STORIES THE VIEW UPSTREAM By: Keith ''Catfish'' Sutton Smallmouth Bass: North America's Ultimate Gamefish Gerald Almy and Richard Lancaster describe the many characteristics of smallmouth bass and why they rate them as the ultimate North American gamefish In rivers and lakes across most of North America lives a creature that has a special aptitude for capturing every angler's undying respect, admiration and attention ' the smallmouth bass. (Photo courtesy of Northland Fishing Tackle) For five minutes, my friend Richard Lancaster has been fishing a half-submerged treetop, dancing a brown jig-and-pig through this likely looking bass refuge. Nothing happens at first. Richard twitches the lure by moving his rod tip, then reels in a bit more line. The jig darts, flutters, settles, darts again. No takers. A sharp pull and the bait scurries quickly over the bottom, mimicking a crawfish seeking safety. But there are still no takers. Richard casts to a different spot and tries again. This time a fish strikes. Delighted, Richard sets the hook hard, and his adversary immediately begins an acrobatic performance packed with pizzazz. Four, five, six times the fish jumps in a tail-slapping frenzy. After another sustained run, Richard gains control and leads the gleaming fish to the side of the canoe. Holding rod pressure to keep its head up, he gets a thumb lock on the fish’s lower jaw and scoops it out of the river. It’s a gorgeous fish, but at 4 pounds or so, it doesn’t look like a trophy. In fact, if it were a largemouth bass, it probably wouldn’t draw much attention from the angler. But this fish is no largemouth. In fact, to hear Richard Lancaster tell it, the difference between this fish and a largemouth is like the difference between a thoroughbred race horse and a mule. It’s a “brownie” – a bronze-colored, scrappy smallmouth bass. And in Arkansas, where we’re fishing, a 4-pound brownie is something to glow about. “This river gives up some of the biggest, fattest smallmouths I’ve ever seen,” Richard says. “They’re just amazing fish. I never get enough of catching them.” It was on that trip more than 30 years ago that Richard introduced me to the smallmouth bass, and despite the passage of time, I remember every detail of the day. For me, it was the beginning of a love affair with these incredible fish, which may be the ultimate North American gamefish. Many anglers would claim such a distinction should go to more glamorous species such as the tarpon, bonefish, Atlantic salmon or Arctic char. But those fish, as spectacular as they are, don’t offer the broad distribution and wide availability that make the smallmouth such a grand sportfish for everyone. My friend from Virginia, writer and smallmouth expert Gerald Almy, shared information about this black bass I didn’t know. “Smallmouths were once confined to a rather narrow longitudinal band of east-central North America,” he said. “They extended their range rather rapidly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries through stocking efforts and a natural expansion of populations via tributaries. “Even after their range spread, the olive-brown fish were often dubbed with the misleading label of "northern bass". This misnomer has been sloughed off though, as thriving populations have established themselves in Arizona, Texas and Hawaii. In fact, the smallmouth now occupies every state except Alaska, Florida and Louisiana, and every Canadian province except the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.” Besides being widespread, the smallmouth has other strong points. “Smallmouths are available over long stretches of the season,” said Almy. “They’re susceptible to a wide variety of angling methods, from chucking bait to drifting flies. “And bronzebacks are also wild fish, supported throughout their vast range almost exclusively by natural reproduction rather than by stocking from hatcheries.” Another favorable characteristic is the smallmouth’s bold, aggressive nature. “A topwater strike from one is similar to a hammer shattering glass,” Almy said. “Once the hookup is made, the fish battle defiantly, bulldogging on hard runs, sending water in all directions as they cartwheel across the surface and then plop back in with raucous belly flops. It was not by accident that Algonquin Indians dubbed the olive-colored bass achigan, which means ferocious.” Nor is spunk all that smallmouths offer. Besides quality, there’s quantity. “On prime waters, bronzebacks are available in numbers hard for the uninitiated to comprehend,” Almy noted. “Catches of 20 to 40 fish a day are routine. On a few premier rivers, a dawn-to-dusk session might see 75 to 100 smallmouths brought to hand.” If you’re interested in with the idea of fishing for this quarry, the first step to take is pinpointing choice smallmouth waters near your home. “This is best accomplished by talking to game wardens, fisheries biologists, clerks in bait or tackle stores, or members of a local bass club,” Almy suggested. “Many state fishery departments also offer free brochures and maps that depict the best waters for various gamefish. “One of the best ways to understand good smallmouth water, and at a same time to get a feel for how to catch these gamefish, is to contrast them with largemouths,” Almy continued. “In fact, you’ll find the smallmouth to be an almost totally different quarry in terms of habitat preferences, feeding style and personality. “Where the largemouth is pot gutted and plodding, susceptible to heavy tackle and large noisy lures, the smallmouth displays opposite characteristics. Strong yet quick, sometimes stocky but never fat, the smallmouth demands subtle offerings, delicate tackle, a stealthy approach and finesse in presentation.” When you inch a lure forward just so and a bronzeback cracks the emerald surface like a hammer shattering glass, you just may find yourself agreeing with folks like Gerald Almy and Richard Lancaster who rate the smallmouth the ultimate North American gamefish.