Billy Westmorland, Them Ol' Brown Fish book cover

About a year ago, Terry Battisti posted an excellent book review of Billy Westmorland’s Them Ol’ Brown Fish, published in 1976. At the time, I commented on Terry’s article that I should probably find my old copy and give it a new reading. Well, find it I did, and reread it I did as well. It’s been decades since I opened this eccentric little volume on smallmouth bass fishing. So it was with some measure of joy that I found Westmorland’s book to be more quirky and fun than I remembered it.

I guess I’m piggy-backing on Terry’s article here, but that’s okay, because I’m more than happy to reinforce Terry’s declaration that, “From a purely historical standpoint, the book is a must-have.” 

For me, as a Midwest kid who grew to love fishing smallmouth on the lakes, rivers and flowages of Wisconsin, Westmorland’s book became my fishing bible. And although I didn’t employ all of his techniques and knowledge, I absolutely cherished his book. It was the only one of its kind, a fishing how-to book devoted entirely to my favorite fish, the smallmouth bass. I read it as a teenager, thinking that I’ll soak up all the know-how in this little volume and I’ll absolutely crush the smallmouth in Wisconsin. And after my dad lost what was close to a state record smallie on the Flambeau Flowage, I just knew that a state record was in reach once I put Westmorland’s tactics into play.

Billy Westmorland, Them Ol' Brown Fish, dust jacket image.
Billy Westmorland, Them Ol' Brown Fish, dust jacket image.

When I say that the book is quirky and eccentric, it’s because it’s rare that you’ll find a book on bass fishing, or any subject for that matter, that is entirely written in the author’s unedited conversational voice. Every page is like a running stream of consciousness chat with Billy Westmorland, complete with all of the brief tangents, memories and reminiscences he would have if he were talking directly to you. It’s as though you and he are sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch, just shooting the breeze, as he recounts stories from his life and how he caught so many smallmouth bass.

Let me give you a taste. On pages 34-35, Westmorland remembers, 

“I’m reminded of one time many years ago when I saw this ad in one of the fishing magazines. It didn’t show a picture of the lure, but it described how it was possible to catch all the fish out of any lake–really hurt the population. Underneath it had an affidavit that you signed and mailed in to get these three baits. I believe it was $3.50 for the three  of ‘em. Other than just sayin’ it was a fish catcher, it gave no description of the bait or anything.

“Anyway, I signed the affidavit that I would fish it no more than 30 minutes in any lake, pond, or stream, I believe was the way it was. But at the time, I was thinking ‘aha, even though I signed, when I get that bait, I’m gonna really tear ‘em up.’ But I got the baits about 10 days later and they were three bucktail jigs and here I was at that time making jigs by the hundreds. The ones that I sold, I averaged about a dime apiece for ‘em. Three dollars and 50 cents back then was like $30 in this day and time.”

Isn’t that fantastic? This book is essentially a history of Westmorland’s life and of fishing back in the day, told in a colloquial and engaging manner. It’s fun reading, and it must have been fun to have known and conversed with Billy Westmorland. But it’s also more than that. If you pay attention, between his side-track musings you will also glean some darn fine smallmouth bass fishing techniques that will put fish in the boat today.

Terry talked about Westmorland’s preference for fishing small lures on light spinning gear, and of him being one of the early proponents of finesse fishing techniques before they became known as finesse fishing. Also, as Terry alluded, Westmorland will get surprisingly specific with information on the where, when and how of catching smallmouth bass. For example, in the chapter “Big Fish” he says, after talking about the water depth that big smallmouth prefer, 

The depth of the water and the water temperature has more to do with locating these big fish than anything I know of. I really believe water temperature has to be No. 1 in importance. I know I keep going back to water temperature over and over again, but I’m convinced it’s so important, especially in smallmouth fishing. I can’t stress too much  the importance of fishing for these fish when the water temperature’s right. I have noticed that with largemouths and some other fish such as walleyes and crappies that the water temperature’s not that critical in fishing for them.

“The ideal temperature for catching smallmouths can be from about 47 to 57 degrees. From 52 to 55 is what I consider the best temp. A difference I’ve found with smallmouths when the water temperature gets from the low 60’s into the 70’s the duration of time in which you can catch the fish feeding up on the banks is a lot shorter. They don’t hang around all day in water temperatures like this whereas they might stay up on the bank all day long when the water is in the 50’s. After the water temperature gets on up there, the bigger fish get harder to catch, too. You just don’t catch that many of them then. These temperatures into the 70’s don’t seem to affect the smaller fish, such as the yearlings, as much as the bigger ones.” 

If this doesn’t compel you to bring and use a water thermometer when you’re on the water I don’t know what will. The book is chock full of specific smallmouth fishing insights like this, from specific lures Westmorland preferred, to rods and reels, line, night fishing, the effect of the moon, wave action and water clarity…you name it, Westmorland covers it in his charming, homespun style.

Billy Westmorland, Them Ol' Brown Fish, dust jacket image.
Billy Westmorland, Them Ol' Brown Fish, dust jacket image.

Part autobiography, part smallmouth bass fishing how-to guide, Them Ol’ Brown Fish combines both to paint a picture of the life and fishing philosophy of this great Tennessee angler. Westmorland passed away in 2002. He was only 65 years old. He is rightly inducted into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame. 

Alas, I never achieved catching a state record smallmouth, but I still cherish Westmorland’s book. I wouldn’t sell it for anything, and it holds a special place on my shelf. 

I checked a couple of used book resell websites, and Them Ol’ Brown Fish is currently selling for $100 upwards to $400 a copy. That’s quite a mark-up from the $6 I paid years ago. But I will say, if you have a bass fishing history library and you want to complete it, you really do need to acquire a copy of this book. I think you’ll be glad you did.

And if, after reading Battisti’s first piece on Them Ol’ Brown Fish, you want an even more tantalizing and fascinating account of Westmorland’s life and fishing philosophy, by all means check out the excellent episode of The Big Bass Podcast titled “Billy Westmoreland, the Trophy Smallmouth GOAT!.” Terry Battisti and Ken Duke talk about all things Westmorland-related, including the ‘e’ in Billy’s last name and how one day he saved the life of Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris.