Year of the Fish: Smallmouth Bass


If one could name a fish that swims in Lake James and is more beloved than the walleye, it would be the smallmouth bass. Revered across the country for their legendary aggression and fighting abilities, the smallmouth bass is not native to North Carolina, but Tarheel anglers are passionate in their pursuit of the mighty “bronzeback.”

Smallmouth bass belong in the same family as largemouth and white bass – known collectively as the “black bass.” Here in Lake James, all three species co-exist and all three can be caught on any given fishing trip, but for many veteran Lake James fishermen, smallmouths are special.

Because they are native to inland areas across New England and west of the Appalachians, smallmouth bass are only able to exist in coolwater rivers and reservoirs here in North Carolina. Lake James boasts a healthy and thriving population that started out as a North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission introduction. Once they’re in the boat, identifying smallmouth bass from their close cousins is relatively easy. The fish have a dominant bronzy to brownish-green color with dark vertical bars running down the length of the body. Individual fish can be darker or lighter in tone, but the barring is always present. Smallmouths are so named for their relatively short upper jaw compared to other bass. Reddish eyes also are a distinguishing feature for separating smallies from largemouth and white bass.

Smallmouth bass spawn in the shallows during the month of April. As juveniles, the young bass feed on tiny aquatic insects and graduate to larger prey as they grow. Lake fish feed primarily on shad and other small fish, as well as crayfish and the occasional frog or salamander. Researchers with NCWRC studying growth rates of river-dwelling smallmouths found some populations took five years to attain a length of 10 inches, while others in waterways with warmer temperatures and higher nutrients only required two years to achieve that size.

Folks trying to catch smallmouths are well off mimicking the techniques they use on largemouths, with perhaps a stronger focus on fishing around exposed points sticking out into the lake, especially those with rocky bottoms or fallen trees. The state record smallmouth was landed at Hiwassee Reservoir back in 1951. The fish weighed 10 pounds, 2 ounces. Fish in Lake James are typically in the 1- to 2-pound range, but specimens weighing up to six and seven pounds are occasionally caught.

If you’re looking for a hard-fighting, clear-water-loving, handsome sportfish that lives in one of the most scenic reservoirs in the state, you’ve come to the right place. Happy angling!