About the time the leaves begin to litter the lawn, I begin to think of overnight canoe floats and fishing for high-jumping smallmouth bass. My decision is always the same: The leaves will wait, but winter won't.

Mention float-tripping to someone from Washington and he's likely to think of the upper Potomac, which is a lovely river. Unfortunately the Potomac's smallmouths are mot what they once were, so if I'm looking for fishing in addition to the floating, I'll usually head down to Virginia's James River.

Through much of its length, the James is gentle and, with a little advance planning, the perfect place for a beginner. Neophytes can expect to catch plenty of bass and pass a day or a weekend without any problems. If the James is at its normal low flow for this time of year, there won't be any whitewater and the smallmouths will be trying to jump into the canoe.

A good floating/fishing section of the James is just south of Charlottesville and upriver from Scottsville. About 21/2 hours from Washington, Scottsville is an old river town that ranks third in the state for historic buildings. The James flows some 340 miles through Virginia, making it the longest river wholly within a single state. The Horseshoe Bend at Scottsville is its northernmost point.

Even first-timers on the James can do the entire thing on their own. Hardware requirements are minimal: canoe, paddles and life jackets for a short trip; fishing tackle if you also want to try your luck with the smallmouth. Overnight expeditions become a little more complicated. Add a tent, sleeping bags and food to the list or rent gear; an overnight kit can be hired fairly cheaply.

There are some essential decisions to make when preparing for a float trip: Where do you put in? Where do you take out? How do you get back to your car after you arrive at the end of the float? Don't begin the way I did: Trying to hitch-hike back to your car after a long day on the river isn't the best way to end a trip. The takeout point should be considered first, and the most convenient spot in this area is Hatton Ferry, site of the last remaining pole-operated ferry in Virginia.

You can put in at any number of spots upriver, depending on how much time you have. A good beginner's float that almost anyone can handle is from Warren to Hatton Ferry, about three miles. This can be covered in one to three hours and is a good choice if you want to take a daytrip and spend most of the time fishing. More energetic types may want to launch at Howardsville for a nine-mile float, or maybe even at Midway Mills for a 16-mile float, requiring six to eight hours of paddling and possibly an overnight camp.

Any light-action spinning rod is suitable for smallmouth fishing. Many casting problems can be eliminated if you spool the reel with a premium grade of monofilament; something around four- or six-pound test is about right. Artificial lures will produce as well as bait at this time of year and are less bother. Several "must" lures for river smallmouth include the Tiny Torpedo, a small gold Rappalla, the silver Mepps spinner (size 0) and tiny plastic- tailed jigs. The Tiny Torpedo, a surface lure, is my lar favorite. Cast this lure across current and retrieve slowly with a jerky motion. Big smallmouths will climb all over it.

Jeff and Christie Schmick of James River Runners operate a complete canoe outfitting service on the banks of the James at Hatton Ferry. You can just rent a canoe or go whole-hog -- they have completely catered overnight outings featuring a pig roasted over an open spit. An afternoon on the river can cost as little as $13 per canoe, including drop-off at the launching area. Overnight rates begin at $50 per canoe. FLOAT NOTE -- James River Runners, Route 1, Box 106, Scottsville, Virginia 24590. 804/286-2338.