By Don Mallicoat-Every October thousands of people flock to the mountains of western North Carolina to enjoy the crisp air and splendid colors of yellow poplar and red maple leaves that cover the ridgelines. There are craft fairs and other local events to attend. What most people overlook is the excellent fall fishing in local rivers and streams. While most attention is focused on fly-fishing Delayed Harvest Trout waters that begin stocking in October, there are other fishing opportunities. And smallmouth bass fishing on the French Broad only a few miles north of Asheville is some of the best offered.
Although the largemouth bass captures most of the freshwater fishing attention in North Carolina, the smallmouth provides some pretty good action in the mountain waters it inhabits. However, the only habitat that provides the cool, clear water for smallmouth bass in North Carolina is in the mountain lakes and streams. While lakes like Fontana and James in the mountains draw many anglers because of the size of the bronzebacks they offer, often overlooked are the rivers that offer great fishing. Since river structure is more limited, an angler is likely to catch more fish leading to a great day of fast action on the river even though they are not as large as those found in lakes.
With markings similar to its largemouth bass cousin, the smallmouth is most often bronze (thus the nickname) to brownish green with dark vertical bars on its sides. Also, unlike the largemouth the smallmouth’s upper jaw extends only to the middle of its eyes and its dorsal fin is not deeply notched. Smallmouths living in streams primarily eat small fish and crayfish, a favorite part of their diet. They will also eat insects such as hellgrammites.
The French Broad River stretches from its headwaters in Transylvania County north into Tennessee before it empties into Douglas Lake. It is in the higher elevations north of Asheville, with its cool waters fed by mountain streams and rocky shoals that the smallmouth fishing is at its best. There are plenty of places along the river as it parallels roads and highways to stop and either fish from the bank or wade when water levels are normal or low. But anglers limit the area they can cover when choosing this route. The best way to fish the lower stretches of the French Broad is to float the river.
There are a couple of other reasons to fish the French Broad in the fall. First, due to its close proximity to Asheville, there is a lot of traffic in the form of kayaks and canoes on the river during the spring and summer so in the fall you pretty much have the waters to yourself. Another reason to plan a fall trip is because the water temperature is pretty stable allowing fishing throughout the day. Summer temperatures can put a damper on midday fishing. Not so in the fall.
Float fishing tactics are simple: drift down the river, pass through a shoal, and anchor below it to work pocket water on either side of the boat. Lure size is important. Regular largemouth bass baits are oversized for the bass in the relatively shallow waters of the French Broad. Small shallow-running crankbaits are best. And soft baits should be worked on a 1/8 ounce jig head. There are a couple of reasons this tactic is so successful. First, the water below the shoals and riffles is more highly oxygenated and cooler after coming over the rocks. That is the preferred habitat of smallmouth. Secondly, the swift moving water washes baitfish, crayfish, and insects into the pools below the shoals providing a dinner table for predator fish like the smallmouth.
Although lures and other tackle are the same for bass fishing on lakes, the mode of transportation is very different. Instead of huge bass boats, inflatable drift boats and canoes are ideally suited for fishing the French Broad. So before the weather gets too cold you may want to get in a little more fishing and smallies on the French Broad are a great way to do it. If you choose to wade or drift on your own you have a great time. If you don’t have the equipment but want to give it a shot there are guide services out there. I have fished with, and can recommend, Curtis Wright Outfitters, 24 North Main St., Weaverville, NC 28787; 828-645-8700; www.curtiswrightoutfitters.com.