In Search of Smallmouth Bass

While the extreme drought of 2008 was not good for farming, lawns, or landscaping, it brought great opportunities to wade fish the big western North Carolina rivers for smallmouth bass, one of the best fighting game fish around.  The French Broad and Little Tennessee were unusually low and clear making them easy to wade and rock hop to pools that were normally only accessible by boat.  It was not unusual to catch 20-30 fish ranging from 9-16 inches in length during a 4-hour morning or evening trip.  Now that the drought is over and normal flows have returned, folks like me who don’t own a boat or raft have had to find other places to safely wade fish for smallmouth bass.

A nice-sized smallmouth bass

My search for such fishing opportunities has focused on tributaries of the major rivers.  In theFrench BroadRiver basinthis includes the lower portions of the following watersheds:

  • Big Laurel Creek
  • Spring Creek
  • Ivy River
  • Sandymush Creek
  • Swannanoa River
  • Hominy Creek
  • Cane Creek

I have found the quality of the habitat and fishing in these streams to be quite variable.  I was surprised to see, at times, that some of them were cloudier (carrying more suspended sediment) than theFrench Broad River!  Streams flowing from watersheds that are highly developed or containing a lot of agricultural activity have degraded water quality and habitat conditions; whereas those draining watersheds that are primarily forested or having good riparian vegetation are generally clear, even following moderate rains.  My experience has been that turbid streams are harder to fish, producing fewer and somewhat smaller fish although 15+ inch are occasionally caught.  From a biological perspective, this is likely because smallmouth bass are sight feeders; therefore, it is more difficult for them to locate food or see my lures where waters are very cloudy.

A turbid Little Tennessee River

Although some of these watersheds are still degraded, most of them are in better shape than they were 40-50 years ago.  New and better agricultural practices, emphasis on riparian vegetation, control of stormwater, better sewage treatment facilities, and stronger erosion control measures have contributed to improved water quality across the region.  At Equinox, I have worked on several watershed plans that identify improvements that should help this trend continue.  To learn more about watershed planning go to the EPA’s Watershed Academyweb site at

A catch like this is what turns a good fishing day into a great one!

While these smaller streams are easier to wade, high waters from daily thunderstorms can make them unfishable and some pre-planning can eliminate the disappointment of arriving at a stream only to find water levels too high.  Real-time data for streams in North Carolina are available online at the US Geological web site at  In the French Broad River flow data are available for Ivy River, Swannanoa River, and Mills River as well as several locations on the mainstem of the French Broad River.  A few trips relating water levels to fishing success was all I needed to ensure I could seek out smallmouth regardless of water conditions on the big rivers.  Please remember to obtain landowner permission before crossing private land to access these streams.

Good luck!

-Jim Borawa, Senior Environmental Scientist

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