Rock Creek Round Up

Here’s a look at the fishing in this back-country stream in the Bluegrass State.

On The Fly Freshwater

December 2022

Article and photos by Jimmy Jacobs

Trout water in Kentucky is usually associated with its number of tailwaters on major rivers, and especially the Cumberland River downstream of Wolf Creek Dam. However, the commonwealth also has some smaller streams that merit consideration as trout fishing resources. First among those is Rock Creek.

Flowing south to north, Rock Creek is a tributary of the South Fork of the Cumberland located in McCreary County. It is probably the best-known and most popular trout creek in the commonwealth. It is also a stream that has been designated a Kentucky Wild River, and offers 18.6 miles of public water that provides a variety of fishing options.

Located entirely within the Daniel Boone National Forest, the creek is large and open enough to allow fly-casting all the way from White Oak Junction upstream to the Tennessee border. One peculiarity of the stream is that it does not actually make it all the way to the junction with White Oak Creek. Just a few yards short of this destination, Rock Creek plunges into a limestone cave, leaving the streambed dry downstream to that confluence.

The pool where Rock Creek heads underground.

From the cave mouth upstream, the creek is paralleled by Forest Service Road 566 all the way to Bell Farm (a Forest Service campground designed for campers with horses) and consists of a string of deep, sluggish pools with an occasional stretch of shoal water. Through this area, the creek is of medium size and holds a mixture of rainbow and brown trout, along with a healthy dose of smallmouth bass. The distance by road is 8 miles along this part of the stream, and there are a few parcels of private land located through here.

A Rock Creek smallmouth bass that was fooled by a Wooly Bugger.

Above the Bell Farm camping area, the creek runs along FS 564 through a large patch of private, posted land. Next, the creek follows FS 137 and it closely resembles a mountain stream, tumbling through rocky shoals between deep, but current-flushed pools. There are 7 miles of stream along FS 137 to the end of the road. A footpath then follows the creek to the Tennessee border.

This upper portion of the stream has two Forest Service campgrounds located on it – Hemlock Grove and Great Meadow. The hiking trail of the Sheltowee Trace joins the creek at Hemlock Grove and runs through Great Meadow, as it follows the creek to the headwaters in Tennessee’s Pickett State Park and Forest. Sheltowee was the name the Shawnee tribe used to refer to Daniel Boone. It translates to mean “big turtle.” The blazes on this trail are in the form of white turtles.

The KDFWR annually stocks 9- to 11-inch rainbow trout in Rock Creek. More than 17,000 fish have been planted in the stream annually in recent years. Those releases take place each month, with the exceptions of July, August, January and February.  

Kentucky officials also add brown trout to the stockings, ordinarily in the fall. The brown trout released are 8 inches long and stocked for a put-grow-and-take fishery. As a result of these stockings, fish are plentiful year-round, and trout of 3 to 5 pounds have been reported in the lower portion of the creek.

A stocked Kentucky rainbow.

The stream is smaller above Great Meadows, but gets much less fishing pressure than do locations farther downstream. It is ideally suited for either dry or wet flies, with adequate room for casting. All in all, the upper portion of Rock Creek has the most natural fly-fishing setting and conditions to be found in Kentucky.

The portion of Rock Creek downstream of Bell Farm is open to fishing under general trout regulations. From the Tennessee border to Bell Farm bridge, delayed-harvest rules apply on 8.7 miles of the creek. Artificial lures or flies must be used here from October 1 to March 31, and all fishing is catch-and-release. From April 1 to September 30, general trout regulations apply to the entire stream.

If you are looking for some good trout fishing this month, with outstanding scenery in the Bluegrass State, give some thought to trying out Rock Creek.