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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Martin’s Fork Lake is Ky’s only reservoir with four species of black bass

This is the 13th article in an ongoing series about Kentucky’s major reservoirs.

Martin’s Fork Lake (Photo by Jamie Middleton, Flikr Commons)

Martins Fork Lake is about 4 miles southwest of Cawood in Harlan County.

The dam is at river mile 15.6 of the Cumberland River, backing up water over a flat valley on the Kentucky-Virginia border.

Built by the Nashville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at a cost of $20.3 million, Martins Fork Lake opened in 1979. The lake provides flood protection to the city of Harlan 13 miles downstream at the junction of Clover Fork of the Cumberland River.

The main access highway is Ky. 987.


(Image courtesy Bing Maps)

Martins Fork Lake is a 3.7-mile-long scenic reservoir of 334 surface acres at a summer pool, elevation of 1,310 feet. Just above the dam, the lake is about 45 feet deep.

The lake was impounded from Martins Fork of the Cumberland River, and Cranks Creek, a tributary, that flows into the lake near its headwaters.

There is a 10-foot drawdown to winter pool, elevation 1,300, which reduces the lake to 274 surface acres.

Lake Manager’s Office

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Resource Manager’s Office, Martins Fork Lake, 5965 Highway 987, Smith, KY 40867, telephone 606-573-1468.

Managing Fishery Biologist

Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, Eastern Fishery District, 2744 Lake Road, Prestonsburg, KY 41653, telephone -606-889-1705.


There are no marina.

Boat Launching Ramps

There is one boat launching ramp, about 1 mile above the dam, off Ky. 987. There is no fee to launch.

Local Tourism Information

Harlan Tourist & Convention Commission, 201 South Main Street, Harlan, KY 40831, telephone 606-573-4156.


Martins Fork Lake is a mesotrophic lake of moderate productivity.

In addition to black bass, other present game fish species include walleye, bluegill, two species of catfish, and crappie (Image courtesy Flickr Commons)

A relatively shallow reservoir located in a wide valley, the lake was built on farmland, but since about 90 percent of the watershed is forested the lake is very clear most of the year,

Martins Fork Lake has the unique distinction of being the only lake in Kentucky that has a population of redeye bass (Micropterus coosae), an introduced species obtained from Georgia, and stocked into the Martin’s Fork of the Cumberland River around 1950.

Thus, Martins Fork Lake is the only lake in Kentucky where an angler has a chance to take four species of black bass: largemouth, smallmouth, spotted, and redeye.

Other game fish species present include walleye, bluegill, two species of catfish, and crappie. The main forage fish is gizzard shad.

Anglers are reminded that on Martins Fork Lake it’s idle speed only on boats with motors over 10 horsepower.


The walleye fishery is rated fair.

The Lake Erie strain of walleye was stocked in the lake when it opened in 1979, and periodically for years afterward. A good population was established, but the fish did not reproduce.

Since 2013 native river-run walleye have been stocked, in an attempt to establish a self-sustaining population. The walleye population is re-building and anglers take note of special regulations.

Fishery biologists hope that someday Martins Fork Lake will become a source of native, river-run walleye. That adult brood fish can be captured from the lake and taken to the Minor Clark Fish Hatchery for spawning.

Black Bass

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

Martins Fork Lake supports four species of black bass.

Largemouth bass make up about 80 percent of the black bass in the lake. The next most abundant black bass is the spotted bass.

The largemouth bass fishery is rated good, with numbers of fish over 15 inches above average in recent years.

Because of extreme water clarity, fishing for all species of black bass is best at night during most of spring and summer.


The bluegill fishery is rated good, with good numbers. Most fish harvested are 7 inches or less. Fish red worms, wax worms, and crickets around cover in shallow mud flats in the spring or summer.


The channel catfish fishery is rated good, with most fish less than 20 inches in length.

The population is supported by periodic stockings, on even ending years. Fingerlings were stocked in 2018 and 2020.

The best fishing is at night because of water clarity. Some of the best fishing is in the upper lake, where Cranks Creek and Martins Fork of the Cumberland River enter the lake, when the water is murky during the spring and early summer.

There’s a small population of flathead catfish in the lake.


The white crappie fishery is rated fair.

Harvested fish are typically 9 to 10 inches in length, but larger 12-to-13-inch fish are present.

Crappie are scattered in shallow water in spring and congregate in tight schools in standing timber and along breaklines (abrupt changes in contour) in deeper water in the summer.

Special Regulations / Minimum Size Limits and Daily Creel Limits

Walleye, a two-fish daily creel limit, and 18-to
26-inch protective slot limit. All walleye measuring 18 to 26 inches long must be immediately released.

Catfish, a 12 inch minimum size limit for all catfish species.

Tailwater Fishing Opportunities

Martins Fork Lake Dam and Tailwaters )(Photo by Jamie Middleton, Flickr Commons)

Rainbow trout are stocked in April, May, June, October and November, a total of 3,750 annually.

Trout habitat extends for about two miles downstream during the cool weather months, but for most of the year, rainbow trout are concentrated close to the dam outflow.

The US Army Corps of Engineer-owned land only extends for about a 1/2 mile downstream below the dam.

Invasive Plants and Animals

There are no non-native plants or animals in Martins Fork Lake but the native annual southern naiad (Najas guadalupensis), common name brushy pondweed, is present in many shallow coves during the summer months.

Fish Attractors

There has been no active fish attractor program, but through the years, some trees along the shore have been hinge-cut, and Christmas trees have been sunk in the lake.

Bank Access and Fishing Piers

There is good bank access in the tailwaters, including sidewalks with railings and steps.

Martins Fork Lake is a beautiful reservoir with fisheries that are unique. Who wouldn’t want to catch a redeye bass or trophy river-run walleye?

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