FRANKFORT – Slices of Kentucky still retain the patina of times long ago. Powerful economic and cultural forces of the 20th Century reshaped the landscape of Kentucky, but there are still areas that look and feel similar to what those who traveled in horse-drawn buggies witnessed in their daily lives.
The Little South Fork of Cumberland River region is one of those places. Remnants of hand-laid stone fences line many of the roads leading to the access points on the Little South Fork. Many fine homes feature small, irregular windows and stone chimneys, revealing likely log construction underneath the siding. Suspension footbridges in excellent condition at shallow crossings of the river evoke earlier times in the mountains.
Several floats on the Little South Fork showcase this enchanting, overlooked region of Kentucky. The Little South Fork from the KY 92 Bridge downstream to Freedom Ford is a designated Kentucky Wild River, a tribute to the pristine water quality and incredible scenery of this stream.
In late summer through fall, the Little South Fork flows exceptionally clear with enough moving shoals and stream drops to keep the paddling interesting, but not overly challenging. The copper-hued bluffs and rockcastles of the western edge of the Cumberland Escarpment make one of the more picturesque landscapes in Kentucky. Expect few other paddlers on this remote stream.
Fisheries biologists with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources find healthy populations of smallmouth bass, rock bass and spotted bass in the Little South Fork.
The first float begins at the vanished community of Parmleysville, one of the first settlements in the upper Cumberland region, established in 1780. The put-in at an old ford crossing is just down the hill from the historic Bethel Baptist Church on KY 1756. It was the first church for the influential early preacher “Raccoon” John Smith.
This pioneer outpost once had a horse track, mill, school and store. The only artifice of settlement left is the remnants of a sturdy hand-laid rock wall along the road at the put-in.
The mountain vistas that greet travelers on KY 1756 are as stunning as any in southern Appalachia. Be sure to veer right at the junction of KY 1756 and Green Ford Road to reach the Parmleysville access. In the low water conditions common in late summer through fall, paddlers may need to walk boats through shallow shoals.
The float concludes 6 ½ miles downstream at the bridge on Steele Hollow Road. The Little South Fork flows small and intimate in this section, but the rock-lined bends with the aquamarine color of deeper water hold smallmouth bass. The river holds excellent populations of forage fish such as striped shiners and a floating/diving minnow lure such as a Rapala attracts smallmouths.
The Little South Fork flows into two consecutive horseshoe-shaped bends separated by two gentler meanders. The deep pockets along the boulder-strewn outside bends hold smallmouth bass. This is the best smallmouth bass water on this float.
After another sharp bend to the right, the river flows through the small community of Green Ford. It then makes a long gentle bend to the right before cutting hard back left. The outside band of this bend holds smallmouth bass. After several more bends, the Little South Fork makes a 90-degree turn to the right before the access at Steele Hollow Road Bridge.
To reach this access, veer right onto Green Ford Road coming from Parmleysville, then left onto Steele Bottom Road. Park vehicles on the east side of the bridge. The old ford beside it eases launching and carrying out of boats.
The next float begins at Steele Hollow Road Bridge and concludes nearly 7 miles downstream at the small concrete bridge on Baldy Road (known as Baldy-East Coopersville Road on some maps), off KY 92 east from its junction with KY 1756. The old ford beside this bridge provides an easy carry down with parking for about three vehicles.
The Little South Fork makes nearly a 180-degree bend to the left followed by a gentler bend and another 180-degree bend to the left. The flowing outside water in these bends holds smallmouth bass. Rock bass hide in any downed tree tops in these areas as well. Rock bass love black and silver in-line spinners.
The river then makes another horseshoe bend to the right. The second bend contains deep water, perfect habitat for spotted bass. Spotted bass can’t resist the color black, so 3-inch black curly-tailed grubs or 4-inch black finesse worms rigged on 1/8-ounce leadheads draw strikes. They make excellent table fare, especially from a stream as clean as the Little South Fork.
The river makes several bends before making a sharp “S” shaped bend. Smallmouth bass lurk in the flowing water just above and below stream drops in this stretch. After flowing relatively straight for a time, the Little South Fork makes a hard turn left and the take-out at Baldy Road Bridge comes into view.
The next float is for the intrepid who want a near wilderness paddling experience. It begins at the Baldy Road Bridge and concludes 10 ½ miles downstream at Ritner Ford. Some guidebooks and websites list the KY 92 Bridge as an access spot, but the gravel access road down to the river is currently gated and posted.
Paddlers on this float must launch early. Prepare to take out at dusk and not tarry at any place too long. The shuttle via KY 92 west to KY 776 to Ritner Road also eats time.
Just after launching, the river bends to the right and after a straight stretch, makes a hard bend right and collects the waters of tiny Burkes Creek. The deep water in this bend holds spotted bass.
The river then flows into two hairpin bends to the right, separated by a straight stretch. The deep greenish water in these bends holds spotted bass as well. The transitional water from deep to flowing should be worked with the floating/diving minnow for smallmouth bass.
The Little South Fork cut deeper into the Earth in the section from KY 92 to its confluence with the Big South Fork, making a gorgeous gorge providing some of the most scenic paddling in Kentucky. This is also the Kentucky Wild River designated section of the Little South Fork.
After some bends and collecting the waters of Baker Branch and Corder Creek along the way, paddlers may catch glimpses of the sepia-toned cliffs that line the river on both sides for the last several miles of this float.
Just after a hard bend right, the suspension footbridge at Ritner Ford greets paddlers. The parking area at Ritner Ford is rutted and a four wheel drive vehicle is recommended.
The last float on the Little South Fork starts at Ritner Ford and concludes roughly 2 1/2 miles downstream at Freedom Ford, via KY 776 to Freedom Road. This may be the most pastoral short float in the upper Cumberland River drainage.
The drive to Ritner Ford passes through Denney’s Gap with Washing Cliff at your level to the left, but soon towers in the distance as you descend to the bottom of the river valley. The shuttle to Freedom Ford holds the same experience for drivers as they pass by Balls Cliff and Sand Cliff and distant Tabletop Cliff. This sliver of Wayne County captivates.
The Little South Fork makes a hard bend soon in the float and the deep water holds spotted bass. The stream bends left after flowing over a shallow shoal strewn with small boulders. The transitional water from shallow to deep is a good spot to try the 4-inch black finesse worm for smallmouth or spotted bass.
A gorgeous bluff soon meets the eye as the river bends left and enters a long stretch of mid-depth. The stream then bends back hard right and into a deep hole that holds spotted bass. After another shallow stretch, the Little South Fork flows into a long, deep hole lined with car-sized boulders, just upstream of the shoal that makes Freedom Ford.
The take-out is on the left. If you reach a suspension footbridge, you’ve gone too far.
A float on the Little South Fork would be an excellent choice to see fall colors and can be combined with a weekend of boating on nearby Lake Cumberland.
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.
Wayne County Tourism:
Author Lee McClellan is an award-winning associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is a life-long hunter and angler, with a passion for smallmouth bass fishing.