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Exploring Minnesota Fish: Smallmouth Bass

The Smallmouth Bass, also called “smallies,” is a well-known species of freshwater fish that belongs to the sunfish family. This fish has gained widespread popularity among anglers due to its vigorous fighting abilities when hooked, and it can be found in lakes, rivers, and streams across North America.

Keep reading to learn more about this impressive species of fish and what the best techniques are for hooking one!

smallmouth bass

All About the Smallmouth Bass

In order to identify the Smallmouth Bass, it’s essential to understand their distinguishing features, which include color, size, and dorsal fins. The differences between Smallmouth and Largemouth Bass further aid identification.


Smallmouth Bass exhibit a range of colors, varying from black, green, to brownish sides. One key element in their appearance is the presence of three brown vertical bands, which can help distinguish them from other bass species. Along with dark bars radiating from their eyes on their cheeks and gill covers, their unique coloration makes them relatively easy to identify.


The size of a Smallmouth Bass can vary depending on age and habitat. Typically, males are smaller, averaging around two pounds, while females can range between three to six pounds. The maximum reported size for this species is 69 cm.

The world record Smallmouth Bass, caught in 1955, weighed 11 pounds and 15 ounces and measured 27 inches in length. This impressive catch still stands as the largest Smallmouth Bass ever recorded.

Difference from Largemouth Bass

When comparing Smallmouth Bass to Largemouth Bass, some key differences become apparent. One significant distinction is the upper jawline – in Smallmouth Bass, it only extends back to the midpoint of the eye. In contrast, the Largemouth Bass’s upper jaw typically extends beyond the eye. The overall mouth size is also smaller in Smallmouth Bass and the body shape is often more slender and elongated.

Dorsal Fins

Smallmouth Bass have two dorsal fins, separated by a shallow interdorsal notch. This feature can also aid in their identification. The front dorsal fin has 9-11 spiny rays, while the back dorsal fin possesses 13-15 soft rays. This structure of dorsal fins is typical of the Micropterus species and can help differentiate Smallmouth Bass from other types of fish.

smallmouth bass

Habitat and Range

North America

Smallmouth Bass, scientifically known as Micropterus dolomieu, can be found throughout much of North America and Eurasia. They have a native range in 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.


In lake habitats, Smallmouth Bass tend to be shorter and deeper-bodied than their river-dwelling counterparts. They prefer shallow rocky areas and often reside in the clear water of lakes with abundant aquatic plants for cover. Due to their preference for hard substrate, they are often found around underwater structures like rocks, logs, and vegetation.

Rivers and Streams

Riverine Smallmouth Bass have a more elongated body shape, which allows greater agility in moving water. They are often found in clear and gravel-bottomed runs and flowing pools of rivers. Dark water habitats result in a more torpedo-shaped and very dark brown appearance in these fish, aiding their efficiency in hunting for food.

Ponds and Reservoirs

Smallmouth Bass can also be found in ponds and reservoirs, where they adapt to the available habitat. In these environments, they often rely on structures such as docks, submerged trees, and underwater vegetation for cover. Their diet and feeding behavior in ponds and reservoirs are similar to those in lakes and rivers, being opportunistic predators of zooplankton, aquatic insects, crayfish, and other fish.

Spawning and Reproduction

The spawning behavior of Smallmouth Bass is influenced by water temperatures, with the ideal range being between 59-65 degrees Fahrenheit. Males create nests in suitable shallow habitats, such as sandy or gravelly areas, and guard them from predators during the reproductive process. Females lay their eggs in the nest, and then the males protect the eggs and newly hatched fry, ensuring their survival.

Age and Growth

Smallmouth Bass have a lifespan of up to 15 years, with growth rates primarily determined by habitat conditions and food availability. In the Great Lakes, smallies tend to grow more quickly in comparison to those in northern lakes, where the climate is cooler. Juvenile bass feed on insects and zooplankton, transitioning to larger prey as they age.

Age of Smallmouth BassAverage Length
1 year4-6 in
2 years8-10 in
4 years12-14 in
6 years16-18 in

Food and Diet

Smallmouth Bass are opportunistic feeders with a diet consisting mainly of aquatic insects, insect larvae, and crustaceans. As they grow, their diet expands to include larger prey, such as fish and crayfish. The composition of their diet can vary with seasonal availability and migration patterns.

  • Aquatic insects: Dragonfly nymphs, damselfly nymphs, and mayfly nymphs.
  • Crustaceans: Crayfish, scuds, and shrimp.
  • Fish: Minnows, shad, and other small fish species.

Predator and Prey Relationships

Smallmouth Bass are both predators and prey in their aquatic habitats, with larger fish, birds, and terrestrial predators often hunting and consuming them. In turn, Smallmouth Bass can cannibalize their own under certain conditions.

Maintaining a healthy balance of predator and prey relationships is essential for preserving their populations and sustaining the ecosystem. Effective cover and habitat structures, such as submerged vegetation and rocks, provide protection for smallmouth bass, allowing them to escape predation and thrive.

smallmouth bass

Conservation and Management

Threats and Challenges

The Smallmouth Bass faces a variety of threats that challenge their survival and impact their habitats. Habitat loss, pollution, and invasive species are some of the biggest challenges for these fish. Oregon, for example, has seen adverse effects on Smallmouth Bass populations due to pollution issues. Additionally, winter and cooler temperatures can have an impact on the Northern Smallmouth Bass.

Invasive Species Impact

One of the most significant threats to Smallmouth Bass populations is invasive species, particularly the gobies in the Great Lakes region. Gobies feed on the eggs and larvae of native fish, which leads to a decline in Smallmouth Bass numbers. Efforts to preserve and improve habitat diversity across riverscapes can help with the persistence of Smallmouth Bass populations. For instance, research in stream and river management has been funded in 13 states to improve fisheries and tackle the challenges faced by Smallmouth Bass.

Importance of Sportfishing and the Economy

Smallmouth Bass plays a crucial role in the sportfishing industry and contributes to the economy through fishing tournaments and recreational activities. They are known for their acrobatic behavior when caught, making them popular among anglers. Conservation and management efforts not only help to protect the fish and their habitats but also contribute to preserving the sportfishing industry and related economic activities.

Protecting Smallmouth Bass populations is critical for both the health of their native ecosystems and the sportfishing industry. Efforts to address threats, such as invasive species, pollution, and habitat degradation, are vital to the long-term survival of this valuable game fish.

Fishing for Smallmouth Bass

smallmouth bass

Catching Smallmouth Bass can be achieved using various techniques and baits. One effective approach is to use a depth change of at least 1ft, as smallmouth bass tend to feed on smaller fish inhabiting the shallows while retreating to deeper waters when threatened. Lures such as spinnerbaits, crankbaits, soft plastics, and topwater baits can all be successful in attracting smallmouth bass. In addition, anglers can use natural baits like live minnows or crayfish to entice these fish to bite.

Best Time to Fish

Smallmouth Bass are one of the most popular freshwater fish sought after by anglers. The best time to fish for them varies depending on the season and location.

In general, these fish are more active during the early morning and late afternoon hours, as well as during overcast or slightly windy conditions. Some anglers have found success targeting Smallmouth Bass during these early morning and evening hours. These periods often coincide with increased feeding activity and can offer prime opportunities for catching these popular game fish.

The warmer months, from late spring through early fall, are considered the most productive time for Smallmouth Bass fishing.

Lures and Baits

A variety of lures and baits can be effective for catching Smallmouth Bass. Some popular options include:

  • Spinnerbaits: These lures imitate bait fish like shad and are ideal for covering large areas quickly.
  • Crankbaits: Designed to resemble crawfish, crankbaits are often used around rocky bottom structures where smallmouth bass feed heavily on crawfish.
  • Jerkbaits: Ideal for clear water situations, jerkbaits are versatile and can be fished at various depths.
  • Soft plastics: Soft plastic baits like crawfish or minnow imitations are effective when fishing around vegetation or structure.

In addition to artificial lures, live baits such as minnows, nightcrawlers, and crayfish can also be successful in enticing smallmouth bass to bite.

Techniques and Tactics

Different techniques and tactics are effective for catching Smallmouth Bass in various scenarios. When fishing in rivers, targeting Smallmouth Bass around rocks and currents can be productive. In early summer, as smallmouth recover from spawning and high-water events, employing a subtle presentation like a finesse worm or a fly fishing approach may yield better results.

In larger bodies of water, using fishing electronics to locate underwater structures and baitfish can increase the chances of finding smallmouth bass. Adjusting the weight and depth of your lure or bait based on the season and water temperature can also lead to a more successful angling experience.

A combination of the right location, lure or bait, and the proper technique can greatly improve the chances of catching Smallmouth Bass throughout the year.

Smallmouth Bass in Minnesota

Smallmouth bass are a popular game fish throughout Minnesota. Known for their strength and fighting spirit, they provide ample challenge for anglers. The species can be found in various water bodies across the state, including rivers and lakes.

Minnesota has gained national recognition for its exceptional smallmouth bass fishing opportunities in recent years. This acclaim comes in part due to notable events such as the Bassmaster Elite Series on Lake Mille Lacs and Lake Pokegama, which showcased the robust Smallmouth populations these waters host. Aside from Mille Lacs, many other lakes and rivers across the state provide excellent Smallmouth Bass fishing opportunities.

Smallmouth Bass inhabit a wide range of water temperatures, from the warmer southern lakes to the chillier rivers and lakes of northern Minnesota. As a result, they have become one of the top four sought-after fish species in the state, alongside Walleye, Northern Pike, and trout.

Anglers interested in bass fishing should familiarize themselves with Minnesota’s fishing regulations and obtain the necessary licenses. Fishing licenses in the state are effective from March 1 to the last day of February the following year, ensuring plenty of time to target this exciting and challenging game fish.

When fishing for Smallmouth Bass in Minnesota, it is essential to use a proper technique and adapt to the specific conditions of the lake or river being fished. Persistence, a bit of luck, and a deep appreciation for these incredible fish can lead to a memorable bass fishing experience in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

smallmouth bass

Wrapping Up

It’s clear to see why the smallies are so popular among anglers. Given its fighting abilities when hooked, the challenge of catching a Smallmouth Bass is certainly one that draws in fishing enthusiasts and sportsmen. Time to plan a trip to one of Minnesota’s beautiful lakes to give it a try!

For more information, please visit our Fishing in Minnesota page!