Touring bass pros often must choose between targeting largemouth or smallmouth bass when they compete on waters from Lake Champlain on the New York/Vermont border to Pickwick Reservoir, which abuts Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi. These waters contain vibrant populations of both species. And they often require divergent tactics and occupy different areas of the water body.
In some waters the choice is easy because the one species dominates, such as on Lake Erie where smallmouths are king and largemouths a minority; or Lake Wheeler, Alabama, where largemouths dominate. Local reports typically make it easy to select a target species, although at times, a small population of fish can contain some lunkers, such as the smallmouth bass of Kentucky Lake.
Several top anglers have developed a set of parameters that help them decide whether to go green or brown on a particular fishery. They key on several characteristics of the waterway.
Eight-time B.A.S.S. winner Mike Iaconelli scours tournament records to determine which species he should pursue during a competition. "The history on Lake Erie or Lake Ontario is that you can hardly ever win with largemouths, although some large ones live there, so I'd target smallmouths because over a multiple-day event, smallmouths are going to win most of the time," he says. "I play the odds and pick a species based on how much weight I likely need to win."
Alabama pro Tim Horton also is a history buff when planning for his next tournament. "Time of year and weather conditions can play a role in your decision," he says. "Lake Champlain is a good example. It sometimes can be won with smallmouths, but most of the time catches of largemouths end up on top, and sometimes a mix of species can work, too. The largemouths are attractive, but getting to them can require an hour-long boat ride, which can double in rough water.
"Or consider the Tennessee River reservoirs where only during the Prespawn Period can you win with smallmouth bass. In recent times, big largemouths have been easier to find and catch during the rest of the year on those reservoirs. On lakes like Table Rock in Missouri, you sometimes see big bags of smallmouths, but seldom is a tournament won with all smallmouths."
Tournament statistics help Michigan pro Jonathon VanDam determine whether to fish for quality or quantity. "The biggest thing I look for is the average size of each species and then the quantity of each," he says. "The biggest fish won't always be the most plentiful. I try to put the odds in my favor and that depends on how the place sets up. If it's primarily a largemouth lake, but has some big smallmouths, you can better your odds in a tournament by getting in the right area for smallmouth bass where you won't catch as many fish but you catch larger ones."
When he won his first major tournament at the 1999 Vermont Bassmaster Top 150, Iaconelli let the weather conditions dictate what he fished for on Lake Champlain. And he recalls many events there when he switched back and forth on smallmouths and largemouths, depending on prevailing weather.
"Over the years, I've found that the two species tend to bite better during different sorts of conditions," he says. "Ideal largemouth conditions—and this might surprise some anglers—are clouds and some wind and maybe some drizzle. In those conditions I fish for largemouths on dual-species lakes. But when we get bright sun and a calm surface, you can find some of the best smallmouth fishing, especially on clear lakes."
Wind plays a role in determining which bass VanDam targets. He's found that a steady wind makes it difficult to pinpoint largemouth bass in grass pockets because bass tend to move about in the vegetation under those conditions, so he prefers chasing smallmouths that he believes are easier to find in open water. But if the wind blows too hard to fish open water, he looks for largemouths in protected bays.
During the 2015 Bassmaster Northern Open on Lake Champlain, Iaconelli spent most of the event concentrating on largemouths because he knew that during late summer they'd be shallow and more accessible than the smallmouths that had scattered in deep open water. That strategy paid off as he finished third in the three-day event with 53 pounds of mostly largemouth bass.
"There are times when smallmouths become more accessible," he says. "That's typically during spring and fall because they're shallower. In spring, they're shallow as their focus is on spawning. Then they move deeper and can disappear into the depths, at times suspending to feed on pelagic preyfish. In some waters they return to shallow areas in fall, becoming more accessible again."
Iaconelli finds largemouths easier to find and catch during the summer when smallmouths scatter in deep water. "Largemouths usually remain in bays and creeks then," he says. "They inhabit vegetation, often setting up on obvious places with good cover and key structural edges and they remain accessible."
Horton generally focuses on Tennessee River largemouths during summer. "Largemouths don't lose as much weight during the summer as smallmouths," he says. "Smallmouths here become less active in hot water, as oxygen levels decline. Largemouths seem better equipped to cope with conditions that stress smallmouths. In those conditions, I find largemouths more catchable."
"Habitat can be perplexing," Horton says. "In places like Lake St. Clair, there's not enough largemouth habitat. What you find is excellent, but there's not enough of it. At Lake Champlain, the Ticonderoga area at the south end of the lake offers 30 to 40 miles of fantastic largemouth habitat that allows them to grow older and bigger."
VanDam notes that many New York lakes have ideal habitat for both species. Cayuga Lake, one of the Finger Lakes, has shallow grass bays and plenty of boat docks for harboring largemouths and deep rockpiles that attract smallmouths. On Lake Champlain, he says the habitat and structure determine where to fish for either species. Grass flats on the north and south ends hold the most largemouths while smallmouth prefer the deep rockpiles, points, and islands in the mid-section of the lake.
VanDam finds that choice of bass species to target is related to region. "Southern lakes typically have more largemouths, while northern lakes have more smallmouths," he says. "Northern lakes offer clearer water, which smallies favor. The water in southern impoundments typically is off-color water due to spring runoff through dams, and later as phytoplankton blooms.
The murkier the water, the easier largemouths are to catch because they hold in obvious shallow cover, often stuff you can see. In those conditions, smallmouths are hard to find. And the clearer the water, the easier smallmouths are to locate because they favor deep rock structure. And largemouths usually aren't abundant in those situations."
Iaconelli finds that mixed catches are more common on reservoirs of the Midsouth and south-central regions, including Kentucky Lake, Pickwick Reservoir, and Table Rock. "The farther south you go, the more you find largemouths and smallmouths living in proximity during summer. Up North you rarely find them nearby except during the spawn."
The two species, while outwardly similar, have divergent feeding habits and habitat preferences. If your favorite fishery contains both largemouths and smallmouths, consider these factors to determine what to chase when.
Where largemouth and smallmouth bass coexist, certain lures trigger strikes from both species. Mike Iaconelli's three favorite lures for catching a mixed bag of largemouths and smallmouths are the Berkley Havoc The Jerk soft plastic jerkbait, Rapala X-Rap Pop topwater, and a Molix Lover vibrating jig. A crankbait also produces a mixed bag of bass for Iaconelli at Table Rock Lake. "I can't tell you how many times I've gone down the bank with a Storm Wiggle Wart, fishing transition banks, and in three casts I caught a largemouth, a smallmouth, and a spotted bass," he says.
Jonathon VanDam favors the 5-inch Strike King Dream Shot finesse worm on a drop-shot rig for tempting largemouths and smallmouths in the same vicinity. He also rates a football jig, crankbait, and jerkbait as top producers for mixed catches.
Crankbaits, jerkbaits, and spinnerbaits are Tim Horton's picks for targeting both green and brown bass. "They're universal," he says. "Some techniques apply more to smallmouths like drop-shotting and tubes, but smallmouths crush anything that largemouths bite with the exception of extra-large softbaits. On the Tennessee River, I fish offshore with a football jig instead of a 10-inch worm because I don't want to eliminate a smallmouth bite. At times you find a 5-pound smallmouth around a school of big largemouths."
*John Neporadny Jr., Lake Ozark, Missouri, is an avid bass angler and freelance writer. He often contributes to In-Fisherman publications.