FRANKFORT – Biologists with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources predict the return of Lake Cumberland to its normal summertime level will prove a boon to fishing in the coming years.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Tuesday that the lake should return to its old level of 723 feet above sea level by mid-May. Lake Cumberland had been held at a lower level since 2007, while repairs to Wolf Creek Dam were underway.
John Williams, southeastern fisheries district biologist for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, said the return of historic lake levels will boost fishing both in the lake and in the tailwater below it.
“It is going to flood all of that shoreline cover that’s grown up during the drawdown,” he said. “It is going to help black bass, sunfish and crappie. They will utilize that cover now and it will make for fun fishing.”
Nutrients provided by decaying plants will help fuel growth at the base of the food chain, a boost that biologists refer to as the “new lake effect.”
Jeff Ross, assistant director of fisheries for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, noted the surface area of the lake will grow from 37,000 acres at its lowest to 50,250 acres this summer.
“This will greatly increase the amount of fishable water in the lake,” he said. “The backs of creeks, coves and areas in the upper end of the lake that were dry during the drawdown are now available for fishing. The fishing will get better each year for the next several years.”
The higher lake level will expand the amount of oxygenated, cool water that striped bass and walleye need to survive as the lake warms in late summer through early fall.
“This will improve the water quality for these two species,” Williams said. “The regular releases will also benefit trout in the tailwater. It should get the tailwater back to what it was before the drawdown in a few years.”
The plan to raise the lake to its old level stalled early this year, when researchers discovered the endangered duskytail darter had moved downstream from the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River while the water was down. Raising the lake back up could impact these fish.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers acted rapidly to complete a plan to ensure the survival of the darter.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deserve a lot of credit,” said Ron Brooks, director of fisheries for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “They worked overtime to make this happen this quickly.”
Normally, it can take up to 135 days for a review. In this case, a biologist opinion was issued in less than 45 days.
Brooks said the duskytail darter will be monitored by the Corps for three years. “The Corps will increase the water level slowly to allow the duskytail darter to migrate back upstream,” he said. “They are going to collect some of the darters and hold them at Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery in case they are needed for restocking in the future.”
As part of a remediation plan, the Corps also plans to rework two tributary streams to reduce the drainage of contaminants into the Big South Fork and stabilize areas where trail crossings divert sediment into the water.
“The return of the water is going to help the forage species, it will help fishing and will be much better than during the drawdown,” Brooks said. “The lake is on its way back now.”