CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Angling pioneer James Henshall wrote in 1881 that smallmouth bass "inch for inch, pound for pound, [are] the gamest fish that swims."
Few West Virginians would disagree.
Any Mountaineer who has hooked a smallmouth has experienced the strength, the agility and the sheer never-say-die grit the species has become famous for. Fisheries officials consider the smallmouth the state's second-most important game fish, and then only because it inhabits fewer waters than its close cousin, the largemouth.
"There's a lot more fishing for largemouths, mostly because bass tournaments are usually held on waters where largemouths are dominant," said Mark Scott, Division of Natural Resources fisheries biologist for the state's southeastern counties.
"Smallmouths are river fish that prefer clear water and rocky habitat. Largemouths are found mostly in lakes and in large rivers. West Virginia has a lot more largemouth habitat than smallmouth habitat."
That doesn't mean the state is smallmouth-deficient. In fact, it's anything but. Four major rivers - the New, the Greenbrier, the South Branch and the Elk - are renowned and popular smallmouth fisheries that add significantly to the state's tourism bottom line.
A small but thriving industry has grown up around float fishing for smallmouths. On rivers such as the New and South Branch, both of which flow through remote, largely roadless canyons, outfitters offer guided float trips.
Because of the outfitting industry that has grown up around smallmouth fishing, Scott believes smallmouths are every bit as important economically as largemouths.
"I'd place the smallmouth right up there," he said.
West Virginia's early pioneers found smallmouths in the Ohio River and many of its tributaries. The species itself is native to the Mississippi watershed and the Great Lakes.
Interestingly, it was not native to the Potomac watershed.
A Wheeling resident, Gen. William Shriver, was the driving force behind today's thriving smallmouth fishery in the Potomac and its tributaries. According to Henshall, Shriver caught 20 smallmouths from Wheeling Creek, put them in a cage submerged in the tender of a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad locomotive, rode with them to Cumberland, Md., and released them into the C&O Canal.
Smallmouths prefer rock-bottomed rivers and lakes, so it should come as no surprise that the species' scientific name, Micropterus dolomieu, reflects that trait.
Bernard Germain de Lacépède, a French naturalist, noting the smallmouth's affinity for rocky environs, named the species in 1802 for his friend, French geologist Déodat de Dolomieu. Dolomite, a type of limestone, also gets its name from de Dolomieu, so he might be the only scientist in history ever to have both a rock and a fish named for him.
Smallmouths also prefer cooler waters than their largemouth cousins.
Spawning takes place when water temperatures reach 57 to 62 degrees Fahrenheit. In West Virginia that usually happens in late May or early June. River flows can have a dramatic effect on spawning success.