Smallmouth Bass Basics: Everything You Need to Know

Written by: Pete D
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Some of my most memorable days fishing were spent on a clear, rocky-bottomed river catching smallmouth bass. They’d race in to take my lure, hit it like a run-away freight train, and leap into the air, shaking their heads for all they were worth!

It’s easy to understand the popularity of smallmouth bass, and pound for pound, ounce for ounce, there’s no more aggressive, hard-fighting fish out there.

If you’d like to know more about smallies, we’ve got you covered.

Below, we’ll discuss the basics of identification, cover smallmouth bass behavior, and suggest the best lures and techniques to catch them.

So keep reading!

Also Read:

Smallmouth Bass 101: Smallie Basics

smallmouth bass basics

The smallmouth bass, Micropterus dolomieu belongs to the black bass family, placing it in the same genus as the largemouth. Neither as long nor as heavy as this close cousin, the smallmouth can nevertheless reach an impressive 27 inches and 12 pounds.

What Do Smallmouth Bass Eat?

Aggressive and formidable as a predator, the smallmouth is always on the lookout for its next meal, and it isn’t terribly picky about what that might be.

Smallmouth bass eat insects of all kinds, small fish, frogs, lizards, snakes, snails, crawfish: pretty much anything in the water is on the menu!

And their powerfully muscled, streamlined bodies allow them to accelerate in a flash and hit prey with real authority.

Check out our recommneded bass bait: Best Bait For Smallmouth Bass

How To Identify Smallmouth Bass

Green-gold to olive, the smallmouth bass typically shades from darker hues at the dorsal fin to a white belly. Many will sport vertical spots, but this is far from universally true.

To identify smallmouth bass you can inspect the upper jaw: it will not protrude beyond the rear of the eye. You’ll also note horizontal bands or stripes running along the head from the snout. A careful look at its dorsal fins will reveal that they’re connected, making differentiation from largemouth bass simple.

fisherman holding smallmouth bass

Hazy, overcast days are ideal for catching smallmouth bass in the shallows.

Smallmouth Bass: Habitat, Spawning, and Feeding

Where do smallmouth bass live?

Smallmouth bass live in areas with clear running water and a rocky or sandy bottom with little to no aquatic vegetation.

Smallmouth bass are almost exclusively sight predators, and as such, they favor very clear water to enable them to hunt effectively. Rocky or sandy bottoms are almost a must, and they prefer little to no aquatic vegetation.

They also enjoy a current, allowing ambush predation in eddys and pools, and they’re frequently found in clear-running rivers and streams, unlike their cousin, the largemouth. As such, their habitats rarely overlap.

Smallies will stay deep when the sun is bright, and clear, bluebird skies necessitate that you find deeper holes and pools than normal. Late in the afternoon, around dusk, and early in the morning, you’ll find them moving into the shallows to hunt, making these ideal times to hit them hard when the weather is nice.

On cloudy, overcast, or rainy days, you’ll find the smallies holding shallow, allowing you to hit them more or less all day.

But beware: once runoff starts to color the water, the smallmouth bite is all but dead!

angler catches smallmouth bass

Clear, moving water and a rocky bottom? Looks like smallie territory to me!

More tolerant of cold water than other members of the black bass family, smallies will nevertheless enter a state of cold-induced torpor over the winter, looking for warmer areas on a river or stream and ceasing active feeding. But once the water temperatures climb to 50 degrees, they’ll typically resume activity and start feeding in preparation for the spawn.

When Do Smallmouth Bass Spawn?

Smallmouth bass spawn when the water warms up to 55F to 60F.

When the water warms to 55F to 60F, smallmouth will begin the spawn, enter reproductive anorexia, and only strike to guard fertilized eggs. After this period of hunger, the smallies will turn quite aggressive, making the post-spawn a great time to fish for them.

As we noted above, clear, running water and smallmouth bass are essentially synonyms. But that has some profound consequences for anglers.

smallmouth bass caught in shallow water

Don’t think you need to look deep for smallmouth bass. They can and will be caught in knee-deep water.

Close Kin of the Smallmouth Bass

The smallmouth bass is closely related to the entire black bass family, a fact we’ve discussed at length before: Types of Bass. This makes them virtual cousins of the largemouth bass, as well as the many species of black bass inhabiting restricted geographical ranges.

Easily the most common kin you’ll catch is the largemouth, however, and they’re easy to tell apart.

largemouth bass

In contrast to smallies, largemouth sport an upper jaw that extends behind the rear of the eye, as well as a clearly separated dorsal fin.

Smallmouth Bass Range and Location

smallmouth bass range and location

Smallmouth bass don’t enjoy the same country-wide range that largemouth do, though they are present in most of the lower 48. Originally confined to the “St. Lawrence and Great Lakes, Hudson Bay (Red River), and Mississippi River basins from southern Quebec to North Dakota and south to northern Alabama and eastern Oklahoma; Atlantic and Gulf slope drainages from Virginia to central Texas,” smallies have been introduced elsewhere, constituting a direct threat to the aquatic ecosystems in which they are invasive species.

Chalk that up to aggressive predation.

In states like Texas, where the smallmouth has been introduced, “It has been documented that the smallmouth bass does significantly reduce the fish diversity in lakes that it is present, and also with their voracious appetite they reduce the availability of prey fauna for native fishes.”

In British Columbia, “They have been known to deplete waterways of smaller fish and are considered a serious threat to native animals in the waterways they inhabit, including juvenile salmon.”

Smallmouth Bass: Techniques and Lure Selection

Smallmouth are aggressive, sight-oriented predators that will attack a variety of lures, including most options you’d throw for largemouth bass. That said, there are options that are tailored to the behavior and habitat of smallmouth that are just amazing.

Let’s discuss some of the most common options. See our full guide for more options: Best Smallmouth Bass Lures

Creature crankbaits

Smallmouth key-in on prey items by sight, and high water clarity makes tricking their eyes tough work. 

One way to trick them is with a hyper-realistic creature crankbait like the Rebel Lures Original Realistic Crawfish

Rebel Teeny Wee Crawfish Fishing Lure - Cajun Crawdad

Amazon 

Don't let this little guy fool you: it’s all go! Run this crankbait into every rock and branch you can find. As it hits, that fat lip will cause erratic deflections that elicit reaction strikes from smallies.

It’s available in three depths: Teenee Wee, Wee, and Deep Wee, and I carry all three depending on when and where I’m fishing.

Spinnerbaits

You can also count me as a fan of smaller spinnerbaits like the Booyah Pond Magic. Armed with one lead and one Colorado blade, it thumps like mad and swims pretty shallow. I’ll slow my retrieve to get it bumping every rock I can, and just like a crankbait, those darting impacts really turn up the heat on smallies.

BOOYAH Pond Magic - Sunrise Craw - 3/16 oz - #0 Colorado/#3 Willow, Model:BYPM36715

Amazon 

Because the water smallmouth prefer is so clear, I always try to “match the hatch” with realistic designs and colors. 

If you’d like the dull run-down on fishing spinnerbaits, or you just need a refresher, check out this article:

How to Fish a Spinnerbait: A Complete Guide for New Anglers

Topwater poppers

If there’s a favorite technique for catching smallmouth for me, it must be topwater.

I've thrown everything from Rebel Lures Pop-R to Heddon’s Tiny Torpedo, and whether I “walk the dog” or just rip and pause, smallmouth can’t get enough! 

I actually had smallies destroy a few lures after a hundred hits or so, literally breaking the prop off the back of one Heddon they hit it so hard and often.

Heddon Tiny Torpedo 1/4oz Clear - Single Lure

Amazon 

Fishing with topwater lures is easy and incredibly exciting. If you want to know more, you can read up on technique here:

How to Rig and Fish a Topwater Lure: A Guide for New Anglers

Drop shot rigs with small soft plastics

When you need to work the bottom precisely, nothing beats a drop shot rig.

Easy to rig and fish, if you need a guide to this technique, we’ve written quite a bit about it:

How To Tie a Drop Shot Rig

Drop Shot Tips

Best Drop Shot Rods for the Money: Our Favorites Reviewed

Rocky bottoms are easily worked with a cylinder sinker that doesn’t get caught up easily, and your ability to adjust the depth of your presentation is amazing.

I like to add a 2 ¾-inch Strike King Coffee Fat Tube, a 2-inch Bobby Garland Crappie Bait, or a Zoom Bait Fat Albert Grub. All three are the right size to get smallies thinning “meal,” and they offer a wide range of natural colors for clear water, as well as lots of tail action.

Zoom Bait 011025 Fat A-Poundert Curly TailGrub, 3-Inch, 10-Pack, Green Pum-Packin, One Size (011-025)

Amazon 

I throw mine into eddys and pools where I know prey items will seek sanctuary from the current, and the smallmouth bass are waiting for just that opportunity.

Swimming a hair jig

A final smallmouth option that’s not to be missed is swimming hair jig.

Hair Jig 1/4oz - Bass Fishing Hair Jig for Smallmouth bass, Walley and Many Other Game Fish (Brown)

Amazon 

Tie this small jig onto the end of your line, making sure to orient that knot at the top of the eye rather than toward its front. In other words, you want the jig to orient itself horizontally in the water, not vertically.

Then cast this jig into pools and eddies or let it be swept downstream into them, and try to retrieve it across rocks and other cover just like a crankbait.

Smallmouth bass will react to that skirt and natural movement, as well as the darting misdirections that occur when you slam it into cover.

Final Thoughts

If smallmouth bass inhabited a wider geographic range, I think they’d rival their largemouth cousins in popularity. And if you happen to live where smallies can be found, take advantage of that fact!

We hope that you've learned something from his article today, and if you have, we’d love to hear from you!

Please leave a comment below.

About The Author
Pete D
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Pete grew up fishing on the Great Lakes. When he’s not out on the water, you can find him reading his favorite books, and spending time with his family.
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