The smallmouth bass is one of America’s most popular sportfish and is fished for in countless locations across the temperate parts of North America. Its appeal is the fantastic fight it gives, particularly on light tackle, and the wide range of habitats in which it can be found.
From reservoirs and lakes to rivers and streams, and from small channels you can leap across to massive waterways, if the water is relatively clean and unpolluted, and if it supports a reasonable supply of food, there is a good chance you can find a “smallie” or two in residence. Smallmouth bass are a school fish, so where you find one, there are usually several.
Where to Find Smallmouth Bass in North America
The smallmouth is one of 14 recognized species of black bass, along with its cousins the largemouth bass, the spotted bass, and others.
They originated in the area encompassed by the upper and middle reaches of the Mississippi, the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the Hudson Bay watershed.
The original range is a rough quadrant from Minnesota in the west to the western edge of Vermont in the east. The northern edge of the range is from The Great Lakes and just north of the Canadian border, south into Arkansas and Alabama, with populations in Ontario and Quebec in Canada in the Great Lakes watershed.
The Smallmouth bass has been spread further around the country by stocking it into rivers, lakes, and man-made bodies of water by humans and by its own natural opportunism.
It can now be found as far as the north and western US and western Canada, even on Vancouver Island, and although the populations are still sparse in the west and southwest, there are now bass fisheries in virtually every US state.
You can see the spread on this map here from the University of Wisconsin.
They have also been introduced to Mexico, Belize, Hawaii, Japan, Slovakia, Belgium, Germany, Tanzania, and South Africa. They are regarded as a pest in Japan after their successful introduction in the 1990s.
In North America, the species was spread from its original locations along with the expansion and development of the railroads in the 1800s. Fingerling bass were transported in buckets and barrels, and then introduced to lakes and rivers all the way to far west and California.
They were introduced east of the Appalachians in the 1850s, and then to the northeast to New England.
As other native species such as the brook trout have declined in eastern rivers and streams due to higher water temperatures and increased pollution caused by land-use changes and the onset of industrialization.
Smallmouth were often introduced to replace them as they can survive in the warmer temperatures and less-than-pure water. We have also stocked smallies into dams and reservoirs around the country to develop new fisheries that are specifically for human recreation.
Smallmouth bass are considered predators, so their camouflage coloring that can vary with their environment.
They are generally a brown color, but this can vary from a dark brown that is almost black, to a greenish-brown, or a pale sandy brown depending on the surroundings. They have darker vertical bands along the sides of the body, as opposed to horizontal markings, to mimic the dappling of the water or merge against a background.
The frontal dorsal fin is a spiky number with between 9 and 11 spines, and the back dorsal fin has 13-15 soft rays along its length. It’s a really striking fish as you can see here at the US Fisheries and Wildlife site.
The range of color variations you will see in smallmouth bass is influenced by the different environment the fish lives in.
If it is in a clear freestone stream with a clean gravelly bottom, the fish will blend in and adapt to its environment by becoming a paler brown to natural green and gold to match the surroundings.
The color shading changes to deeper green-brown hues if it resides in a darker brown water, maybe along the edge of weed beds or near vegetation in a lake. Once again the predator is blending in with the background.
The habitat can also affect the shape of the fish to a greater or lesser extent. River-living smallmouth bass have a more muscular torpedo shape that allows them to cut through and negotiate the currents of the river. You’ll soon find that out if you hook one on light tackle.
The lake-dwelling version has a deeper, rounder body than the river version since they don’t have the strong currents to contend with. The river smallmouth is comparably a stronger fish than its lake-dwelling cousins.
Necessities of Life
There are a number of variables that determine the suitability of any environment or habitat for a species to successfully occupy it. When it comes to smallmouth bass, clean water, an abundant food supply, safe locations to inhabit, suitable spawning areas, and few competing species or predators are the ideal conditions for any fish.
The ideal is hard to find, so the smallmouth bass has adapted to a wide range of local conditions which has undoubtedly helped its success.
The smallmouth bass is a carnivorous creature, feeding voraciously on insects, insect larvae, crayfish, and smaller fish. The fry feed on tiny aquatic organisms and larvae.
As the smallie gets bigger, it goes looking for bigger prey and moves onto a diet of larger insects, worms, leeches, and juvenile crayfish.
The adult bass is an accomplished piscivore feeding on other small fish, sometimes even its own species, as well as other aquatic creatures. Its apparent favorite and most universal source of food is the crayfish.
Where a Smallmouth Bass Wants to Live
There are various physical and topographical characteristics of lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and other water bodies that make them good smallmouth bass habitats. Smallmouth bass prefer clearer, cooler water that has high levels of oxygen.
They are most likely to be found in a body of water with moderate environmental conditions.
They are best suited to the transitional part of a river between the rocky, tumbling streams of the hills and the slow-flowing, less oxygenated lower-middle river.
Smallmouth bass like the shallow rocky areas of lakes and ponds, and they are often found around the edges of rocky structures or fallen trees, as well as in the clear flowing runs and pools of rivers.
They prefer water with a decent current where there’s a clean gravel bottom.
Visibility is also important for them so they can maximize their vision when hunting prey. Smallmouth are not found so much in the quieter, stiller backwaters or in dark silty, vegetated farm ponds.
A body of water has to sustain sufficient quantities of food in order to support a decent head of the predatory bass, so when you arrive at the water’s edge, have a look in the obvious places for the fish’s food items.
Look for insect larvae or shoals of small fish around the edges of weed beds and in clear shallow areas. Shoals of baitfish can often be spotted traveling along or around the edges of the shore.
Look for crayfish or crayfish remains. If you can see their prey, then the predatory smallie can see it too and should be nearby.
The smallmouth bass also needs to have a suitable location in the shallows for successful mating and spawning where they can build nests. The ideal location for these nests includes sheltered flat areas with a hard gravelly or rocky bottom, three to ten feet deep, and protected from currents or winds.
Depth is always critically important, but how deep you will find the smallmouth bass can vary greatly with the type of water. They may be only 10 to 12 feet deep in a lake that’s colored, or as deep as 35 to 40 feet down in a deep, clear reservoir.
If it’s a small stream, they may only be four feet deep because there may not be any deeper water for them to hold in. In a shallow lake, look for deeper depressions in the lake floor for bass.
The smallmouth need to leave the deep water to feed, but they usually only go to nearby areas and to those with low light conditions. The clearer the water, the less likely it is that they will venture into the shallows to feed during daylight hours.
In clear lakes and streams during the summer, they sometimes don’t feed until dusk or during the night, spending the daytime at cooler depths.
Smallmouth bass are mostly found in the mid to upper reaches of a river where the water is not too fast and tumbling, but where there is still a decent current with pools and glides and some ruffled water, but no big rapids.
The bass find places beside and behind rocks, or fallen tree trunks, on the inside of bends just off the faster water, or near overhangs at the edge of a current. Anywhere near the current but not quite in it.
In all these places their food will come to them, brought by the current and the bass jump out and grab food items as they pass. There will be access to deeper water nearby to escape to as well, or a snag of some sort to hide in.
Anywhere along a river or creek where there is a bend where the channel changes direction, there will be sheltered water on the inside of the bend where bass can lie in wait at the edge of the current. Or at the junction of two creeks making one large creek there is a deep hole gouged out at the confluence, perfect for fish.
Along the banks of a river or stream they will occupy spaces beneath undercut banks, or under overhanging or fallen trees. These are places where they can hold in the water just off the current, waiting to jump out and ambush any prey that comes past.
They also thrive around man-made additions to a river system and are found at the bottom of tail-races, or below dams or generating stations, or in and around bridges and support structures. At the outflow from power stations is another good location.
As they naturally school together to follow and chase baitfish, they can encircle and trap these shoals of smaller prey fish against constructions like dams and weirs for easy pickings.
Lakes and Reservoirs
In still waters smallmouth prefer deeper water to other predators like Largemouth bass or pike.
They look for structures in the water, such as a group of boulders or a big old tree stump. Look for deeper holes or channels by a prominent weed edge, or deeper drop offs at the edge of a shallow ledge where they lie in wait for baitfish fleeing the shallows.
Points jutting into a lake are a really good place to find bass.
These are natural holding areas for bass because they offer ready access to deeper water and they are terrific ambush places for any kind of prey passing by.
It can also vary by the season too. If there’s a steep drop off it’s more likely to be used in the summer, remaining in deeper, cooler water watching for prey in the shallows.
A point that’s longer and shallower in structure is a better location in the spring and fall; in the spring as places to spawn, and in the fall for feeding on shoals of bait fish.
Look for clumps and beds of aquatic vegetation, home to much of the bass’s prey like insects and larvae. Vegetation is also a good source of cover for the fish, out of the reach of predators. Beds of lily pads are a favorite bass location. They combine overhead cover and shade, with the structure of the stems an attraction to food items.
Vertical weeds produce well-defined edges along where bass can hunt, or lay in wait for prey. These edges of weed often indicate the drop-offs where bass like to hang along the edge of the deeper water, waiting for food items to stray in their direction.
Bass always like to hang out near man-made structures. Docks, particularly those that start shallow and end at the edge of a deeper drop-off, say 8 or 10 feet of water are particular favorites. Bass have easy access to the dock that way and can migrate from deep to shallow water without moving very far. And docks attract bait fish!
If the location is a man-made reservoir, the submerged remnants of human activities or old watercourses provide good locations.
Anywhere there are old structures under water that are permanent – rocky outcrops or a ruined building or an old highway – you will find smallmouth bass setting up station. Generations of fish “learn’ that these structures are always there to provide shelter.
How Seasons Impact Where Smallmouth Live
There is also a large seasonal element of variation that determines which part of their habitat the bass are occupying.
In the cold of winter, they remain largely inactive in the deeper parts of the water body waiting for the seasons to turn and temperatures to rise. There’s not much food so they wait out the winter in the stable temperature of the depths.
Spring is the time to find smallies feeding in the shallows on spawning crayfish, on tadpoles and insect larva.
As the temperature starts to rise in the spring they will start to move in towards the shallower water inshore. They can be found actively feeding around boat docks and fallen debris, along rocky shorelines and around outcrops.
They feed heavily and aggressively because they are re-energizing after the long winter and preparing for spawning.
When the water reaches about 50 F /10 C they start to move to their spawning beds.
In a flat sheltered area with an even regular bottom, the male will scoop out a shallow nest with his fins, removing objects by mouth if needed, and then awaits a female. When he successfully persuades a female to mate with him, he will fertilize somewhere between 2,000 and 14,000 eggs that are laid in the nest.
The males remain to protect the nest until the young are hatched and big enough to disperse in the shallow water, which can be several weeks to a month. The females go back to their lies, or they may mate with another suitable male. Likewise, the male may try to persuade another female to lay eggs in his nest.
In the Summer Smallmouth bass will change their swimming depth often, ranging from shallow waters to waters as deep as 30 feet. They can move feeding locations many times during the day. They return offshore to the deeper parts of the water as the water warms up to 70 to 80 degrees to take advantage of the cooler water, and in the evenings they start to move into shallow water at dusk, coming in to feed.
Then as the temperatures drop in the Fall they return to shallower areas similar to where they spawn, until the cold of winter when they move off into deeper, stiller water where they become torpid until spring rolls around again.
There is also evidence to suggest that bass move around a lot more on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis than we might expect. Some tagged fish have been recorded as traveling as far as 60 miles in larger water bodies.
They could be following a food supply, or looking for a new source. Or perhaps they have a sense of territory that they patrol, but that’s speculative, to say the least.
Immature bass are as happy in open water, as they are to live around underwater structures and cover. They are known to travel across open water following after schools of shad or other baitfish, swimming long distances in the process as mobile predators.
It seems an expansive habitat with room to roam is also part of smallmouth bass lifestyle.
Get Out and Fish
You should now have a good idea of the type of habitat to look for if you are in pursuit of a smallmouth bass. They can inhabit both still and running water, as long as it is clean and not too murky.
They like hideaway places just off the main current, or at the edge of the deeps, from where they can ambush their prey. There has to be enough of that prey available in the water to feed them.
If you have the time and inclination, get yourself a good topographical map of an area or water body you are interested in. From the contours on the map, try to identify the likely spots for a smallie to lurk or which bends on the river look inviting.
Where are the bridges or docks where a smallie might hang out? Maps are a good guide.