Trailering Magazine Archives - Destinations
It was a flood that first brought about the idea of Kentucky Lake and its neighbor to the east, Lake Barkley.
In 1937, the Tennessee River flooded to the point that it was more than 60 feet above its normal height, destroying farms and businesses and forcing families to move. By the next year, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was moving people, railroads, highways and some buildings to "higher ground." The Tennessee River was dammed, hydroelectric power was generated, water levels during heavy rains were stabilized (although some flooding continues to occur) and, in 1944, Kentucky Lake was created. Measuring 184 miles from north to south and more than 2,064 miles around, Kentucky Lake covers what was once the town of Birmingham. It's the largest lake in the state and the largest reservoir operated by the TVA. More than 140 miles of Kentucky Lake are actually in neighboring Tennessee.
A few miles to the east, the floodwaters affected communities along the Cumberland River as well. As part of a similar flood control project, the Army Corp of Engineers started work on the Barkley Dam in 1959 forcing, as happened next door, the relocation of people and businesses in a pair of towns. The dam was completed by 1964 and the newly created Lake Barkley, like its neighbor to the west, stretches south into Tennessee. Between them, is the largest inland peninsula in the country, measuring 8 miles wide and more than 40 miles long (170,000 acres). The land is called, appropriately, Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area or "LBL" as the locals say. It contains bison and elk herds, 16 campgrounds, hiking trails and 300 miles of shoreline with more than 10 separate boat launching areas.
Both Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley are favorite venues for houseboats. In fact, it's an industry here as visitors arrive to rent a houseboat for a few days or a few weeks at a time. It's an industry in another way too: 80% of all houseboats built in the United States are built in Kentucky.
You'll see many working boats on both lakes too. Tugs and barges travel the length en route to and from the Ohio River (23 miles north of the Kentucky Dam). They lock through, carrying coal, farm equipment and gravel. Because the channel runs along the east side of both lakes, that's where they'll be found.
Visiting trailer boaters will appreciate the four lanes of launch ramps at Kentucky Dam Marina, a BoatU.S. Cooperating Marina that provides a 25% discount to Members renting one of their 38 slips. "We're located pretty close to the dam at the northern end of the lake," he says (hence the name of the marina), "and most of the time, you can take your boat right up to it. But there are caution buoys set 1,000 yards out and while you can be nearby when the gates are open, it's always a good idea to keep a cautious eye on the current."
As a result of mishaps involving boaters getting too close to the dam (none have been fatal-just embarrassing), a new warning system is being installed at Kentucky Lake. In addition to the already-in-place series of signs in the water both above and below the dam (alerting boaters to avoid getting too close when the gates are active), plans are underway to add a series of warning lights as well as sirens when floodgates are opened. A release schedule is usually available by 6 p.m. and boaters can call a hotline (800-238- 2264) in advance of spillway gates being opened the following day.
It's also a good idea to understand the lake levels. "Summer pool" stage, as it's called, is the period during which the lake level reaches 359 feet. During the "winter pool" stage, the lake level is lowered by five feet (to 354 feet) to accommodate rainfall, hydroelectric power needs and flood control. The water level would slowly be dropped beginning in early July, until TVA agreed to maintain the higher summer pool level for an extra two weeks in order to accommodate the growing tourism industry. In winter months, boats have been known to break a prop or run aground as a result of the lower water.
For boaters launching at the northern end of Kentucky Lake, a popular daytrip includes a visit to the Rock Quarry at mile marker 30 on the eastern shoreline (Land Between The Lakes). Huge limestone rocks were taken from here and used in the construction of the Kentucky Dam during the late 1930's. The result is deep water and a 30 ft. wall of stone used as both an easel (the paintings and graffiti on the rocks is colorful) and a ledge for making an occasional jump into the water. On weekends, the Rock Quarry can be the most boat-congested area on Kentucky Lake. The preferred method of boating here is rafting up — even complete strangers will do this for an afternoon of swimming. Be advised: this is the place for parties on Kentucky Lake. For those not interested in painting or jumping (or partying), there are hiking trails nearby. The Rock Quarry is just 8 miles south of the Kentucky Dam Marina.
Beginning early this month and continuing off and on throughout the summer, drag boat races will be run just south of the Rock Quarry in nearby Pisgah Bay. Designed for speed and little else, these boats deliver: speeds of more than 150 mph are regularly achieved and the races have become part of any Kentucky Lake summer. You can check the drag boat website to learn when the races are held in order to attend/avoid those weekends. (www.kdba.net).
Kentucky Lake is a body of water for some serious fishing. "It's definitely a fishing lake," observes Lexington Herald-Leader Outdoor columnist Art Lander Jr., " and people come from all over the country to catch a crappie or smallmouth and largemouth bass. This is a popular vacation destination for boaters"
"We get folks from the Chicago area," notes David Alvey of Kentuckylake.com, "We're half the distance to Florida, and enjoy just as good weather most of the year. For fishermen, that's as important as being able to catch the big one."
In early June (4-5th), anglers can fish anywhere in Kentucky without a fishing license as part of the state's annual "Free Fishing Weekend." Not only is this a proven way to get inexperienced fishermen on the water in the hopes this could become a habit, it occurs as both smallmouth and largemouth bass are moving from bays into deeper (and cooler) water.
If you are going to miss the no license- needed weekend, both Kentucky and Tennessee provide for the online purchase of licenses. But fishing these lakes, both of which are located in both states, doesn't necessarily mean you are going to need two separate licenses.
Because a majority of Kentucky Lake's shoreline is in Tennessee, a reciprocal agreement between the states has been in effect since 2003 for fishermen in the middle section of the lake (south of Eggner's Ferry Bridge in Kentucky and north of the Ned McWherter Bridge in Tennessee). While the states have similar rules and regulations for fishing, there are a few differences in limits and size for catfish, smallmouth and largemouth bass. Potential anglers should note that the reciprocal agreement applies only on Kentucky Lake, and not Lake Barkley.
A number of fishing tournaments have already taken place this year on both Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. This month, the Everstart Battery Series will be held (June 15-18) at the Moors Resort Marina on Kentucky Lake while the American Bass Anglers Tournament returns in July and August. Because Kentucky Dam Marina has such a large ramp, tournaments usually launch from here. On northern Lake Barkley, the new Kuttawa boat ramp has been enlarged from one lane to four, with room to park 150 tow vehicles and trailers. And if that isn't enough good news, there's no fee to use the ramp. Last month the huge Wal-Mart FLW Tournament was held here with 200+ anglers competing for black bass and a six-figure prize (this tournament is usually broadcast on the Outdoor Life Network).
The Barkley Canal connects Kentucky Lake with Lake Barkley. Located 3 miles from the Kentucky Dam Marina, the canal is less than 2 miles long with a width of almost 400 feet. Recreational boaters should be aware they will encounter barge and tug traffic from time to time. You will pass beneath the main highway bridge traversing the Land Between The Lakes. The highway is called "the Trace" and is the only north/south road in the area.
On the eastern shore of northern Lake Barkley, boaters will see the Kentucky State Penitentiary (located in Eddyville). Built more than 100 years ago on high ground, this unique stone building now sits along the shore of the lake as a result of the dam. The prison is called "The Castle on the Cumberland" and houses more than 850 inmates. It is a favorite subject for the boater with a camera because of its unique towers and design.
About 45 miles south of the prison and on the eastern shore is Lake Barkley State Resort Park, where there's not just a launch ramp but also Barkley Lodge where many boaters will spend a night or two. There's a golf course nearby and some have been known to forego a day on the water to try their luck on the greens. Fort Campbell, the home of the 101st Airborne Division, is based nearby as is Cadiz, where antique shops are common and more than 27 homes on Main Street have become part of the National Registry of Historic Places.
"I've lived here all of my life," muses Alvey. "This is one of those areas where you can find lots of people or, if you prefer, you can have quiet time. Kentucky Lake has miles of bays and it's not unusual to be anchored or just drifting while watching a deer or an eagle nearby."