Bass fishing is the most American of pastimes — a chicken-fried Yankee Doodle Dandy coast-to-coast opportunity to commune with nature and chase a deep-bellied brawler of a fish.
Whether you live close to the swamps of Florida, the clear streams of the Ozarks, the massive Great Lakes or even an urban canal, there are probably bass in your backyard. And while they’ll succumb to live bait and flies, a massive industry has grown up around chasing them with hardware — everything from ornate topwater lures to all manner of soft plastics and even ultra-natural swimbaits that cost in the hundreds of dollars.
From cane poles to six-figure fiberglass boats, from once-a-year enthusiasts to tournament professionals, bass anglers come from all walks of life. The vast majority of the tens of millions of anglers nationwide fish in freshwater, and more than 30 percent of those chase bass. Largemouths are the most widely distributed, having now been found in every state, with smallmouth second-most common and spotted bass after them.
All three species can be found from the eastern seaboard to California, but there are also lesser-known and more geographically isolated strains. They’re all tied together by certain characteristics, but distinct enough that you have to be a true student of the game to master more than one.
THE BIG THREE
Largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass are by far the most common black bass species available to anglers.
Subspecies and Strains: The Northern strain is more prevalent, but the Florida strain, generally limited to warmer climates, has the genetics to grow larger. That advantage comes with a distinct disadvantage, though — they tend to get exceptionally finicky during cold fronts. Largemouths are adaptable, able to live in massive lakes and fast-moving rivers, as well as shallow ponds, and in water that barely covers their backs down to a hundred feet or so.
Geographic Distribution:As a result of their incredible adaptability, largemouths have long been found in 49 states, and one was recently seen in Alaska. They’ve also gone international, with a record-tying specimen caught in Japan, and avid angler communities arising in southern Africa, South America and Europe.
Habitat and Diet: Largemouths are omnivorous, and when their stomachs are cut open, anglers might find a baby duck or turtle. However, throughout much of the country, their primary forage is baitfish — often shad — but perch, bluegills, small trout and other species are main components as well.
Behavior: Largemouths are opportunistic ambush feeders. Look for edges — whether they be grasslines, shade canopies or current seams — and expect the bass to aim for the most calories with the least effort.
Key Angling Tip: On pressured waters, don’t forget to downsize. With the proliferation of massive swimbaits, oversized topwaters and 10-inch worms, it’s easy to follow the “big bait, big fish” mentality, but sometimes something less intrusive can make a difference.
Subspecies and Strains: The primary distinction exists between the Great Lakes strain and the Northern strain, but there are smaller, less-common variants like the “Neosho” strain in the Ozarks region.
Geographic Distribution: Smallmouths are found in most of the continental United States, with Florida and Louisiana the only exceptions. They can also be found in Hawaii. They are typically either in fast-moving water like free-flowing rivers or in deep, clear lakes like the Great Lakes or the highland reservoirs of the mid-south.
Habitat and Diet: Smallmouths might not be quite as indiscriminate feeders as their largemouth brethren, but they’re close. They’re eating machines because they need to keep consuming in order to muscle up for their bulldogging dives and acrobatic jumps. When keyed in on baitfish, they’ll follow the schools and sometimes suspend, but they also gorge on other meals including crawfish and invasive gobies.
Behavior: If the largemouth is the heavyweight puncher, then the smallmouth is a welterweight, with enough heft to test your tackle, but also the moves of a dancer, able to jump and pull drag far beyond the level that their dimensions seem to make likely.
Key Angling Tip: Smallmouths are sight feeders, and while they’ll respond to soft plastics in shades like watermelon and cinnamon, sometimes gaudy is better. So, integrate some bright colors into your arsenal — all-bubblegum spinnerbaits and hard-pulled jerkbaits with more than a dash of chartreuse will sometimes catch more than subdued colors.
Spotted Bass (Micropterus punctulatus)
Subspecies and Strains: The northern spotted bass are most widely found, but the Alabama, or Coosa River, spots grow the largest and have spread to California. There’s also a Wichita strain that is limited to one small portion of Oklahoma.
Geographic Distribution: Historically, they’ve been found in the mid-south, thus the common nickname “Kentuckies,” but they’ve spread southward to Alabama and Texas in huge numbers, west into the Ozarks, and out to California. The last several records, all in double digits, have come from the Golden State.
Habitat and Diet: Spots prefer areas with more current than where largemouths live, but slower than a smallmouth’s desired environment. They’ll follow shad and blueback herring, but also live to feast on crawfish.
Behavior: Spots tend to school up more than largemouths and even smallmouths, so if you find one, drop a waypoint and scour the area.
Key Angling Tip: Get comfortable with your depthfinders because when they’re not chasing pelagic baitfish, spots tend to get out on offshore structure. Crawfish-colored jigs and a drop-shot are deadly throughout their range, but when the water is warm enough, they’ll come up and whack a topwater.
While not as widespread, or usually as large, as the “big three,” these black bass species are still prized catches.
Shoal Bass (Micropterus cataractae)
Geographic Distribution: The shoal bass lives in a limited portion of Florida, Georgia and Alabama, primarily in the Flint River and its impoundments, but also in the Chattahoochee, the Apalachicola, Ocmulgee and Chipola rivers.
Habitat and Diet: Shoal bass wait in current seams for crustaceans and insects to sweep past them.
Behavior: Current is king, and shoal bass — unlike their relatives — tend not to shy away from heavy current, hence their name.
Key Angling Tip: Despite the fact that they live mostly in smaller waterways, shoal bass of 5 and 6 pounds are not uncommon, and the record is nearly 9 pounds. Nevertheless, they are a popular target for fly-anglers, especially in the warm summer months in current-driven situations, when poppers and subsurface crawfish imitators excel.
Geographic Distribution: Redeyes (also known as the Coosa Bass, not to be confused with the Coosa strain of spotted bass) live in tributaries from Mississippi across to Georgia and up into Tennessee.
Habitat and Diet: These fish are small-stream dwellers, so while you may occasionally come across one in a larger impoundment, focus on hard-to-access streams with clean water and adequate current.
Behavior: Insects constitute a heavy portion of their diet, along with crawfish.
Key Angling Tip: These bass don’t grow large, rarely topping a pound (the world record is just over 3 pounds), so keep your tackle small and able to operate in tight spaces. Light line and a variety of lures like Beetle Spins, grubs and mini-crankbaits replicate prey.
Geographic Distribution: The official state fish of Texas is, not surprisingly, limited to a small area of central Texas, including its namesake Guadalupe River.
Habitat and Diet: They don’t grow large (the world record is less than 4 pounds), but even though they favor smaller streams like the Redeye, they can also be found in larger impoundments like Lake Travis. They are currently threatened by a variety of factors, including hybridization.
Behavior: On waters like Travis where they coexist with largemouths, the Guadalupes will be found in the faster-flowing sections of the lake.
Key Angling Tip: They might be small, but the Guadalupes are voracious and will hit surprisingly large lures in clear water. However, your go-to choices should replicate crawfish; so, grubs, jigs and creature baits bounced among the rocks should always be on hand.
Geographic Distribution: Suwannees are native only to a pair of drainages that span Georgia and Florida but have been introduced to some other river systems nearby. The Santa Fe River is notably productive.
Habitat and Diet: They’re closely related to the smallmouth, despite largely being in Florida, one of the states with no bronzebacks. While they won’t turn down a baitfish, crawfish compose the majority of their diets.
Behavior: Look for rocks and undercut banks with shade. In areas where they coexist with largemouths, they’ll take the current-driven sections while their green brothers stay in the slower pools.
Key Angling Tip: This is the Deep South, so Suwannees tend to spawn early. Look for them on shallow gravel bars in February and March before they transition to more current-oriented sections of the river.
- Altamaha Bass: Found above the fall line in the Ocmulgee, Oconee and Ogeechee river basins in east-central Georgia.
- Bartram’s Bass: Found above the fall line in the Savannah River basins of northeast and east-central Georgia.
- Cahaba Bass: Found in the Cahaba River System of the Mobile Basin in central Alabama.
- Chattahoochee Bass: Found above the fall line in the Chattahoochee River basin.
- Choctaw Bass: Found in the upper panhandle of Florida and into southeastern Alabama.
- Cuatrociénegas Bass: A largemouth found in the Cuatro Ciénegas ecosystem in Coahuila, Mexico.
- Neosho Smallmouth: Populations have historically existed in small portions of Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma.
- Tallapoosa Bass: Found in the Tallapoosa River basin.
- Warrior Bass: Found in the Black Warrior River System of Alabama.
NOT THE BASS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR
You know those bass you’ve been fishing for since you were a kid? Yeah, well, they’re not bass at all. They’re sunfish. The largemouth? Yup. Smallmouth and spots, too. All of ’em.
Those popular game fish are one of eight genera within the family of ray-finned fish known as Centrarchidae native to North America. All of the family members are characterized by spiny rays at the front of the dorsal fin, usually accompanied by 5 to 13 spines, along with at least three spines on their anal fin.
These popular “bass” are genetically closer to bluegills than they are “real” bass like landlocked striped bass (aka stripers, rockfish or linesiders) or white bass (aka sand bass), which are members of the Moronidae family. The latter group, which also includes white perch, is characterized by two dorsal fins, the first with 8 to 10 spines and then 10 to 13 soft rays. The anal fin has three spines and 9 to 12 soft rays. They tend to chase baitfish aggressively in massive schools, often leaving shallower, weedier habitats to largemouths. There are also yellow bass (sometimes called barfish), which typically don’t grow to more than a pound or two and are limited to a relatively small geographic footprint.
For many bass anglers, even those who have some sense of ichthyology, the Holy Grail is to chase peacock bass. They’ll eat many bass lures, fight like a bass — only harder — and can be caught on bass tackle.
Actually, they’re not bass at all. Instead, they’re cichlids, larger versions of colorful aquarium fish.
While the record-class peacocks over 20 pounds are found exclusively in the Amazon River drainages of South America, the smaller Butterfly Peacocks have been successfully introduced to Hawaii and South Florida. In the latter venue, they can often be caught among largemouths, saltwater species like snook and tarpon, and a host of oddball illegally released aquarium fish that make this the ultimate “Star Wars Bar” angling experience.
And finally, black sea bass and Chilean sea bass (aka Patagonian Toothfish) won’t fall for your plastic worms or get you into the Bassmaster Classic, but they are certainly fine table fare.