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

The Cumberland River, Part One: The Lower River Basin

Elk at Land Between the Lake’s Elk & Bison Prairie (Photo by US Forest Service)

The Cumberland River is about 700 miles long, originates in southeastern Kentucky near the Virginia line, flows southwest through Tennessee, then turns north, to its confluence with the Ohio River in Smithland, Livingston County.

The Cumberland River Basin drains 7,000 square miles in eastern and western Kentucky and 11,000 square miles in north-central Tennessee.

The Cumberland River was named on April 17, 1750 by explorer and physician Thomas Walker, in honor of William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. Walker and his exploration party from Virginia first encountered the river at Pine Gap in present-day Bell County.

In this article, the lower basin is defined as the Cumberland River from its mouth, upstream to the Kentucky/Tennessee line.

Ancient history

Native Americans knew the Cumberland River as the Wasioto, and French traders called it the Rivière des Chaouanons, or “River of the Shawnee.”

Tributaries of the Lower Cumberland River

Most of the lower Cumberland River basin was flooded by the creation of Barkley Lake in July 1966.

The longest tributary is the Petite Rivière. It is Muddy Fork which arises in the county of Caldwell, and the northern and southern branches of its Stinking Fork, arise in the county of Christian. All of these forks flow into Lake Barkley west of Cadiz in County Trigg.

It is 30.6 miles from Barkley Dam in Lake City to the mouth of the river in Livingston County. There are 10 small creeks that flow into the headwaters, the largest being Livingston Creek, which originates in Crittenden County, south of Marion.

Lakes and parks

Lake Barkley (US Army Corps of Engineers graphic; click for larger image)

Lake Barkley, named by Congress for Kentucky Senator and Vice President Alben W. Barkley, is 30 miles southeast of Paducah in Trigg, Lyon, and Livingston counties.

The 7,985-foot-long earth and concrete dam includes a navigation lock, a canal, and a hydroelectric power station.

Barkley Lake forms the eastern boundary of Land Between the Lakes (LBL), a 170,000-acre National Recreation and Demonstration Area authorized by President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

At the Summer Pool (elevation 359), the 57,920-acre lake (42,020 acres are in Kentucky) is 118 miles long and has 1,004 miles of shoreline. The headwaters of the lake extend to Cheatham Lock and Dam in Montgomery County, Tennessee.

Winter drawdown reduces Lake Barkley to 45,210 acres at elevation 354.

Lake Barkley is connected to Lake Kentucky by a canal at Grand Rivers.

There are two state parks.

Mineral Mound State Park is on the northeast shore of the lake, just south of Eddyville on Finch Lane.

Open with seasonal days and hours, the park spans 541 acres and was established in 1991 on land historically linked to author F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Facilities include an eighteen-hole golf course, picnic areas, fishing pier and boat launch (no launch fee).

For more information, call 270-388-3673.

The year-round Lake Barkley State Resort Park is about five miles west of Cadiz off US 68.

The park covers 3,700 acres and was established in 1964.

Facilities include a 120-room lodge, 13 cabins, restaurant and bar, 79-site campground, eighteen-hole golf course, shooting range, fitness center and swimming pool interior, six miles of hiking trails, seven miles of mountain biking trails, a marina, boat launch (no launch fee), tennis courts, and outdoor pool for lodge guests and the cabin.

For more information, call 270-924-1131.

Fish and wildlife resources

Barkley Lake and the adjacent LBL are a hunter’s and angler’s paradise, with plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities.

Fishing opportunities abound in the Lower Cumberland River Basin (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

There are quotas and open hunting seasons for white-tailed deer, wild turkey and small game. Additionally, there are waterfowl hunting opportunities on Barkley Lake.

LBL hunting season details

Fishing opportunities abound for black bass, crappie, sunfish, temp bass and sauger in Barkley Lake. Additionally, there are several small LBL lakes open for fishing.

There are eight marinas on Lake Barkley, 17 boat ramps on the east side of Lake Barkley in addition to marina ramps, and 11 boat ramps on the west side of Lake Barkley at LBL.

Largemouth bass make up about 68% of all black bass caught in Lake Barkley, according to the 2021 survey.

The best spring fishing begins when the lake begins to rise and the fish move up onto the flats.

Southern Bison Range at Land Between the Lakes (Photo by US Forest Service)

A top strategy at this time of year is to slowly roll spinnerbaits on submerged platforms as the water warms up to the low 60s.

Special Fishing Regulations and Towed Boat Launches on Barkley Lake

Wildlife viewing opportunities include elk, bison, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and several species of raptors, including osprey and bald eagle.

Wildlife Viewing Details for Land Between the Lakes

Visit LBL’s Elk and Bison Prairie for a unique Kentucky experience. From the safety and comfort of your vehicle, elk and bison can be observed up close, with excellent photography opportunities.

Prairie elk and bison details

The Lower Cumberland River Basin offers unparalleled opportunities for a wide range of outdoor activities including hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, and nature study. LBL is the centerpiece of the lower Cumberland River Basin and one of Kentucky’s premier outdoor destinations.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoor editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University, and a hunter, fisherman, gardener, and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine reporter, and author and is a former editor of Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-editor of the Kentucky Newspaper Column. Afield Outdoors.