Local anglers, boaters see good and bad in lake draw-down

BY CHARLES PEARL Published:

Lake Cumberland has been a close friend of Frankforts Taylor Davidson since it opened in 1950.

"Ive fished it all the way from London to Wolf Creek Dam," he said last week. "I know the creeks and points and all the good fishing places."

In more than 5 decades, 88-year-old Davidson has seen many changes come to the massive, south-central Kentucky lake bigger houseboats, fishing boats and marinas, and more lakefront homes and tourists.

Hes seen the big stripers arrive, and the jet skiers. And similar to what is currently happening at Cumberland, he has witnessed the lowering of the lake level for dam repairs.

He adapted and kept catching fish. And he plans to do it again in 2007.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Nashville, Tenn., announced in January that Lake Cumberland will be drawn down to a 680-foot elevation because Wolf Creek Dam is leaking. The corps will maintain the lake level at 680 feet above sea level this summer. The normal summer level is 723 feet.

Regarding fishing in a shallower lake, Davidson believes the rockfish, or striped bass, "will suffer more than any other species. But they will survive. Mother Nature is very tenacious.

"They were introduced in the lake in the 1970s. They are a saltwater species by nature but acclimated to fresh water and have abounded. They move in schools and never stop.

"The stripes live on shad, which school up in millions, sometimes very deep. You can see the shad on your depth finder. Its like a cloud. The stripes forage through those, their primary food source."

Lake Cumberland is deep.

"They say its 300 feet at one place," Davidson said. "Ive never found that. Ive found 150 pretty easily, and that makes it an ideal lake for stripes because they can go to any level.

"Fish seek the oxygen level that suits their needs. We call it the thermo clime, between the warmer layer on the top and colder layer on the bottom. The lake is normally 56 degrees at the bottom, and on top it may be 80. Fish dont stay in the warm water. They feed there, but then they go down."

Lowering the lake level will cause the water to become warmer, and that will have some effect on the movement of the stripers, said Davidson, the state director of Selective Service during the Vietnam War.

"They are going to be at their level and their food supply, and fishermen will have to learn that," he said. "You might luck onto some fish. But if you are serious about catching fish, you need to know where they are going to be and what they are going to be feeding on."

In some cases, a lower lake may make it easier to catch fish "because there will be less water to move in," Davidson said. "Kentucky bass will adapt because they are very prolific. And the largemouth bass is a home-bodied, lazy fish. Its not lazy when you get it on the line, but he doesnt go far to eat. They have their living room, dining room, and logs to hide in. And the bigger they are, the less they travel."

While the water level is down, the best thing anglers can do is use a camera to take pictures of all the stump beds and dropoffs they can identify, Davidson said.

"When it is impounded again, they will know more about where to go," he said. "Thats an asset. Thats what we did in the 1970s when the lake was lowered."

Frankfort native Mike Rosenstein, director of development at Kentucky State University, said he isnt worried at all about a lower Lake Cumberland.

He and his wife, Hollis, minister of music at Bridgeport Christian Church, own a home on Lily Creek.

"It will overlook a dry creek bed, which will give me an extensive opportunity to explore my favorite fishing creek," Mike Rosenstein said. "Im quite the optimist. It is critical that the dam is safe for all downstream, and there will still be 35,000 acres of water to enjoy."

They have a fishing boat and a pontoon boat.

Fewer acres of water temporarily "improve my chances of finding fish," he said. "I am full of silver linings."

The Rosensteins honeymooned at Lake Cumberland, staying in John and Beth Avents six-bedroom cabin named "Happy Face."

"We searched for another 17 years until we got our own cabin, appropriately named 'Almost Heaven," Rosenstein said. "Its where we go to relax, recharge and commune as often as we can find time to go. We like to share it with our friends and were blessed to have it there."

Frankfort CPA John Avent started going to Lake Cumberland in 1968. He had an accounting office at first in Jamestown, then Russell Springs, which he sold about four years ago.

He bought the cabin at Pleasant Hill in 1979. Then in 1998 he purchased another large lakefront home, "Pinnacle Place," at Jabez.

The Avents now share their time between Frankfort and their two homes in Russell County.

"I dont have good sense or I would be at Lake Cumberland all the time," he said, laughing. "At Pinnacle Place, we can sit in the living room and look out the picture window and see all the way to the foothills of Tennessee 45 or 50 miles away on a clear day, which is most days down there."

When he bought their Happy Face cabin, a two-slip boathouse came with it.

Learning that the lake was being dropped considerably, the Avents went to check their properties two weekends ago. At Pleasant Hill, "with the lake already dropped way down, it was a long hike to the boathouse," he said.

The first thing he noticed at the waters edge was an electrical cable had been cut and was dangling in the water. Someone had cut the cable leading to a hydro-hoist to lift the boat out of the water to steal copper.

"I probably lost 800 feet of electrical cable," Avent said. "The cable had been on the ground, under water, along the bank. But when the water level dropped, it left it exposed. Thats one of the things that really irk me. And its not just happening in the Pleasant Hill area. Ive been told its been going on all around the lake."

Avent said one of his biggest concerns about the use of the lake this year is whether boats can get in and out from the launching ramps. Only a few ramps might be usable.

"There is going to have to be a lot of construction work extending launch ramps, which could be a good thing," he said. "Im sure its going to hurt tourism traffic until they get the launch ramps ready for use, and that is sad."

Avent loves fishing for trout on the Cumberland River below the dam. He believes the lower lake level "is really going to mess up the trout fishing, big-time.

"Hopefully, it might temporarily improve fishing on the main lake. With fewer acres for the fish to spread out in, it should school them up a little. Also, there probably will be less debris on the main lake for the most part. I just hope for the best. Im sure its going to impact the commercial marinas, probably more than anything."

Whatever happens, Avent will ride it out.

"We absolutely love Lake Cumberland," he said. "Our kids literally grew up down there on the lake. I would never consider selling our places. The kids would disown me."

Frankforts Mack Gillim, an accountant with the state Department of Revenue, and Frankfort attorney Robert Kellerman also have second homes at Lake Cumberland. They feel the extension of launching ramps will be critical for tourism and the economy for the lake communities.

"If they can get some of the launching ramps extended it wont be a big problem," Kellerman said. "Its still going to be a huge lake. I dont like it (the lowering of the lake), but Im not overly concerned about it.

"It might mean fewer people on the lake. If it reduces the amount of pleasure boaters, fishermen like that."

Gillim said boaters accustomed to a deep lake will now have to be more mindful of underlying rock.

Being relatively close to Frankfort, Lake Cumberland is a great place to go and relax on weekends, Gillim said.

"We have great neighbors, and hopefully everybody will continue to go down," he said. "Im more concerned about what happens next year than this year. All the little restaurants depend on the summer influx of people, especially from Ohio and Indiana."

Frankforts Don Peck, a retired state Tourism Cabinet employee, lived in Russell County from 1967 to 1979 and was a partner in Alligator II Boat Dock on Lake Cumberland.

His brother, Dr. Charles Peck father of former KSU basketball coach Paul Peck, now at Lindsey Wilson College still owns the dock.

"The state needs to do a lot of tourism promotion now," said Don Peck. "State tourism and the U.S. Corps of Engineers have to stay on top of it and send out positive messages."

A lower lake "will affect business," Peck said. "It always does. But last time everybody hung on and did fairly well. We got by.

"There is still plenty of water 35,000 acres. It will make fishing a lot better because the fish will be more confined. Its a good time to get out and walk the banks and find Indian artifacts. This period will let vegetation grow back on the banks, creating better spawning and fishing in the long run."

Peck said he returns to Lake Cumberland for a visit about twice a year.

"Its beautiful down there, especially in the fall," he said. "I still miss the area. But I dont miss the headaches of running a marina."

Lakes and rivers and creeks are always changing. Davidson believes Lake Cumberland will be a popular recreational spot and healthy body of water long after hes gone.

"Mother Nature is very generous if you give her a chance," Davidson said. "In the eastern mountains there are great valleys full of forests, and water levels it all out. The water is honest. It is always on the level with you. You can always count on it. It will lie still unless you move it. But if you give it a chance it will go. It always seeks its level.

"I love Mother Nature. I love seeing all the wildlife at Lake Cumberland. You can watch the eagles now. We used to not have them there. And the gulls came in with the stripers. The stripes will kill a bunch of shad and not eat it. When you see gulls feeding avidly out of the sky, you know there are some fish down there. They are just following the stripes. Its amazing what Mother Nature will do."

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