Them Ol’ Brown Fish – Billy Westmorland on Smallmouths

Them Ol' Brown Fish - Billy Westmorland on Smallmouths as told to Larry Mayer. Published in 1976 by The Parthenon Press.

Them Ol’ Brown Fish – Billy Westmorland on Smallmouths as told to Larry Mayer. Published in 1976 by The Parthenon Press.

Editor’s Note: We’ve redone the way we post book reviews on the site to make it easier to find. In the upper menu bar, you’ll notice that we took away the Historical Links tab and replaced it with Historical Book Reviews. On this page you will be able to see each book we’ve reviewed and if you click on the picture, you’ll be taken to that review. Also, on the sidebar, you will notice a category for Old Book Reviews. This link will take you to old books we’ve reviewed but that list of links isn’t complete as of this time. We will continue to work on those links and the site in general to bring you all the history of our sport and in a way it’s easy for you to find.

If you’ve been around bass fishing for a while, I’m sure you’ve heard of the book, “Them Ol’ Brown Fish.” Written by legendary angler Billy Westmorland (as told to Larry Mayer) and published in 1976, at the time it was the only book written solely on the ways of the smallmouth bass. Prior to this, you might have been able to find small tidbits of information in articles or other bass books about the smallmouth but they were few and far between.

Westmorland stands besides his beloved Dale Hollow Lake Dam. Photo Them Ol' Brown Fish.

Westmorland stands besides his beloved Dale Hollow Lake Dam. Photo Them Ol’ Brown Fish.

I bought my copy of Westmorland’s book around the 1982 timeframe along with his other book Largemouths and Roland Martin’s 101 Bass Catching Secrets from Bass Pro Shops. Although southern California isn’t known as a hotbed for smallies, I wanted to read the fabled book and learn all I could in order to catch fish at the one lake in SoCal that did have them. I read the book, bought a bunch of Hoss Fly jigs and fly rinds and 3-inch Mann’s Sting Ray grubs, and put Westmorland’s tactics to use.

Then a few weeks ago I came across the book, which has been in a box for some 20-plus years. I picked it up and read it again – cover to cover.

It’s amazing what you forget over time. All I remembered about the book prior to reading it again were Westmorland’s use of hair jigs, light line and spinning tackle.

Westmorland talks a lot about his childhood, who he learned to fish from and who he fished with as a youngster. Photo Them Ol' Brown Fish.

Westmorland talks a lot about his childhood, who he learned to fish from and who he fished with as a youngster. Photo Them Ol’ Brown Fish.

Because of this I was surprised to see the book was actually written as told to Larry Mayer – literally. Punctuation was there as was grammar but the words – they came directly from Billy’s mouth and were written as such – in his Tennessee way of sayin’ things.

The book is written based on a number of recorded conversations that Mayer had with Westmorland and is divided into a number of chapters. Those chapters are, in order of their occurrence:

  1. Forward – Billy Westmorland
  2. Introduction – Larry Mayer
  3. Those Early Years
  4. My Peers
  5. Catches Spawn Confidence
  6. Weather
  7. Lure, Live Bait Logic
  8. Tackle and Techniques
  9. Myths, Misconceptions, Mistakes
  10. Night After Night
  11. Big Fish
  12. Getting Completely Rigged
  13. Unusual Water Conditions
  14. Differences In Different Lakes
  15. River Fishing
  16. Difference Between The Three
  17. Fishing Unfamiliar Waters
  18. Water Pollution, Fishing Pressure
  19. Looking Back
Westmorland and a very young Jerry McKinnis after a decent day on Dale Hollow. Photo Them Ol' Brown Fish.

Westmorland and a very young Jerry McKinnis after a decent day on Dale Hollow. Photo Them Ol’ Brown Fish.

If you’re looking for a concise book on how to catch smallmouths,this isn’t the book for you. But if you’re looking for a book that delves into Westmorland’s life, how he learned to fish, who taught him, what he used and why, this is a treasure. Each chapter he tells numerous stories that pertain to the chapter title – all the while telling the reader why he fishes a certain way.

Westmorland has some interesting tactics and theories on how to catch big smallies – many of which would still work today if someone would use them. He talks a lot about his “fly-n-rind” combo and the Pedigo Spinrite. He also talks a lot about using light tackle, which included line from 4- to 8-pound test and 5-foot custom spinning rods paired with Zebco Cardinal III and IV reels.

I’ve said this before many times about the subject of “who invented finesse tactics.” Here in Westmorland’s book, he talks of using light tackle in the early- to mid-60s and he was in the south. I know a lot of Midwesterners like to lay claim to the invention of finesse but here again, you see someone who was using it in the early days and using it because it worked.

Anyway, Westmorland also talks about how he preferred to fish deep, another tactic that a lot of people think originated in the west. No so. Westmorland not only felt but had proven time and time again that the biggest smallies in the lake mostly frequent the 18- to 35-foot range of depth and his catches proved that. He did say that there were some times where big fish could be caught shallow, like at night or during the spawn, but most of the time, he was targeting the depths.

Westmorland poses with his 10-pound smallmouth. Photo Them Ol' Brown Fish.

Westmorland poses with his 10-pound smallmouth. Photo Them Ol’ Brown Fish.

Westmorland had an amazing life and also had some amazing catches, a lot of which he talks about in his book. He personally caught one fish over the magic 10-pound mark, had three fish over 9 pounds and 50 to 75 fish over 8 pounds. He also talks about a fish that he hooked that was well over 12 pounds. Most of these fish were hooked and caught on 6-pound test and a 1/8-ounce Hoss Fly jig-n-rind or a 1/2-ounce Spinrite.

Is the book outdated for today? In some instances I’d say yes. It seems more and more anglers are catching big smallies on bigger baits than Westmorland would have used. But at the same time much of the content is still valuable and applicable to today’s smallmouths. How many anglers are out there fishing with the tackle he recommends? I’d say few if any. One of the comments that he made in his book, which I feel is really important, is the comment he made regarding new baits and old baits that the fish “don’t eat” anymore. It wasn’t Westmorland’s idea that fish quit eating a certain bait because they became wary of it. It was his contention that fish quit eating them because people quit throwing them. I couldn’t agree more.

I won’t go and give much more away about this book if you want to find it and read it. Just let me end with this, though. From a purely historical standpoint, the book is a must-have. Mr. Westmorland isn’t around anymore and if you’re interested in learning about his life, this is one of the only remaining ways to do it. He was an amazing angler and part of the sport when it was in its infancy.

  • Jeff Hahn

    I still have my autographed copy of “Them Ol Brown Fish.” And, two of the Billy Westmorland 5’6″ Browning spinning rods. The man probably forgot more than most of us will ever know about smallies.

    • Jeff, that’s damn cool. The autographed book and the rods. I don’t recall ever seeing one of those rods. I assume they worked well?