Smallmouth bass overview
Smallmouth bass are among the scrappiest, hardest fighting, and most exciting fish out there. Compared to the arguably more popular largemouth bass, smallmouth bass are often a little smaller but with twice the personality.
I grew up fishing primarily for smallmouth bass and remember being very excited the first time I had a chance to fish for largemouth bass, only to find out that I found smallies more fun anyway. They’ve gained popularity in the fly fishing world over the past few years due to their aggression and fighting ability, and now many anglers target them specifically.
For many people in the eastern U.S., they’re also a native species, which is always a treat.
Smallmouth bass get one of their main nicknames, the bronzeback, from their typical coloration of brown to bronze, occasionally also appearing greenish. Some are uniform in color, while others have very noticeable vertical brown bands or splotches. They are known for their bright red eyes, although darker brown eyes aren’t uncommon.
In addition to many other giveaways, smallies can be differentiated from largemouth bass by the length of the maxilla (the “flap” that extends back from a fish’s upper jaw). On a smallmouth, this extends back to the middle of the eye, while a largemouth’s extends past the eye.
Smallmouths average between 12 and 16 inches, but can easily grow over 20 inches and several pounds, with the record being over 10 pounds.
Life history and habitat
Compared to their stillwater-loving largemouth cousins, smallmouth bass often prefer the clearer, moving waters of creeks and rivers. That said, they can also frequently be found in clear lakes and reservoirs, and prefer rocky substrate. They do better in cooler water and are not typically found in warm, marshy areas. Smallies like cover, and often linger around submerged logs and other debris.
They spawn in the spring, but the exact timing varies by location, as what matters is water temperature. When water temps hit around 60 degrees (plus or minus a few degrees), spawning begins. The male makes a nest in the substrate, typically less than 150 yards from the previous year’s nest. The mating pair spawn at the nest, and then the female leaves, sometimes spawning again with another male. The male stays at the nest to guard the eggs, which hatch within a week.
Although many fish migrate, smallmouth bass are particularly known for their winter migration. When water temperatures drop in the winter, smallmouths move to their “winter grounds,” which are generally slower, deeper pools that provide cover, food, and, ideally, ample sunlight.
The smallmouth bass is native from Minnesota across to New York, down to Arkansas and across to Tennessee. Southern Ontario and Quebec also have native populations.
In addition, smallmouth bass have been introduced across the country into most states as a sportfish.
Fishing for smallmouth bass isn’t as daunting as for some of the picky salmonids. They eagerly take flies both on the surface and below.
Much of a smallmouth’s diet is made up of crayfish and baitfish, but they’ll also eat tadpoles, insects, and other small organisms. They aren’t particularly choosy, so focusing on presentation over exact fly selection is best.
Streamers, poppers, and other attention-grabbing flies should do the trick, and it’s a good idea to fish them with some “life.” Smallmouth bass aren’t passive fish, and will happily chase down a fleeing fly.
They fight hard and take relatively large flies, so a 5-, 6-, or 7-weight rod is ideal. Don’t put too much effort into thinning down your tippet, as smallmouths, like most bass, aren’t very line shy.