Smallies on the French Broad River
"I'm taking the kids
to Disney World, but you can't go with us", my wife informed me over
dinner one night. On one hand, I was a little disappointed that this was a
moms-and-kids-only trip to the Magic Kingdom, but on the other hand it
freed me up for a weekend of fishing on the French Broad River in western
North Carolina. Everything took place on such short notice that I was
unable to secure a fishing partner for the weekend, but I wasn't about to
let that deter me. After work on Thursday, I loaded up the boat and camper
and headed North. I stayed at the French Broad River Campground near
Woodfin, and found it to be a great home base for the weekend.
The view from my campsite
The next morning, I
set out to try and catch some smallmouth on a section of the French Broad
downstream (which is north- the French Broad flows north) of Asheville.
The plan was to hop into the river and wade/fish/paddle my way upstream
and then float back to the truck. Well, I found out pretty quickly that
the wading and paddling parts were gonna be a little tricky. Most of the
French Broad north of Asheville looks a lot like the picture above. Lots
of rocks and lots of current. Underneath the water, the terrain is not any
smoother. You can be in two feet of water, take a step, and float your
hat. I never did this, but I did have water come in over my waders a
All this rock and current makes
getting upstream difficult, but it also makes great smallmouth habitat. I
made it less than a mile upstream in a pretty full day of fishing and
never once found myself without a good-looking place to cast. There are
literally tons of eddies, deep runs, and nice pools in which to cast.
There are lots of smallmouth here, too. The conventional wisdom holds that
the French Broad doesn't really get going until summer kicks in, but I was
able to catch 20 or so once I figured out what they wanted.
Lots of these guys
Most of the smallies I caught were this size (8-10 inches) or smaller. I
caught this guy early on a big spinnerbait, which led me to believe I
might be able to catch more that way. No such luck. Eventually, I switched
to a green 4-inch finesse worm and things picked up a bit. Like I
mentioned earlier, this section of river is so wide and has so many rocks,
holes, and hiding places that I'll bet there are smallies in here that die
from old age without seeing a lure.
Yes, I did make a few casts here while admiring the scenery. Thanks for
This was my largest fish of the day. Fat, mean, and healthy.
All told, I was pretty happy to catch a lot of bass on an unfamiliar
river, but I wish more could have been the size of the one pictured above.
There is a world of difference in the ferocity and fighting ability of a
14-inch smallie versus the 9-inchers I was catching. My theory (remember,
I've fished here once- I'm an expert!) is that there are plenty of nice
smallies north of Asheville, they are just harder to catch because they
could be in a million different places. It's a little different story
farther upstream, however.
The next day, I
decided to head upstream (south of Asheville) and see if I could do any
good. I had scouted out a place that looked wadeable so I hopped in the
water at about 8 AM and got to it. Well, the wading was much, much easier
than downstream, but the smallie habitat appeared far worse. See what you
Okay, where do I cast?
This section is a completely different animal. First, the likely
fish-holding areas aren't obvious, especially to a newcomer. The riverbed
here is also very smooth and uniformly only a foot or two deep in most
places. After wading around for a while, I had just about concluded that
there were no smallmouth in this section of river nor would there ever be.
But there are some gentle depressions in this area. Unfortunately, I found
most of them by wading through them all the while thinking "Dang. If there
were any smallies here, they are trying to dodge my feet."
My hopes were raised a little when I lost a nice 12-incher on a 4-inch
worm. After repeated casts into the area went unmolested, I waded into the
area to see why a smallmouth would hang out here but seemingly nowhere
else in the area. Sure enough, the bottom gradually dropped a couple feet
in that one little area. There were no big rocks or any type of
traditional current break, just a gentle depression. That was enough to
hold a good fish. Soon, I was able to spot a couple similar areas, but no
bites were forthcoming. Then, as I was making my way back to the truck,
this nice little smallie came out of another subtle hole.
Solid French Broad smallmouth
I was starting to feel a little better about the area when I noticed a
fisherman launching a fishing pontoon. I waded over and introduced myself
to John Carl. After chatting for a few minutes, we decided to run a
shuttle and float down to the next access point a few miles downstream.
After leaving a vehicle downstream, we were soon heading downstream
ourselves, John Carl in his pontoon and me in my Native Watercraft
I wish I could say we tore into
the fish, but that would be a lie. John Carl and I both lost fish (mine
was pretty nice- it broke off a tube on the hookset) but we didn't get too
many bites for the next four hours. I caught a nice rock bass and a
12-incher on my big spinnerbait while John Carl was having no luck
whatsoever on grubs, tubes, and Senkos. I stuck mainly with the
spinnerbait while John Carl stuck with his finesse baits. At about 3 PM,
John Carl caught his first smallie of the day on a Senko.
John Carl beats away the skunk!
Now I should probably stop here and describe how John Carl fishes this
stretch of river. The water we were fishing was mostly flat, shallow, and
featureless like farther upstream. John Carl knows where all the little
subtle depressions are and that's where he concentrates his efforts. He
has rigged an anchor from old chains that he drops down whenever he
reaches a likely spot and he fishes it thoroughly. I was pretty much
casting everywhere as I drifted downstream, meaning that most of my casts
weren't going anywhere near a bass. Farther downstream (where I fished
yesterday), it would take John Carl all day to fish 100 yards since there
are so many likely spots. Not here though. He has the perfect boat for
this section of river and has adapted his techniques to best match the
water he fishes.
John Carl doing his thing
Pretty soon, John Carl was into a fish every five minutes. He was catching
most of them on a Senko rigged "wacky-style" on a circle hook (this is
simply running a circle hook into and out of the center of the bait). I
asked John Carl about this and he said that he often fails to dtect the
initial strike, and the circle hook insures that the fish don't swallow
the hook. Pretty soon, John Carl had me set up with the same rig and was
coaching me how to fish it properly. It's a technique somewhat akin to
nymphing with a flyrod: just try and let it float downstream near the
bottom with no action whatsoever. Pretty soon, I was getting strikes, but
having trouble hooking up. As most saltwater fishermen know, you don't
rear back on the hookset with circle hooks. You just start reeling, and
the hook almost always finds the corner of the fish's mouth.
Hey, are those rain clouds behind you?
Just as I was starting to gain confidence in this new (to me, anyway)
smallie technique, the skies opened and we got absolutely soaked. Paddling
out during the downpour, I couldn't remember ever getting caught in such a
heavy downpour. Needless to say, the last twenty minutes of our float
weren't much fun!
It was great getting to actually
float the river, especially with someone as nice and knowledgeable as John
Carl. I learned a lot about this section of the French Broad, about
reading water, and came away with a new technique I can add to my
repertoire (I still need lots of practice, however!). John Carl was a
gracious host and a very patient instructor. He fishes hard, too! We
didn't catch very many fish, but they averaged around 12 inches, which was
much larger than what I was catching the day prior.
In my opinion, the smallie habitat is much
better downstream. There are zillions of great places for smallies to hang
out downstream, and only a few good places upstream. Maybe the presence of
muskies, which live upstream, can account for this. Perhaps the muskies
eat some of the smaller bass, leaving more food for the larger bass. Or
maybe I just caught the downstream section on a day when the big ones
weren't hitting. Who knows? I do know that the French Broad is a cool
river: big, quick water throughout that requires patience and versatility
on the part of the angler. Hopefully I can get back up there soon and see
if I've learned anything.