Northern smallies are different

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John Whyte

I’ve been doing this for years now, and I’ve seen a few changes in our fish and in our fisheries. One of the most interesting is the change in our northern smallmouth bass. They’re not like they once were, and they’re most definitely not like our southern smallmouth bass are now.

There was a time when we went up north and a 17-pound sack of smallmouth bass would put you in pretty good shape. Now, all that’ll get you is an early trip home. The fish aren’t bigger. I’m sure of that. What they are is heavier.

It seems like the same length will add about a half or three-quarters of a pound to their weight. They’re thicker with a lot more meat on their bones. And, the crazy thing is that they’re getting heavier every year, or at least it seems that way to me.

I’ve said before that I’m not a fisheries biologist, but I’m of the opinion that the gobies are responsible for all of this. They’re easier to catch than minnows, and I’ve been told they’re more nutritious. The bass don’t eat them because they’re good for their health. I know that. So, the only other reason has to be that they’re an easy meal.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that northern smallmouth have heads that are smaller than southern smallmouth. Really, now that I think about it a little more, it’s their mouths that are smaller. That might be because they grow slower up there so maybe their heads and mouths don’t catch up with their bodies. Another reason might be that they don’t need big mouths to eat gobies.

Neither one of those explanations makes perfect sense to me so I’m going to say officially that I don’t know what causes the difference. For all I know they might be a different strain altogether. The more I talk about this the more uncertain I am about the cause.

However, make no mistake about it. Northern smallmouth do have smaller heads and mouths than southern smallmouth. That’s a fact. I’ve caught too many of both to not know what I’m seeing. 

Another thing about the gobies is that they seem to isolate the northern smallmouth. At the lower edge of the smallmouth range it’s common to catch a smallie in the middle of a school of largemouth or spots. All our guys do it on a regular basis. But up north you don’t see that happening. They live in segregated neighborhoods. It’s extremely rare to find them together.

I’m thinking that difference is caused by how they feed. The southern fish eat what every other bass eats. They chase shad, bluegill, crappies or whatever else is around. But the northern smallmouth can concentrate on gobies. They don’t have to share or chase anything.

This column has more questions than answers. I know that. But I also know that unless we talk about these things will never figure them out. I’d love to know the answers to the issues I’ve raised. Fire away with your theories and thoughts.