Upper Rockcastle Canoe Trip
by John Kirkland
April 21-22, 2012 (225 CFS, 2.5 Feet)
A couple of years ago, some friends started talking about canoeing the Rockcastle River. The plan was to do an overnight trip, and fish along the way. Last spring, we planned the trip, prepared all the pieces and parts necessary, and watched the rainy weather carefully. Ultimately, we scrapped the trip at the last minute due to heavy rain. It was a smart decision—the river frequently rises 5-25 feet after heavy rain. The thought of going to sleep after a day on the peaceful river and waking up to a raging torrent ripping through the treetops didn’t sound too great.
This year, we planned to try again, cautious about the weather. The two weeks before the trip saw almost no rain; the ground was dry, and the water levels very low. Having studied the rain gauges and water flow measurements on USGS, I knew that ½ inch of rain would raise the river 3-5 feet, which was still an acceptable level as far as we were concerned.
The morning of the planned trip, we woke to pouring rain, and called it off. A couple of hours later, we looked at the weather and the gauge online, and noticed that the rain was supposed to go away. The rainfall had not affected the levels at all, being so dry to begin with. Calls were made, and the six of us met at the rally point.
With a late start, we opted to shuttle the cars upon take out versus put in, saving two hours of daylight for the first day. We launched from a friend’s property, a bit downstream from the I-75 bridge and Rockcastle Trading Company (the trading company is a popular put in spot). Our take out was 8 miles down below 1956 Bridge at Billows ($5 put in/take out, shuttles may be available).
The river is beautiful, wild, and scenic. It was mostly running 1-3 feet deep when I was there. Green water, limestone, spring green trees…air temps were about 50 degrees or cooler, but comfortable. We lolled along for a few hours, fishing, trash talking, laughing, navigating the occasional class I rapids, which made things a little interesting, but never enough to be a threat. We were looking for a campsite about 2 miles from our launch, and in no hurry to get there.
I started throwing a brown/orange crawfish colored grub, jigging the bottom. One half-hearted nibble, nothing more. I switched to a rainbow patterned holographic spinner, and quickly hooked a small rock bass (redeye, in local dialect; we called them goggle eyes as a kid). A few minutes later, I hooked a good size redeye—about a pound. He went on the stringer (we had already decided to keep a few for dinner). My friend threw a chartreuse spinner, and caught a couple of small redeye and one nicer one, which we also kept. I caught a couple of smallish smallmouths, and tossed them back. When approaching the shallows before the rapids, the prized, fabled smallmouths of the river were visible, and fantastically large. At one point we saw perhaps a dozen measuring 18-24 inches, and looking heavy (3-5 pounds?). They saw us as well, and quickly showed us how they managed to grow so big (don’t get caught).
Around 5:30, we started looking for a landing. After passing a few candidates, we found a spot with a small beach and gentle slope up to a flat, grassy bank. We offloaded, pitched camp above, and started a fire by the water below. One of the guys in the group, renowned for his camp cooking, began setting up a grate and makeshift kitchen. An hour later, we ate grilled chicken & vegetables, foil wrapped rock bass, stuffed pasta, and garlic bread. After dinner, he cored six apples, put caramels in the centers, wrapped them in foil, and set them next to the fire. The meal was awesome, in the middle of nowhere, and by a camp fire.
We woke to a cool, windy, and overcast morning. Our iron chef scrambled eggs with salsa, sizzled bacon, sausage, and fresh jalapenos on the grill, and served it up with cheese, wrapped in a tortilla. Brilliant. Stuffed, fortified, and ready, we struck camp and pushed off to finish the trip.
Boulders, cliffs, caves, and deep green holes punctuated the remainder of the trip. I threw the rainbow spinner, but no action. I switched to a black/orange mepps fury spinner, and a decent rock bass hit quickly. A short time later, a baby smallmouth took the bait—he went back in easily.
Close to 2PM, we rounded the corner and saw the bridge and take out, marked with a large “STOP” sign. The take out is steep and slick, but in this wild river basin, there are very few places that aren’t at a steep angle. There is an area where cars could be parked. We called the friend who owns the place where we put in—20 minutes away, by “short cut”, 40 minutes on actual roads. Of course, we opted for the short cut.
I can’t begin to describe the exact route, but we turned onto Lower river road, followed pavement to a creek, crossed over, followed a gravel road to another creek, crossed, followed a stream bed, over some hills, through another creek, over some hills, across another creek, up a gravel road, and back onto pavement. About 8 miles, I think. The road could also take you back to Rockcastle Trading Company, if you know the route. Or it could lead you to an early demise, a broken axel, a nice LONG hike out of nowhere…any number of “adventures”. On this day, we managed to cross over intact.
We strapped the boats on top of the SUVs, and headed toward US 80, not far away. I got on 80, and got up to speed. There is one thing that you really worry about when driving with a boat attached to the top of your vehicle: driving down a highway, and suddenly losing the boat. Low and behold, this is exactly what happened to me.
Cruising at 60 MPH, no warning, no sound, BOOM THUD THUD…canoe dangling, horizontally, behind my Jeep. I pulled off as quickly as I could. The rear rack was on the shoulder 20 feet away, the canoe hanging by a single cord, horizontal, off the back of the Jeep. The rail had given way and bent out of shape, releasing the rack. I cut the cord, the canoe dropped, unhurt. Stuck on a highway, 85 miles from home, with a mangled rack system…bad situation. A nice old fellow in a truck with a “Retired” plate on the front stopped to help, thankfully. I reattached the rack—it wasn’t hurt, further up the twisted rail. We loaded the boat, and I strapped and tied in multiple places, as secure as possible. I took smaller roads home, and kept it under 50 MPH. The Jeep sustained a few good dents, scratches, and a broken rear wiper, along with the mangled rails.
The canoe trip, fishing, camping and food were great. Hanging out with friends was great. Trip home—obviously terrible, but I was lucky that the incident didn’t cause a serious wreck. I though I had done everything right, and was careful to double check connections. I didn’t expect the metal to give way on the rails; oh well.
The Rockcastle is a beautiful, wild river, not too far from Lexington. With some planning, access in and out can be arranged. There are no amenities, no real roads, just wild river and banks. It is beautiful and remote, but nearby still. This was one of those trips that will occupy clear memories in my life; a person like me will have a handful of those in a lifetime, so I cherish these trips. The status of my technical ability to get back out in that capacity is up in the air at the moment; some repairs and reworked methods will have to be figured out first. I’m definitely looking forward to the next adventure, though.
Stream Gauge information for the Rockcastle River here.
Jim Honchell 606-864-9407, Rockcastle Canoe Advenures Livery service (I believe this is his number)