Fly Fishing the French Broad River: A Western N.C. Carolina Gem

The zen of fly fishing is often best spent with some solitude, but a lesson on the intricacies of casting can be a great place to start.
The zen of fly fishing is often best spent with some solitude, but a lesson on the intricacies of casting can be a great place to start. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
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For more than 200 miles, the French Broad River flows in a northern "bow" trajectory through some of the most beautiful landscape in Western North Carolina. Beginning gently as a narrow waterway in the southwestern edge of the state, the river gains steam and breadth as it passes through Asheville and the more craggy valleys to the north. The French Broad, so named as it was assumed it traveled into early French settler territory to the west, ends its journey at Douglas Lake after a left turn into Tennessee.

For anglers, this variety of terrain means that one river can provide several unique experiences. And to help us truly discover the essence of the French Broad, we’ve enlisted the help of one of the most experienced local experts.

Foggy morning views of the French Broad River.
Foggy morning views of the French Broad River. Karen Roussell

Where to Drop Your Line

Kevin Howell is a Masters Fly Fishing Champion. He grew up fly fishing with his father—a premier fly-tying expert himself. Kevin frequently runs trips to the far flung waters of Mexico, The Bahamas, and Argentina. But his store and guide service, Davidson River Outfitters, are located in Western N.C., and his knowledge of the region’s rivers is almost unparalleled.

"I was fishing with my father when I was old enough to walk," he explains. “The Davidson River, the French Broad, these are my home waters.”

Howell describes the French Broad as three distinct sections. The southern section, he says, is like a "big, overgrown ditch". From its headwaters in the small town of Rosman, N.C. to Brevard, the river is narrow and runs deep. It’s here that Howell looks for mountain trout.

As the "ditch" widens towards Asheville, the riverbed gets rockier with good shoals and outcroppings. This is the home for muskies, suckers, and a few smallmouth bass.

Finally, when the French Broad pushes north and west toward its terminus, the more plentiful smallmouth are joined by catfish and white and spotted bass. It’s along these rocky shoals that Howell suggests beginning your hunt for bass—especially the spots grown over with vegetation. The typical bass here, he says, weighs about a pound, but it’s not uncommon to see 3- to 4-pounders pulled from these waters.

For the classic trout fishing experience, the East Fork of the French Broad is ideal. As part of the North Carolina Late Harvest Program, this tributary of the French Broad is stocked and protected, so its cool waters are teeming with fish in late spring. East Fork Road conveniently runs alongside the river, so it’s a great place to hop out and start casting.

You’ll need a rod, a fly, and a reel, and don’t forget sunglasses and good footwear to protect eyes and toes.
You’ll need a rod, a fly, and a reel, and don’t forget sunglasses and good footwear to protect eyes and toes. Laurna Pierce

Gearing Up

Of course, any fishing trip requires the right gear. A rod, reel, and line are obvious needs. But Howell says there are a couple pieces of equipment that aren’t so obvious. Many first-timers forget sunglasses and close-toed shoes with good traction: the former to protect eyeballs against flying hooks, the latter to protect toes against moving rocks. And don’t forget about the soles: Howell suggests felt instead of rubber if possible.

In the planning stages, timing your excursion is important. Since trout like cool waters, Howell suggests October through May as the prime season to find them. Fishing for bass, on the other hand, is well suited for the warmer months of June through September. Howell also recommends avoiding midday, when the sun most directly shines on the water. Dawn until 10 am and after 4 pm are ideal.

Access for Anglers

One of the greatest attributes of the French Broad River is its easy accessibility. Near Asheville, Howell offers three suggestions for a quick escape to the river.

As the name suggests, Ledges Whitewater Park is a popular spot for kayakers to practice their skills. But it’s also a very convenient access for anglers as well. Just 10 miles north of the city, Ledges is close enough for a quick day trip. With grills and picnic tables on site, it’s also a pleasant place to spend an afternoon waiting for the optimal conditions.

Walnut Island Park is a beautiful little property about five miles farther north of Asheville, with overhanging trees and gentle pools that make for perfect spots to find bass. This park tends to be a little less busy than others in the area. But it’s best to arrive early anyway, since the parking lot isn’t huge.

Finally, the parking lot at the Alexander Bike Park sits directly alongside the banks of the French Broad. There are few amenities here, but it’s tough to beat the ability to walk up and down the dirt road that runs parallel to Highway 251. Pick a spot and hop in.

After a day of pulling muskies and trout from the river, Howell suggests heading to one of the breweries that "Beer City" is known for. Perhaps the mecca for beer aficionados in North Carolina, Sierra Nevada Brewing in Mills River, N.C., is a destination unto itself. A brewery/park/restaurant hybrid, the cavernous tasting room and expansive outdoor patio provide ample space to eat, drink, and stretch out.

Originally written for OrthoCarolina.

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