Smallmouth Bass


Here’s a brief look at the life cycle of the smallmouth bass.

Scientific name: Micropterus dolomieuMicropterus means “small fin” and dolomieu was named after M. Dolomieu, a French mineralogist. In 1802, the French ichthyologist, Lacepede, examined a fish, which was sent to Paris from an unknown source in America, and named it Micropterus dolomieu. A few of the posterior rays of the dorsal fin were broken off, presenting the appearance of a separate small fin. Lacepede, supposing this to be a permanent and distinctive feature, used the name, Micropterus which means small fin. The specific name, dolomieu, was used as a compliment to Lacepede’s friend, M. Dolomieu, after which the mineral dolomite was named.

Characteristics: The name bass was first used for members of that family, and for members of the present family because of their resemblance to the original bass family. In the smallmouth bass, the maxillary, or upper jaw bone extends to a point between the middle of the pupil and the back of the eye but, in the largemouth bass, the maxillary extends well beyond the back of the eye. Another good way of separating these fish is based on the number of scales in the lateral line. LargemouthBass325The smallmouth has 68 to 81 scales in the lateral line and the largemouth has 58 to 69. In the smallmouth, the markings are in the form of dark, bronze-colored vertical bands, but in the largemouth there is a dark, horizontal stripe along the side. The spinous rays of the dorsal fin are considerably less arched in the smallmouth although, in both species, the dorsal fins are deeply notched, but not divided. The color of the smallmouth varies with the environment and may be bronze, green, or brownish’ green. In the young, the tail fin has a yellowish base, a black center and a white tip.

Natural Distribution: Smallmouth bass originally ranged north into Minnesota and southern Quebec, south to the Tennessee River in Alabama and west to eastern Oklahoma and southwestern Arkansas. Native bronzebacks were originally found in an area bordered on the west along the Mississippi River. They existed from Minnesota and southern Ontario down to Arkansas and east almost to the eastern seaboard where ambitious stocking supplemented natures efforts. Today there are few states, east or west of the Rocky Mountains, where populations have not become established. Florida and Louisiana are apparently free of smallmouth bass.

Unnatural Distribution: Stocking efforts began in the late 1800’s under the federal government. But unofficial stockings were done a number of ways including through lumber camps and via milk jugs off rail lines. Some of the finest smallie fishing in the country today exists in Virginia and the Carolinas. The smallmouth bass is common in small to large streams and in clean water lakes throughout the U.S. Don’t forget the next time you are in Hawaii, check out their smallmouth. I’ll bet you can give their state record of 4 lbs 2 oz caught in Honolulu (1997) a pretty good run. You will have your flyrod along anyway so check out the Manoa River.

Spawning: In the Smallmouth bass spawning usually occurs at water temperatures between 62-64º F, but they have been found spawning at 53º F. In the midwest the smallmouth spawns from the middle of May through June (water temperatures between 55-75º F). The male smallmouth may build several “practice nests” until he finally settles on one as suitable. The nest is usually a large, perfectly circular, clean gravel structure. Nests are usually located near shore in lakes; downstream from boulders or some other obstruction that offers protection against strong current in streams. Depth of nests will vary depending on water clarity and fishing pressure.

We suggest leaving spawning fish alone. The rigors of hook and line fighting require nearly an hour of rejuvenation time for a male smallmouth leaving the nest open to predation and lowering overall spawning success. Fish are extremely vulnerable and will hit anything.

Mature females may contain 2000-15,000 golden yellow eggs. Males may spawn with several females on a single nest. On average each nest contains about 2,500 eggs, but nests may contain as many as 10,000 eggs. Eggs hatch in about 10 days if water temperatures are in the mid-50’s (°F), but can hatch in 2-3 days if temperatures are in the mid-70’s (°F). Males guard the nest from the time eggs are laid until fry begin to disperse, a period of up to a month.

Growth: After hatching, the fry soon use up the food stored in the yolk sac. At this stage, they are about an inch long and jet black in color. They leave the nest and travel in schools under the protection of the male until they are several weeks old. After the male ceases to guard, the fry scatter in all directions. Temperature is a major factor in the successful reproduction of bass in May and June. According to Fry and Watt the strength of the year class is correlated directly with the accumulated temperature experience of the fish in their first summer, especially in the northern ranges.

As in other black bass, fry begin to feed on zooplankton, switching to insect larvae and finally fish and crayfish as they grow. When the yolk sac is absorbed, bass fry rise from the nest and are ready to take food through the mouth; this consists of minute crustaceans. They feed avidly on these until they are large enough to feed upon aquatic insects, large crustaceans and fry of other species of fish that spawned later. Mayflies are eaten during their emergence in early summer. Crayfish is a preferred food of older smallmouth bass and constitutes about two-thirds of the diet. Next to crayfish in importance are fish (perch, darters, sculpins, minnows, suckers, sunfish, rock bass and feathered poppers ; ). Growth progression from juvenile to adults varies greatly depending on natural factors such as climate and food sources.

Preferred Environs: Smallmouth bass prefer large clear water lakes (greater than 100 acres, more than 30 feet deep) and cool streams and rivers with clear water and gravel substrate. In small streams a fish’s activity may be limited to just one stream pool or extend into several. They are quite adaptable however, being found in colored water rivers and lakes, as well.

In general, lakes and rivers that are clear enough and rocky enough to be suitable for trout, but in which the water temperature is too high for trout, are generally suitable for smallmouth bass. Waters that are excessively warm, 80’F. and over, or those which remain cool, below 60’F., are not well suited to bass.

Angling: Pound for pound the smallmouth bass is the scrappiest fish around. It is usually associated with a rocky stream or lake environment where its favorite food, the crayfish, is abundant. Some of the best lake fishing takes place in June during, and just after the spawning season, and in early fall. Natural baits like hellgrammites, dragonfly larvae and crayfish are especially effective during early morning or late evening. Probably the best artificial baits are those used on the surface. Light tackle is ideal. Fish quietly, casting toward rocks or logs, keeping the rod tip up and the line taut.

Fly fishing for Smallmouth: Since most bass are shallow fish (less than fifteen feet), they are often accessible on or near the surface throughout most of the fishing season with some exceptions. Their shallow water living quarters matches that of their target food items especially crayfish, where available. This plays nicely into the hands of the fly angler. Lakes are better fly fished in the cooler water periods in spring and fall. When warm summer surface lake waters send bass deep, it’s river time!

Rivers are truly the easiest place to consistently score on shallow water fish and are the most under-utilized. Small rivers are a prime target where hours of solitude can still be enjoyed even amidst the frenzy of the new millennium. Many of the smaller rivers and streams offer great action year around (check local regulations).