandon on the phone two months prior to our day as we were putting plans together. He went into detail on the variety of fishing opportunities in the area but focused most on trophy trout fishing on the Cumberland. I had been excited about the fishery since my first day in the Lexington Angler three years prior but did not realize how truly spectacular of a fishery it could be until Brandon reeled off a few quick stories from his years on the river. After our conversation, I was fired up.
The Cumberland River is a tailwater stream flowing 75 miles out of Wolf Creek Dam at the North end of Lake Cumberland. As described by the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife, it is one of the premier trout streams in the southeast, matching up with the White in Arkansas. Tailwater rivers, as opposed to spring creeks or free stone rivers, are those which flow from a dam, typically out of a deep lake or reservoir. If the release comes from the bottom of the lake, the water that flows out remains a generally constant, cool temperature year-round providing a consistent climate for trout in the river below. These types of rivers are renowned for growing some of the biggest fish. Behemoth browns have been shocked and caught out of the Cumberland’s wide bends and deep cuts off the edges of rocky shoals. It has a variety of wadable locations but is particularly well suited for drift boats when the generations are low.
We met up with Brandon at one of the State Park boat launches not far below the dam. After the night long clapping of storms and a startling text message I received from my dad’s Spot GPS device the night before, I only got 4 hours of sleep (He was on a backpacking trip with my brother and 8 others and a stream they were relying on for water had run dry, so he needed me to search up whether they would find more ahead or if they needed to backtrack—it all worked out). I knew a good dose of trout would peak my energy. After meeting, we launched Brandon’s beautiful handmade, wooden drift boat. Mom and I loaded in our rods, food, and bodies, and then pushed off to drift downstream.
You pick up something new from nearly every person you fish with, often on a maiden outing together. Techniques, casting motions, how to read a body of water, fly selection. Each angler approaches these a little differently. There are common understandings of best practices, go-to patterns, and proper or even purist techniques. But every angler has the liberty to add their own flavor. Sometimes these are particularities of the fisherman, sometimes superstitions, and other times techniques that are developed from years of experience learning how best to target fish in a specific fishery—good, old-fashioned expertise. That is what Brandon shared.
“Hit the buckets, bro,” he started saying. At first, I thought, “A bucket? Hm. What’s that got to do with fishing?” The only time I had ever heard this phrase was from an old timer on the basketball court. I was confused by its application to the river.
The Cumberland’s water is clear enough to see to the bottom at mixed depths. Large slates of rock are visible substrate, appearing to be relatively flat bottom in many stretches, lacking structure or holding lanes behind rocks where trout often spend their days. Trout like to hang out in a variety of contexts within a river, but typically they sit somewhere they do not have to exert all their energy to keep from being washed away and where food funnels by in a concentrated fashion. At first, the lack of diversity made it difficult for me to know where to cast. It all seemed like one big drift. But, for the buckets.
The flat bottom is littered with little divots, holes, and cracks that break up the uniformity of its surface. These indentions may not seem substantial from the terrestrial perspective above, but they offer a comfortable hiding spot for trout awaiting a meal to drift their way. Brandon began pointing out these pockets and directing me to cast a few yards upstream so that the flies would drift just above the heads of trout waiting to ambush from their lie.
We pounded the “buckets.”
It became like sight fishing without actually seeing the fish. A grey hole of indentation would stand out in contrast against the brown rock, and I would line my flies upstream. We threw nymphs, dries, and streamers, but other than some slight fluctuations in their preferences throughout the day, it did not really matter, so long as we hit the buckets. And every time it worked, Brandon would repeat his signature phrase, “just hit the buckets, bro!”
I imagine, as a guide, it was very satisfying for him to see us connect each time the plan came together. Brandon was a super nice guy, welcoming to my mom and me, and a great instructor on the water. He had a cheery excitement that kept the energy going, even when we had short lulls in the fishing. Though, there were few. We landed dozens of trout. Browns, rainbows, and brook trout. We caught them all, and a lot of very nice fish. Most of them were in the 16–18-inch class, with a few closer to 20.
It was the kind of day I had hoped for a few years prior when I first wandered into the Lexington Angler, in the heart of a state I would not have pegged for trout fishing. The horseshoes paid off after all. In each river I have fished since, I have sought out Brandon’s buckets, hoping to find a fish lying in an unsuspecting hole or crevice. Often times, it works.
To learn more about the Cumberland River and its fantastic trout fishery, visit the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife website.