While most people would quickly name bourbon and horse racing/breeding if asked what business sectors drive Kentucky’s economic engine, outdoor recreation also is a key player – with more participants and likely a bigger dollar impact.
The latest report by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), published summer 2017, demonstrates the powerful impact outdoor recreation has on Kentucky’s economy. It contributes 120,000 jobs, generates $12.5 billion in consumer spending and $756 million in state and local tax revenue annually.
OIA’s report estimates 61 percent of the state’s 4.44 million residents participate in outdoor recreation each year, many of those in boating and fishing.
Kentucky has more navigable waters than any state except Alaska. One commonwealth marina has the single largest number of docked houseboats in the nation.
Boulder, Colo.-based OIA is the leading trade association for the outdoor industry and says it arrived at its figures for Kentucky and other states with a study to represent the U.S. population on the basis of gender, age, education and race.
Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) estimates wildlife-related recreation produces a total economic impact of $5.98 billion per year.
Jim Strader, 69, a self-described “professional outdoorsman” who has hosted “Jim Strader Outdoors” on 840 WHAS radio for over 40 years (Sunday nights, 6-8 p.m.), says the popularity of Kentucky’s outdoor opportunities doesn’t just apply to residents.
“Outdoor recreation in Kentucky is part of our heritage, and we’re being recognized nationally as a great destination for nature lovers,” Strader said. “That not only includes hunters and fishermen, but those who enjoy a quality outdoor experience. I’ve traveled all over North and South America, and coming home I never fail to realize how beautiful and diverse Kentucky really is.”
Not all outdoor recreation is tourism, but it is a big reason that Kentucky’s tourism-industry sector keeps climbing in economic impact – more than $15 billion in 2017, according to the most recent figures available from Frankfort.
Lots of water … and fishing
There is an amazing diversity of fish in Kentucky, Strader said. You’ll discover hard-fighting smallmouth bass (Kentucky is home to one of the world’s largest populations of smallmouth bass), striped bass, blue catfish, shellcrackers, muskellunge, crappie and more. In Kentucky, it’s possible to catch three species of trout, then trailer your boat a short distance to tie into some largemouth bass, walleye and spotted bass.
Kentucky’s mountains and undulating terrain spawn a wealth of water. There are more than 62,000 miles of fishable streams and 40 public lakes exceeding 100 acres, along with more than 850 public and private boat ramps that offer access to prime fishing spots. To help keep fishing great, Kentucky stocks 7 million fish a year and actively manages sport and commercial fish populations across the state.
“Through a voluntary tournament schedule system, the department recorded more than 460 fishing tournaments last year on Kentucky waters,” said Kevin Kelly, information specialist for KDFWR. “We think the total number of fishing tournaments held each year on Kentucky waters is probably closer to 1,000.”
“Kentucky’s natural beauty and outdoor opportunities have allowed adventure tourism to continue to grow across the state,” Kentucky Department of Tourism Commissioner Kristen Branscum said. “More visitors are looking to explore and get outside as part of their vacations in a world that is screen-driven. Kentucky has limitless outdoor recreation in all parts of the state and in communities big and small, urban and rural.”
Houseboat Capital of the World
The recreational boating sector alone has an annual economic impact of $1.7 billion in Kentucky, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, supporting 401 businesses and more than 8,700 jobs. NMMA reports the state has 173,344 registered boats and $243 million in annual sales of new boats, engines and accessories.
Kentucky’s showcase outdoor recreation spot is Lake Cumberland, a massive body of water that covers parts of five counties in the south-central part of the state and features limestone bluffs and shoreline forest. At the maximum possible elevation of water, the jagged shoreline of Lake Cumberland is 1,255 miles, almost twice as long as the coastline of Florida, not including islands, at 770 miles.
“It’s a monster,” Strader said. “And very few places are prettier. People from surrounding states like Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee have always found Lake Cumberland to be an unbelievable recreational destination.”
In 2014, Gov. Steve Beshear signed a resolution designating Kentucky the Houseboat Capital of the World because the commonwealth has the greatest concentration of houseboat manufacturers in the world.
In 2016, Gov. Matt Bevin renamed the U.S. 90 bridge across Lake Cumberland connecting Wayne and Pulaski counties the Houseboat Capital of the World Bridge. The other counties on the lake are Clinton, McCreary and Russell. (In high water times, such as February’s all-time peak, the lake can also reach into Laurel County, but there are no marinas or services there).
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Lake Cumberland was filled with water in December 1950, and was constructed primarily for flood control and the production of hydroelectric power at a cost of about $80.4 million. The reservoir ranks 9th in the U.S. in size with a capacity of 6,089,000 acre-feet – roughly 1.9 trillion gallons.
Heavy rains and flooding elevated Lake Cumberland to record levels early this year, creating a major test for Wolf Creek Dam, which underwent major repairs five years ago at a cost of $594 million after being designated as one of the nation’s dams most at risk of catastrophic failure. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the dam functioned normally during the flooding with no signs of problems.
During dam repairs from 2007-2013, Lake Cumberland’s water levels were lowered dramatically to more than 40 feet below the normal full pool of 723 feet above sea level. But on Feb. 26 of this year, the lake reached a new pool record of 756.52 feet, breaking the previous mark of 751.69 feet set in May 1984.
Cumberland’s habitat improves
Water levels then began to recede, but a return to seasonal levels is expected to take months as the Corps of Engineers continues to release significant amounts of water at Wolf Creek Dam in order to regain storage capacity in the lake. As of mid-March, the lake’s elevation was 741.56 and falling, and 47.2 percent of the flood-control pool was being utilized. The lake’s normal summer pool is 710 feet.
Jeff Ross, an assistant director of fisheries for KDFWR, said several fishing tournaments on Lake Cumberland were forced to cancel because of high water, but the overall impact was minimal.
“The bad conditions for fishing, with cold and muddy water, happened at a time of year not the most conducive to fishing,” Ross said.
Dave Dreves, another KDFWR assistant director, said the same is true of boating on the lake.
“As Lake Cumberland continues going down, woody debris, such as logs and tree tops, finds its way to the bank” and is left there by receding water, he said. “Conditions should be fine by the time boating season starts in May.”
The lake’s years-long low water levels during dam repairs likely improved fishing.
“It created better habitat for the fish,” Strader said. “It created a lot more (now underwater) cover, which increases the survival of young fish and adds nutrients to the water. So the drawdown proved to be beneficial.”
Fishing tourneys like Kentucky’s lakes
The latest statistics from the marketing department of Fish and Wildlife showed 554,000 participating anglers in Kentucky, generating a $1.2 billion impact annually. It also showed 1.2 million boating participants, generating $1.9 billion. All outdoor recreation is responsible for $6 billion per year. About 13 percent of licensing and permit sales are from nonresidents.
The largest section of the lake is in Russell County, which has five large commercial marinas. Janette Marson, director of tourism for the Lake Cumberland Tourist Commission (Russell County), said Lake Cumberland State Dock in Jamestown has the largest collection of houseboats in one location in the country.
“Tourism in the Lake Cumberland area is on the rise, growing annually,” Marson said. “Boaters are gaining momentum each year, and marinas keep adding additional boats to their fleets. There are more and more fishing tournaments, and guides stay busy year-round.”
She added that the area also boasts a one-of-a-kind trout stream in Hatchery Creek, which flows into the Cumberland River near the Wolf Creek Dam and has produced state record-setting catches of every type of trout.
“People tell me that the stream rivals anything in Colorado and the western portions of the U.S.,” Marson said.
Kentucky’s lakes have been a favorite destination in recent years for various tournaments sponsored by Bassmaster, recognized as the worldwide authority on bass fishing since 1968.
The organization’s last Bassmaster Elite Series was held on Kentucky Lake in May of 2018, with 110 anglers competing.
In August of last year, the Mossy Oak Fishing High School championship presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods attracted 328 two-angler teams, each accompanied by a “coach” to drive their boats.
High school championships were also held on Kentucky Lake in 2016-17, consisting of 175 and 230 teams, respectively, and there was a Bassmaster Team Championship there in 2016, drawing 188 boats.
“Kentucky and Barkley lakes are big fisheries where our competitors can spread out and avoid crowds of other fishermen,” said Dave Precht, vice president of communications for Bassmaster. “And those lakes have historically produced great catches.”
No major events are scheduled in Kentucky this year, but Precht said they will return in future years.
Outdoor fun is serious business
Of course, Lake Cumberland offers a lot more than fishing and boating. The bustling area has hiking, horseback riding, golfing and swimming, along with seasonal festivals and other events. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 4 million people visit Lake Cumberland per year, with an economic impact that the Kentucky Department of Tourism puts at $268.3 million for 2017, the last year for which figures are available.
The state’s lush, green, well-watered countryside makes for good hunting also. An estimated 347,000 people hunt each year in Kentucky, generating a $1.5 billion impact. Kentucky’s total deer harvest in 2018 was 145,753, the second-most since 1999, behind the record 155,734 in 2015.
Hank Phillips, president and CEO of the Kentucky Travel Industry Association and former deputy commissioner for the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism, is fond of saying that “the reality of tourism (is that) it’s not just something that’s fun; in fact, it is a very serious business.”
Russ Brown is a correspondent for The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected]