About two hours and some change outside of Lexington, Kentucky, is a pretty famous lake called Cumberland. Out of the 383 lakes controlled or maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Cumberland is ranked 4th in the country for number of visitor hours. Its popularity speaks for itself, and I had heard plenty of tales about its legendary waters.
Of course, legendary comes in many shapes and forms. I was a student at the University of Kentucky at the time, and my focus was on tales of great striped bass and trout fishing that didn’t sound like it was too far away from me. Amidst the drinking and partying (and studying) of college life, I figured I should get out there at least once. I mean, I really wanted to go.
Finally, after talking about it for months, my buddy and I finally decided to make the trek and check it out. We had no idea what we were getting in to. None.
Lake Cumberland is famous, yes, for fishing and recreation, but it is also home to some of the most incredible, most expensive, and most unbelievable houseboats in the coutnry.
It’s a big, recreational houseboating lake. It’s got some of the most famous, expensive, and unbelievable houseboats in the country. And it’s not just that these houses looked bigger and nicer than many of the places I’d seen or lived in on land. No, we were also stunned by the sheer number of them, like some sort of ancient Greek fleet. I have no way of knowing how many we saw that day, but according to one statistic, Lake Cumberland is home to over 1,500 houseboats alone. 1,500. Say nothing of powerboats and sailboats.
Fortunately, we were just some broke college kids looking for an adventure, and it felt kind of fitting to run into these floating mansions out on the water we could probably never hope to afford. I tried briefly to calculate how the cost of one of those boats might stack up against the student loans my friends and I were piling up to get through school, but that was a short-lived thought. I was there to fish, not to get myself bummed out on math.
Unfortunately, however, we learned that catching stripers required a boat. The best times were very early in the morning, way out on the deep waters, or late afternoons at the very least. My buddy and I stood there on the dock, staring around at these sweeping vistas of clear water and lush, leafy trees. The houseboats floated along out on the waters like giant swans, drifting in total peace. Half of them at water slides sticking off the top, hanging out over the water, and in the distance we could see tiny figures shooting out in cannonballs and flips before splashing down.
Landlocked and just a little jealous, we figured we might just fish from the dock a little and try our luck. We were novices on that lake and open to trying new things, so we found one particular marina where we could actually see some bass swimming around. They almost looked tame or docile, probably used to having food thrown in by tourists visiting the marina. Easy pickings, we figured.
Except, no fishing was allowed from the dock. I was steaming mad! We turned and walked right off the dock and started casting from the nearby shoreline instead, trying to reach the bass we’d seen. I was using a spinner bait, and really had no idea how effective it would be. Sometimes it’s better to set low expectations.
And I was rewarded. A largemouth came out from the docks moving fast. He had to be 8 lbs or so, which is a little uncommon for that area. I just stared through the clear waters as he totally annihilated my spinner. Finally!
In my excitement, though, I yanked hard.
I ripped the bait right out of his mouth.
The water was so clear, I could see the whole thing happen. And then I watched him swim away. Any angler will know this to be true — you remember the ones you lose more often than the ones you catch. I’m still kicking myself over that one, still haunted by it.
On the way back to school we kind of laughed about it all, what a bizarre experience we’d had at Lake Cumberland. The floating mansions definitely stuck out the most, and we cracked up thinking about those docile bass just floating by the marina, waiting for food. But my mind kept going back to that largemouth who struck so fast, and how my emotions got the better of me as I yanked the spinner out.
I probably should’ve spent more time there when I was in school, out there on this quintessential jewel of Kentucky and one of the top lakes in the country. I guess I’ll just have to go back, maybe with my family to rent a stunning houseboat and live up the life I witnessed back when I was young, dumb, and poor. Or maybe I’ll never go back, and they can both just hang over my head for the rest of my life. I’ll stay haunted by the fish that got away, and the stunning lake that did too.