Cave Run Lake, a pristine, crystal-clear body of water located in the foothills of the Appalachians, is becoming a top destination for houseboaters searching for awesome scenery, a relaxing environment and world class muskie fishing.
It is doubtful many have ever heard of tiny Cave Run, a small tributary of the Licking River that flows fairly close to Morehead, Ky., just off I-64. Few ever heard of Morehead until a young football quarterback by the name of Phil Simms was drafted by the New York Giants and became a star in the National Football League.
Fifteen miles from the Morehead University campus where Simms played, a new
star was born in the form of 8,500-acre Cave Run Lake (named by the U.S. Corps of Engineers for the small tributary that entered the Licking River near the Cave Run Dam). Built primarily as a flood control and recreation reservoir, Cave Run (completed in 1973) is the largest lake in northeastern Kentucky and regularly attracts visitors from major cities in Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and numerous other states. That’s because the lake is surrounded by a near wilderness and remains free of ice in winter. Some boating and lots of fishing occur on a year-round basis. The lake is best known, however, because it is considered one of the top muskie-producing lakes in the world!
There’s something special about tangling with a tackle-bustin,’ lure-chompin’ mouth-full-of-teeth aqua-monster known scientifically as Esox masquinongy ohiensis—which means “muskie” to most folks.
Because muskellunge at Cave Run are of the purest strain of all muskie in America, anglers cherish catching one of these great fish. And they get big, too! The current Kentucky state record for muskie came from Cave Run in early November, 2008, when 14-year-old Sarah Terry of nearby Mt. Sterling hooked and landed a 54-inch beauty that tipped the scales at an even 47 pounds! Sarah released the fish, meaning that this prize is still swimming in the lake, waiting to do battle.
When Cave Run Lake was in the planning stage, folks in Washington decided Kentucky needed a lake that would fit naturally into the surrounding Daniel Boone National Forest, where such noted frontiersmen as Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton explored and hunted amid the towering hardwoods, craggy cliff lines and clear-flowing rivers and streams.
The planning and construction all came together in 1973, when the gates were closed on the dam, and the waters of the upper Licking River began backing up over little hillside farms, pasturelands, iron bridges, small churches and more than 4,000 acres of trees that were left standing for fish habitat.
At the same time, work began on Scotts Creek and Longbow marinas, the only two development permits issued for the entire lake. Today, Scotts Creek, which is home for more than 120 houseboats and offers a number of rental units, is the busiest place for boaters on the lake. The smaller Longbow marina, located in the upper end of the reservoir (near the only place a road crosses the lake), is affected by annual draw downs for flood protection. Yet a couple dozen privately-owned houseboats are docked here. The owners prefer to cruise the narrow, upper Licking River channel where wildlife and wild scenery abound. There’s also a real chance these boaters will latch onto one of the naturally-spawned muskellunge that thrived in the Licking before Cave Run was impounded.
This is the area of the lake where country music super stars Billy Ray Cyrus (achy-breaky heart) and his famous daughter Miley Cyrus can often be seen cruising the lake when they visit the Cyrus farm where they stable Mountain Bred horses.
The houseboating season at Cave Run gets underway in April when a vast, colorful array of blooming redbuds and dogwood adorn the surrounding woodlands. Balmy southern breezes bring boaters out of winter doldrums as they head for the lake to fish for muskie and bass that run the shoreline in preparation for spawning. Anglers fortunate to own or to rent a houseboat tie off their rigs to trees lining the shore near famed muskie fishing spots like Big and Little Cave Run, Zilpo Flats, Clay Lick and a hundred other places where muskie live in the reservoir. Living on top of your fishing hole makes it handy to try your luck anytime you wish, and bringing along a small boat or canoe is also a great idea.
Pin-pointing dead sticks (dead trees still standing after being flooded for four decades), fishermen cast tandem-blade spinnerbaits dressed with white or all black skirts past any structure they can see in the clear water. Many muskie are caught by fishermen out after the lake’s large and smallmouth bass populations. Even crappie fishermen hook up with monster size muskie while fishing light lines, limber poles and tiny minnows and jigs amid underwater brush and newly-emerging weed growth—almost any time of the year.
The lake’s muskie population remains steady year after year because of supplemental stocking of the species from Minor Clark Hatchery, located just below the Cave Run Dam. The muskie “fingerlings” range upward of 16 to 18 inches in length, which assures a healthy survival rate. Because fishery biologists are stationed full-time at the hatchery, they have ready access to harvest numbers, catch and release and other important information needed to manage the muskie fishery properly. Because local guides and experienced muskie fishermen practice catch and release almost exclusively, Cave Run is brimming with fish that measure by the foot, rather than pounds and ounces!
Because the reservoir is surrounded by public-owned lands, houseboaters can simply tie up to the shoreline, grab a shotgun and a turkey call during spring gobbler season and have a better-than-average chance of bagging a fat gobbler for the grill. Non-hunters have a field day trekking the woodlands in search of the delicious morel mushrooms that grow near the top of the hills where the ridgeline faces the morning sun. Judged as second only to the famed truffles of western Europe, sautéed morels make the perfect topping for a thick steak or juicy burger seared on the houseboat grill.
Perhaps nowhere do boaters have better access to woodlands where spring wildflowers carpet the forest floor. Grab a picnic lunch, a field guide to wildflowers and head out for a few hours of awesome beauty and identification of species that have been native to the Appalachians for millions of years.
Summer is prime time for houseboating at Cave Run. The kids are out of school and there’s no better vacation to renting a houseboat (if you don’t own one), stocking it with plenty to eat and drink and heading out to your own piece of wilderness for a few days. The entire shoreline is accessible. Houseboaters who enjoy swimming can pull up to the white sand beach or find a thousand private places to take a dip around the lake.
Muskie fishing at Cave Run in summer is a deep trolling game, pulling lures and spoons deep across points and steep turns in the old Licking River channel. Nighttime is fertile for muskie hunting as well. Big fish move up to shallow flats at night, where fishermen toss big black bucktails and noisy surface lure for heart-attack strikes that often occur in the inky blackness.
My favorite season of all at this picturesque mountain lake is autumn. Surrounded by a deciduous hardwood forest, the hills are a brilliant canvas of blazing reds, gold, russets, orange, and yellows. Naturalists say the color extravaganza equals or surpasses that which occurs in the Northeastern U.S. It is also an ideal time to find esox prowling the shorelines, feeding up for winter. This is the season when the largest muskie come to the boat. It’s not uncommon to hook up with a half dozen of the finnesters in an average day of fishing in the fall, and there’s a good chance you’ll hook one that stretches out past three feet in length!
The houseboating season at Cave Run winds down in late October, though rentals can be arranged for later dates if reservations are made in time. My choice for the late season is to rent a unit and keep it tied to the dock where all utilities are available. Some of the best muskie fishing in the entire lake during autumn is in and around Scott Creek Marina in the Scott Creek arm of the lake.
No doubt about it, Cave Run Lake is a unique place in the Southern Appalachians. The water is pure, the scenery is unspoiled any time of the year, the East Kentucky Mountain folk are a true pleasure to be around and don’t forget the esox. The muskellunge at Cave Run are ready and waiting to provide an experience in fishing no one will ever forget!
If You Want To Go
Planning a trip to Cave Run Lake is as simple as picking up a phone and calling
Terri C. Alderman, the executive director of the Morehead Tourism Commission at
800-654-1944 (www.moreheadtourism.com). Alderman can assist visitors in planning a complete stay in the Cave Run Lake area, locating the best qualified guides and provide up-to-date fishing information.
A second contact would be the Scott Creek Marina, 606-784-9666.
Muskie Fishing Tips At Cave Run
Cast bass-size fishing lures to the shallow water along the shoreline. Watch for dead weed sticks that show where weedbeds will form later on. Muskie love weedy environments, even dead weeds. These are great places to cast tandem-blade spinnerbaits with white or all black skirts. My personal favorite lure for both muskie and bass during spring at Cave Run is a 00 AC Shiner in shad finish.
Trolling artificial lures that work at depths of 20 feet or deeper across jutting points and along the edges of the old river channel (especially in the upper end of the lake) can be productive both early and late in the day. Nighttime calls for casting large buzzbaits and bucktails through and around weedbeds and alongside large laydown trees.
Fish weedbeds with large spinnerbaits (black is a favorite color), buzzbaits, jerkbaits and weedless Johnson Silver Minnows in black with yellow or white skirts. Lots of big fish are taken off the Zilpo Flats and in the Scotts Creek arm closer to the dam.