Canoeing the Caney Fork River

By Vernon Summerlin

Whether you prefer wading or float-fishing from a canoe, the lower Caney Fork River trout fishery is just right for you. The 28-mile run from Center Hill Dam to Carthage offers plenty of opportunities to catch fish. The Caney Fork’s cold water is a strong fishery for bass, stripers, stripe, walleye and other game fish; however, it is best known for trout.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) stocks the stream with over 125,000 rainbows and browns each year. These stocker fish are about 10 inches long, but you want the big boys.

Joel Martin lives on Caney Fork River and knows its waters well. He fishes almost exclusively for trout. “I fish with nightcrawlers and AC Shiners, but a lot of people have good luck with Rooster Tails and Super Dooper spoons. The best bait for trout is Berkley’s Power Eggs. It out sells and out catches salmon eggs.

“Fishing from a canoe, I like to use baits that float. That’s because I cast to trees a lot. That’s where the big browns hang out in the summer. They like to stay in the shallows in the shade until the sun gets high. Up in the day, I fish the bottom of the pools.

“I look for rocky banks where trees are down. Around four to five miles below the dam are some places like that. Rock bluffs are good areas too.”

Joel used to bass fish but concentrates on trout now. “While bass fishing I learned that crawfish definitely catch them. The water is so clear, you can see bass moving around and they can see you, but they can’t resist a live crawfish. You just throw it out there with no weight on it and it starts crawling around on the gravel and the bass will come pick it up. The same is true for trout.”

Doug Markham has picked up a lot of knowledge about the Caney Fork’s fishery. “Although the Caney Fork River has a great reputation for trout fishing, most of this reputation is based on stocker sized trout. Why catch 8- and 10-inch fish when you can catch 8- and 10-pound fish? There are plenty of trout in the Caney Fork that weigh five pounds and some go over 15 pounds. They are from the mouth to the dam and all people have to do is change their method a little to catch these big trout.”

The method Doug refers to is simple – use big baits. Perhaps the drawback to using big baits is you have to have patience. Casting Red Fins, ThunderSticks and other large topwater baits requires more time and effort, but the pay back is worth it.

“Beginners will have the best luck by fishing right below the dam and downstream for several hundred yards,” says Doug. “The bigger trout are downstream. Some fishermen tell us that fishing the areas around the bluffs in the deep pools at night is where they catch the biggest trout.”

TWRA stocks the Caney Fork from boats. Other trout streams are stocked from bridges and other convenient places, where the fish can be dropped in, but TWRA stocks this river from a boat so that trout are dispersed over its entire length. “If you don’t mind walking,” says Doug, “you can find trout all along the banks of the Caney Fork River.”

One sure way to learn all of the Caney Fork is to float its 28 miles length. A three-day trip breaks this trek into even segments without straining at the paddle. Of course shorter trips are possible by selecting access points spaced at the proper intervals. A good canoe fishing trip is about six to eight miles long.

Start your trip with planning. A canoe and shuttle service is available at Big Rock Market. Joel says most people use the six- and nine-mile trips but he will accommodate your needs if you want to make longer trips and give you tips on where to camp. (See sidebar for reservation information.)

Deciding how long your trip will last will determine how much food and water you should carry. Doug Markham and I allowed about a gallon of liquid apiece per day for a summer trip. Because the Caney Fork’s cold water has a cooling effect and we were in the shade of the tree lined bank most of the day, we didn’t need as much as we carried.

You can usually catch plenty of fish for your meals, but then sometimes it’s good to have a sandwich in your cooler. Take the hard plastic type cooler with handles and a latch rather than a Styrofoam box.

Your trip can begin at several places, but let’s start at the dam and mention all the access points. It is best to begin your trek during a period of no hydroelectric generation. Partial generation is not bad if you are an experienced canoeist. Personal floatation devices (PFD) or life vests are a must!

The current from generation is less when you are a few miles from the dam. In fact, the current relieves you of paddling except for a few strokes to keep your canoe straight.

You can camp overnight at the Long Branch Campground on the west bank below the dam and get an early start the next morning. They have sites for tents and RV’s and a bathhouse (See sidebar).

DAY ONE

Be sure all your gear is tied to your yoke and thwarts before you launch. It’s an easy precaution that prevents losing your supplies in case you tip over. The Caney Fork is shallow most of its course, but there are a few deep pools and an occasional area of swift water.

You can launch from either bank below the dam. Both sides have parking lots. Once you are under way take a few minutes to canoe around the pond. It’s a safe place to fish even during periods of generation.

When you are ready to leave the pond, head for the bottleneck where the Caney Fork takes on its river aspects again. About a mile downstream is a large bluff on the east bank with a small cave. Along this bluff is a long deep pool and a good place to catch bass and trout. Doug Markham caught four spotted bass from around one tree with a Slider.

Although there are no 7-11s on the banks of the Caney Fork, there is one place where you can walk up steps cut into the steep bank and across the road to a market. His access point is near Lancaster, three miles by water from the dam.

The next access point is Happy Hollow, about five miles from the dam. The area is marked on Route 96 between the I-40 exit at Buffalo Valley and the Big Rock Market where you turn to go to the dam.

Just over six miles downstream from the dam is an unofficial canoe access, however, it is one of Tennessee’s official rest stops for I-40 travelers. You will recognize the area from the water when you pass under the first I-40 bridge. Here are five interstate bridges in the first 12 miles of river.

You can drive to the rest area via I-40, launch your canoe, park in the appropriate place, and paddle the Caney Fork for a while and return. Once you are through, you load up and take I-40 home. Always check the generation schedule before going and still be aware that the timetable is not always adhered to. I suggest you paddle upstream if you elect to canoe from the rest area. If an unscheduled generation occurs, you are in position to get back to your car. You can also launch here and take out farther downstream when using two vehicles.

Nine miles downstream from the dam is Betty’s Bend and Laycock’s Bridge. This old iron bridge high over the river gives many of those driving over it the “willies.” It has the old-fashioned board runners for your tires. He view from the bridge is spectacular when the fog is rising off the river.

This is an excellent place for swimming, picnicking and frolicking. There is a large gravel bar for parking and it is a convenient canoe access site. Do not leave your vehicle here unattended. The bar submerges during generation.

Beyond Betty’s Bend is the fourth interstate bridge and the beginning of Betty’s Island. You can canoe down either side of the island; the right side is faster and shorter. This is one-third of your trip. At the end of the island is the mouth of Smith Fork Creek and the best spot to catch supper.

Camping along the Caney Fork should be arranged with landowners. WARNING – do not camp where water can reach during periods of generations. Picking up more litter than your own makes it easier for other canoeists to come. Be courteous to the environment, it’s someone’s backyard.

If you spend the night on the river you are in for a treat the next morning. Fog, it usually lasts until about nine o’clock and decreases your visibility for fishing in the Caney Fork’s clear water.

DAY TWO

Day two of your trip brings some changes in the river. Here are longer straight stretches and a wide gravel bottom. The Caney Fork’s flow varies. When there is partial generation at the dam you will float along easily. When there is full generation you will be carried swiftly along. The farther you are from the dam the less the effect you will notice.

The next access is at mile-16 on the east bank under the Route 264 Bridge (Gordonsville Bridge), about 1.5 miles from the Gordonsville community. By road, it is about three miles from the I-40 Gordonsville-Carthage exit. You can drive below the bridge if you want to use this access point. You will notice that the short drive to the main road is rough and steep. This stretch of river is known for its big rainbow trout and stripers.

Four miles downstream at the 20-mile point is Hell Bend. Route 53 runs from I-40 to Carthage and passes close to this access point. From Route 53, look for a train trestle, it is not as obvious from the road as it is from the river. The path from the river is well worn. I have not used this access. Several canoeists said it was a good spot and they used it often.

Hell Bend is one of the best places to catch a big brown trout. I’ve talked with anglers who have landed browns ranging from 5-pounds to 15-pounds that were caught with big topwater baits.

DAY THREE

From Hell Bend you have about eight miles remaining on your trip to Carthage. Around the next bend, Dripping Rock Bluff rises on your right. His scenic bluff has spring water falling from ferns growing in the cracks of the cliff into a deep pool that rainbow trout inhabit.

The water is lazy in this lower section of the river. You will need to paddle more if there is no generation because you are not far from the Cumberland River, which acts like a dam to the Caney Fork.

The Highway 70 North Bridge is a mile downstream from Dripping Rock Bluff. (Property along this stretch of the river belongs to Al Gore of White House fame.) Just before you get to the bridge you can access the river on the east bank but it requires a little bank climbing. A road off Highway 70 N leads to the take out spot.

The next four-mile run takes you along the last big bend of your trip, Boulton Bend. This is a scenic arc below high bluffs. Trout are holding in the deep holes during periods of non-generation because the water is warmer at the lower end of the river. Also fish the cuts in the banks and along the downed timber. This section gets more fishing pressure because it is navigable by bass boats. Stripers are frequently caught here when casting large baits for trout.

Once around the bend you will see the Cumberland River. Once into the Cumberland you will paddle across the river to the north shore and the last stop in your 28-mile odyssey. There is a ramp for easy access on the right bank of the Cumberland near the new bridge.

If you strictly interested in wading, all the access points are good places to begin. Remember what Doug Markham says, “If you don’t mind walking, you can find trout all along the banks of the Caney Fork River.”

Sidebar 1

Canoes, shuttle service and supplies:

Big Rock Market

Rt. 1

Silver Point, TN 28582

615-858-9942

Camping:

Long Branch Campground

below Center Hill Dam

615-548-8002

A map of the lower Caney Fork River is yours for the asking from Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, PO Box 40747, Nashville, TN 37204, or call 615-781-6500 or 1-800-648-8798.

Sidebar 2

Items to take on an overnight canoe trip.

Fishing license and trout stamp

Canoe, canoe cushions/life vests

Paddles

Cameras and film in waterproof case or thick plastic bag.

Fishing equipment, including a landing net for big trout.

Liter bottles of water – 3 or 4 per person per day.

Insect repellant

Sun glasses

Rope ties to secure gear in canoe

Rope – at least 30 feet long to tie canoe to shore

Camp stove, fuel and lighter

Food – freeze dried or fresh foods in a sturdy ice chest

Cook kit and utensils

Soap/detergent

Paper towels

Knife

Flashlight

Towel

Sleeping bags

Ditty bag for toilet articles and medication

First aid kit

Tent

Shovel

Toilet paper

Garbage bags

Extra clothes/shoes