Not much has changed; anglers across North America still consider the smallmouth the hardest-fighting freshwater fish, and they get a charge out of the powerful runs and acrobatic leaps of the beloved "bronzeback"
In South Carolina, smallmouths are limited to a few bodies of water due to the lack of suitable habitat and water conditions. The upper Broad River, in the northwestern part of the state, provides just the right conditions and offers mile after mile of smallmouth bass fishing for Palmetto State anglers.
"Smallmouth bass are not native to the state of South Carolina, so they only occur in areas where they have been introduced," said Jason Bettinger, a fisheries biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR). "Within their native range, smallmouth typically inhabit cool to warm streams and rivers with rock and gravel bottoms."
"Smallmouth bass do not do well in sandy streams or streams with a lot of silt," he said. "Most rivers in SC are not suitable for smallmouth because they get too warm and are filled with sand and silt. The key to the success in Broad River is the water current, and the rock and gravel substrates."
In addition to having ideal habitat, the fish needed to be introduced. The SCDNR began a stocking program that has created this first-class smallmouth fishery.
"Smallmouth bass were first stocked during the mid-1980s into Kings Creek, a tributary to the Broad River in Cherokee County," Bettinger said. "We began stocking smallmouth into the upper portions of the Broad River proper during the 1990s.
"The number and size of fish stocked varies, but smallmouth have been stocked during most years since 1990," he said. "We are currently evaluating our stocking program, trying to determine if the size of fish stocked influences survival. In recent years, smallmouth fry of about an inch and fingerlings of about 6 inches have been stocked at several sites from Gaston Shoals Dam in Cherokee County to Neal Shoals Dam in Chester County."
As a result, the scenic upper Broad River in South Carolina is loaded with greedy, red-eyed smallmouth bass. Smallmouth bass habitat covers more than 90 miles from the North Carolina state line downstream to metro Columbia, but the upper 30 to 40 miles are considered the most productive.
"Smallmouth have been caught in the Congaree River below Columbia and even in the upper portion of Lake Marion," Bettinger said. "I would consider the 'fishable' population to be restricted to the Broad River above Columbia, with the highest concentrations of fish upstream of Highway 34.
"It's not uncommon for two anglers to catch over 100 fish on a good day," said Todd Huntley, a fishing guide from Gaffney. "Smallmouth bass are a very aggressive fish, and when they are on, you can have a full day of non-stop action."
The best fishing conditions on the Broad River occur during the warmest weather of the year.
"Mid-summer, when the weather and water is the warmest, is when the fish really turn on," said Huntley. "Fish can be caught in the spring, fall, and even in winter, but the hotter the weather, the hotter the fishing."
"The summer also means some of the lowest water flows of the year," he said. "This is when you find the fish concentrated in smaller, tighter areas, and finding the fish is obviously easier.
"The best water conditions for catching smallmouth are when we go a week or more without any rain," he said. "Water clarity is extremely important, and the best fishing coincides with clearest water conditions and the lowest flows. Stained or off-color water turns the fish off, and the higher flows spread the fish out, making the fish more difficult to reach."
Getting to the fish is one of the bigger challenges . The jagged shelf-rock and considerable current that make the Broad ideal smallmouth bass habitat also makes it difficult to access with traditional boats.
"The river's small impoundments and areas of slow water are reachable with traditional bass boats," said Huntley. "But this is not where you're going to find the smallmouth. They like areas of the river where there are shoals and lots of rocks and current.
"The best way to cover and fish this water is with a canoe. The productive shoals are fished best by anchoring or beaching the canoe, wading into knee-deep water and casting to the river channel."
June ushers in exciting topwater action for smallmouth. This not only provides heart-pounding angling drama, it's also the most productive method during this time of year. For the hardcore smallie angler, this represents the very pinnacle of the sport.
"Topwater lures such as Chug Bugs, Tiny Torpedoes, tubes, and Flukes work best during the summer," Huntley said. "On any given day, one of these lures might work better than another, for no known reason.
"But the bottom line is, summer equals top water fishing."
Cast toward underwater structure that is likely to hold fish, such as submerged rock piles, eddies, and creek channels. A pair of polarized glasses is an essential piece of equipment for finding this important fish-holding structure.
"As soon as the lure hits the water, I start jerking or retrieving the bait," Huntley said. "If the fish are on, you will know right away."
Huntley said that the time of day or cloud cover doesn't affect the fishing for better or worse.
"Aside from the mornings not being that great, the fish usually hit well throughout the day. Sunny or overcast conditions don't effect the fishing much, either," He said. "I personally prefer bright sun on the water, not because the fishing is better, but because I can see underwater structure easier."
Huntley recommends lightweight spinning outfits spooled with 8- to 10-pound test line.
"Ten-pound test line is light enough for clear-water conditions but heavy enough for landing a big smallie it drags your line across sharp shelf rock," he said.
For fly anglers, topwater conditions provide the perfect opportunity to catch the hard-fighting smallmouth on poppers and deer-hair bugs. The Broad is a wide river with plenty of casting room and wadable water. A 7- or 8-weight, 9-foot rod will be able to reach the fish, turn over the wind-resistant poppers and bugs, and have the backbone to fight these tough fish.
If fish are not hitting topwater lures or bait, you should quickly switch to subsurface offerings.
"Small jerkbaits, crankbaits and jigs all work well when they aren't hitting topwater," Huntley said.
"Access along the river is limited with very rough terrain, jagged rocks and deep water,' he said. "Trips will probably require two vehicles – one for the put-in and one for the take-out location. This will require some thinking and advanced planning for the anglers.
"The Broad River is a terrific, underrated fishing destination in the upstate of South Carolina," Huntley said. "However, it can be quite dangerous for the inexperienced user. The river has sharp, jagged rocks, deep pot holes and water levels that can change ... by 2 to 3 feet per hour.
"A heavy thunderstorm a hundred miles upstream in the North Carolina mountains can raise the river level in a hurry with little or no warning."
Guide Ric Rhyne has been fishing the upper Broad River for the past 15 years. He sees both the diversity of water and structure as the biggest obstacles for first-time anglers to overcome.
"The nature of the river in the upper section has several interesting characteristics," Rhyne said. "There are five different hydro dams along the way, areas of strong current and no current, rough shoal rock and big sandy flats, and backwater lakes as well," he said. "This gives the fisherman a huge challenge, as well as opportunity, to explore a wide variety of conditions along the 40-mile stretch that we fish."
Like Huntley, Rhyne concentrates his efforts to sections of the river where there is plenty of current.
"The current and general river environment forces the smallmouth to be very aggressive in order to survive," Rhyne said. "This fact plays into the fisherman's hands."
Fish will take up positions in the river near structure and wait for food to drift to them. Rarely do fish cruise different sections of the river in search of food -except during very high water conditions. As food drifts their way through the current, the smallmouth have a very small window of opportunity to decide whether to eat it or not.
"This aggressive feeding nature makes them a very exciting target for anglers," Rhyne said. "Their limited opportunity and sense of urgency makes them hit your bait real hard."
And then there is their fighting prowess.
"First-time clients swear the fish is twice the actual size, until they get a good look at it," said Rhyne. "In terms of sheer strength and fight, they have no equal in freshwater."
"The baits used on the Broad are really not limited to any specialties. We use every bass tactic that you would use anywhere else," Rhyne said. "The fish love topwater baits when flow rates are good and clarity allows it.
"The one technique that is difficult and frustrating is bottom fishing with slow moving baits," Rhyne continued. "The constant hang-ups on the shelf rock and rocky river bottom can make for a long day."
Like Huntley, Rhyne also prefers spinning light spinning gear.
"The equipment we found that works the best is spinning tackle - 2000 series reels and 6-foot medium-action rods," Rhyne said. "Spinning tackle will still perform well if you get it really wet. We also use 10-pound test line almost all of the time."
"There are many public access areas along the Broad that most local maps will point out," said Rhyne. "Not every access point will have wadable water, but they are all good access points for canoe or light boat launches."
Some popular access points along the upper Broad River are the Gaston Shoals, Ninety Nine Islands Dam, Dravo Dam, Cherokee Forge Recreation Landing, and the Sandy River access.
There are no special regulations for smallmouth bass in the Broad River. The daily creel limit is 10 fish, with no minimum size limit. A valid South Carolina fishing license is required.