Bass: Fighting fish that are just plain fun to catch

To regularly catch big fish on demand in a competitive format, professional fishermen must be masters of fish biology. They must know where fish live, how they behave, and most important, what they eat.

The objects of the most popular fishing tournaments are two species of bass — smallmouth and largemouth. Curiously though, bass anglers as a group seem to have missed the lecture on fish taxonomy, the classification of fish species.

Not really bass

Any ichthyologist knows that largemouth bass and smallmouth bass are not members of the bass family, Percichthyidae. White perch, white bass, and striped bass are true bass.

The fish competitive anglers seek are actually large members of the sunfish family, Centrarchidae. But then “Sunfish-masters” just doesn’t roll off the tongue the way “Bassmasters” does.

Taxonomy aside, the “bass” sought by tournament anglers are wary, fighting fish that are just plain fun to catch.

Until the mid-1880s, smallmouth bass lived only in the Great Lakes and the Ohio River watershed. But as railroads opened up the West, smallmouth bass became a popular sport fish and were introduced throughout the United States.

Characteristics

Smallmouths are sometimes called bronzebacks because they have a brownish gold tint on their backs. Other identifying characteristics include a series of eight to 15 dark vertical bars on each side, a dorsal fin separated by a shallow notch, and an upper jaw that does not extend beyond the eye.

Smallmouths can reach 24 inches in length; the world record exceeds 11 pounds.

Habitat

Smallmouth bass prefer deeper, cooler water in lakes and rivers than largemouths and are most likely found in rocky areas with a bit of a current. In larger rivers, think deeper, moving pools behind large boulders.

Smallmouth spawn from May through early June when the water temperature reaches 60 to 70 degrees.

Males create a circular nest in gravel or sand by fanning the area with their fins. Nests range from 14 to 30 inches in diameter and are usually at a depth of three or four feet.

Several females lay eggs in each nest, depositing 2,000 to 7,000 eggs per pound of body weight. Eggs hatch in two to nine days depending on water temperature.

Males guard the nests until the fry leaves the nest five or six days after hatching.

Small fry

Fry eat tiny crustaceans and graduate to aquatic insects, crayfish, and small fish as they grow. Eggs and small fry are especially vulnerable to high water and flooding during spawning.

Under ideal conditions, juvenile smallmouth bass can grow to 4 inches in their first summer.

Largemouth

Originally found in the Ohio River and Lake Erie watershed, largemouth bass are now found almost nationwide in ponds, lakes, and the slow moving sections of big rivers.

They prefer warmer water with aquatic weeds, submerged stumps and logs, and soft bottoms. They avoid rocky bottoms and water more than 20 feet deep.

Largemouth bass, sometimes called “bucketmouths” have a huge mouth and eat almost anything they can swallow — fish, crayfish, frogs, snakes, small mammals, ducklings, small song birds that venture too close to the water’s surface.

Its upper jaw extends beyond the back edge of the eye socket. Other identifying features include its robust body, a broad dark stripe running the length of each side of the body, and a dorsal fin that is so deeply notched it appears almost completely separated.

Big largemouths can exceed 2 feet in length; the world record is over 22 pounds.

Spawning

In spring and early summer, male largemouths fan circular spawning beds in sand, gravel, or even mud. Nests can be up to 3 feet in diameter, typically rest in 1 to 4 feet of water, are within 8 feet of the shoreline, and spaced at least 20 feet apart.

Like smallmouth bass, several female largemouths spawn on each nest at a rate of 2,000 to 7,000 eggs per pound of body weight.

After hatching, fry remain in the nest for about a week under the protection of the male. Then they rise into schools to feed, and the male continues to guard them for about a month.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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