How to Catch Smallmouth Bass

Fishing Expert Alex Johnson details everything you'll need to know to land the elusive, yet exciting smallmouth bass this upcoming season!

A man holds a bass on a boat.

My Personal Best (PB) Smallmouth caught on Lake St. Clair in Michigan. All photos courtesy of Alex Johnson

The Smallmouth bass, or Micropterus Dolomieu, is often confused with or thought of as the same species as their ever more popular cousin, the Largemouth bass. As I will lay out in this article, Smallmouth bass are unique in their own right and a worthy target species. If you want to catch them, you have to approach them differently than other bass species. So read on and take note of my tips on how to differentiate them from other bass species, as well as where they live, what gear you’ll need, and some of the best places to fish for them.

I personally love Smallmouth bass and they are without a doubt my favorite freshwater species to catch. They are ferocious predators and the habitat they live in is often the most unique and beautiful you can encounter. Smallmouth bass go by several names such as Smallies, Smalljaws, Bronzebacks, and Footballs. Whatever you call them, if you’ve ever caught one you know it’s addicting, and if you haven’t caught one yet, you’ll know how soon enough!

Anatomy

A man holds up a smallmouth bass caught on Lake St. Clair.

My friend with a beautiful tiger-pattern smallie from Lake St. Clair

The first part of targeting Smallmouth bass is figuring out how to identify them. Novice anglers and non-fishing folks tend to confuse them with other bass species and don’t even realize they’re an entirely different species. Smallmouth bass are members of the sunfish family, and along with their close relatives, Largemouth and Spotted bass, are considered part of the Black bass group.

One of the most noticeable differences between Smallmouth bass and other bass species is directly tied to its namesake. Unlike the Largemouth bass, whose jaw extends beyond its eye, the Smallmouth bass’s jaw extends to about half that distance. Other noticeable differences are size and color. Smallmouth bass have a brownish-bronze color, giving a reason for their nickname of “bronzebacks.” They also sometimes have bright red eyes and spotted or striped patterns on their body. Although the average Smallmouth is about the same size as the average Largemouth, in the upper reaches of their size potential they are still dwarfed by the Largemouth. While Largemouth bass have been known to grow to sizes of 20+ pounds, Smallmouth have been known to reach a maximum of slightly over 11 pounds, according to the current world records.

Where to Find Smallmouth Bass

The author stands with a smallmouth bass next to a river.

River smalljaw I caught near some very swift rapids

What makes Smallmouths unique and different from other bass species is where they live. While Largemouths are known for living in still water ponds, lakes, backwaters, and areas with thick aquatic vegetation and cover, Smallmouths prefer rocky areas because their preferred prey, crayfish (a.k.a. crawfish), live in those same rocky areas. As a result, Smallmouths are most commonly found in rivers and very large lakes and reservoirs where rocky habitat is found, especially if it has high water clarity. These areas are sometimes referred to as shoals.

Smallmouth bass are also more adapted to colder climates and spawn in the spring, when the water reaches anywhere from 60-63 degrees, which can be anytime between April and June or July, depending on latitude. Although they share a similar spawning water temperature to Largemouth, Smallmouth often outnumber Largemouth in the Great Lakes system and other northern bodies of water because of their preference for colder water. Due to this preference, some of the best Smallmouth fisheries are in the northern regions of the United States. If not in huge clear lakes, you're sure to find Smallmouth in your local river system, as Smallmouth thrive in river habitats and will outcompete other bass species in clear streams and rivers because of how well adapted they are to them.

When fishing for Smallmouth, look for rip rap damns, rocky points, and shallow areas with various size rocks, gravel, and boulders, as well as flat areas with deep aquatic vegetation. A surefire way to catch huge Smallmouth is to cruise the shallows during the spawn, and if the water is clear enough, spot their beds or nests and throw tubes or drop shot at them to entice a strike. Just make sure you practice safe handling and catch-and-release with spawning Smallmouth. Outside of the spawn, Smallmouth are sometimes difficult to locate on large bodies of water because they tend to migrate to deep offshore structures.

Gear to Use

Gear used for Smallmouth fishing is not all that different than what you would use for targeting Largemouth. Some of the most popular Largemouth gear and lures can be used interchangeably for Smallmouth, so odds are, if you’re an avid bass fisherman, you’ll already have most of what you need. However, if you want to target Smallmouth specifically, you’ll have to make a few slight adjustments.

For around 90 percent of Smallmouth fishing techniques, all you’ll need is a basic spinning setup. Start with a 7’ Medium-Fast spinning rod paired with a 2500-3000 size spinning reel. For line, you can spool your reel entirely with 6-10 pound Fluorocarbon (I use 8 pound), or you can spool the majority of your reel with 15-30 pound braided line and tie a long fluorocarbon leader to the braid with a line-to-line knot such as a Surgeons or Blood Knot. The braid-to-fluorocarbon method will give you ultimate sensitivity to feel even the most subtle bites, and a low-profile line-to-line knot will pass right through your reel and rod guides with ease. This spinning setup will be in your hand the majority of the time while targeting Smallmouth and can be used for the following popular and effective Smallmouth lures: drop-shot rig, tube jigs, micro jigs, small jerkbaits, small crankbaits, small swimbaits, etc.

Another rod-and-reel setup that I would suggest would be a baitcasting setup for topwater lure techniques. Start with a 7’-7’6” Medium Heavy-Fast casting rod paired with a 7:3 gear ratio low profile baitcasting reel. For line, this is one of those few occasions where monofilament is actually your best option because it is translucent and it floats on its own. Use a clear 10-12 pound monofilament for use with spooks, poppers, and Whopper Plopper-style baits.

Bait and Lures

I briefly touched on some common lures and rigs for Smallmouths, but to go into some more detail I’ll go over the four categories of lures you’ll be using to target them and cite some specific examples. The four categories are:

  1. Deep water/bottom techniques
  2. Subsurface lures
  3. Topwater lures
  4. Live bait

Each has its place in your tackle box and knowing how to utilize all the categories will make you a more successful Smallmouth angler.

As a general rule of thumb for Smallmouth gear, whatever lure you’d use for Largemouth, downsize it a few notches. Those giant swimbaits and bulky Texas rigs just won’t work for Smallmouths. Remember, they have a small mouth. They won’t go after something they can’t swallow, so use smaller size lures. Resist the temptation to grab the biggest lure you have with hopes of catching a state record. Odds are you’ll just end up skunked with that approach.

Deep Water / Bottom Fishing Techniques

Since Smallmouths often prefer deeper areas and stay close to the bottom, these lures and rigs are what you’ll be using most often. The most common rig for Smallmouths by a huge margin is the Drop Shot Rig. This simple rig is extremely effective and easy to put together. It consists of a basic drop shot hook tied with a Palomar knot, with a long tag end that is tied to a small drop shot weight. A soft plastic drop shot lure is rigged through the nose to the hook. If you had to pick one, and only one rig for Smallmouth fishing, you would be foolish not to choose a drop shot rig. Odds are you’ll catch most of your Smallmouth with a drop shot rig above all other techniques, trust me.

Other effective bottom fishing lures include tube baits, which are a relatively close second to drop shot, ned rigs, and micro jigs. Use these techniques in areas with gravel bottoms, offshore structures, and deep aquatic vegetation.

Subsurface Lures

For subsurface lures, downsized jerkbaits such as the Rapala X-Rap and Rapala Huskey Jerk are a couple of my personal favorites. In addition, crayfish colored/pattern crankbaits work well, along with baitfish pattern soft plastic jerkbaits (flukes), swimbaits, white or chartreuse twister tails, classic spinnerbaits, and just about any soft plastic worm. Use these lures in transitional areas such as along weed edges, drop-offs, and along dams and spillways. These lures also work well in current seams, rapids, riffles, eddies, and cut banks in rivers where bottom fishing is sure to result in snags.

Topwater Lures

Topwater fishing can be very exciting when the action is on, especially for ferocious, hard-fighting smallies. Keep an eye out for baitfish schools breaking the surface, bass jumping, and other surface activity. Once you have located a topwater frenzy, spooks, poppers, or the crowd favorite Whopper Plopper will trigger some strikes. Dawn and dusk are the best times for topwater Smallmouth fishing and when you’re most likely to encounter smallies feeding on the surface, so plan accordingly for a topwater bite, because the perfect window can come and go in no time.

Live Bait

Lastly, I’d be foolish if I didn't discuss using live bait. It seems a lot of folks these days turn their nose up at live bait, but unless you’re fishing in a tournament that prohibits live bait, you don’t really have an excuse not to give it a try. Using live bait can turn a day of no bites into catching the most fish you ever have in one trip. Sometimes there's nothing like the real thing and it's hard for fish to resist. For Smallmouth, simple red worms or nightcrawlers will work, as well as live minnows or shiners. But the best live bait for Smallmouth by far has to be live crayfish. Crayfish are the preferred prey for Smallmouth, which is why they are most often found in rocky areas. Rig any one of these onto a live bait hook with a small split shot. Optionally, you can add a spring bobber to suspend your bait.

Destination Fisheries

A man drives a boat on a lake.

Fishing Lake St. Clair was a Bucket List achievement for me

If you are looking to travel to some of the best Smallmouth bass fisheries in the United States, the good news is there is quality Smallmouth fishing almost all over the country, so odds are you won’t have to travel terribly far.

In the Southern states, many of the large reservoirs have excellent Smallmouth populations, but Dale Hollow Lake in Tennessee reigns king with the world record Smallmouth having been caught there. The Midwest hosts arguably the best and most widely available Smallmouth fishing, because of the abundance of natural lakes. Any one of the Great Lakes are great places for a Smallmouth trip. Others include Lake St. Clair in Michigan (and Canada), Mille Lacs in Minnesota, Sturgeon Bay of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, and further northeast the lower St. Lawrence River in upstate New York. Further west, you can find stellar river Smallmouth fishing in the Ozark region of Missouri and Arkansas, and many of the large reservoirs in the Pacific Northwest are well known for producing PB (Personal Best) worthy smallies.

Do yourself a favor and try to make it to at least one of these fisheries in your lifetime. Although you can find quality Smallmouth fishing almost anywhere in the United States, these places are truly exceptional!

And while Smallmouth fishing is by no means underappreciated among bass anglers, and the angling community in general, I do believe it deserves some higher recognition for its uniqueness. Targeting Smallmouths often takes a back seat to targeting Largemouths, for reasons I’ll never fully understand.

Smallmouth bass fishing offers a unique and incredibly fun fishing style. Although similar in many ways to its close cousin the Largemouth bass, Smallmouths have some key differences that you should keep in mind to make sure you can catch them. Finding their preferred rocky habitat in rivers or large lakes and downsizing your lures, as I have mentioned, are great places to start. I hope you take these tips to the water and catch a monster of a Smallmouth, because there is nothing like fighting a big bronzeback, smalljaw, smallie, or whatever you want to call it! If you want to chat about the best setup or upgrade your gear, reach out to a Fishing expert here on Curated for free, personalized advice and recommendations!

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Written By
I am a lifelong fisherman based in the Midwest, and I have had a passion for fishing and the outdoors for as long as I can remember. As a recreational fisherman, I have fished in many states across the U.S. in freshwater lakes and rivers, as well as some inshore and offshore saltwater experience. My...

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