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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Kentucky’s Tennessee River basin is a paradise for hunters and anglers

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh article in a series profiling the major river basins of Kentucky.

Kentucky Dam and the Tennessee River tailwaters (Photo from Flickr Commons)

The Tennessee River, the largest tributary of the Ohio River, is 652 miles long, arising at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad rivers near Knoxville, Tennessee, then flowing southwest through east Tennessee to Chattanooga before crossing into Alabama.

From Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the Tennessee River turns northward, into western Kentucky, eventually forming the eastern boundary of the Jackson Purchase Region, merging with the Ohio River near Paducah.

The river basin drains 40,569 square miles.

Early History

Native Americans called it the Cherokee River, as the Cherokee people made their homelands along its banks, in what is now East Tennessee and northern Alabama. Early French explorers knew it as “Riviere des Cheraquis.”

Kentucky Lake

In Kentucky, the Tennessee River basin is dominated by Kentucky Lake, which is 15 miles southeast of Paducah in Trigg, Lyon, Marshall, and Calloway counties. The lake extends southward through five counties in Tennessee to Pickwick Dam.

Kentucky Dam Marina is one of 14 marinas on Kentucky Lake (Photo from Kentucky State Parks)

Kentucky Dam is 22 miles upstream of the Tennessee River’s confluence with the Ohio River.

Kentucky Lake is 184 miles long, has 2,064 miles of shoreline, and is 160,309 surface acres (49,511 acres in Kentucky) at summer pool, elevation 359. There’s a five-foot drawdown to winter pool, elevation 354. Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley are connected by a canal at Grand Rivers.

The project, six years in construction, between July 1938 and August 1944, was built by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Kentucky Lake forms the western boundary of Land Between the Lakes (LBL), a 170,000-acre national recreation and demonstration area authorized by President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

There are two state resort parks on the western shore of the lake.

Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park, open year-round, is adjacent to Kentucky Dam, off U.S. 641/Ky. 62 in Marshall County. The park encompasses 1,351 acres and was established in 1949.

Facilities include a 72-room lodge, 61 cabins, restaurant, 18-hole golf course, beach, outdoor pool for lodge and cabin guests, 4,000-foot paved, lighted airstrip, and 8.5 miles of mountain biking trails.

For information telephone 270-362-4271.

Kenlake State Resort Park, open year-round, is in Aurora, off Ky. 80, in Marshall and Calloway counties. The park encompasses 1,795 acres and was established in 1948.

Facilities include a 48-room lodge, 34 cabins, restaurant, 90-site campground, indoor tennis center, two nature trails, and an outdoor pool for lodge and cabin guests.

For information telephone 270-474-2211.

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.


The longest tributary to the Tennessee River in Kentucky is the Clarks River, 66.7 miles, consisting of two parallel forks.

The East Fork arises just south of Murray, on the Tennessee line, and flows northwestward, passing just east of Benton, in Marshall County, merging with the Tennessee River, just south of Paducah, in McCracken County.

The West Fork is much shorter, perhaps 25 miles long, and arises in northern Calloway County, flowing northward through Marshall and Graves counties, joining the East Fork at Oaks, in McCracken County.

Special Fishing Regulations, Lake and River Access

To get information on special fishing regulations, launching ramps for trailered boats, and carry-down sites for fishing kayaks and other small boats, visit the KDFWR waterbodies page.

There are 14 marinas on Kentucky Lake, 23 boat launching ramps in addition to the ramps at the marinas, and nine boat launching ramps on the eastern shore of Kentucky Lake in LBL.

Two fishing piers just below Kentucky Dam create eddies, offering bank fishermen a good opportunity to cast out into the tailwaters or fish in the quiet water.

There is a boat launching ramp in the tailwaters below Kentucky Dam. The Gilbertsville boat ramp is in Marshall County, on the west bank of the Tennessee River off Ky. 282. There is no fee to launch.

Fish and Wildlife Resources

A classic flatland reservoir, Kentucky Lake is arguably one of the state’s top fishing destinations, both in quality of fish and species diversity.

Its reputation was made on slab-sized crappie, but in the early 1990s the bass population blossomed into a nationally recognized fishery, attracting considerable attention in the outdoors media and professional bass fishing tournaments.

A Black Bass Assessment in 2016 found that since 1986, the average length of a three year-old Largemouth Bass has been 12.8 inches, which is considered to be good growth for largemouth bass when compared to other large lakes in Kentucky.

Kentucky Lake has a reputation for excellent crappie fishing (Photo by John Morgan)

A creel survey conducted in conjunction with the 2017 Lake and Tailwater Survey found that crappie anglers accounted for 33 percent of fishing trips, 68 percent of the crappie were caught in February and April, and 51 percent of crappie anglers used three or more poles (spider rigging).

Black bass anglers accounted for 42 percent of all fishing trips, and Largemouth Bass accounted for 95 percent of the harvested black bass.

Panfish anglers accounted for six percent of all fishing trips, 68 percent of panfish were harvested during May, and 79 percent of the redear sunfish caught were harvested.

Catfish anglers accounted for eight percent of all fishing trips, 88 percent of the catfish caught were harvested, and the catch of Channel Catfish was more than double the catch of Blue Catfish.

And lastly, only about two percent of all fishing trips were for temperate bass, 80 percent of the temperate bass caught were Yellow Bass, and about 84 percent of the Yellow Bass caught were released.

Today, the lake supports populations of three species of black bass (Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass and Spotted Bass), two species of catfish (Blue Catfish and Channel Catfish), two species of sunfish (Bluegill and Redear Sunfish), two species of crappie (White Crappie and Black Crappie), Sauger, and three species of temperature bass (Striped Bass, White Bass, and Yellow Bass). There is also a small population of hybrid striped bass in the lake and they have been stocked in the tailwaters.

Cover types include road beds, weed beds, stump beds, brush piles, stake beds, chunk rock and gravel banks, and rock bluffs.

The Tennessee River basin, and the Jackson Purchase Region in general, support quality populations of white-tailed deer, wild turkey, small mammals, and offer some of the best hunting in the state for quail and rabbits, both cottontail and swamp rabbits.

The close proximity of the junction of the Ohio River and Mississippi River make the basin in Kentucky a magnet for migratory waterfowl, ducks and Canada geese.

Clarks River NWR headquarters (Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services)

The two most significant wildlife areas outside of LBL are: Kaler Bottoms, a Kentucky wildlife management area (WMA), and the Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).

Kaler Bottoms WMA is 1,904 acres, eight miles northeast of Mayfield in Graves County, on the West Fork of the Clarks River.

The WMA is mostly a wetland (cypress swamps), about 60 percent, with open land, four percent, and forest, 36 percent.

There is limited access, and no developed facilities.

Hunting opportunities, under statewide regulations, include white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, swamp rabbits, and waterfowl.

For more information, visit the Kaler Bottoms WMA website

In 1997, Clarks River NWR became the 549th National Wildlife Refuge.

The acquisition boundary approved by Congress is 18,000 acres, of which 8,634 acres have been purchased. The lands are distributed in more than 20 parcels in three counties: Graves County (56 acres), Marshall County (5,970 acres), and McCracken County (2,608 acres). Lands are purchased from willing sellers only.

Clarks River NWR cover more than 18,000 acres across three counties (Image from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as part of its bottomland hardwood conservation program, identified the Clarks River as a candidate site for protection in 1975 because it was the only major river in western Kentucky that had not been dammed or dredged, and because it was comprised of one of the largest remaining bottomland hardwood forests in the region.

Wetland habitat is one of the most biologically productive ecosystems. Freshwater mussels, amphibians, fish, and mammals are all found in abundance on the refuge, as well as migratory songbirds and waterfowl, who take advantage of the area on their long flights from nesting to wintering grounds.

This diversity and abundance of fish and wildlife provides ample hunting, fishing, hiking, paddling, nature study and photography, and other recreational opportunities on the refuge.

The Clarks River NWR headquarters is located at 91 US Highway 641 North, Benton, Kentucky 42025, telephone 270-527-5770.

For more information, visit the Clarks River NWR website.

The Tennessee River basin in Kentucky is at its best in the fall and winter, when recreational boaters are off Kentucky Lake.

Fall and winter fishing is excellent and the river bottom wetlands are a hunter’s paradise for deer, small game and waterfowl. The Jackson Purchase is a top outdoors destination that every Kentucky outdoors enthusiast should visit.

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  1. Gregg Guy says:

    Always enjoy Art’s work. I remember Art as a fraternity brother from WKU.

  2. Kerrry says:

    My wife and I have been wanting to visit Kentucky. This look like a good place to start.

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