The American angler is born with an awareness of the word “bass.” They are so ingrained in our culture that it is likely not until many years have passed that even seasoned reelers realize that they are several varieties (not unlike trout, salmon, and other catch-all words). Beyond the markings on their logo, even the venerable Bass Pro Shops is happy to capitalize on that ambiguity. The seasoned reeler, however, grows aware that there are a wide range of pan fish in this world, and bass are just some of the most attractive quarries.
Today we focus on but one of these muscle-bound fish, the powerhouse that is the smallmouth bass! The smallmouth is part of the ‘black bass’ family of pan fish. There they join thirteen recognized bass species including Alabama bass, Florida bass, Chattahoochee bass, Cahaba bass, Guadalupe bass, largemouth bass, redeye bass (not to be confused with the rock bass), Swannee bass, shoal bass, smallmouth bass, spotted bass, Tallapoosa bass, and warrior bass. That’s a lot of bass, but only the smallmouth bass serves as the archetype (type species) of the black bass genus. Let’s give it a look and give it some love.
The smallmouth bass is beloved throughout the American northern and middle states because it grows quickly, gives a great fight, can theoretically make for a good meal (don’t quote us on that), and thrives just about anywhere there is year-round water in its extended range.
Males typically come in at around 2lbs, but females can top the scales at 4-6lbs. Smallmouth bass lay up to 21,000 eggs per breeding season, but survival rates vary wildly from year to year. On average, smallmouth bass grow about 6-8 inches in their first year, and an additional 2-4 inches thereafter. Specimens over 7lbs are exceedingly rare, but are more likely in warmer climates.
The smallmouth bass is generally green-brown, with red or brown eyes, and dark brown vertical bands. It is common to see several ‘stripes’ along its face, but coloration and patterns vary even within the same stream section. Generally smaller than its largemouth cousin, the smallmouth bass can most easily be distinguished by its smaller mouth (stopping before it meets the eyeline) and its vertical striping (rather than horizontal).
The coloration of smallmouth bass is also dependent on their living conditions and diet. River smallmouth tend to be more torpedo-shaped and darker, blending in with tree covering and shadows. Lake smallmouth can be might paler in color, especially if there is a sandy bottom.
Smallmouth bass prefer similar water to their trout brethren, but enjoy a wider range of temperatures and water quality. They used to be relegated to the upper-reaches of the Mississippi River watershed and some territory around the Great Lakes, but humans have a habit of spreading game fish. They traveled with the Erie Canal through much of New York, and stocking spread them across much of the country.
They are a good indication of a healthy waterway, but are able to tolerate more pollution than most cold-water species. Most anglers refer to smallmouth bass as a warmwater fish, but they prefer waters considerably cooler than almost any other kind of black bass. These fish can be found most commonly in creeks and rivers, but also are often stocked in private ponds and lakes.
Smallmouth bass slow down their metabolism during the winter months and may migrate to deeper pools and warmer sections of a waterway. Their hunger usually begins to raise their activity level in early spring, and they can still be fairly active through the fall, even in northern states.
Conventional gear: The smallmouth bass LOVES crank baits, poppers, spoons, and most any kind of noisy or flashy gear in the 1-2″ range. Bass are active predators and eat crayfish, minnows, insects, and honestly most anything that will fit into their mouth. Use quick-retrieve movements and stop at regular intervals to imitate an injured fish. Mid-to-top water retrieves are most successful for moving waterways, but finding their holding areas will always be the key.
Fly gear: Smallmouth bass can be a blast on a fly rod. It is recommended that you use a 5-7wt fly rod in the 8-10′ range. A 9 foot leader is a good bet, but larger flies will force you to cut that down a foot or more. I LOVE using poppers for smallmouth (and rarely deviate from that, just change the color based on hunches), but they will also grab wooly buggers, articulated streamers, or mickey finns. Some reelers have luck using mayfly immitations during coffin fly hatches, but I still recommend you stick with a popper or other large offering. They’ll bite!
The All-Tackle World Record for smallmouth bass is 11lb 15oz caught in 1955 by David L. Hayes in Dale Hollow Reservoir in Kentucky. Wait, it might ALSO be 11lbs 15oz caught in 1955 by David L. Hayes in…Tennessee? The fact of the matter is that these are the same record for the same fish, but the border-straddling reservoir is just the location. Kentucky AND the IGFA vacated Hayes’ record after a 1996 investigation confirmed that someone else weighed the fish and could have potentially weighed it down.
In a 1996/1997 re-investigation, the facts were laid out that Mr. Hayes did indeed catch a record-setting bass. Independent news outlets interviewed the people involved and the state of Tennessee re-instated the record. KY has since reinstated the record as well, but not the IGFA (which took over record keeping from Field and Stream in 1978).