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Art Lander’s Outdoors: The Big Sandy River and its Tug Fork form the southeastern boundary of Ky.

Editor’s note: This is the second article in an occasional series on Kentucky’s river basins.

The Big Sandy River is 27 miles long, formed by the junction of its Levisa and Tug forks, at Louisa, in Lawrence County.

From Louisa, the river flows northward, emptying into the Ohio River at Catlettsburg, in Boyd County, at the common boundary between Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. The Big Sandy River and its Tug Fork form the southeastern boundary of Kentucky.

Big Sandy River (Graphic courtesy of Distillery Trail)

Arising in southwestern West Virginia, the Tug Fork is 154 miles long. The Levisa Fork is 164 miles long, and arises in southwestern Virginia, as Russell Fork, a whitewater river celebrated by rafters and kayakers, near Elkhorn City, that flows through Breaks Interstate Park.

The headwaters of the two forks are about 20 miles apart. The forks flow on an almost parallel path, often no more than 25 to 40 miles apart, until their confluence at Louisa.

The Big Sandy River basin drains 4,283 square miles in nine Kentucky counties — Boyd, Floyd, Johnson, Lawrence, Martin, Pike, Magoffin, Knott and Letcher.

Early History

A narrow waterway, the Big Sandy River got its name from the presence of extensive sand bars, created by floods and exposed during droughts.

Native American called the river Tatteroa, Chatteroi, and Chatterwha, according to Native American Placenames of the United States, published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2004.

The region was settled later than the rest of the state because of Indian hostilities along the upper Ohio River and geographic barriers. The Big Sandy valley had an isolated frontier aspect well into the early 1800s. Settlers came overland in small parties on horseback through gaps in the mountains or floated down the Ohio on flatboats.

Early settler Alexander Catlett and his son Horatio arrived at the mouth of the Big Sandy River in 1798, and the town of Catlettsburg, named in their honor, grew up around the tavern that Horatio opened in 1808.

The Big Sandy River has been immortalized in oldtime fiddle tunes and modern-day country music, including the hillbilly classic “Bury Me,” by Dwight Yoakam, with vocal backup from Maria McKee.

Major Lakes

There are three major lakes in the Big Sandy River drainage:

• Fishtrap Lake is about 15 miles southeast of Pikeville, off Ky. 1789.

The lake was impounded from the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River. Construction on the 195-foot-high dam, the highest in eastern Kentucky, began in 1962. The 16.5 mile-long lake opened in 1968.

At summer pool, elevation 757, the lake is 1,131 surface acres, has 40 miles of shoreline and is 84 feet deep just above the dam. The winter pool elevation is 735. The 22-foot drawdown to winter pool reduces the lake to about 780 surface acres.

The KDFWR website provides fishing regulations, a link to the fishing forecast, and details of boat launching ramps and bank access

Breaks Interstate Park, Russell Fork, headwaters of the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River(Photo by Don Sniegowski, Flickr Commons)

• Paintsville Lake, northwest of Paintsville, is impounded from Paint Creek, a tributary to the Big Sandy River. The lake filled in 1983 and is maintained at elevation 709 year-round, with a surface acreage of 1,139. The lake is 18 miles long, and about 90 feet deep at the dam.

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, 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.

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.

Fishing regulations, a link to the fishing forecast, and details of boat launching ramps, carry-down sites and bank access are available online

• Yatesville Lake is five miles west of Louisa in eastern Kentucky’s Lawrence County.

The 2,242-acre lake, impounded from Blaine Creek, a tributary to the Big Sandy River, first reached summer pool (elevation 630) in the spring of 1992. The drawdown to winter pool (elevation 624.8) reduces the surface acreage to 1,745.

Yatesville Lake State Park camground (Photo courtesy Kentucky State Parks)

Yatesville Lake has 93.9 miles of shoreline and a maximum depth of 60 feet. The lake is 20.6 miles long, with an average depth of 17.7 feet.

There are three islands. One island is just above the dam, the second is at the mouth of Twin Branch, and the third is at the former site of Carter Bridge.

Yatesville Lake State Park, encompassing 580 acres, is on a peninsula on the east side of the lake, off Ky. 32.

Facilities include a campground, golf course, hiking trails and picnic area.

The campground, built in 1999, has 47 campsites and one bathhouse. There are 16 boat-in campsites for primitive camping along the lakeshore.

For information call 606-673-1492.

For fishing regulations, a link to the fishing forecast, and details of boat launching ramps, and bank access click here: https://app.fw.ky.gov/fisheries/waterbodydetail.aspx?wid=152

Float Trips

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.

Float trips are a great way to soak up the scenery and ambience of this unique region of the state.

Information on Tug Fork float trips, published in a 2018 article in Kentucky Afield magazine

Information on Levisa Fork float trips

Map of Blue Water Trails on the Levisa Fork

Fish and Wildlife

The Big Sandy River basin supports diverse populations of fish and wildlife.

Sportfish populations in the streams, lakes and lake tailwaters include catfish (channel catfish, blue catfish and flathead catfish), sunfish (bluegill and redear sunfish), crappie (white crappie, black crappie and blacknose crappie), temperate bass (white bass and hybrid striped bass), black bass (largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and spotted bass), walleye, muskellunge, and rainbow trout.

The number of big game animals in the basin is impressive. Aside from wild turkey and white-tailed deer, elk and black bear are present.

Floyd, Johnson, Martin, Pike, Magoffin, Knott and Letcher counties are in Kentucky’s elk zone, which is comprised of seven hunting units.

Elk hunting information

Kentucky’s black bear zone is a huge area, more than one-third of the state. The 47 counties are divided into 10 units. All of the counties in the Big Sandy River basin are open to bear hunting.

Bear hunting information

Aerial and ground surveys confirmed active Bald Eagle nests in three counties in the Big Sandy River basin — Lawrence, Pike and Knott.

The Big Sandy River basin is a unique region of the state. The steep, rugged mountainous terrain flattens out as the small boater and angler-friendly forks converge and enter the Ohio River at the northeastern corner of the state. It’s no wonder that the region, with its rich early history and scenic terrain, beckons visitors.

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