The smallmouth bass is a large robust fish which belongs to the “sunfish” family. This family also includes bluegill, sunfish and crappie, and, of course, the large-mouth and spotted bass. Smallmouth bass are identified by vertical dark bronze bars on the side. This color pattern is quite distinct in fish taken from clear weedy water. It is often indistinct in young, and in fish from dingy or turbid water. The smallmouth’s gold-bronze sides become dark at the back, appearing mostly greenish-brown. The belly is mottled white with black spotting or speckling. The head often has three dark gold bars radiating downward and backward from each eye. To distinguish a smallmouth from other bass: the upper jaw, with the mouth closed, extends backward only to below the rear edge of the eye, usually not beyond. The spiny and soft dorsal (back) fins are broadly connected, unlike the largemouth. Spotted bass also have connected fins but their coloration is similar to largemouth. Smallmouth bass average 8-15 inches, but reach lengths to 24 inches, and weights to over 8 lbs. These specimens are extremely rare. Any smallmouth over 4 lbs. should be considered a trophy.
Distribution: Smallmouth bass are widely distributed throughout the northern U.S. and southern Canada. They are common to clear, coolwater lakes, streams and rivers. Smallmouth range extends generally southward to Georgia; west to Oklahoma and North Dakota; and north into the lower tiers of Canada.
Biology: Smallmouth bass spawn in the late spring and early summer. Nest building and spawning begin at water temperatures of 55-60°F., but egg-laying takes place at 61-65°F. This is usually in May, June or July (in the extreme north). Circular nests, 2-4 feet across, are built by the males in 2-20 feet of water. Nests are usually built on sand, gravel or rock. Nests are almost always built near the protection of a rock, log or submerged branch, or occasionally near vegetation. Smallmouth may travel considerable distances to spawn, but they select specific areas of lakes or streams. Smallmouth will use the same spawning areas year after year. Females lay between 2,000 and 15,000 eggs, which adhere to the stones in the center of the nest. After spawning the female leaves the nest. In lakes, she will often return immediately to the nearest deepwater breakline. In streams she will return to a nearby deep pool. The male guards the nest, protects the eggs and guards the young after hatching. Hatching of eggs occurs in 1-2 weeks. Males will protect the young for the next couple weeks before moving to their summertime areas. It is common for as many as 50% of all nests to fail. In some years, in some waters, 99% of all nests may fail. Cold fronts and downward shifts in water temperature may drive male bass from the nests, leaving the eggs and young vulnerable to predation. Predation by rock bass and other sunfish can be high. Fishing pressure can cause shallow nesting males to desert their nests, and even temporarily removing the male, as in catch and release fishing, can cause nest predation until the male bass returns. Once the eggs hatch, growth is rapid. Smallmouth bass one year old reach 2-5 inches in length. Sexual maturity comes slowly and is reached in three to six years. This is a prime reason many states impose length limit restrictions. Length limits are designed to allow the bass to reach spawning age, and perhaps spawn once or twice, before being caught and kept. Smallmouth bass may live 15 years, although this is not common. Trophy bass are usually five years and older.
Habits and Habitat: Smallmouth bass live in a variety of habitats. They prefer clear waters and are relatively intolerant of silt. In the spring, bass concentrate in key spawning areas. Smallmouth remain in deeper or weedy waters throughout most of the summer. Often they will hold on breaklines or rocky structure, bars, humps, shoals, etc. Stream and river smallmouth inhabit large pools and mild current areas that have cover. They often lie almost motionless near submerged cover during daylight hours, or slowly cruise their home pool. They remain in one area and rarely move as far as a half mile. Bank overhangs and downstream edges of rocks and boulders are excellent hiding areas for the smallmouth. In the summertime, lake smallmouth will often hold in deeper water and move shallow at night to feed. In the fall, lake smallmouth concentrate along drop-offs, frequently suspending above bottom. They often feed ravenously, seeming to store up for winter months. The food of adult smallmouth consists of insects, crayfish and fish. Crayfish are a favorite food and constitute about 50-75% of their diets. Fish make up the remaining majority. They also eat frogs, salamanders and, of course (thank you, thank you), they eat many artificial baits. In turn, young smallmouth are food for larger fish, including their own kind.
Fishing Techniques That Work: Smallmouth bass will attack a variety of lures and baits. They may be taken surface to bottom, but larger fish seek deeper or more protective water and are taken with deeper presentations. Smallmouth thrive best when competition from large-mouth is absent. Best natural baits are crayfish, minnows, nightcrawlers, leeches and hellgrammites. Many a casual worm fisherman has been surprised by hooking a smallmouth while fishing for panfish. Using medium to light tackle makes small-mouth bass one of the most sporting fish. Older smallmouth easily become educated and “angler-wise.” They become tough to catch and only the most natural appearing presentation will fool them. Smallmouth readily take artificial lures. Jigs, crankbaits and spinnerbaits are old-time favorites, but a smallmouth will hit any bait it can see, and some it can’t. A rather unique characterisic of smallmouth is that they will rise from depths of 20 feet or so to hit a noisy surface lure, such as a small buzzbait. Be sure to use smaller lures than for largemouth. Lures 1/8 to 1/2-ounce in size are good, 1/4-ounce is a good primary size. Colors that imitate crayfish, reds and oranges, perform well. Smallmouth are excellent game for fly fishing enthusiasts and readily take dry flies, poppers and streamers. Smallmouth have well developed senses, great vision and great smell capability. They are admirably adapted to their environment. One weakness is their curiosity. Small-mouth are more curious than largemouth. In underwater studies I conducted, it was common for trophy smallmouth (4-6 lbs.) to swim up to me and peer into my mask from only 1-2 feet away. I’ve even had them follow me about (under water) as I did my research. This may stem from another interesting smallmouth habit. Smallmouth will often follow a turtle or a sucker as it digs or roots in the bottom. They strike and capture insects or crayfish as they scurry to escape. Smallmouth also learn to follow below and close behind slow-moving boats. They feed on minnows and baitfish disrupted by the motor wake. “Wake trolling” a crankbait in the wake, frequently yields surprising midsummer smallmouth catches. Strikes from this technique are arm-wrenching. Smallmouth commonly aggregate along deep water drop-offs, rock piles, bars, humps, and in reservoirs at bends in old creek channels. In olden days it was possible to anchor and cast to a deep water rock pile and catch 10-20 small-mouth on consecutive casts. Fishing pressure has eliminated most of this, except in remote and unfished areas of Canada or hidden midlake structures which many fishermen fail to find.