Bronzebacks Fit to a ‘T’

Smallmouth bass are a perfect species for stream fishing with fly-fishing equipment.

The Little Tennessee is arguably North Carolina’s best stream for smallmouth bass, and fall is a top time for a float trip.

More than 100 years ago, in his classic “Book of the Black Bass,” Doc Henshall annointed the smallmouth bass as “inch for inch and pound for pound, the gamest fish that swims.”

River smallmouth may be the feistiest of all, and North Carolina is blessed with countless rivers and streams filled with smallmouth bass, perhaps none better than the Little Tennessee River near Franklin.

From Emory Lake to Fontana Reservoir, the Little Tennessee flows unimpeded for 26 miles. Rarely more than 90 feet across, the “Little T” flows principally through undeveloped forest.

The river is about as undisturbed as any stream in the Lower 48 and well worth a visit. For part of the way, NC 28 parallels the river.

In addition to abundant smallmouth bass, a major attraction of the Little Tennessee is the relative absence of other anglers, particularly after Labor Day.

“Often, when I go down the river, I fish for a couple of days and never see another angler,” said Kevin Wright of Atlanta, who fishes the Little Tennessee 14 or 15 days a year. “I have the river all to myself.”

Many fishermen drift the Little Tennessee in a canoe.

“What I do most is take a canoe down the river until I find a spot I like,” said Jimmie Sain of Charlotte, another fishermen who frequents the river. “I look for shoals, big rocks, wood in the water, something that breaks the water. Then I park the canoe and get out and wade.”

Sain fishes the river from the Emory Lake tailrace in Macon County near Franklin to Fontana Reservoir near Bryson City in Swaim County.

“Sometimes I start out from camp at Smoky Mountain Fish Camp,” he said, “and drift and fish from there. Sometimes I go to Iron Bridge. It’s down a little 2-lane road, very picturesque. Or I go way down and put in at the Needmore Tract and fish down to where the Little T enters Fontana. This is a pretty good stretch.

“My favorite place on the Little T, however, is the tailrace at the Emory Lake dam. To get there, you have to enter about half-mile below the dam and wade up to the base of the dam. It may be a tough wade if the water is up; I never had a time I couldn’t make it, but sometimes it’s a hard go.

“It’s like heaven up there. A couple of years ago I caught an 8-pound largemouth below the Emory Lake dam.”

Smallmouth in the Little T are in typical river haunts for this species.

“When I come to a spot where I think there is a smallmouth, say a big rock in the stream, I cast and bring the lure just below the rock,” Sain said. “The smallmouth are in the slack current caused by the rock.

“If those spots don’t work, I fish both above and below the shoals, and the deep spots often hold fish.”

Smallmouth bass are not the only lure of the Little T for Sain.

“One of the interesting things about the Little T is you never know what you might catch,” he said. “A few years ago, high rains from one of the hurricanes washed out a private trout hatchery. There were some enormous trout in the river for a while. We caught some escapees over two feet long, rainbows mostly.”

Wright typically fishes the Little T for two or three days at a time.

“I get to the Little T six or seven times a year,” he said. “Usually, I take a canoe and drift along the river, fishing as I go. Come nightfall, there are some places to camp, and I stop there.

“I only use four or five lures out of my tackle box. My first choice is a floating Rapala, then I fish with a Rebel Crawfish. I fish the minnow-style (lures) and crankbaits when the water is clear, but recently, I’ve learned to fish soft plastics.

“Right after a rain, when the water is stained, I use one of the in-line spinners, like a Mepps. It takes reading the conditions and adapting to them.”

While Wright still catches lots of Little T smallmouth, in recent years he’s targeted bigger specimens.

“In the last few years, I’ve been concentrating more on larger fish,” he said. “My numbers are down a little over the last few years because I’ve been fishing for bigger fish, but I’ve caught quite a few 5-pounders.”

Lots of fine smallmouth anglers have never caught a 5-pounder.

“The bigger fish seem to hold in deeper holes,” he said, “places where somehow the river pushes water together. Maybe there’s a little swifter current there that gouges out a hole in the bottom. Slower and deeper water, close to the current; that’s where they are.”

Drifting a plastic grub — a tube or a curlytail — through deep holes is a great way to dredge a big fish. With a tube threaded on an eighth-ounce jighead, cut a slit in the top of the tube to straighten out the tube and expose the hook.

Soft-plastic crawfish imitators are attractive to stream smallmouth. Crayfish live in the broken rocks of the shoals, and smallmouth hang around waiting for one to become inattentive to the danger posed by a predator.

Wright added that an over-looked smallmouth haunt on the Little T is a series of old fish traps.

“Many years ago, the Cherokees built a series of what I call ‘fish traps,’” he said. “These are piles of rocks that concentrate the current.”

On major rivers, these would be called wing dams. At opposite sides of the stream, the wing dams push the current to the center and gouge out a relatively deep hole between them, creating a slack-water eddy behind each wing dam. When anglers see one of these traps, be sure to fish it carefully.

“When I start out, I usually have three or four rods set up, each with a different lure,” Wright said. “During the day, I rarely change lures. I know pretty much what will work given the conditions. Depending on the spot and what I think will work there, that’s the lure I throw.

“Catching 2- and 3-pound smallmouth regularly, with a good prospect for a bigger fish — it’s a lot of fun,” Wright said.

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