Editor’s Note: We kicked off Versus Week yesterday with the Final Four of the 2024 Bass Lure Bracket, and we’ll be bringing you the championship matchup to vote on tomorrow. Meanwhile, in keeping with the bass theme, we turned to our resident hornet’s-nest kicker, Will Brantley, to consider not whether you should eat largemouth and smallmouth bass—of course you should (he settled that last year)—but which tastes better. So, here you go, dig in.

Last spring during Versus Week, I assumed that I’d ended the debate over eating bass when I squared off with a tournament angler who doesn’t eat them—and doesn’t want you eating them either—because he’d rather catch them for money. After I turned in my story, I reclined my chair and waited for fans to reach out with praise, and perhaps for my wife to cook a meal befitting of a hero. Fried largemouth fillets and hushpuppies? No, this victory called for something special, like grilled smallmouth over a wood fire with butter.

But none of that happened. Instead, my wife said we can’t have bass for dinner every damn night and that it was my turn to cook anyhow. Meanwhile, my take-down of the anti-bass-eating crowd had all the lasting impact of a brilliant political post on Facebook. The opposition has not budged.  

Which Bass Tastes Better?

Largemouth bass make fine table fare, but it’s more satisfying to eat a smallie. vlorzer / Adobe Stock

Well, it’s another spring fishing season, another Versus Week, and just like people who post political rants, I can’t stop at writing only one antagonistic thing about bass eating. So, this year, I want to compare the qualities of largemouth bass and smallmouth bass on the dinner table.

It’s actually a short debate. Smallmouths are the superior table fish. Not necessarily because they taste any better than largemouths—their fillets are pretty much indistinguishable—but because enjoying a nice bronzeback dinner amplifies the whole bass-eating experience. Outspoken bass eaters have become the contrarians of the fishing world, and if filleting a largemouth at the dock raises eyebrows, putting a bronzeback under the knife raises fists.

As gamefish go, smallmouths are idols. They’re revered for their aggressive appetite, stunning beauty, acrobatic leaps, and surging runs. I don’t know that a sportier freshwater fish exists, and I certainly love fishing for smallmouths myself. It’s just that under the bronze skin, and behind those red eyes, smallmouths are wrapped in a pair of tasty fillets.

Now to be clear, and to maybe limit myself to one black eye instead of two, I don’t keep any bass that weigh more than about 3 pounds. A bass that’s grown to that size has beaten some odds and is pretty much home-free for growing even larger—unless it spends a full summer day riding in a livewell before a tournament weigh-in, of course. But that aside, I let the big ones go for a practical reason: Small keepers are better to eat.

Smallmouth vs Crappie (While We’re At It)

Where I fish most often, in the Tennessee River, bass must be at least 15 inches to keep, and fisheries biologists say we can keep five of them a day, largemouths or smallmouths. Spring is crappie season around here, and they are, of course, regarded as top table fare. I enjoy eating bland, mushy panfish that fight like oil-soaked dishrags just as much as the next guy, and so I crappie fish quite a lot this time of year. That said, on a good day of casting curly-tails at rocky shorelines for black crappie, I can usually count on a nice mixed creel of species—and sometimes one or two especially vicious thumps on the end of the line. When that happens, and I see a smallmouth leap into the air, I get excited. They’re cool fish to behold and great fun to catch.

But once that smallmouth is in the boat, the first thing I’m doing is measuring to see if it’s 15 inches long. If it is, it goes into the cooler, right next to the crappies, catfish, white bass, and whatever else I happen to reel in that day. It puzzles me why so many anglers think nothing of seeing all of those other species on ice, but will look at the dead smallmouth as if it’s the head of someone’s missing pet.

Regardless, I’m taking all of the fish home to eat them for dinner. I’m going to do this partly because I’m a contrarian bass eater. Partly because it’s my night to cook. And partly because there’s really no argument in saying that a keeper smallmouth, and even a big white bass, is way better to eat than a slab crappie. But I’m keeping the why of that to myself for now, because we’ll need something to argue about next year during Versus Week.