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For a variety of reasons, smallmouth bass have earned a reputation that sets them apart from many other popular Ozarks gamefish species.

Smallmouth belong to the sunfish family (family Centrarchidae) and are one of several species that comprise the group of fish known as black bass. The term “black bass” dates back to early chroniclers who used the name to distinguish these dark-backed fish with black markings from other bass that have silvery, lighter colors. (These other bass, in the fish family Moronidae, are called temperate or “true” bass and include species such as white bass and striped bass.)

One reason for the smallmouth’s popularity is where it lives. Some are found in lakes, but smallmouth are best known as a stream fish. They’re not just any stream fish, either. Smallmouth bass are known as hard-fighting, aggressive fish — traits that make them enjoyable for anglers to catch. 

Surveys show that, on average, anglers who enjoy fishing for smallmouth take an average of 10 smallmouth-focused fishing trips per year and catch seven smallmouth per trip.

Life isn’t easy for smallmouth in a stream. Disease, difficulty finding food, floods, changing water temperatures, natural predators and angler harvest are all factors that impact a smallmouth’s life expectancy. Studies show that in an Ozarks stream, it takes smallmouth bass five years to attain a length of 12 inches, seven years to attain a length of 15 inches and nine-10 years to attain a length of 18 inches. 

At present, due to existing rates of mortality, few smallmouth live more than seven or eight years.

Though the state-record smallmouth is 7 pounds, 2 ounces, it’s uncommon for “smallies” to approach those sizes in Ozarks streams. (To further prove this point, it should be noted the above-mentioned state-record smallmouth was caught at Stockton Lake, not in a stream.) 

Nonetheless, combine their fighting ability with good size potential, and it’s easy to see why smallmouth are a prized catch for those who fish rivers and streams.

Another reason many anglers have a special affection for smallmouth stems from the habitat they represent — clear, pristine streams that have a steady flow of water. Smallmouth have little tolerance for siltation and turbidity and occur only in streams that maintain flow. For these reasons, non-anglers have an interest in smallmouth, too. The fish’s preference for clear, clean water makes it a “canary in a coal mine” for those who study water quality in streams.

Unlike some other fish species, stocking doesn’t seem to help smallmouth populations. Studies have shown that supplemental stocking of small, native smallmouth bass yields only a small increase in adult numbers. Alterations to available habitat are the prime reasons for decreasing smallmouth numbers, and adding more fish into poorer habitats rarely means more fish for the angler.

Smallmouth reside in a number of southern Missouri streams. Parts of some streams have been designated as smallmouth management areas by the Missouri Department of Conservation. Information about these areas can be found at mdc.mo.gov or in the free MDC publication “Smallmouth Bass and Goggle-Eye Special Management Areas,” a free booklet that can be found at a number of MDC offices. 

Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 895-6880.

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