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Smallies on the South Fork

Mack with an average-sized South Fork smallmouth

    The conventional wisdom among river smallmouth anglers says that river smallies like to hang out in areas in or near current with deep water nearby. My buddy Mack and I had fished three or four textbook-looking smallie areas and only one of them had produced for us at all. Mack and I were throwing small buzzbaits and bottom-bumping soft plastics in these areas and literally beat them to death with very little success. In between these rocky shoal areas that appeared to be perfect habitat for river smallmouth were areas that didn't look like they ought to hold any fish at all. They were either uniformly shallow, or deep with little or no current.

    "If we aren't catching fish in these good-looking spots then today is gonna be really tough", I remember thinking to myself. Of course Mack, as usual, was doing better than I was in the fishy-looking water. Mack had a 1/8 ounce black buzzbait that the smallies really seemed to like, and he also managed a few by quickly hopping a 4-inch Texas-rigged purple worm through the eddies and runs. The fishing was still rather slow for Mack and pretty darn bad for me.

Mack and I somehow managed not to catch any fish from this area!

    This was my first trip to the South Fork of the New River in northwestern North Carolina up near the Virginia line. The South Fork and North Fork meet a few miles from the border and form what is arguably the best trophy smallmouth river in the US, but the most popular sections of the New are farther downstream (and north, the New flows the wrong way) in Virginia and West Virginia. For most of it's length, the New is a really big river, but the South Fork is a little more cozy, ranging anywhere from 80 to 200 feet wide. Though not a famous smallmouth destination, the South Fork is supposedly full of smallmouth bass. They just weren't hanging out were they were supposed to be.

    Despite our tepid success, the South Fork is a really nice river. The lower 36 miles are designated Wild and Scenic (despite a good deal of development) and contains some great-looking water. The river gets paddled pretty hard (there are a couple canoe outfitters on the river), but fishing pressure is fairly light. The smallies are used to lots of canoes going by and don't really seem to mind. The river was really low (around 185 cfs and 1.9 feet at the Jefferson gauge), but despite a few bumpy spots was easy to paddle.

    During the morning, we caught some smaller fish on topwater lures and spinnerbaits from some average-looking water, and caught a few more from the first deep hole we saw on soft plastics during a brief drizzle. When we finally reached some really good-looking water with shoals, rocks and eddies we just knew we were about to strike bronze. It really just never happened, possibly because the July sun finally came out or maybe because the fishermen in front of us were catching all the fish. We watched them catch a few, but it really didn't appear they were having any more success than we were. By lunchtime, Mack and I had managed about fifteen little smallies between us and really had no firm idea as to where or how we should try and fish from here on out.

    Growing up as a largemouth bass fisherman, I have learned that when the fish aren't really biting I can normally scratch a few out by simply beating the shady banks and woody cover with a jointed Rapala minnow. I tied on a silver and black J-9 as we floated through a very undistinguished-looking stretch and just started beating the banks. My bank-beating instincts normally serve me poorly when I am after smallmouth bass, as they tend to relate more to rocks and cover than largemouth bass. I've been outfished many times by people who knew that river smallies are just as likely to be in midstream as up by the bank.

This little guy was supposed to be hanging out by that rock in the background. He wasn't. He was hanging by a log in really shallow water next to the bank.

    My decision paid off, however, as the South Fork smallies seemed to have forsaken the shoals for the banks. To put it more accurately, the smallmouth that were feeding were not in the shoals. They were hanging out in the long stretches of straight, skinny, flowing water. I was shocked when I caught three little smallies off a downed tree that couldn't have had more than four inches of water underneath it. When I got hung on said tree, I paddled over and noticed that the water was about twice as deep right on the banks than it was in midstream. Apparently, the smallies were resting under wood in about a foot of water and would could only move a foot or two toward midstream before the water was only inches deep. From about 2 to 3 PM and then again from about 5 to 6 PM, every time I put a cast near wood within inches of the bank I caught a fish.

Another bank-bound, Rapala-caught (and released) smallie

    Between 3 and 5 PM the only thing either of us caught were a couple wild brown trout. Unfortunately, we came upon a shoal area with deep holes, islands, and lots of rocks. You know, classic smallie water. I didn't get a strike for two hours. Mack, however, disappeared up a decent-sized feeder creek. When he finally caught up with me I was literally banging my head against the rocks in frustration. I couldn't catch anything from great water and was steadily catching fish from water I normally wouldn't even cast at. Mack wasn't frustrated at all. He had tied on a small spinner and taken a couple beautiful small browns from the creek.

    Once we got away from the good smallie water, I started catching fish again. Although we saw a few larger smallies in the river, all our fish were 12 inches or less. Toward the end of the float, Mack tied on the small spinner again and proved that last year's spawn was a good one. He must have caught eight smallies between 4 and 6 inches during the last mile of the float.

    All told, we caught and released around thirty smallmouth, a handful of rock bass, one sucker, and two brown trout. We were a tad disappointed that neither of us could muster anything over a pound, but the larger fish simply weren't biting. We were also both mystified at how unproductive the best-looking water was. The few fish we did catch in the shoals were a little bigger, but they just didn't want what we were throwing at them in these areas. Thankfully, the bad water turned out to be good for us and we were able to end the day with some pretty decent numbers.

Sunset

 

 

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