“Bass fishing” can mean very different things to different people. For some, it brings up memories of lakeside mornings and tournament circuits. For others, it means trolling beachfronts or deep sea adventures. This article breaks down the different types of Bass in North America, with a quick look at how they fit together.
There are dozens, possibly hundreds of fish called “Bass” in the world. It’s impossible to cover them all in one place. However, there are two main families of Bass in North America, and a few extras that are well worth mentioning. You probably know most of them, but there might be a couple of surprises hidden along the way.
Types of Black Bass
For many people, Black Bass are the only Bass. These guys have a multi-billion-dollar industry built up around them. Tournaments are held every week of the year. Bass fishing pros tour the country, battling monster fish as well as each other. Let’s take a look at some of the fish causing all this commotion.
This is the most prevalent game fish in the United States. It is so popular they even customize boat designs for efficient largemouth bass fishing. They have many professional associations and even more competitive tours for recreational bass fishing. Bass fishing is a multi-billion-dollar industry in the U.S., which has created employment for over 800,000 people.
It is a member of the sunfish family, one of the black bass. It has a large mouth with an upper jaw extending back past the eye in adults and a tongue but lacks teeth. The color ranges from a silvery white to a brassy green and an occasional light brown for those whose habitat is darker water. It has a line along each side and a light belly. Their average mature length is 15.7 inches, with the highest know being 38 inches. It has two subspecies: the Florida Bass and the Northern Largemouth Bass. The Florida Bass grows to a larger size than the Northern Largemouth.
It prefers a quiet and clear environment and will be found in freshwater lakes, rivers, ponds, and swamps. Adults use submerged vegetation as cover while ambushing prey, while their young use weeds, logs, or stumps to avoid detection by predators. Their diet is insects, small fish, crayfish, frogs, and crustaceans. Make sure to bring along the right fishing rod for this type of bass.
Their big-mouthed brothers may get the headlines, but Smallmouth Bass are just as worthy of the limelight. They’re every bit as wily and put up an even better fight pound for pound. At least, that’s what the “Smallie” crowd says.
We’ve covered Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass in much more detail elsewhere, but the main differences are size and habitat. Smallmouth are smaller on average. They like colder water and stronger current. You can find both fish in the same place, but one always tends to be more dominant.
Also known as spotty, it closely resembles the largemouth bass. Because different states have different fishing restrictions, it is important to distinguish between the two. They are both good for human consumption besides recreational fishing.
When hooked, the spotted bass will retreat to the bottom of the waterbed to hide, unlike the largemouth, which jumps up to free itself. They are equally feisty, though. Other differences will be the physical characteristics. The jaw on a spotted bass does not extend past the eye line. They have a dark-spotted lateral line and dark spots towards their bellies.
Their habitat preferences are slightly different. They prefer areas with more current than largemouth bass but are too warm or muddled for smallmouth bass.
This is the official state fish of Texas. It is only found in streams in the Edwards Plateau region of Central Texas. It is closely related to the largemouth and spotted basses with a few distinct features. It has black, diamond-shaped patterns along its sides and rows of spots that form lines along its belly. Its coloration goes lower on the body than the spotted bass, and it has a generally greenish color.
They are adapted to flowing streams. As a result, they don’t grow large, with the average adult weighing 3lbs. This preference for small streams also thrills anglers as they want to experience the natural setting where streams are usually found. Their population has been reducing largely because of inbreeding with smallmouth bass introduced in their habitat.
The Alabama bass (Micropterus henshalli) can be hard to distinguish from its close relative, the largemouth. Found in a relatively small area of America, it’s restricted to Alabama, Georgia, and western Mississippi. Originally a subspecies of spotted bass, it’s now earned a place of its own.
Growing to as large as 24 inches, their rarity makes them an accidental rather than intentional catch. They prefer a bit more current than largemouth, and you can catch the Alabama bass in streams as well as ponds and lakes.
If you’re not fishing in the Cahaba River system in the Piedmont region of central Alabama, you won’t run into the Cahaba bass (Micropterus cahabae). Even then, this species is rare, and only a handful of specimens have been caught.
Until recently, the Cahaba was considered a subspecies of the redeye bass (Micropterus coosae), only gaining its independence when genetic testing revealed that it was, in fact, a separate species.
Differentiating it from the redeye is impossible without a lab. Expect red eyes, 10 dorsal spines, 11 to 12 soft rays, and 3 anal spines. Its fins will lack any red coloring, potentially differentiating it from its close kin, and it will often show 6 to 12 vertical blotches running from the gills to tail.
This species was recently described out of the Micropterus coosae complex. As with other close kin, the Cahaba Bass have dusky bars or blotches along their sides and a red eye. It also shares the cheek stripes of the smallmouth.
The Florida bass (Micropterus salmoides floridanus) isn’t a fish you’re going to catch often, and even if you do, without a scientist to help you sample and sequence its DNA, you’ll probably mistake it for a standard largemouth!
As a subspecies of Micropterus salmoides, I’m not aware of any way to tell them apart in the field.
Types of Temperate Bass
Of course, just because Black Bass are big business, doesn’t mean they’re the only fish out there. The Temperate Bass family includes one of America’s most important sport fish. Let’s take a look at North America’s “other” Bass family.
Often referred to as sand bass, it is a silvery-white fish with 4 to 7 vertical stripes on its sides. There is a clear separation between its first and second dorsal fins, and it has two tooth patches toward the back of the tongue. Adults average 10 to 15 inches long and 1lb weight. The highest recorded weight is 5lb.
They generally avoid turbidity and prefer clear current and backwater areas over rocks and sand. They migrate to creeks, streams, and shallow rivers during mating season. Their young will live in shallow water and move to deeper water as they mature.
Their diet includes aquatic insects and small crustaceans like water fleas and copepods. The more mature prefer eating fish like shad, minnows, and sunfishes. They travel in large schools in search of prey.
If you’ve ever fished on the East Coast, chances are you’ve at least tried to catch a Striped Bass. Ken Schultz describes Stripers as “one of the most valuable and popular fish in North America” in his Fishing Encyclopedia. Big words, but well deserved. These guys are big, strong, and mean – all the makings of the perfect sport fish.
Stripers spend most of their lives in the sea, but head inland to spawn. The problem is that most of them migrate into one place – the Chesapeake Bay. This bottleneck leaves them vulnerable to overfishing. Recently, several states canceled their trophy Striper season to try and avoid this. Whatever you make of the closures, let’s hope it helps to keep the species healthy.
Inhabiting waters from Lake Michigan and down the Mississippi River basin, the Yellow bass (Morone mississippiensis) is sometimes caught by anglers fishing for crappie.
Dark green to silvery-yellow in color, they’re easy to differentiate from other species. Look for seven long, horizontal stripes, the lower of which are usually broken or “bent,” as in the picture above.
When to Bass Fish
Some would say they know when to bass fish. And their answer would be any time. I tend to agree. But when to bass fish is more about when to do what. Certain lures and techniques were created and subsequently shown to be more effective at certain times of the day, season or year.
We can’t possibly identify the best tricks for every time of the year because quite frankly it varies. While it’s spawn in Florida and Texas, it’s still winter ice fishing in Minnesota and New York. But what we can do is look at some factors that dictate when the bass will be acting a certain way based on decades of experience and research on lakes all across the country. Then we can look at tools like the Fishing Lure Selector Guide as a reference on what lures to throw when.
Knowing when to bass fish essentially boils down to these 7 things you should consider:
- Water temperature
- Relation to spawn
- Weather influences
- Fishing pressure
- Moon phases
- Daylight periods
For some species, like the Florida bass, there’s just not much information. Nor is there any easy way to tell them apart from close relatives. But for most anglers, most of the time, knowing the difference between largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass will get it done!
We hope that this guide has been helpful for you, and if you have any questions or additions, please leave us a comment below.