OK, so here's proof that in Clay County
our fish tails are not just fish tales
By Charles House
Look at that photo up there on the right, and let me tell you a story. When I was about 12 years old I got a new spinning rod and reel and made my way from our house on Maple Street in Manchester a couple of hundred yards or so down to the confluence of Little Goose and Goose Creek, across from where Rawling and Stinson Park is now situated, well within the city limits. In other words, not the most promising spot to try out a spiffy new fishing rig. That would be where? Over yonder at Lake Cumberland would be the better bet; everyone knew where to fish for real fish. When it came to fishing in shallow mountain streams, that meant in North Carolina or up north somewhere, where the water runs cold and draws fishing magazine writers like flies. Not in Clay County, certainly, where no one ever heard of real honest sport fishing (unless you considered seining for suckers sport), where about the best you could hope for while casting would be a strike from a redeye or, maybe, a big bluegill. Big? Yeah, right. But then I didn't live in North Carolina or in Minnesota, and I was too young to drive to Lake Cumberland. That left me with one option: slow moving, shallow, decidedly unexotic Little Goose, not even a good hillbilly stand-in for one of those lofty sport fishing streams you read about.
So there I was then, on the south bank of Little Goose opposite the (present day) park, listening to the coal trucks rumble on the bridge above me and a summer baseball game in progress at Ramsey Ball Park on the other side, comtemplating the futility I was about to experience in casting out a fancy chrome spoon jig into the riffling waters of the shoal where Little Goose empties into Big Goose. Using an artificial lure in a Clay County stream was pretentious, I knew, but then I had this spinning rig Daddy had given me and impaling a worm at the end of it just didn't seem sporting. Or maybe I was just goofing off; hooking up with a sporting fish was not part of the game plan by any stretch of the imagination. Besides, who ever heard of a sporting fish in Goose Creek, home to the redeye, the bluegill and the sucker, smallish little boogers you ate for supper and gave nary a thought to otherwise. Oh, there were those big "jacks" you'd see every now and then. Daddy brought a couple home, monster fish too big to fit in a wash tub. But then they weren't like real fish were they? Clay Countians got them in one of two ways: standing on a swinging bridge over the Red Bird and shooting them with a rifle, or seining them out of Goose Creek, usually by "sportsmen" well stoked against the fear on moonshine. Who'd ever heard of fishing for them? And what were they, anyway. You didn't eat them.
But, back to Little Goose. I remember very clearly not only that day, and that spot, but the actual moment when I raised the tip of the rod upwards and behind me and, while releasing the line with my forefinger, casting out in to the shoal . . . a stupid gesture if ever there was one, right? The creek was so low that not even a bluegill could swim there. All I could expect to catch was a rock.
Then the flash. Though it has been all of fifty-five years, the flash is tatooed on my brain. I don't remember what I had for breakfast this morning, or even if I had breakfast. But that flash, one of the iconic images of my life, will follow me, pleasantly I'm sure, to the other side. It'll go in the ground with me. It may be the last image to flash before my eyes. It . . . . well, let's not get carried away. Anyway, it wasn't the flash of the shiny spoon; it was another thing, a sort of atavistic something out of the corner of my consciousness that appeared a split second -- maybe a hundredth of a second -- before the spoon hit the water, and before I had time to process this thing totally outside my experience, there was a muskie hooked on my pretentious artificial lure and I, like the fish, was hooked.
Years later I was down on the South Fork and came up on a group of well-oiled "sportsmen" who had been seining in the river below the old school house at Cedar Valley, near the mouth of Newfound. Grease was already sizzling in the skillet as the guys started emptying the net of the usual suspects: suckers, redeyes, small (not smallmouth) bass and the like . . . . and one small muskie. What are you going to do with that muskie? I asked, hoping they'd let me ease it back into the South Fork. "Huh?" they said. "That gar?"
Ah, I was a grown man, and had come back home to Manchester from the service before I met anyone who knew that "jacks" and "gars" (so some, at least) and such were actually the lordly Muskelunge, the wiley muskie of outdoor lore, the top of the heap in sporting fish in America, one of the grandest trophies a fisherman can hope for in this life, and a fish thought to be anywhere BUT in Clay County Kentucky. Turned out this friend was well acquainted with the muskie and had made something of a passion of fishing for them in Goose Creek and Collins Fork of that creek. But his was a lonely sport; the muskie fishing brotherhood in Clay County was an extemely exclusive club. By that time, the mid sixties, people seemed pretty much to have given up on most any kind of fishing in local waters, much less for sport fish.
Years later I was employed in writing a fishing guide for Laurel County, which has, rest assured, a well-earned reputation for some fine fishing venues at places like Wood Creek Lake, Laurel Lake, and Lake Cumberland, near London Dock. I covered all that, of course, but I found myself out amongst the streams all over the county, testing the waters for all manner of fish one usually didn't fish for with small tackle. And I had a bit of luck, and wrote about it with relish. But there was always that day in the the back of my mind, that day back about 1955 when I hooked up with that muskie (albeit a baby one) that can be said in a way to have changed my life. There is some lively action in some of those Laurel County streams from rock bass and smallmouths, and there's even walleye and rainbow trout. But there's no muskie in any of those streams, and knowing that, it just wasn't as exciting as it ought to have been. To have that kind of excitement in the mountains of Kentucky, it turns out, you have to come to Clay County. And you don't have to venture far from the Hal Rogers parkway, either. Amazingly enough, there is world class muskie fishing to be had within the City Limits of fair Manchester, and to facilitate it, the city has recently built two fine concrete boat ramps -- one at Rawlings and Stinson Park on the north side of town, one at Riverside Park on the south side.
Whether sport fishermen will take advantage of this unexpected resource, or if it will remain the best kept secret in Kentucky remains to be seen. I for one have mixed emotions about it; I like to share my passion with the rest of the fishing fraternity, but then, I kind of like our Clay County muskie remaining anonymous. I'm not worried about overfishing. That won't happen -- this is too far off the beaten path. And even if it weren't, catching a muskie is not like catching a bass. It is an extremely hard thing to do, even for the skillful. So either way -- if they remain a secret or not -- our muskie have nothing to fear. But it's nice knowing they're there, in numbers that by all accounts make Clay County's Red Bird River and Goose Creek two of the top muskie streams in the world, and that gives us some bragging rights we don't mind trumpeting.
John Williams, a biologist with the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Department came to Clay County to see what kind of sport fish we had lurking in our waters. As these photos show, what he found may turn out to be the biggest surprise in Kentucky fishing circles. On the left he displays two giant bass taken from Bert T. Combs Lake, at the City of Manchester's Bert T. Combs Recreation Park. In the center photo he is holding a giant drum taken from the South Fork of the Kentucky River below Oneida. At right he is holding the biggest trophy of all, the lordly muskie, champion of the sport fishing world, taken from Goose Creek near Manchester. Just so you know, all these fish were returned to the water. We would hope that you do the same if you come. Click for MUCH more!
So, how do you catch a muskie?
Well, as the article at left suggests, you need to be someone from outside the county. We Clay Countians for the most part don't seem to recognize that they exist. Oh, there's some around who know all about the storied fish (actually, we have muskie tournaments right in town), but they play their cards close to their vests. So, if you're from, say, Lexington, or Bowling Green or somesuch, and you've got a hankering to take on one of America's greatest sport fish in its native streams, here's what you do:
You drive to London, take the Hal Rogers Parkway to Manchester, get a room at the Best Western or the Rocking Chair Inn, then get up in the morning and drive one whopping mile to one of TWO city boat ramps on Goose Creek, launch your jon boat and . . . fish!
Yes, they're that close. Right in the City of Manchester. World class fishing. Make sure you bring BIG lures. Our muskies laugh at that stuff you buy at WalMart.
What? You don't fish?
Not to worry. We've got a little bit of everything for the outdoors man and woman. Check out Bert T. Combs Recreation and RV Park about 3.5 miles northeast of Manchester for a real visual, spiritual, and family fun treat. You can bring your horses and ride the trails up on the ridges that circle the beautiful park and campground. The park is a real gem of the Daniel Boone National Forest, and has a large swimming pool, large shelters for family gatherings, tennis and basketball courts, nature watching at the adjacent lake (for you non fishertypes) and enough woodsy ambience to last you until your next vacation.
If you're a bit more ambitious, hang a left at the "Big Hickory Golf" sign on Beech Creek Road on the way to Bert Combs park and treat yourself to one of the most beautiful golf courses in the United States (no, that's not hyperbole; we've had people challenge the statement only to agree with us when they get there). Click here to find out more.
For you ATV daredevils, hightail it up to Goose Rock to the D & K Off Road Park and get some serious mud on your tires. Take the Hal Rogers Parkway to the Manchester exit and turn towards Manchester (North). Go to the first stop light turn right, then go 7 miles on 421, then turn right onto 1524, then go 1.6 miles turn right on Hubbard road stay right, road dead ends at park and track entrance.
You just like to watch?
OK, we have a lion's share of wildlife to watch, from deer coming out of the woodwork along most of the county's rural highways (they're all rural, actually), wild turkey everywhere you turn, and big, no nonsense-looking Elk along highway 66 that follows the Red Bird River.
If even that is too taxing, our Redbud watching season is hard to beat, and before you get tired of those misnamed beauties (they're more purple than red) there's the lovely dogwoods followed not long after by gaudy "sarvis" which lights up the county fence rows like fire. Then its summer, and you'll be hard pressed to find more beautiful scenery than along Clay County's roads, from Brightshade to Oneida, Pigeon Roost to Big Creek and everywhere in between.
And then, to add the crowning glory to your watching, you might just decide to try a little fishing afterall. I mean, where are you going to find anything that matches those photos at the top of this page? Just don't try for muskie - they're for serious fishing folk only!
Click for other wild life