Smallmouth bass, also known as bronzebacks,
brown bass, and smallies, aren’t native to the
Chesapeake region. They were introduced to
mid-Atlantic fisheries in the latter half of the
19th Century. Twenty bass were carried from
the Ohio River in the water tank of a train in
1854 and released into the Chesapeake and
Ohio Canal, where they multiplied and spread
into the Potomac and connecting rivers. They
were introduced to the Susquehanna River in
1869, the James River in 1871, and the
Patuxent River in 1897.
Susquehanna River biologist Geoffrey Smith,
with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat
Commission (PFBC), says a group of anglers
raised money to purchase smallmouth bass
from a commercial fisherman in Harper’s
Ferry for $1 each and the fish were abundant
three years after being put into the river.
Today, smallies challenge anglers around the
globe, with populations in South Africa,
Scandinavia, the British Isles, France,
Germany, Mexico, Vietnam, and Fiji.
Spawning occurs in the spring, when water
temperatures reach about 60 degrees. Males
build nests in gravel near the shore and stand
guard over newly hatched fry. Some smallmouths have lived more than 12 years.
Smallmouth bass are distinguishable from
their largemouth cousins by the dorsal fin,
color, markings, and, of course, the mouth.
Like a chameleon, smallmouths are keen at
camouflage and changing colors, Grove
says. “And those red eyes. If they don’t look
like a devil fish, I don’t know what does.”
As lurking, visual predators, smallmouths
strike most effectively from the cover and concealment of rock outcroppings, weed beds,
and where land tapers into deeper water.
Anglers look for areas of shaded water
where smallmouths like to forage. Crayfish
dominate the bronzeback’s diet, and it also
has a natural predilection for insects.
Crankbaits, spinnerbaits, jigs, plastic lures,
and jerkbaits are among the most effective
Fly-fishing tackle is increasingly popular
for those who want to heighten their fishing experience. Smallmouths have been
known to explode onto dry and wet flies,
nymphs, streamers, and imitation baits like
leeches and crayfish.
Grove urges trout anglers to hook into a
17-inch smallmouth with their fly rods and
feel the difference. “You’ll forget all about
trout,” he says.
When a smallmouth strikes, hold on!
Grove tells of hooked smallmouths going
five and six feet out of the water, and of one
particular 20-inch bronzeback that, just as
tarpon do, tailwalked 12 feet across the top
of the water.
For all their aggression, smallmouth bass
have a sensitive side.
As visual predators, they are easily frightened
in low, clear water and spooked by anglers
that approach from the wrong direction. It’s
suggested that anglers avoid standing on the
casting deck of a boat and wear muted clothing. In low, clear conditions they should
approach the target carefully and quietly with
long, quick retrieves.
When it comes to health, smallmouth bass seem
sensitive to the environment around them.
According to a 2013 CBF report ( cbf.org/
smallmouthbass), high levels of nitrogen
and phosphorus pollution, rising water temperatures, and chemical contaminants
may have produced a “perfect storm” of
factors that weaken immune systems of
smallmouth bass, making them more susceptible to naturally occurring bacteria, viruses,
Disease-related mortality of smallmouth bass
less than one year old was first documented
in the Susquehanna River in 2005.
Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission surveys in the Susquehanna basin continue to
show sores and lesions on these young bass
during late spring and early summer surveys.
In May of this year, two independent laboratory tests confirmed a cancerous tumor on a
single smallmouth bass caught in the middle
Susquehanna River in late 2014. No single
source or cause has been linked to the cancer.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental
Protection is expected to release its draft
list of impaired waters later this year, and
CBF and other agencies have called for
the river to be included. Being listed as
impaired could trigger the Susquehanna’s
Clean-water efforts fortify the smallmouth
bass’ struggle for survival, and we know that
nothing fights for its life like a bronzeback.
B.J. Small—CBF’s Pennsylvania
Media and Communications
Coordinator—wants his home
state to fight for clean water
like a smallmouth bass.
Smallmouth Bass Largemouth Bass
Mouth Extends to the middle of the eye Extends beyond the eye
Dorsal Fin Single dorsal fin Appears to have two dorsal fins
Color Brownish/bronze Greenish
Markings Vertical bars on its side Dark, horizontal stripe from gill to tail