Wading and floating rivers for smallmouth bass

Rob Domico quits concentrating on trout and targets smallmouth bass in western North Carolina rivers in summer.

Float between likely smallmouth hotspots, wade when you get there

When you mention bass fishing, many people envision big lakes, fiberglass boats with big outboard motors and baitcasting gear. But to a handful of dedicated anglers in the mountains and foothills of the Carolinas, it means something entirely different. 

It means wading uncrowded streams for smallmouth bass using light spinning or fly tackle.

Kent Stanley of Boonville, N.C., is one of these people. He spends his free time in late spring and summer floating and wading, fishing smaller streams for smallmouth bass. He uses his kayak to cover distances between the best fishing spots, then getting out and wading to better cover these areas. 

“I target areas with moving current and rocky structure that usually hold the most smallmouth,” Stanley said. “Some of my favorite hotspots are eddies of still water next to fast water that consistently hold fish, but I don’t overlook slower, deep water that can hold big fish, especially if rocky structure is present.”

Kayaks make it easy to move between fishing holes

Stanley fishes areas like these, and after covering them thoroughly, he’s back in his kayak floating to the next section of the stream with favorable habitat. 

“It’s all about current, rock structure and depth,” said Stanley, who uses a variety of soft-plastic baits on spinning tackle and 6-pound line. 

He does have a couple of baits he relies on more than others. A Zoom Baby Brush Hawg in pumpkinseed is one of his go-to baits, as is a local bait, a Little Lucy from Taylor’s Tackle that has had a following on the New River for smallmouth for many years. It is a small stickworm that comes pre-rigged on a snelled hook. Stanley fishes it with a swivel above the leader with a split shot, the size of the weight depending on water depth and speed. He fishes it slowly, lifting it and letting it fall, twirling toward the bottom. He said almost any stickworm can be rigged this way if you can’t find a Little Lucy.

A 13- or 14-inch smallmouth bass on light tackle in current can be a battle equal to anything a largemouth can put up. (Photo by Marty Shaffner)

Other lure options

Stanley also has a group of hard baits on which he relies on from time to time: a small, original floating Rapala minnow in silver/black and a Rebel Crawfish crankbait. 

“I cast the Rebel Crawfish across and downstream and retrieve it, working it through likely looking spots, and sometimes, I fish the Rapala in the same way, but if the water is clear I’ll sometimes fish it as a topwater lure,” he said. “Casting it to calmer water and twitching it with pauses, and occasionally letting it dive slightly under the water and popping back to the surface can be deadly, at times.

Smallmouth can be moody about what they want on any given day, according to Stanley, and if the fish aren’t biting, he is constantly changing baits. 

“Don’t be afraid to try something out of the ordinary,” he said, remembering a time when he and a friend were fishing and having a hard time, only picking up an occasional fish. He found a pack of small, yellow curlytail grubs and tried one on out of desperation. On his first cast, he hooked a nice smallmouth, and they caught fish until every grub was beyond use. Even though it has never been the hot bait since, the odd bait saved the day that one time. So don’t be afraid to experiment with different lures during a tough bite.

Smallmouth love flies

Rob Domico of Trout and Travel in Davidson, N.C., stays busy in the fall and spring guiding for trout. But as summer heats up, he breaks out short pants and wading boots to target hard-fighting smallmouth. Domico (704-661-0658) pursues smallies with fly tackle and enjoys the challenge and fight that fly-fishing brings. 

Like Stanley, Domico looks for moving water with rocky structure to target for wade-fishing. Look for deeper runs and eddies next to fast water to hold the biggest fish, he said. 

“I prefer wading over floating, because I can cover the water more thoroughly by wading, covering all the possible spots slowly, then wading on to the next likely looking spot,” he said.

Kent Stanley uses a kayak to access good-looking smallmouth spots, then gets out and wades while casting.

As far as flies, Domico uses several sub-surface and topwater offerings. But Pat’s Rubber Legs stonefly nymph in orange, Wooly Grubber in black/pearl, and a black hellgrammite pattern are his go-to flies. 


“Cast across and slightly downstream, and pull the fly through likely spots to trigger strikes,” he said. “If this presentation doesn’t work, I use the stonefly nymph and hellgrammite patterns fished under a strike indicator. Cast upstream and slightly across and let it dead-drift naturally. I let the fish show me what they want on any given day.”

If all else fails he does something a little unorthodox. 

“I take a 2½-inch, Strike King tube bait, coffee-colored, rigged on a small Trokar jighead and fish it with the same down-and-across presentation as I do the flies. Even when the bite is tough this will bring some bass to hand.”

Most fly fishermen live for topwater action. Domico loves it as well. But he has learned that topwater fishing while wading can be productive — but not necessarily all the time. 

“If I’m looking to catch smallies on topwater, wade-fishing, I key in on very early or late in the day, with late being my favorite,” he said. “(From) when the sun gets off the stream in the evening until it gets dark is my favorite. I like poppers and Dahlberg Divers cast to any slower-current areas and any still water, no matter how small it is to trigger explosive surface strike.”


Tributary streams can hold smallmouths, other gamefish

Kinnon Hodges of Elkin, a fisheries biologist whose territory in northwest North Carolina includes a handful of great smallmouth bass rivers, said that most of the larger tributaries of major smallmouth rivers in western North Carolina, along with the lower reaches of larger trout streams where water temperatures are too high for trout survival, will hold smallmouth bass.

Ssome sections of major rivers can be waded. But care must be taken, because the big water can be dangerous. Wearing a life jacket is a good idea when wading any bigger stream or river.

Hodges said that fisherman can often expect to catch a mixed bag on these streams, depending on baits and lures used, although smallies are the dominant gamefish. Along with smallmouth bass, rock bass — aka redeyes — and redbreast sunfish are the two other most-common species you’ll encounter. Some streams hold various other species of panfish. Spotted bass and an occasional brown trout can be a nice surprise. 

Hodges said a lot of streams will hold both smallmouth bass and trout, especially brown trout. As trout streams get larger, the gradient flattens out and the water temperature rises. And for a section of the stream, the species can co-habitate. 

Hodges said that wade-fishing streams for smallmouth is a fishing opportunity often overlooked by most fishermen, and that most streams receive light fishing pressure. He also said that most of these streams are on private property, and permission must be granted by the landowner before anglers can wade-fish.

About Brian Cope 2800 Articles
Brian Cope is the editor of Carolina Sportsman. He has won numerous awards for his writing, photography, and videography. He is a retired Air Force combat communications technician, and has a B.A. in English Literature from the University of South Carolina. You can reach him at brianc@carolinasportsman.com.

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