Science Name: Micropterus dolomieu
The smallmouth bass has a thick but elongated body, red eyes, and a broad and slightly forked tail. Its pelvic fins are situated near the front of the body below the pectoral fins. A single spine is found on each pelvic fin and on the front of the anal fin. The two dorsal fins are merged with the front one spiny and the second one featuring one spine followed by several soft rays. Coloring will vary from brown and golden brown to olive green on the back, which fades to gold on the sides and white on the belly, although the dominant colors will often extend all the way down the belly. Young smallmouth have more distinct vertical bars or rows of spots on their sides, and the tail fin is often orange at the base with black and white outer edges. The smallmouth is easily distinguished from its cousin, the largemouth, by its jaw bone, which extends to about the middle of the eye. The largemouth’s jaw will extend well beyond the eye. The coloration is also different, as smallmouth are more brownish in color, while the largemouth is predominantly green.
Smallmouth bass will not have the grassy taste that occaisionally appears in largemouth bass. Their meat is white, flaky, and has an excellent flavor. Also, low in oil content.
Smallmouth bass are strong, scrappy fighters and are known for their ability to jump numerous times during the fight in attempts to shake free from a hook. They are known as good but not great table fare, generally thought of as better tasting than largemouth bass, but not as good as walleye. Angling strategies will vary greatly depending on the body of water and time of year. In lakes, anglers will fish near rocky points, bluffs, islands and riprap banks. In rivers, anglers often fish for smallmouth below structures or objects like undercut banks, sunken logs, stumps and rock walls during high water periods in spring. Later in the season, areas above these places can be productive due to weaker current. Anglers should work a bait or lure with the current to imitate the natural movement of fish in a river. Fishing for smallmouths with live crayfish is particularly popular among live bait fishermen. Another good choice is a nightcrawler. Live crayfish and worms can be worked behind various bottom-bouncing rigs in flowing water, and under bobbers in calm water. A variety of artificial lures will also catch smallmouth. Those that imitate crayfish are the most popular, including crayfish-colored crankbaits, jigs and soft plastic imitations. When smallmouth are feeding on prey fish, curly-tail grubs, minnow-imitating crank baits and spoons are most effective.
Smallmouth bass prefer clear, calm waters and seek out areas with gravel, rubble, or rocky bottoms. They live in midsize, gentle streams that offer deep pools and plenty of shade, or in fairly deep, clear lakes and reservoirs with rocky bluffs, steep drop-offs and large shoals. They will also utilize weed beds and other vegetation, especially if found near some type of rock. Although they are fairly adaptable, they are rarely found in murky water. Smallmouth will inhabit rivers and streams with strong current but will spend most of their lives in areas that are sheltered from current. Mature smallmouths prefer rocky, shallow areas of lakes and rivers and retreat to deeper waters as temperatures rise. They tend to seek cover and avoid bright sunlight. They hide in deep water, behind rocks and boulders, and around underwater debris and crevices, preferring water temperatures between 66 and 72 F. Most bass do not travel great distances, and those in streams may spend the entire year in the same pool. As temperatures fall, they become less active and seek cover in dark, rocky areas.
Smallmouth larvae eat copepods, waterfleas, and other small zooplankton (small floating animals). At about 35 mm (1.5 in) they begin to include aquatic insect larvae and some small fish. At about 80 mm (3 in), they add crayfish to the menu. From 1 year old on, smallmouth bass eat mostly fish (darters, minnows, yellow perch, sunfishes, and others) and crayfish. If you have ever caught a smallmouth and examined its stomach contents, chances are you found bits and pieces of crayfish. In waters where crayfish are plentiful, they make up at least two-thirds of the smallmouth's diet.
Because crayfish inhabit the same rocky areas that smallmouth do, they make a convenient target for feeding bass. Other important items in the smallmouth's diet include fish, adult and immature insects, and tadpoles. I personally do well with these 4" pumpkinseed grubs.
The diet of smallmouth bass may vary from season to season, depending on the availability of food. In a five-year food-habits study conducted in Nebish Lake, Wisconsin, crayfish made up 83 percent of the smallmouth's diet in September, but only 14 percent in May. Insects made up 34 percent of the diet in May, but only 4 percent in July. Smallmouth feed very little during cold-water periods. Normally, they begin feeding in spring when the water temperature reaches about 47º. Food consumption peaks at water temperatures around 78º. When the water temperature drops below 40º in fall, practically no feeding takes place. However, in some high-competition waters, smallmouth continue to feed through the ice-cover season.
Smallmouth bass spawn mostly from the middle of May through the end of June when water temperature exceeds 15.5° C (about 60° F). We have records of spawning as late as early August, however. The male selects the spawning site and sweeps out a nest up to 1 m (3 ft) in diameter with his tail. The nest normally ends up in a gravel bed, often next to a log, boulder, or other obstruction in 1-3m (about 3-10 ft) of water. Once the nest is built, the male defends it aggressively from both male and female smallmouth. A female that wants to spawn has to be persistent. She may be helped somewhat by her change in appearance. The dark mottling on her body becomes more noticeable as the background color fades, and this may help communicate to the male that the female is ready. Once in the nest, both fish lay beside each other and release their eggs and sperm. This spawning act can be repeated every 30 seconds or so for up to 2 hours. When the female is done laying the eggs, she leaves the nest and the male stays behind to protect the eggs from predators. Both males and females usually spawn with more than one partner. A single female may lay 2,000-14,000 eggs, depending on her size. The eggs (embryos actually) hatch in about one week and the free-living embryos continue to develop in the nest for about one more week. After that, they swim up into the water column and begin to feed. In lakes, the male smallmouth may continue to protect the larvae for a short time even after they swim up.
Age and Growth:
Smallmouth bass differ from most freshwater gamefish in that males and females grow at about the same rate. Smallmouth in lakes and reservoirs usually grow faster and reach a larger size than those in streams. And smallmouth in southern waters generally grow faster than those in the North. The table shows how growth rates vary. In Norris Lake, Tennessee, for instance, an age-6 smallmouth measures 18 inches (about 4 pounds); in Lake Opeongo, Ontario, a smallmouth of the same age measures only 12.2 inches (about 1 pound). Although smallmouth grow much faster in the South, their maximum size varies less from North to South than would be expected. Smallmouth live as long as 18 years in the North, but seldom longer than 7 years in the South. Higher metabolic rates cause faster burnout in southern waters. Smallmouth weighing up to 11 pounds, 8 ounces have been taken from Canadian waters, and there are probably as many 5-pound-plus smallmouth caught in the North as in the South.
Tips for Fishing:
Flyfishing, baitcasting, and spincasting with a variety of lures are all popular ways of taking smallmouth bass. Live baits such as hellgrammites, soft craws, and minnows are also popular. May and June are the most productive months for smallmouth fishing.