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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Paintsville Lake known by anglers for its rainbow trout and walleye fisheries

Editor’s note: This is the 17th article in an ongoing series about Kentucky’s major reservoirs.

Paintsville Lake Marina (Photo from Flickr Commons)

Paintsville Lake is located northwest of Paintsville in Johnson and Morgan Counties.

The scenic mountain lake is bordered by rock cliffs and forests of pine and hardwood trees. In many of the shady, steep-sided hollows, lush stands of mountain laurel and rhododendron grow along the shoreline.

The main access highways are US 23, Ky 40, Ky. 172, and Ky. 2275.


Paintsville Lake was impounded from Paint Creek, a tributary to the Big Sandy River. The lake filled in 1983 and is maintained at elevation 709 year-round.

The 18-mile-long lake has 1,139 surface acres of water and is about 90 feet deep at the dam.

Paintsville Lake (Google Maps)(Click for larger image)

State Park

Paintsville Lake State Park, established in 1986, is open year-round. The 242-acre park is on the southeastern shore of the lake, about seven miles west of Paintsville, KY, off Ky. 172.

Facilities include a campground, with 32 full-service sites for RVs, and 10 walk-in sites for tent campers, a restaurant, and three trails along the lakeshore, including the 18-mile Dawkins Line Rail Trail, open to hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders.

For information telephone 606-297-8486.

Lake Manager’s Office

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Resource Manager’s Office, Paintsville Lake, 807 Ky 2275, Staffordsville, KY 41256, telephone (606) 297-6312.

Managing Fishery Biologist

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


There is one marina.

Paintsville Lake Marina, open year-round, is located in Paintsville Lake State Park.

For information telephone 606-297-5253.

Boat Launching Ramps

There are four boat launching ramps. There is no fee to launch at any of these ramps.

The Paintsville Lake State Park boat ramp is seven miles west of Paintsville, off Ky. 172, on the east shore of the lake.

The Lost Creek boat ramp is reached via Ky. 172 on Lost Creek Road, off Ky. 1260.

The Open Fork boat ramp is at the head of the lake, near Relief, KY off Ky. 172, on Open Fork Road.

Big Mine Fork boat ramp is on Jellico Road on the Little Paint embayment, off Ky. 1437 and Ky. 5041.

Local Tourism Information

Paintsville Tourism Commission, 100 Stave Branch, Staffordsville, KY 41256. telephone (606) 297-1469.


Paintsville Lake is an oligotrophic lake of low productivity.

The highland reservoir was built in a narrow gorge. Limited shallow water is a liability for some species, affecting spawning.

The lake stays clear year-round and receives a lot of fishing pressure in the winter because of stable water conditions and cool-water fisheries (rainbow trout and walleye).

Cover types include two small islands, weed beds, standing timber, rock walls and stump beds.

Paintsville Lake supports three species of black bass (largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and spotted bass), two species of crappie (white crappie and black crappie), hybrid striped bass, two species of trout (rainbow trout and brown trout), walleye, and channel catfish.

Gizzard shad is the main forage fish.

Hybrid Striped Bass

The hybrid striped bass fishery is rated good.

The initial stocking of 11,000 fish was in June 2015.

Fish in the 20 to 23-inch size range are available.

Stocked in 2020, and stockings will continue every third year.


The walleye fishery is rated poor, with fair numbers of fish through 28 inches, and potential for trophy size fish.

In March, active fish are suspended at about the 8-foot depth near the lower lake islands and mid-lake standing timber.

May and October are good months to fish jigs vertically. For an added enticement, tip jigs with live nightcrawlers.

During the summer, walleye often school up along the edges of deep weed beds.

Rainbow Trout

Paintsville Lake rainbow trout (Photo from Wikipedia commons)

The rainbow trout fishery is rated good.

The best fishing is typically in shallow water during winter to early spring, after the February stocking of 4,500 fish.

Some fish are caught during the summer at night over lights in the lower lake, fishing near the thermocline at depths of 20 to 25 feet, but some fish could be deeper, up to 45 feet, is sufficient levels of dissolved oxygen are present.

Trout are also caught trolling small crankbaits during the winter months.

Brown Trout

Brown trout have been stocked in the lake periodically through the years, and a stocking is planned for 2021.

Largemouth Bass

The largemouth bass fishery is rated fair.

There’s a high survival rate for young fish, due in part to the presence of hydrilla, which offers ample cover.

The population is stable with high numbers of fish under 12 inches, but fish up to 24 inches have been sampled by fishery crews.

Spotted Bass

The spotted bass fishery is rated poor.

Numbers are down and a majority of the fish in the population are small, but some fish up to 14 inches are present.

The best fishing is in the lower half of the lake, along rocky, main-lake shorelines.

Smallmouth Bass

The smallmouth bass fishery is rated poor, due primarily to recruitment and habitat issues.

An 18-inch minimum size limit was implemented in 2005, and supplemental stockings of native strain fish occurred from 2009 through 2012.

Changes made in water releases at the dam in 2006 to improve summer cool water habitat, and spawning benches have been placed in lake to bolster spawning success and thus improved recruitment.

The best fishing is in the lower lake where fish up to 22 inches are present.

Channel Catfish

The channel catfish fishery is rated fair.

Large catfish are present in low densities in the upper and lower lake. In the lower lake, fish locate in much deeper water.

In the spring and early summer, fish riprap shorelines and around the large island in the lower lake.

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.


The crappie fishery is rated good.

The fishery includes white crappie, the dominant species, with fish up to 15 inches present.

There are also some black nose black crappie, 10 to 12 inches, and black crappie to 9 inches present.

One of the best areas is the upper lake around the Open Fork and Little Paint creeks. On sunny days in late March fish in shallow water from Patoker boat ramp, down the lake to the lower reaches of Sandlick Creek.

There are larger fish in the lower lake, often found holding at edges of hydrilla beds and submerged brush piles.

Special Regulations / Minimum Size Limits and Daily Creel Limits

Smallmouth Bass: 18-inch minimum size limit.

Walleye: 14-inch minimum size limit, with a daily creel limit of six.

Trout: In the Paintsville Lake tailwaters, from the KY 40 bridge downstream to first U.S. 460 bridge, in Johnson County, there’s a 16-inch minimum size limit and one-fish daily creel limit. Only artificial baits may be used.

Tailwater Fishing Opportunities

The tailwater facilities are excellent and are angler friendly, including a concrete walkway below the tailrace, a paved fishing platform, and several hundred yards of riprap lining the banks of Paint Creek. A foot bridge provides access to both sides of the tailwaters.

Trout habitat extends for about five miles downstream. There is no boat launching ramp below the dam. Anglers who want to float the tailwaters carry down fishing kayaks and other small boats.

The take-out is at a boat launching ramp in Paintsville, on River Road, off Ky 40, at the Paintsville Water Plant, near where Paint Creek flows into the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River.

Anglers floating the tailwaters have the opportunity of hooking into large rainbow and brown trout, up to 20 inches, and an occasional walleye.

Rainbow trout are stocked monthly, April through November, with an annual total of 20,000 fish.

A small number brown trout are stocked annually, about 300. Brown trout have been stocked in the tailwaters since 1994.

Anglers take note of special regulations for trout in the tailwaters.

Invasive Plants and Animals

Hydrilla is present at Paintsville Lake.

Anglers are asked to take measures to prevent the spread of this non-native invasive species by properly inspecting and disinfecting boats, motors, trailers and fishing equipment.

Fish Attractors

Concentrations of fish attractors have been placed in the lower and upper lake.

In the lower lake, there are eight sites where Christmas trees have been sunk on the west shore of the lake, and around the island, across from Paintsville State State Park. There are three sites where there are brush piles, and one site with Christmas trees, in Glade Branch.

In the upper lake, brush piles have been place in two sites near the Patoker boat ramp.

View the fish attractor map at www.google.com.

Bank Access and Fishing Piers

There is bank access at the Paintsville Lake State Park campground.

There’s a fishing pier at the Paintsville Lake Marina.

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