Hot Springs, North Carolina is well known for its naturally warm healing waters, the rugged scenery and the Appalachian Trail, the many hiking trails in the area and wonderful fine dining. Yet one of the best opportunities in Hot Springs, and the least known is the world class Smallmouth Bass fishing in the French Broad River!

The French Broad in Madison County is an incredibly beautiful river, flowing thru the rugged Blue Ridge Mountains, with class 2 and 3 whitewater, cliffs and rock outcroppings and miles of undisturbed backcountry scenery; and hidden in those waters is a thriving population of world-class Smallmouth Bass.

Fishing the French Broad River’s beautiful winding path can be done from the bank in some places, but others require a boat and even a good knowledge of the river’s many twists and turns.

Today, Pete Dixon, a local fisherman and proprietor will share the 411 on fishing the French Broad River: where and how to fish, and what you can expect to run into along the way!

Special thanks to Matt Cook and Elk Creek Outfitters (828-773-1053) for contributing their photos and expertise to this article.

Where to Fish the French Broad River

Section 9- Rugged Mountain Waters

Section 9 of the French Broad is the water from Marshall to Hot Springs. This part of the river flows thru some truly remote and rugged country so the scenery along the way is absolutely top notch. But taking a trip on section 9 is a challenge, so make sure you hire a professional guide until you become well familiar with the twists and turns of the river. The many rapids in this section provide excellent habitat and structure for smallmouth fishing. During the summer and fall, when the water is over 70 degrees, the cascading rapids provide the oxygen in the river the bass need to thrive. So, the fishing throughout this section is excellent. Each eddy and pool is a good spot for bass. There are plenty of fish in these waters, and they are big and lively. This can be some of the most exciting and beautiful fishing in the country, but remember it is not a good idea for anyone but extremely well-skilled boaters to attempt it without a guide because of the remoteness and the challenging rapids.

Section 9 Logistics
The stretch from Redmon Dam to Barnard is probably the prime target for this stretch of river. Barnard to Stackhouse or Barnard to Hot Springs are also good runs. The country through this section is remote and challenging so the fishing from the bank is limited. You can find some fish from the bank around the Barnard Boat ramp.

Section 10, a Beautiful Mellow Float, Good Shore Fishing

Section 10 is the stretch of River from Hot Springs to Paint Rock at the Tennessee border. It is a more mellow stretch of river than section 9 and is therefore more appropriate for self-guided trips. However, don’t take the first rapid in front of the Hot Springs Spa too lightly. The waves can be large and more than a few boaters have capsized right out of the gate in this rapid. Stay left as is possible to avoid the large wave train on the right side.

The fishing through section 10 is excellent. During warm seasons look for the fish to be associated with moving water. Any eddy or deep spot close to the moving water will probably hold some fish. During the summer months the most exciting fishing is surface lure fishing. This is best in the evening times over deep water, around structure and under brushy banks. When the water cools down, look for the fish to congregate around deep pools.

Section 10 Logistics
There is parking and public river access right under the bridge thanks to Nantahala Outdoor Center in Hot Springs. This is a great place to start your float. There are several places to take out after River Road turns to gravel. The best take-out for a trip that started in Hot Springs is at Murray Branch. For a longer day, there are other take-outs after the meadows downstream from Murray Branch on River Road, and finally there are a couple places to take out right in front of the Paint Rock cliffs on River Road. Starting at Murray Branch and floating to Paint Rock is also a good option for a half day trip.

There is a lot of good bank fishing to be had in this stretch of river. Look for parking spots and pull overs on River Road all along section 10. Without the mobility of a boat, fishing this method relies on big heavy gear to make long casts across the broad river. Casting heavy spinners and surface lures, spinner baits and shallow diving crank baits and stick baits can be very productive in this section. And you can turn up some surprising river monsters using just this method. Musky are not out of the question in this stretch of river, and more than one tourist has been surprised when casually fishing from the bank on section 10 and hooking up the fish of a lifetime.

Gear and Strategies

The French Broad is a big river with some big strong bass, so don’t come under equipped. A stiff 7′ graphite rod and spinning reel loaded with fresh 10 pound monofilament is a good idea for fishing these big strong fish in the big waters of the French Broad. The ecosystem in the French Broad is wild and wooly so you never know what they will be biting on. But an assortment of soft bait and grubs and 1/4-1/2oz heads is a must for any season. Crank baits in a crawdad pattern are always a staple, and jointed Rapala and stick baits are always a good bet in the warm seasons. Spinner baits can be productive and fuchsia, black or red are good colors to try. There is a lot of water to cover in the French Broad so a fast action rod and heavy lures for long casting can be mighty helpful. And don’t get caught out without a couple of noisy surface lures in the summer, because when you see those big hogs hitting the surface, you sure won’t want to get left out.

Musky and Walleye

Walleye are common in the French Broad, especially in section 10. They are not easy to target specifically but they will turn up frequently while fishing for bass. Watch out for the teeth when landing a walleye. Unlike a bass, you don’t want to put your thumb in their mouth to lift them up. There are also some Musky in the waters of section 10 and sometimes they hook up by surprise during a bass trip or follow a lure in to the boat. It will make your heart skip a beat to see a 40-50″ fish follow your spinner bait in. Targeting Musky takes some specialized gear and tactics, so for a musky trip, your best bet is a good guide.

Catch and Release

Hot Springs sees a lot of boater traffic, and we are thankful for the friendly visitors! However, the French Broad, big as it is couldn’t support the constant pressure from game fishing without depleting. So please release your smallmouth bass back into the river so it will continue to be a world class fishery.

About The Author: Peter Dixon

Peter Dixon is an avid Hot Springs fisherman and proprietor of Broadwing Farm Cabins.

Article published November 2018