Smallmouth Bass Fishing

by Kent Halstead

Sycamore Islander, June 2002

This article, and subsequent reports on "how to catch-em," are about one fish and one only, the king of freshwater game fish, the smallmouth bass. Pound-for-pound the smallmouth, or "bronze back" as they are called, is the most tenacious fighting fish in North America. This makes them not only the most fun to catch, but also not as difficult as others because of their predatory nature. Sunfish, surprisingly a member of the same family, shows the same scrappy behavior but on a smaller scale. Largemouth bass, in comparison, are a little more ponderous to this observer, less likely to engage in the aerial acrobatics of smallmouth, but a wonderful fighting cousin. So it is easy to concentrate on this species, especially since it is a primary piscis inhabitant of our Potomac River.

Description   Smallmouth bass, Micropterus dolomieui, are members of the sunfish family (Centrarchidae) of warmwater fish inhabiting most of the continental United States. Their short, broad tails give them the great burst of speed required to ambush prey. They are distinguished from their largemouth brothers by, obviously, smaller mouths (the jaw does not extend past the eye as it does on the largemouth). But they are more easily identified by the vertical bars along their sides as opposed to a near horizontal bar on largemouth (see images). And one can also tell the difference by their location, smallmouth primarily living in streams and rivers, largemouth almost exclusively in lakes and slower moving large rivers. Coloration on smallies can range from orange-brown to green-black depending on the surroundings. Generally speaking, smallmouth do not get as big as largemouth, but with their added ferocity are certainly big enough.

Habitat   Smallmouth prefer the clear, cool, flowing portions of streams and rivers with rock or gravel bottoms. This, of course, is just the type of water canoeists prefer so they are a perfect match. Smallmouth feed on crayfish, insects, and minnows which also favor rock and riffle areas. Smallmouth can also be found in the deeper water of reservoirs and lakes, especially if boulders and gravel bottoms are available. They are least likely to be found in still, clouded lakes with mud bottoms. They prefer water temperatures in the 65° - 72° F range. Despite their aggressive behavior, smallmouth are fairly skittish fish, preferring to ambush their prey from hidden positions. They usually reside in concealed areas near rocks or under brush, and always in the shade.

Smallmouth bass tend to spawn in the same spot year after year, and will spend much of their lives in the same area. Our portion of the Potomac (north from the Dalecarlia Reservoir dam upriver to the American Legion Memorial bridge), has a reasonable smallmouth population, but less than found farther upriver, around Point-of-Rocks for example.

Lifespan and Size   Smallmouth can live 18 years, but only a few live even half that long. They get off to an immediate good start with far more born than a river or stream can support; however, most die in the first year. By far the majority of smallmouth caught in our area of the Potomac are between 10 and 12 inches long, indicating an age of 4 to 6 years. Here are three benchmarks on which to judge weight and age by length. An 8-inch smallie will weigh about a half pound and be about 3 years old; a 13-inch fish will weigh about a pound and be approximately 7 years old; and a 16-inch fish will weigh close to 2 pounds and be 9 to 10 years old. Under less than desirable conditions it takes several years longer to reach these sizes. Trophy size smallmouth have a minimum length of 20 inches or 5 pound weight.

Kent also goes out for other species. In this
instance he’s down at Fletcher’s for the spring
run of shad, and has caught something
unusual -- a silver catfish.
Feeding Habits   Smallmouth eat just about anything alive including prey far larger than might be expected. Thus they target all manner of creatures depending on the time of year. Minnows and shiners are a staple all year, but relied upon more heavily in the spring in the absence of other food. In the summer, crayfish are the number one choice. Late in the season smallies take advantage of the various insect hatches, particularly the Dobson fly larva, also known as hellgrammites. But smallies are not fussy. They have been known to eat mice, frogs, small snakes, their own young, and other fish species, a pattern altogether consistent with their predatory nature.

Smallmouth generally feed during the day and early evening, not at night when they rest. This leads to forthcoming articles on how to locate and catch these wonderful fish and, of course, release them back to nature.