Last Updated: December 24, 2014
Smallmouth bass are plentiful in many Northern California reservoirs and rivers. According to the best historical information, they were planted in the Napa River and Alameda Creek in 1874. Following this introduction to California waters, smallmouths were soon released in many North California streams and rivers.
They flourished. The addition of dams on these free-flowing waterways restricted the movement of smallmouths, but did not inhibit their successful adaptation. In fact, as canyon-type North California aged, they favored the smallmouth over the largemouth.
Smallmouths prefer open, rocky shoreline areas and clear water, which is just what’s left after the brush, trees and other organic matter decomposed in a newly flooded reservoir.
The California record smallmouth was caught in 1979 at Trinity Lake. It weighed 9 lb 1 oz. This is monster size for a smallmouth. Anything over 4 pounds is bragging size. Many smallmouth anglers insist that they’re better fighters, pound for pound, than largemouths.
And for those who prefer stream fishing for trout, smallmouths provide another flowing-water fishing alternative. The smallmouth, or “bronzeback,” is easily identified by its brownish, almost bronze cast, with vertical dark bars. And in contrast with the largemouth, the upper jaw does not extend beyond the eye, and the dorsal fin has a very shallow notch.
SmallMouth Bass Lures and Baits
Baits are proportionally more productive for smallmouth than for largemouth. Department of Fish and Game creel census shows that minnows are the best overall bait for smallmouths. Anglers often fish them with a small split shot about a foot above the bait hook, using a bobber.
Other productive baits include crawdads, nightcrawlers, hellgrammites and crickets. One caution: Crickets are not allowed in some lakes. But the whole array of artificials also produce smallmouths. Cast surface smallmouth bass lures early and late in the day.
Work plastic worms and jigs along the bottom and use crankbaits, spinners and spinnerbaits at different speeds and depth next to cover. Shad and minnow imitations are good crankbaits. The Git Zit, a small plastic tube bait on a lead-head jig, is a very effective smallmouth bass lure.
The approaches used for smallmouth fishing have much in common with largemouth angling, but there are critically important differences. It’s these differences that this section highlights.
Tackle: Most smallmouth bass anglers scale down their line and smallmouth bass lures to match the smaller size of the bronzeback. 6 and 8 pound test monofilament is typical, but largemouth rods and reels are used with several exceptions. For example, fly rodding for smallmouth in rivers and streams with popping bugs and streamers is great sport. And some anglers use ultralight spinning equipment.
The overriding rule is to fish for smallmouth in the same way you would for stream trout. Stream bass prefer undercut banks, tangles and large boulders in midstream. Walk in an upstream direction to fish smaller streams. But you can float larger rivers like the Lower Feather.
Cast your offering above the target and allow it to flow to the target area. Try to match the local food supply, be it hellgrammite, crawdads, or even lamprey eels. Small minnow imitations plugs like Rapalas and Rebels that float at rest and shallow-dive on retrieve are good producers, as are streamers and poppers.
Lake smallmouth are most often found over rocky points, over submerged gravel bars and near shade drop-offs. Coves and waters with stumps showing just above the water can also produce in lakes like Trinity.
Smallmouths prefer water that is somewhat cooler (mid 60’s) than largemouths, so they spawn deeper (8 to 15 feet) and sooner than largemouths in the same waters.
When and Where to Fish
Shasta and Trinity Lakes are probably the premier smallmouth fisheries in the state. These lakes are at their peak for larger fish in February and March. A little farther south, some of the best smallmouth waters are Almanor, Black Butte, Collins, Folsom, Oroville and Pardee.
In the Bay Area, Putah Creek, the Russian River and Lake Berryessa are good. Pine Flat, New Melones, Don Pedro and Lake Nicimiento have their spring peak in March and April.
The Lower Feather River, from the Thermolito Afterbay to its mouth in Veronica, is probably the top-producing bronzeback river in California. A boat, either a canoe aluminum boat, or drift boat, is necessary to fish here because of the size of the stream and the difficulty of access to the prime bass spots.
Cast offerings parallel to the shore and retrieve them slowly. April and May are particularly good months, especially when flows are low (2500-4000 CFS).
As mentioned above, another good smallmouth stream is the Russian River. Bass are found throughout the drainage, but best results are often between Brown’s Pool and Mirabel.
Cleaning and Cooking
For information on the cleaning and cooking of smallmouth, see the Largemouth Bass post.