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Three Days in East Tennessee

The French Broad has a way of making one feel really, really small

    More than any other emotion, intimidation is what I felt the most. On the upper French Broad, the sheer size of the river is what got me. It was like fishing in the ocean. Where do you start? On the Pigeon, it was the clear water. How in the world am I going to get close enough to the fish to present my lure, and how am I ever going to fool them in this clear water?

    Two buddies and I spent a long weekend in early June trying to solve these problems and hopefully catch some smallmouth bass. Will and I left Athens, Georgia Thursday evening with the popup camper and our kayaks in tow and met up with Bo at the Fox Den Campground in Cosby around 10 AM Friday morning. Before we met up with Bo, Will and I went and scouted both rivers looking for places to put in and take out our boats. That's when I started getting a little worried.

    We got into the French Broad sometime around noon on Friday, a hot clear day with just enough wind to push our kayaks back upstream in the calm stretches of river. The French Broad is a big river, and if the three of us had fished every fishy-looking piece of water thoroughly, we would have been on the water for about two weeks. The water was slightly stained with about two feet of visibility, which I found heartening, since I prefer to throw larger baits and fish them pretty quickly, which normally doesn't work all that well in crystal clear water.

    My strategy was to throw a white spinnerbait, fish it quickly, and search out active fish. Below the first shoal, I watched as Will had a two pound smallie explode on his Pop-R three times, missing every time. A little while later, I caught a nice 12 inch smallie just above a small rapid. It came up out of the rocks and nailed the spinnerbait about three inches under the surface, a sight that always amazes me. Bo had already caught a couple on poppers (Bo flyfishes exclusively). By 1:00 PM I thought we had them figured out: they want aggressive presentations near the surface in quick water.

There was lots of this (me changing lures on the French Broad) going on all weekend

    Once we figured out what the fish were doing, nobody got a strike for the next hour. One thing I can say about the French Broad is that it contains lots of different water types in very short stretches of river. In one cross section of river (maybe 70 yards wide), you will often find three runs, four eddies, and two deep pools. My spinnerbait was going untouched in all these different types of water, so I reluctantly decided it was time to bump the bottom for a while. I despise fishing this way, but since I despise getting skunked even worse, I tied on a 4" finesse worm in the smoke color. Pretty soon, I set the hook on a tiny smallie that flew into the boat and hit me in the chest on the hookset. "You played that fish very skillfully", Will noted as he drifted by.

    Still, that tiny fish had given me a couple clues. First, that fish was right behind a huge boulder with some fairly fast water moving around it. Second, I didn't get the strike until I made a cast onto the boulder and let the worm slide off the boulder and into the water. This turned out to be the key to catching some fish. Throughout the day, I managed about ten more fish, and almost all of them hit the worm just behind rocks either above or below quicker water. This sounds easy enough, but it can be tough to pull off from a moving kayak. We all found that fishing these spots was a lot easier by hopping out of our boats and wading to get into position. All told, we caught and released around 25 smallmouth and a couple spotted bass with nothing over about 1 1/2 pounds. Not a great day, but we managed to coax a few bites on a day when the fish really weren't into biting.

The chunky smallie at left came from right behind that big rock in the background. The spotted bass at right doesn't appear to have missed many meals either.

    On Saturday we floated the Pigeon River, and Will and Bo were both salivating at the prospect of fishing a smaller flow with crystal clear water. Will loves light-line finesse fishing and Bo is a flyfisherman. I wasn't sure what to do, but decided to stick with what had worked yesterday- the small finesse worm. The water was extremely low and clear, and you could see fish of all types as far down as six feet of water, including some big smallmouth. The hydroelectric plant upstream at Waterville had a release scheduled at noon, so our plan was to get as much fishing in as possible before the high water reached us and the fish turned off.

    Turns out that our strategy was completely wrong. Nobody but Bo, delicately presenting small streamers and poppers, was catching anything and he wasn't catching much. Will and I hadn't sniffed a strike and I had thrown everything in my tackle box. I finally said "Heck with it" and tied on the white spinnerbait, hoping that it would scare something into striking. Four hours into the float, neither Will nor myself had gotten a strike, and Bo had only a couple small fish to show for his efforts.

    Then something happened. I had a big smallie follow my spinnerbait in a long, slow, almost still stretch of the river. About thirty minutes later, in a similar stretch, a nice 1 3/4 pounder nailed the spinnerbait near the surface followed by a solid three pounder. Will then caught a largemouth well over three pounds and Bo started getting some hits on a popper. All this action came in some very atypical (or so I thought) smallmouth water. This looked more like largemouth bass habitat: slow, deep, and woody. Will and I both caught solid two pound fish as we passed underneath a bridge, and we caught fish slowly but steadily the rest of the day. Nice fish, too. But why?

Not huge, but this was the fish that told me to keep burning that big, ugly spinnerbait


Bang! Bang! All these fish were caught minutes apart

    As it turns out, the rising water from power generation upstream at the Waterville plant had finally reached us, and for whatever reason the fish really turned on for a brief period. The conventional wisdom on the Pigeon says that once the water has risen, the smallmouth become really tough to catch. Well, they were tough to catch, but nowhere near as tough as earlier in the day when the water was  not being pushed through. The kayaking became a lot more fun and challenging also. All told, we caught and released about twenty smallies (plus a couple largemouths and a rock bass) with eight in the two pound range or better.

Bo gets in on the act

    We got off the river at around 6 PM and drove upstream, closer to the power plant, hoping to do some wading since the power generation was supposed to end soon. Well, the people running the plant must not have gotten the memo, because the water was high and raging when we got upstream. There are a lot more and bigger rapids upstream, which makes for great wading when power is not being generated. It's be really foolish to attempt wading most anywhere in the Pigeon when they are, especially where we were. Disappointed, I start make a few casual casts with the spinnerbait while Bo and Will skip rocks. As I'm casually reeling in the spinnerbait, I thought I heard a slithery noise behind me. I turned to look and BANG! Something almost yanks my rod out of my hand. "Aaaah!" Thinking I had fallen or been bitten by a snake, Will and Bo come running just in time to see me hoist a 12 inch smallie from the river. I proceeded to catch another smaller one, but received constant ribbing the rest of the weekend for being made to scream like a little girl by a one-pound fish.

    Being somewhat bushed from two days of hard fishing, we slept in on Sunday, had a big breakfast, and decided to do some wading on the Pigeon River. There was no generation this day, so we hit some skinny, quick pocket water. The wading was easy in the low water, or as easy as wading gets on the Pigeon. Despite my felt soles, I was surfing around on the slippery rocks all day and Will (in rubber-bottomed wading sandals) almost had to crawl around to get anywhere. Bo did really well , catching over a dozen smallish bass on small, olive colored streamers. He noticed the fish spooking at his larger offerings and most of his success came on a small streamer that most any trout would take.

    Which probably explains why Will and I, using light spinning tackle, couldn't buy a strike in the same water. We had no lures as light and delicate as those Bo was offering, which is what those fish in the riffles wanted. With nothing better to do, Will and I moved to a pool section of the river and dredged the water pretty thoroughly. I resorted to slinging a big Rapala Skitterpop out as far as I could and teased a solid two pounder up from the depths of the pool and a slightly smaller one a few casts later. Will sonn followed with another two pound smallmouth by dead-drifting a Zoom Fluke through the upper end of the pool. Then as quickly as it began, the bite died on us.

Topwater smallie caught way out in the middle of the pool

    Though part of the same watershed, the French Broad and Pigeon are entirely different animals. I suspect that the smallies in the Pigeon aren't always as picky as they were for us, and I also bet that the French Broad contains much larger fish than she showed us on Friday. The great thing about all this, however, is that there is only one way to find out.

Bo doing his thing



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