Spotted vs Smallmouth Bass: How are They the Same? How Are They Different

One of the more challenging things about starting out in bass fishing, after the lure has been launched and the catch is complete, is actually telling fish apart. Just what separates different species of bass from one another? It’s a question I certainly grappled with in my early beginnings of the sport long before online databases were ever a thing.

Knowing the difference between the species you catch is important for a couple of reasons. First, there’s the obvious; tracking your personal best figures in weight. Then there are slightly nuanced advantages; like better understanding a particular species’ behavior, or helping contribute to an ecological study of the area you fish. All these things add up to make the sport more quantifiable, which in turn, helps increase everyone’s enjoyment level.

Bass fishing’s biggest conundrum though might just harken back to this old familiar problem. How to tell the difference between two of the sport’s most popular game species; the spotted and smallmouth bass? This can still be difficult even for seasoned anglers.


Here I hope to make it all a little clearer by breaking down the common differences. Hopefully, at the end, you’ll finally be able to tell your bass apart.

Bass Commonalities

Perhaps the best place to start any discussion over-identification is to first work with what all species have in common.

Most anglers know a bass when they see one. Although they live in both freshwater and saltwater environments, they’re fairly easy to identify due to the family they belong to; Perciformes (perch-like).

Classic features of this family are their color. Silver and white in appearance, often with dark horizontal lines down their sides, bass stand out from other fish of a more colorful variety. Another key factor is their spine fins – a good reason why fishermen have to be careful when handling bass.


Due to their predatory nature, bass, unlike all fish, also have sharp serrated teeth. This helps them feed and catch prey in a multitude of conditions. Given the way they use these to bite and strike, this behavior has also been instrumental in helping bass fishing grow as popular as it has.

Finally, another thing that draws most species together, is the way they fight when you are reeling them in.

Catching a bass is a slightly unique experience compared to landing other fish as they pack a lot of power and strength in a sometimes very compact body.

Bass Differences

Having delved into what makes different bass species comparable, it’s now time to start thinking about what separates them.

Scientifically speaking, at a rung lower than their family classification, all bass species that anglers will come across are generally considered members of the black bass subgroup. In bass angling circles, there are considered to be nine individual species that make up this group.

While each have elongated bodies, ctenoid scales, and large mouths, there are numerous differences between each species. In terms of spotting said differences, you’ll want to look at the upper jaw length of the fish and its relative distance to its eye. You’ll also want to pay attention to size, number and location of body markings, stripes or blotches.

Furthermore, there are a few extra things to consider. The number of spines on its dorsal and anal fins could be a differentiator, as could the amount of scales it has on its lateral line. The region where you’ve caught the bass could be a massive giveaway too – especially considering some are more prevalent in certain waters than others.

If all this is somewhat headache-inducing, be aware that sometimes you can even distinguish bass without actually catching them. Behavioral differences, such as spawning seasons and feeding habits can provide good clues as to what types of bass are in the water. Of course, experience and exposure to bass fishing will play a major factor in this, so perhaps it’s not something a beginner will find easy.

Spotted Vs Smallmouth: Differences In Appearance

Back to the spotted versus the smallmouth issue, which of the aforementioned differences and similarities stack up when comparing these two species? Let’s start out by looking at their appearance.

The smallmouth bass was first described in the early 19th century and has since then been divided into two subspecies; the Northern and the Neosho (though no one actually breaks it down this much in the fishing world). The spotted, on the other hand, got its first description almost twenty years after the smallmouth and also has two subspecies to its name; the Northern and the Witchita.

Both species’ upper jaws differ slightly where the smallmouth’s jaw fails to reach past its eye while the spotted runs up to the middle of the pupil.


Another significant feature of the smallmouth is the three dark bars on its cheek, with about eight to sixteen lateral bars running the length of its body. The spotted, by comparison, tends to have blotches on its body rather than bars, with its lower lateral scales forming horizontally orientated stripes.

Spine-wise both species are hard to tell apart. Both have soft-rayed dorsal fins with notches between them while the base of both their dorsal and anal fins have small scales too. Both of their anal fins have three spines but the smallmouth often has one less dorsal spine taking their total to nine (compared to the spotted’s ten).

One significant difference, that can really help beginners tell them apart, is the number of lateral line scales. The smallmouth tends to have much more than the spotted, a difference that can be as large as ten to fifteen scales more.

Spotted Vs Smallmouth: Habitat

After discussing appearance it’s useful to look at the regions you’ll commonly find both species in and the types of habitats both frequent.

Adult smallmouth (growing anywhere between 12 and 16 inches) spawn and live out their lives very similarly to their largemouth cousins; namely in shallow waters. Usually in gravel, sandy or rocky bottomed lakes and rivers. They can also be found in reservoirs and gently flowing streams.

Spotted bass are easily distinguished from most other bass species in terms of their habitat. Most often found in areas where there is a water current, they also fit into a niche environment that’s generally warmer and more turbid than that lived in by small and largemouth species. Enjoying submerged obstacles like logs, rocks and vegetation, spotted tend to “hide” more from the surface than their smallmouth counterparts.

Regionally speaking, spotted bass are commonly found in the Ohio and Mississippi river basins but can also be seen in Gulf Coast states, particularly Texas. Smallmouth have been introduced in countries all over the world and are generally found in cool, unpolluted waters across the US like the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway.

Spotted Vs Smallmouth: Differences In Behavior

Smallmouth bass build spawning nests within 150 yards of last year’s nest. Curiously it is the male smallmouth, smaller than the female, that does this. Both fish will rub against each other before sinking down to the nest where the process is repeated and then again with other partners. Only a fraction of male and female smallmouth spawn.

Spotted bass, which often hybridize with smallmouth bass (one of the reasons it can be hard to tell them apart), spawn around springtime in a very similar way to smallmouth. Likewise, males build a nest and guard the eggs. Both species have been known to compete for the same nesting areas.

Spotted bass tend to live shorter lifespans than smallmouth, averaging around six years. Feeding wise it’s a little tamer than largemouth and smallmouth species, consuming less fish as well as thriving off crayfish and insects. They also suck prey in by creating negative pressure around their intended target.

Tadpoles, fish, and crayfish tend to make up most of the dietary requirements of the smallmouth. Depending on their habitat and what’s available, they’ll often go after other food sources too. The fact they migrate when the water temperature drops sees them move to deeper waters where they go into semi-hibernation where feeding becomes infrequent.

Migrations for the smallmouth can often be up to 12 miles a day and generally hover around 60 miles in total. When the warmer waters come back, feeding ramps up dramatically. Young will feed on zooplankton before reaching an age and size where they move on to live prey. At this point, they will be available for the catch.

Spotted Vs Smallmouth: Top Tips

As we’ve already seen, catching either species depends a lot on where you are in the world and what time of year it is. People residing outside of the US will probably have a much greater opportunity to go after smallmouth given their introduction in countries like Japan, Russia, and England. Spotted are less widespread.

Generally speaking, it’s a better idea to go for either species in the spring and summer months when spawning is underway and the metabolism of the fish is faster. It’s at this point they are more likely to be feeding and running after prey. They might also be more prone to bite given the territorial nature of guarding a nest – especially as competition ramps up between species.

If you’re more prone to fishing for smallmouth you’ll want to head to cooler waters. Spotted, on the other hand, can be best sought after by following the current. Imitating crayfish with your rig set-up is a good way to target both species as they make up a large part of either’s diet.

Spotted Bass

Anglers preferring a heavier catch might just edge toward the smallmouth too, given that they tend to be slightly heavier and longer on average. The biggest recorded weight for a smallmouth was 12 pounds at 27 inches, for a spotted it’s 10.27 pounds.

Spotted Vs Smallmouth: Gear Selection

Gear selection is another keen consideration you’ll also want to make when going after either type of fish. Given their more common similarities rather than differences, there probably won’t be too much deviation in the kind of approach you use. Especially in terms of rigs and lure types.

One thing to bear in mind, however, is depth. As smallmouth tend to congregate in shallower water in the summer and spring months it might be more apt to fish lighter lines or even topwater lures to draw them in from the surface. A spinner over a baitcaster might be a good choice too, as a long cast probably won’t be too necessary and it might pay to be able to pitch with as little fuss as possible at close range.

Spotted, who like to sit under obstacles, however, might call for a more of a robust approach. Braided line that can withstand snags and tangles might be a better way to go with lures like crankbaits or jigs that can sink to depth, be punched through hard cover and create a lot of disturbance in the water to draw them out from their hiding places.

Baitcasters, with their more accurate casting feature, could also be a better rod and reel consideration for the spotted. Given their nature to sit deeper and farther from the shallows, successfully catching them in numbers is going to need a fair bit of precision.

In conclusion both these species, given their similar behavior and size, can be a lot of fun to catch for both beginners and the more experienced alike. Telling them apart, although tricky, can you teach you a lot more about the sport and how different species operate. Greater knowledge equals greater results.