"If the water gets really low or really high, it has a negative impact on the spawn," Scott said. "In years when we have floods on the New, we lose an entire year's worth of spawn."
Anglers usually don't notice the bad spawn until two years later, when the smallmouths that never hatched would measure 8 to 12 inches in length.
"Most of the smallmouths fishermen catch are in that range, so when they're missing from the population, people notice," Scott explained.
After the females lay their eggs, the males move in to guard the nests. As is the case with many species, smallmouth females tend to be larger than males. Males usually max out at 2 to 3 pounds. Females can weigh 5 or more.
The heaviest smallmouth ever caught in West Virginia was taken in 1971 from the South Branch. The big female tipped the scales at 9 pounds, 12 ounces. The all-tackle world record, from Tennessee's Dale Hollow Lake, weighed 11 pounds, 15 ounces.
Diet studies have shown that smallmouths prey primarily on crayfish and minnows.
"Crayfish seem to be the dominant food source, minnows less so," Scott said. "Smallmouths also feed on hellgrammites, caddis flies and other aquatic insects, but mostly they eat crayfish."
Anglers usually fish for smallmouths with light spinning or bait-casting tackle. Plastic grubs, particularly in crayfish-like colors, are popular baits. So are crankbaits, spinnerbaits, buzz baits and soft plastic-twitch baits. Fly tackle can be effective too, especially for anglers adept at fishing streamers and slider-style balsa poppers.
DNR officials have imposed special regulations on parts of four popular Mountain State smallmouth streams.
Catch-and-release regulations are in effect for a 12-mile section of the New River, and on 8- and 9 1/2-mile sections of the South Branch. All black bass - smallmouth and largemouth - must be released immediately after being caught.
A 12-inch minimum size limit is in effect along the entire length of Wheeling Creek. Anglers must release any bass smaller than that.
On a six-mile section of the Greenbrier River, a slot limit is in effect. Anglers must release any bass that measure 12 to 20 inches in length.
Scott believes the future is bright for most of West Virginia's smallmouth fisheries. The lone exception is the South Branch, which in recent years has suffered from algae blooms and reports of smallmouths that exhibit both male and female characteristics.
Scientists are working to determine the causes of those problems. Some theories have been advanced, but so far none have been proven. Until they are, Scott believes the South Branch will lag behind the New as the state's preeminent fishery for "the gamest fish that swims."
Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or johnmc...@wvgazette.com.