The morning sun casts a long, chilly shadow across a narrow wooden bridge that crosses the Middle Fork of the Red River. I kneel and peer into the water as I’ve done hundreds of times from countless bridges.
Even when viewed through polarized glasses, trout holding in clear water flowing across a shallow, rock-strewn streambed possess an almost translucent quality. A movement. A flash. They’re here. But the creek sluices around the bridge pilings and gurgles and swirls and bends about the rocks and gravel from which its pulse is measured. You listen and watch with an almost headache-inducing concentration. Nothing. Maybe they’re not here.
Then a fish turns and shows a glimpse of silver-tinged crimson. They are here. Just downstream, holding at the edge of the deep water near a little rock shelf. Two rainbow trout ride the current, noses upstream, finning slowly. Two more appear, closer to the cut bank and holding near the bottom. I scamper down for a closer look.
Dark shapes, some a foot or so long, seem to fill the small pool. This is unusual. Trout are not schooling fish. Then I recall that trout will sometime “pod up,” especially in winter. That is what is before me. A pod of trout.
Kentucky is generally not known for its trout fishing, although the state is home to more than 300 miles of trout water, much of which is highly productive. I am on a section of the Middle Fork of the Red River that winds through Natural Bridge State Park, just off Ky. Route 11, not far from the Bert Combs Mountain Parkway near Slade.
Slightly more than 2 miles of the Middle Fork flow through the state park, but it has a designation shared by only a handful of other creeks. The Middle Fork of the Red is one of 13 streams managed by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources as “delayed harvest” trout waters, a designation that simply means from Oct. 1 through March 30 (May 31 on one stream) all trout must be released and fishermen are limited to artificial lures. The streams are stocked in October, and then it’s catch-and-release during the winter. State game officials concede that some trout poaching occurs on these seasonally protected waters. It’s impossible to say how much.
During the spring and summer, these same waters receive regular trout stockings and most of the fish are probably caught soon after leaving the stocking truck. But when winter arrives, the crowds are gone and so are most of the fishermen. At Natural Bridge State Park, the campground is closed for the winter, though the campground road remains opens, and it is from the campground road bridge that I am watching the trout.
“The Middle Fork is stocked with trout within the state park boundary, so you have a lot of fish in a concentrated area,” said state district fisheries biologist Fred Howes. “Of course, those fish do spread out. But during the summer, they might not get much chance to spread out. It gets a lot of pressure from people staying in the park.”
The Middle Fork of the Red also forms 41-acre Mill Creek Lake. The campground section of the stream is above the lake. The creek isn’t wide, but it is surprisingly deep in spots. It’s easy to image a chaotic summer scene with kids laughing and splashing and freshly stocked trout having every imaginable bait thrown at them. Today there is not another vehicle or person in sight.
Trout are a cold-water species, but winter tends to dull their appetite. They will eat but generally won’t move far to do so.
For fly fishermen, winter means midge fishing—small insect imitators size 20, 22, 24 … even down to 26 (the larger the number, the smaller the hook size). These are tiny flies.
I kneel on the bank and string up an Orvis 3-weight and extend my tippet to 6x, which is a very light line. To it I tie on a No. 22 silver and black Zonker Midge. It imitates no natural stream critter that I know of, but I’ve caught fish with it. That’s why I plucked it from my fly box. And it’s the smallest fly I’ve got.
From my position on the bank to reach where the trout are holding requires a roll cast. Thankfully, the fish aren’t skittish, and on the third cast I have a strike. It is so subtle, only a twitch in the line indicates that I have a hit. But when the fish feels the hook, the fight quickly becomes spirited. It is a rainbow trout nearly a foot long, thick and brightly colored. It is the first of several. I love the winter season.
The delayed harvest trout section of the Middle Fork of the Red River flows through Natural Bridge State Resort Park. For lodging or other information, contact the park at 1-800-325-1710 or go to parks.ky.gov.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, fw.ky.gov, manages 13 streams as delayed harvest trout waters. These creeks are Bark Camp in Whitley County, Beaver in Wayne County, Big Bone in Boone County, Cane in Laurel County, Casey in Trigg County, Clear in Bell County, East Fork of Indian in Menifee County, Elk Spring in Wayne County, Left Fork of Beaver in Floyd County, Otter in Meade County, Rock in McCreary County and Swift Camp in Wolfe County, along with the Middle Fork of the Red River in Powell County.