Ditch pickles and bronzebacks, bucketmouths and smalljaws. Largemouth bass and smallmouth bass go by many names, and when most Americans think about bass fishing, they picture one (or both) of these well-known species. The two closely-related fish are popular with anglers because they’re eating machines that grow to large sizes and put up a great fight when hooked. The similarities don’t end there, but there are also several key differences when comparing largemouth bass vs. smallmouth.
For starters, the two bass have different physical characteristics, and it’s easy enough to tell them apart if you know what to look for. They also inhabited different regions historically, and they still prefer different water types, which means anglers should change their approach when targeting largemouth bass vs. smallmouth. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at these two bass species, their preferred habitats and behaviors, along with some bass fishing tips from the pros.
The Bass Family
An angler holds up a largemouth bass, which has a noticeable break between the front and rear of its dorsal fin (which runs along its back). Steve Dally / Adobe stock
Believe it or not, smallmouth and largemouth bass are both members of the sunfish family (Centrarchidae), which makes them cousins of the mighty bluegill. The two fish are part of the black bass (Micropterus) genus, which includes 13 recognized freshwater species native to North America. These carnivorous fish were historically distributed throughout the eastern part of the continent, all the way from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic coast, and from Hudson Bay down to northeastern Mexico.
Some of these species, such as the Cahaba bass, Guadalupe bass, and Suwanee bass, still occupy a very small range in the U.S. (Guadalupe bass can only be found in the spring-fed rivers of Central Texas, for example.) Other species, like spotted bass and redeye bass, have larger home ranges and can be found in multiple states. But none are as widely distributed as largemouth and smallmouth bass.
Because of their huge popularity as a game fish, largemouths and smallmouths have been stocked extensively west of the Rockies, and smallmouth bass are now present in all but two states (Louisiana and Florida) in the Continental U.S. Largemouth bass, meanwhile, inhabit 49 states and have even been caught in Alaska.
In fact, the two bass species have become so popular in sportfishing circles that they’ve been introduced to other countries as well. (Japan in particular has a thriving bass fishing scene.) Biologists now consider these bass to be “cosmopolitan” species, which means they can be found almost anywhere in the world.
A smallmouth bass comes to hand. Here you can see its dorsal fin dips in the center, but remains connected. Colby / Adobe stock
Both types of bass are highly efficient apex predators that hunt down baitfish and other prey. What do bass eat? The simple answer is: Anything that will fit in their mouths. But some of their most common prey items include minnows, crayfish, insects, and amphibians.
The two fish have slightly different hunting styles, however. Largemouth bass are classic ambush predators, which means they like to hide in heavy cover, lie in wait, and attack their prey as it passes by. Smallmouths, meanwhile, are more apt to move around and chase bait out in the open. Like most fish, both species have a lateral line, which is a sensory system that allows them to pick up on vibrations and other movements in the water. (More on this in the tips section below.)
How to Identify Largemouth Bass vs Smallmouth
The two black bass species have a similar shape and body profile, but each has a few key physical characteristics that can help with identification.
The most obvious difference between the two is—you guessed it—the size of their mouths. Largemouth bass have bigger maws, and their upper jaw extends well past the eyeball, while a smallmouth’s upper jaw falls in line with the eyeball. For most anglers, this is the easiest way to tell the two species apart.
Note how far the upper jaw extends on both species. Outdoor Life / FedBul (largemouth), KennyOPhoto (smallmouth), via Adobe Stock
Another way to distinguish the two is by looking at their dorsal fins. Both fish have two dorsal fins, but largemouths have a tell-tale break between the fins, while smallmouths have clearly connected dorsal fins.
Their coloration can also help with identification. Although this can change depending on the water body and from one individual to another, smallmouth bass typically have brown bodies, and largemouth bass are usually more of a green color. (Some anglers refer to smallmouth as “brown bass” and largemouth as “green bass” for this very reason.)
Largemouth BassSmallmouth BassAverage Weight3-7 pounds2-4 poundsWorld-Record Weight22 pounds, 4 ounces11 pounds, 15 ouncesColoration and AppearanceGreen color with a horizontal stripe on its sidesBrownish bronze color with vertical bars on its sidesMouth sizeUpper jaw extends past the eyeballUpper jaw in line with the eyeballOther key differencesNoticeable break in dorsal finNo break in dorsal fin
Where to Find Largemouth Bass and Smallmouth Bass
Although each bass species can be found in nearly every U.S. state, there are some basic guidelines for where to find good numbers of largemouth bass vs smallmouth.
Smallmouth have historically been a northern species, while largemouth bass have been synonymous with Southern latitudes. This is still the case to an extent, but the two species have been stocked so heavily throughout North America that their ranges now overlap. Today, they inhabit many of the same water bodies (and, like many anglers, I’ve caught largemouth and smallmouth bass from the same stretch of river on the same day).
Since they prefer different water types, however, the two species don’t typically hang out together. Smallmouth bass are more tolerant of cold water and prefer water temperatures in the mid-60s to mid-70s. Largemouth bass are more at home in warmer water, preferring water temps in the upper 70s to mid 80s.
Typical smallmouth water in a river (left); classic largemouth water in a lake. Thomas, Mantawhisperer / Adobe stock
Current, water clarity, and habitat types are other considerations when searching for bass. Classic largemouth water in a river would be a murky, slow-moving bend with thick cover (think fallen trees, heavy vegetation, and boat docks). Smallmouth bass are more often found in areas with current, clear water, and structured bottoms (think rocky shoals, points, and riprap shorelines.)
How to Catch Largemouth vs Smallmouth Bass
Bass fishing can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. Both largemouth and smallmouth bass can be found in sprawling reservoirs, but it can be difficult to fish these lakes effectively without a boat. Almost all tournament anglers use specialized bass boats complete with flat decks, aerated livewells, and large, powerful outboards that allow them to move quickly and cover water efficiently.
The best bass boats for the average angler aren’t necessarily the most expensive, however, and you don’t really need one of the high-dollar glitter boats you see on TV to catch fish. An old jon boat will get the job done, as will a canoe. A growing number of anglers are also embracing kayaks for bass fishing, and thanks to advances in battery technology and boat design, the sport has exploded in recent years.
You can still catch fish if you’re boatless, too. Both bass species are often found along perimeter shorelines, and a shore-bound angler can usually find plenty of good holding spots.
Can’t afford a shiny new bass boat? You can catch plenty of bass from a kayak. Christopher / Adobe stock
Ponds, creeks, and other small waterbodies should also not be overlooked. Depending on where you live, even the smallest ponds can hold bigmouth bass. Farm ponds are probably the best places for beginners to start, and if you can get permission to fish one of these private ponds, you’re almost guaranteed to have some action.
Once you find a waterbody to fish, a basic spinning rod or baitcaster setup spooled with eight- to 20-pound test is sufficient. Just grab a handful of the best bass lures in a few different colors and sizes and start experimenting. Or, if you want to make things as easy as possible, pin some live bait on a hook under a bobber and wait.
Bass Fishing Tips from the Pros
To get a better idea of the different approaches that anglers take when targeting largemouth bass vs smallmouth, Outdoor Life caught up with two fisheries biologists in different parts of the country. One primarily chases largemouth bass in the South, while the other fishes mostly for smallmouths in the Midwest. Both scientists are also tournament bass fisherman.
Tips for Catching Largemouth Bass
Driscoll holds up an East Texas largemouth that he pulled out of the weeds. Courtesy of Todd Driscoll
Todd Driscoll is a district fisheries biologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife, and he lives and fishes in deep East Texas, which is classic largemouth country. He frequents big reservoirs like Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend, targeting areas with thick cover and heavy vegetation. Because he often fishes in and around lily pads, fallen trees, and stumps, Driscoll uses a lot of soft plastics for bass and rigs them weedless to avoid getting hung up. The key to catching largemouth bass, he says, is understanding the available forage in any given lake and keeping in mind that their lives revolve almost exclusively around food.
“I would classify largemouth bass as opportunistic feeders and extremely adaptable apex predators,” Driscoll says. “Like Rick Clunn used to say: ‘Find the bait, find the bass.’ There’s a whole lot of truth to that.”
The only exception, he notes, is when largemouth bass are spawning and aren’t as concerned with hunting for prey. But even then, you can still convince a bass to eat a lure.
“That’s the time when a lot of finesse techniques—like weightless soft plastics or wacky worms—come into play,” he explains.
Although he considers largemouth bass to be “primarily sight and sound feeders,” Driscoll often fishes in murky water where it’s hard for fish to hunt by sight alone. To get a reaction in these situations, he likes to use buzzbaits, spinnerbaits, and other lures that move a lot of water and will trigger a bass’ lateral line.
“Sometimes you can fish something that’s totally abnormal to get that ‘reflex bite’ out of bass,” Driscoll says. “Anglers can take advantage of [their] aggressive nature.”
Tips for Catching Smallmouth Bass
Elliott with a Lake Erie smallmouth. Courtesy of Jeff Elliott Outdoors
Meanwhile, up North around the Great Lakes is where you’ll find NOAA fisheries biologist and smallmouth bass guru Jeff Elliott. Like Driscoll, Elliott fished in bass tournaments before he became a scientist, and both perspectives have shaped his understanding of what makes bass tick.
Because the Great Lakes are deeper than the warm-water reservoirs of East Texas, Elliott often targets bass more toward the bottoms of these lakes, where smallmouth like to stack up among the rocks. The water there is also much clearer, so Elliott doesn’t worry as much about triggering a smallie’s lateral line.
“Sight feeding is a smallmouth’s biggest thing,” he says, “much more so than the lateral line.”
Instead, he focuses more on imitating the gobies, alewives, and other prey that smallmouth key in on. And because these baitfish are highly migratory, he’s constantly tracking their migrations in order to stay on the bass. (Remember: Find the bait, find the bass.)
“Smallmouth bass are very nomadic,” Elliot says. “They move a lot, and as soon as they’re done spawning, they’re ready to follow the food.”
From an angling perspective, this is one of the most important differences between largemouth bass and smallmouth bass: The largemouth is more of a homebody, while the smallmouth is more of a traveler. Elliott, who’s also caught plenty of largemouth bass, says that in his experience, smallies are much more willing to move around and actively hunt for prey.
“Smallmouth bass fishing is so much different than fishing for largemouth,” he says. “Largemouth bass just want to sit somewhere, be lazy, and use their ambush skills to get fed. Whereas a smallmouth bass is just gonna go after it.”
Largemouth Bass vs Smallmouth FAQs
How many types of bass are there?
If we’re talking strictly freshwater, there are 13 recognized black bass species native to North America. Largemouth and smallmouth bass are by far the two most well-known and widely distributed species.
There is only one species of smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu), but there are two recognized subspecies of largemouth: Florida largemouth (Micropterus floridanus) and Northern largemouth (Micropterus salmoides). The two subspecies are known to hybridize.
Fisheries biologists have also spawned largemouth-smallmouth hybrids in hatcheries. These bass are nicknamed “meanmouths.” Because the two species have different spawning habits and prefer different water types, however, these hybrid crosses rarely happen in the wild.
What is the lifespan of a bass?
Bass are apex predators in the water, but they are also preyed upon by all sorts of animals, including waterbirds, snakes, and mammals. Big bass will also eat smaller bass, which means that many of them don’t live very long. In an ideal setting, smallmouth and largemouth bass will have an average lifespan of 6 to 15 years. The oldest largemouth bass ever caught was around 19 years old, and the oldest smallmouth on record was closer to 20.
What is the best bait for bass?
Bass can easily be fooled with artificial lures, but if you just want to catch fish, it’s hard to beat live bait. Minnows and nightcrawlers are both great options that can be found in most bait shops.
If you want to stick with artificials, spinnerbaits are versatile lures that are easy enough for beginners to use. The classic Senko worm and other soft plastics are also extremely effective, but these require a little more technique to work properly. It’s also fun to throw topwater baits like frogs (for largemouths) and rat lures (for smallmouths).
Pulling two smallmouth bass from the livewell. Modern Outdoor Media / Adobe Stock
Largemouth bass and smallmouth bass are two of the most popular and widely distributed game fish in the world. However, the two bass have different physical characteristics, behaviors, and habitat preferences.
Largemouth bass are more at home in murky lakes and slow-moving rivers, while smallies prefer clear-water lakes and rivers with current. Largemouths also tend to stick closer to home and let their food come to them, while smallies will move around to actively hunt for food.
Both species are extremely fun to catch and they’re easy enough to find. Neither one requires expensive gear—just a basic understanding of bass biology and a willingness to explore your local waters.
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