Smallmouth bass is the second most popular bass species in the United States, and that’s for good reason. While they're not nearly as large as their bigger cousins, they are some of the feistiest fish in American waters.
While professional and even most serious casual anglers can tell the difference between smallmouth and other species, beginners and very casual fishermen still tend to have troubles.
We want to help clear that up.
This guide to smallmouth bass will be most useful to beginner anglers, but even pros can stand to learn something from the details.
Let’s get started.
Defining Traits of a Smallmouth Bass
In most of the US, the only thing you need to distinguish between a smallmouth and a largemouth bass is the position of the jaw attachment point.
On a largemouth, the most popular game fish in the US, the jaw attaches to the body behind the eye. On a smallmouth, and all other bass species, it attaches just beneath the eye.
If you’re fishing in a body of water or an area that has largemouth, smallmouth, and other bass species, that's when you tend to have problems.
The main way to tell that you still have a smallie on your hands is that it’s fat, dark green, and has vertical bands along the sides. A largemouth is often very green, and a spotted bass has the same jaw and size, but a smallie’s dark green and brown coloring matched with vertical lines helps tell it apart from other species as long as the fish is fully matured.
During the spawn, when patterns are just coming in, it’s possible that a smallie can blend in with other non-largemouth species due to weak coloring.
What is a Smallmouth Bass Known for?
Primarily, a smallie, or smallmouth bass, is known for the tremendous fight it can put up despite its size.
A smallie isn’t as acrobatic as a largemouth, and it doesn’t dive like a spotted bass, but its movements are far more erratic, and it can easily exert as much force as a largemouth of the same size. In fact, the largemouth’s main advantage is that it grows substantially larger than smallmouth bass.
This is one reason a niche group of anglers prefer smallies. While smaller, they tend to be a tougher fight than largemouth bass of the same size. Making them the second most targeted game fish in the US.
However, a few other distinguishing features make smallmouth bass stand out.
1: A Focus On Smaller Lures
Smallmouth bass can’t spread their mouth as wide as a largemouth. Even if you have two 8-pound bass from each species, the smallmouth bass can only open its mouth about half as wide. As such, they tend to bite on smaller bass lures. We’ll talk about lure choices later, but keep this in mind. Much of your kit for largemouth will work, but not all of it.
2: Fish Cover
Largemouth can be caught all over a lake because they’re essentially apex predators. They do take cover to get the drop on faster bait fish, but they can be caught in the middle of a wide-open lake. Smallmouth bass tend to stick to cover more often because they need the drop on smaller fish to get a meal.
So, you’ll find yourself targeting the covered areas a lot more if you solely target smallmouth bass.
3: Fish Darker Hours
The time you fish for smallies is important. You can catch largemouth 24/7 depending on the overcast, but smallies tend to be most active during the dark early morning hours and the early evening hours when the sun is setting.
If you’re targeting smallmouth bass, the darker hours are the time to do it. Otherwise, switch over to largemouth targets. You can still catch smallies, but you’ll have a better chance by switching targets.
What is the Favorite Bait of a Smallmouth Bass?
The bait you should use for smallmouth, or try to replicate with a lure, comes down to two options depending on the season.
1: Craws in Fall and Winter
If you’re fishing for smallmouth bass in the fall or winter, you need to use crawfish and lures that emulate crawfish. That’s the most common smallmouth bass food during the colder seasons.
They will technically bite most other options, but if you really want to target them, you want to have a large selection of craws available in your tackle box.
2: Smaller Worms
Smaller “worm” lures are great for smallmouth bass. While largemouth will suck up 14-inch worms without a care in the world, smallmouth tend to prefer small U-tail worms and similar baits. Their mouth isn’t as large, and as such, they just want smaller baits.
3: Fish Deeper
It’s fairly easy to find largemouth close to shore targeting entire schools of baitfish, but smallies are usually further out. They like deeper, colder water compared to their large-jawed cousins, and you might need to target them more toward the middle of the water.
As such, you’ll also probably find them more easily in bodies of water that have deeper sections. They’re not very common in your run-of-the-mill 5-foot lake that is man-made. They like deep water.
More so, they like lures that cut through the darker patches of deeper water. So, brighter, more neon colors are essential. This is only a bad idea during crawfish season when they are looking for the bright red of a crawfish’s exoskeleton.
In general, a minimum of 10 feet will be where you catch smallies.
Differences in the Fight
There are a few differences in how smallmouth bass fight and the largemouth that you’ve likely caught plenty of.
1: Reeling Them Up
A largemouth is usually around the bait fish, and that usually means they’re not far away from the surface. Even when they go deeper because of weather conditions, you don’t have to crank them up to the top as much. Especially since they naturally rush to the top of the column and attempt to breach the surface to put on an aggressive display. They still put up a hard fight, but it’s nowhere near as blind and difficult to understand as a smallie.
Since smallies tend to swim deeper, most of your fight will result in pulling them up to the surface. If a smallie is 40 feet below the surface, they won’t rush up to breach and flail. They’ll pull and erratically jerk.
Pulling smallies up can be challenging, and it all comes down to your drag and keeping your rod tip high without snapping it.
2: Dealing With Erratic Movements
Largemouth aren’t exactly predictable, but smallies are even worse. Their entire method of fighting requires them to jerk back and forth while trying to stay deep in the water column. So, your drag needs to be sensitive and capable of withstanding plenty of sudden heavy pulls. If you have it set too high, a smallie will suddenly jerk to the side and destroy your rig.
Obviously, you can’t prepare for this any more than you can for a largemouth to breach and flair its gills at you.
So, simply keep it in mind, and try to be more careful when you’re reeling in a smallie than you would be reeling in a largemouth, channel cat, or bluegill.
3: Less Weight
One good thing about fighting smallies is that they weigh much less. So, you can afford to use 12-pound mono or any other line that would be considered an amateur option for largemouth anglers.
How Big are Smallmouth Bass?
Smallmouth bass are a lot smaller than their largemouth counterparts. While 21 pounds is roughly the official record for largemouth bass, smallmouth bass rarely get over 6 pounds. This is both a blessing and a curse.
First and foremost, it's a problem because most states that have smallies have their records almost maxed out. On the other hand, that, combined with the limited population in various areas with massive largemouths, creates a fish that has the potential to be extremely successful without having to catch a massive 22-pounder or anything like that.
Tips for Catching Smallmouth Effectively
We’ve already talked about using smaller lures, fishing at the right times, and preparing for a more erratic fight. However, these are some tips to make the fight more interesting.
Use Appropriate Rods
First and foremost, smallmouth bass are smaller fish. As such, you shouldn’t use your giant ultra-heavy rods with 40-pound braid to pull them in. Your equipment can make a great fight seem like the fish is extremely weak and mundane to catch.
Instead, stick to medium-heavy and lighter rods when you’re targeting smallies. This will ensure that, even if you hook into a standard 4-pound smallie, the fight will be substantial, and your skills will be tested.
On top of that, try not to use excessively powered lines. Braided line is fine, and even necessary for some smallie setups, but it shouldn’t be so strong that there’s no chance the fish can snap it and you’re basically dragging the fish in. There’s no sport in that.
Top Lures for Smallies
The bass lures that work for largemouth tend to work for smallmouth, but there are some lures that work better.
Noticeably, chatterbaits and other high-intensity, vibrating baits tend to catch the most smallies. It’s something about the vibration that startles them and kicks them into overdrive.
Chatterbaits, crankbaits with rattles, RattleTraps, topwater frogs with a few split shot inserted into them, and spinners tend to be premium smallie lures that can catch fish back to back.
Where to Catch Smallmouth Bass
While largemouth are practically all over the US, they tend to be less populous in the northern regions of the state. That's because that’s the smallmouth territory.
There are lakes in Kentucky and other midwestern states that have smallies, but mostly, you’ll find the largest populations up north.
This is because smallmouth love colder waters, and they tend to stick to those regions. They also naturally occur in those areas and don’t need to be stocked or transported to them.
New York, North Dakota, Maine, and practically any other state that borders Canada will be ripe with smallmouth bass for you to catch. Of course, even further north, into Canada, you can expect to catch smallmouth almost exclusively.
So, largemouth bass tends to like warmer waters and are most prevalent in the southern half of the US and the west coast, and smallies tend to be dominant in the northern half and the east coast of North Carolina.
Interesting Facts About Smallmouth Bass
There are some facts that most anglers don’t know about bass in general. Let alone smallmouth bass specifically.
First, smallmouth, and the other 2 main bass species in the US, are part of the black bass family. None of them are black, but they are darker in color than seabass, stripers, and hybrids that all tend to be white.
Then, they’re actually sunfish. That’s right. They’re part of the same general family as the pumpkin seed and bluegill that you grew up fishing. They’re just larger. This is why, when you use ultralight equipment, those tiny sunfish can actually put up a hard fight and burn out your reel with ease. The entire family of fish is fairly good at fighting against anglers once they’re hooked.
Finally, they enter a hibernation-like state in winter. Largemouth slow down, but they don’t entirely disappear. You can still catch them in the dead of winter. Smallmouth migrate to deeper pools, and they suspend until warmer weather comes with minimal interest in food outside of the few days that warmer weather arrives. This is likely due to the colder climates that they live in, producing far more intense winters.
Find Smallies with BassForecast
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We have in-depth maps of all of America’s waterways, and we provide detailed, real-time, information that can help you find the perfect spot and time to catch record-sized smallies.