FRANKFORT - Herds of buffalo roaming across Kentucky carved rudimentary roads into the Earth later used by the pioneers during the settlement period of our state’s history. Many modern roads still roughly follow the paths carved by the huge bison as they made their way from stamping grounds to salt springs.
One of these buffalo trails ran from McConnell Springs in Fayette County and forded the Kentucky River at a shallow bar near the now extinct community of Leestown. This trail is now roughly U.S. 421 or Leestown Road. The distillery located there is called Buffalo Trace in recognition of this historic crossing.
After crossing the river, the buffalo climbed the river hills to the northwest, making their way toward the Ohio River. The movement and their wallowing scraped the vegetation from a prominent knob in the area, making it appear “bald.” This moniker is still used to describe the northwestern part of Franklin County.
Paddlers may float over this famous buffalo crossing in the first stretch of Pool 3 of the Kentucky River. With peak autumn colors approaching, the next few weeks make fantastic times to paddle Pool 3. Canoeists and kayakers have several floats to view the last of the Kentucky River Palisades on this pool.
The first float of roughly 10 miles begins just downstream of Lock and Dam 4 in Frankfort at the Buffalo Trace Ramp on Leestown Bar. This ramp requires a membership fee to use. For more information on use of this ramp, call 1-800-654-8471. Those who plan to float this section should plan on a long day of paddling, so put in early in the morning.
The tailwater just below Lock and Dam 4 provides fishing for white bass, hybrid striped bass and black bass. Just downstream in the bend where the ramp is located, smallmouth bass hang on the rocks of Leestown Bar and Jolly Roger bar, especially when the river has good current.
The Palisades are still evident in the upper section of Pool 3 and this makes for spectacular scenery in October. The bluffs are not as intimate as in the upriver section of the Palisades, but they still provide a sense of awe, especially when framed by leaves at their peak of color.
Just downstream on the left is a rock shelf known as Pettys Ripple Bar that holds largemouth bass. Working a medium-running crawfish-colored crankbait across this bar should draw strikes.
The river then bends to the right and straightens for a time before bending left. Just past the left bend, Stony Creek enters on the left. Sunken trees, root wads and other woody cover in the mouth of Stony Creek provide good fishing for crappie and bluegill.
The river then turns hard to the right around Steamboat Hollow Bend. Steamboat Hollow Creek meets the Kentucky on the left. The rocky bar at the mouth of the creek provides an excellent spot to fish for largemouth and smallmouth bass by swimming a 3/16-ounce brown and orange jig and trailer combination just over the bottom.
Steamboat Hollow was the site of an early 1800s boatyard, producing paddle boats such as the all locust wood Locust Lexington and the side-wheeler Plowboy that plied the Kentucky and other rivers.
The take-out lies around another bend on the right at the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources’ Steele Branch Boat Ramp at the end of Steele Branch Road off U.S. 127. There is ample parking at this ramp. Some maps show the Kentucky River Campgrounds Ramp just upstream, but you must stay in that campground to use it.
The float of a little over three miles begins at the Steele Branch Boat Ramp and concludes at the Stillwaters Campground Ramp in the last mile of Elkhorn Creek. This makes an excellent half-day float with good fishing.
Anglers should paddle the 3/4-mile back upstream and fish Hawkins Bar at the mouth of Steele’s Branch with 4-inch green pumpkin-colored curly-tailed grubs rigged on 3/16-ounce leadheads for smallmouth bass.
The river presents fewer exposed bluffs in this stretch, but the scenery is still exemplary. After a long gentle bend to the right that consumes most of this paddle, the river than takes a hard left around Elkhorn Bend. This sharp bend presented a challenge to riverboat pilots pushing barges at high water.
The rock and sandbar on the inside (left) of Elkhorn bend is a good place to fish for smallmouth bass. As the paddler makes their way into Lower Elkhorn Bend, Elkhorn Creek meets the river on the right. The take-out is a short way upstream on Elkhorn Creek at the Stillwaters Campground Ramp on the right. There is a $3 fee to use this ramp.
The Stillwaters Campground has a nearly 100-year history of providing access, camping, swimming, paddling and fishing on the Kentucky River. The Quire family built the Mayflower Hotel and Fishing Camp in 1921 at the mouth of the Elkhorn and it operated until extensively damaged by the infamous 1937 flood. It was later bought and converted to a campground that remains today.
A nice fishing side trip for paddlers is to continue upstream of the boat ramp on Elkhorn Creek and stop at the first riffle. Tie up the boats and wade upstream for excellent smallmouth bass fishing.
The lower section of Elkhorn downstream of this riffle holds largemouth bass, catfish and muskellunge.
The next float of nearly 7-miles begins at the Stillwaters Campground Ramp and concludes at Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s Sand Ripple Creek Voluntary Public Access Area (VPA). A towering rock bluff greets paddlers on the left at the beginning of this float. The river then flows straight past the extinct community of Polsgrove and the mouth of Flat Creek. The lower stretch of Flat Creek offers productive fishing for largemouth bass and bluegill.
The Kentucky then takes a nearly 90 degree turn to the right into Payton Bend, another treacherous spot for riverboat pilots. The river bends back on itself as it flows into Owen County and around Webbs Bend before bending right again into the mouth of Sand Ripple Creek.
The take-out is just downstream of the mouth of Sand Ripple Creek. The lower section of this creek and the bar opposite its mouth offer good fishing for largemouth and Kentucky bass.
Canoe Kentucky offers canoe and kayak rentals on Pool 3 of the Kentucky River. Stillwaters Campground also offers canoe rentals and camping facilities. Kentucky River Campground also has camping and river access to Pool 3 for campers.
Stillwaters Campground and Canoe Trails:
Kentucky River Campground:
The Blue Water Trails series supports Gov. Steve Beshear’s Adventure Tourism Initiative. Log on to Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s Blue Water Trails webpage at fw.ky.gov for a detailed map.
Author Lee McClellan is an award-winning associate editor for Kentucky