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Spring 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 couple times.

     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 asking though.

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 think:

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 Ultimate 14.5.

     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.



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