A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Art Lander’s Outdoors: Licking River arises in the Cumberland plateau, flows northwest through NKy


Editor’s note: This is the first article in an occasional series profiling the river basins of Kentucky.

Arising in southeastern Magoffin County, at the confluence of two small streams at elevation 1,006 feet, the Licking River flows northwest for 320 miles through or adjoining 19 Kentucky counties.

The North Fork of the Licking River, about 50.5 miles long, arises as the boundary between Lewis and Fleming counties, then turns westward, flowing through Mason county, then along the boundary with Robertson counties, finally merging with the main river just west of Milford, in Bracken County.

Kayak Fishing on the south fork of the Licking River (Photo courtesy of Game & Fish Publications)

The South Fork of the Licking River is 64.7 miles long and flows through Bourbon, Harrison and Pendleton counties, joining the main Licking River at Falmouth.

Below Falmouth, the Licking River widens and deepens and becomes a big river, forming the boundary of Kenton and Campbell counties. It joins the mighty Ohio in the shadow of Cincinnati’s skyline, between Covington and Newport.

The Licking River basin drains 3,696 square miles in northeastern Kentucky or about 10 percent of the state. The drainage is located between the watersheds of the Kentucky River to the west and the Big Sandy River to the east.

Cave Run Lake is the Licking River’s shining jewel. In 1974 the river was impounded, creating an 8,270-acre reservoir. The dam is about 15 miles southwest of Morehead, 173.6 miles upstream of the mouth of the Licking River.

The 48.1-mile-long lake, with 166 miles of shoreline at summer pool, covers parts of Menifee, Morgan, Bath, and Rowan counties. Set against a backdrop of steep wooded hills in Daniel Boone National Forest, Cave Run Lake is the state’s premier destination for muskellunge (muskie) fishing.

Early History

Licking River Basin (USGS graphic)

The origin of the river’s name is unclear.

Charles Kerr’s History of Kentucky, published in 1922, states that Licking means “land with springs and meadows.”

Native Americans called the river Nepernine.

Explorer Thomas Walker first saw the river in June of 1750, naming it Frederick’s River.

Long hunters and frontiersmen, including Christopher Gist, Simon Kenton and Thomas Bullitt, may have know it as Great Salt Lick Creek, a reference to the many springs near the river that attracted bison, eastern elk, and white-tailed deer to its salt licks.

There are two towns in the Licking River basin that figure prominently in Kentucky’s early history of bass fishing.

• Paris, the county seat of Bourbon County, was first settled in 1776, but in 1789 the Virginia Legislature officially established the town, naming it Hopewell. A year later it was renamed Paris, to correspond with the naming of the county after the French royal house.

The fork of the Licking River that flows through Paris was named for the frontier scout and explorer George Michael Holsteiner (original family name), who took the name Michael Stoner on the frontier.

The Pennsylvania Dutchman accompanied Daniel Boone on treks to hunt and explore the interior of the state in the late 1760s and was a scout, and soldier in defense of the early settlements in the 1770s.

In addition to being an early center of whiskey distilling, and home to many of the state’s famous Thoroughbred horse farms, Paris also has the historic distinction of being the birthplace of the Kentucky reel.

Kentucky’s first reel maker, George W. Snyder (1780–1841), was a watchmaker and silversmith in Paris. He is believed to have made the first multiplying baitcasting reel in America sometime between 1813 and 1820.

• Cynthiana, the county seat of Harrison County, was established in 1793 on land donated by early settler Robert Harrison. He named the town for his two daughters, Cynthia and Anna.

Fish sampling the south fork of the Licking River (Photo from KDFWR)

Cynthiana is located on the South Fork of the Licking River, which is formed by the junction of Stoner Creek and Hinkston Creek, in northern Bourbon County.

James A. Henshall (1836-1925), the father of bass fishing in America, lived in Cynthiana twice during his lifetime.

Soon after the shooting started in the Civil War, Henshall closed his office in Cincinnati and “moved to God’s country as the Blue Grass section of Kentucky is popularly known, and not without reason,” opening a practice at the urging of a teacher from medical school.

Cynthiana was an early milling center where whiskey distilling had become a thriving industry.

The town was close to some excellent bass fishing too.

“There I met and fished with many brothers of the angle who had made the art of black bass fishing famous,” wrote Henshall.

“These anglers were among the best, brightest, most intelligent and cultivated men of that period…of several professions or were the lordly proprietors of vast domains of perennial green…the well-known Kentucky family names of Clay, Bedford, Hume, Brown, Morris, Bibb, Bacon, Holman, McCurdy, Mills, Ennis, Harvey, Blair, and Crittenden,” wrote Henshall. “They used the Frankfort reel and short, supple, cane rods… most were bait fishers.”

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. 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.

In 1880 Henshall moved back to Cynthiana, after living in New York and Wisconsin. He returned to finalize the manuscript for Book of the Black Bass, which was published in the summer of 1881 by Robert Clarke & Company, in Cincinnati.

The purpose of the book was his desire “to give the Black Bass its proper place among game fishes and to create among anglers, and the public generally, an interest in a fish that has never been so fully appreciated as its merits deserve,” Henshall wrote. In this classic book, he also described in detail the tackle and fishing techniques used by early bass anglers in central Kentucky.

With its release, Henshall in effect became a mentor for generations of bass anglers that followed.

Fish and Wildlife

In surveys conducted by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), Stoner Creek, in Clark and Bourbon counties, was ranked first with 69 miles of the highest quality stream in the Licking River drainage.

In Bourbon County alone there are 117.8 lineal miles of fishing streams, the fourth most of the 19 counties in the Licking River drainage.

The spotted bass was the most frequently recorded, in 52 percent of the samples in the drainage, and was the most abundant game fish species.

The South Fork of the Licking River encompasses 927 square miles, and Harrison County has 148.7 lineal miles of fishing streams, the most of any county in the drainage.

Fish and wildlife are abundant in the Licking River drainage with diverse fish species including, spotted (Kentucky) bass, smallmouth bass, native muskie, several sunfish species, crappie, dace, madtoms, darters, minnows, and suckers.

Cave Run Lake (Photo from Kentucky Tourism)

The Kentucky state record common carp, that weighed 54 pounds, 14 ounces, was caught from the south fork in 1971.

There are more than 50 species of freshwater mussels in the basin, including some threatened and endangered species, and 250 species of migratory birds visit the region.

The bald eagle, a native species that has made a big comeback in Kentucky in the last decade, nests in several locations in the Licking River basin, in Pendleton and Harrison counties, and Bath, Menifee and Morgan counties around Cave Run Lake.

The counties in the river basin also support large herds of white-tailed deer and offer good hunting for wild turkey.

Boating Launching Ramps, Carry-Down and Bank Access

The Cincinnati skyline looking north from Covington, near the mouth of Licking River (Photo by Lindsay Mears, TravLin Photography)

The KDFWR website includes a lot of information on 16 access points in eight counties on the Licking River.

This includes nine ramps for recreational boats, six carry-down sites for kayaks and other small boats, and one bank access site. Visit app.fw.ky.govfor details.

Detailed information on float trips can be found fw.ky.gov.

The Licking River basin was a cradle of early settlement in Kentucky, in part because of its favorable terrain and abundant natural resources. Its headwater tributaries are a fisherman’s paradise. There are lots of options for kayakers, and other small boaters along this scenic waterway.


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One Comment

  1. Rodney Bruce says:

    Mr. Lander,

    I enjoyed your columns on the Licking and Big Sandy Rivers. They are very informative and I hope this information will encourage readers to explore these river basins. I hope you will take the time to write up the Little Sandy River which is between the 2 rivers you mentioned. I had the opportunity to help out near the Licking River by Salyersville following the tornado that had touched down in the area. So many trees were down along side the Licking River because of that storm.

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