Tuesday, January 31st, 2023
Tuesday, January 31st, 2023

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A little love for the disrespected rock bass

By Tim Lesmeister
Contributing Writer

The rock bass is a species that gets little respect within its family ranks. Not a true bass, it’s a member of the sunfish (centrarchid) family, which includes many fish familiar to Midwestern anglers, including the bluegill, pumpkinseed, green sunfish, and crappies. So the rock bass is often considered a nuisance by anglers targeting crappies, walleyes, or bluegills.

They’re not members of the “black bass” family, which include the bigger, more sporting members of the bass family – largemouth, smallmouth, and (down south) spotted bass. But to some anglers, not appreciating the rock bass just doesn’t make much sense. Some even call them by a more affectionate nickname: “red-eyed crappies.”

“I find the rock bass to be a great fighter on ultra-light tackle,” said Cory Cranbrook, whose angling friends refer to as Captain Rock Bass. “They are easy to find on the lakes where they are present in good numbers and they are always aggressive.”

The vast majority of my experience with rock bass has been on the lakes in northern Minnesota, but they cover a large swath of the central and northeastern United States. 

These fish are native to the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes system, the upper and middle Mississippi River basin in North America from Québec to Saskatchewan, in the north down to Missouri and Arkansas, south to the Savannah River, and throughout the eastern U.S. from New York through Kentucky and Tennessee to the northern portions of Alabama and also central Georgia and Florida in the south. The rock bass has also been found in the Nueces River system in Texas, so they are prevalent in a lot of regions.

There have been more than a few times fishing a lake with rock bass that I have had anglers visiting from other parts of the country motor up and ask me what kind of fish it is they just caught. When I tell them it’s a rock bass the next words out of their mouth are, “Is it good eating?”

I asked Cranbrook for his opinion on the culinary traits of rock bass. 

“As long as they aren’t wormy,” he said. “Battered and fried you can’t tell the difference between a rock bass and a bluegill.”

The “wormy” Cranbrook refers to are the yellow grub or white grub, which is a larval flatworm. The parasite appears as yellow or white spots in the flesh, often one-quarter inch long. While unsightly, it is harmless to man and in many cases can be removed during the cleaning process. While all species of fish in lakes and rivers are susceptible, fish that inhabit shallow areas are most affected.

Cranbrook says there are no special presentations when considering what technique to use when targeting rock bass.

 “I just use a leech on a hook,” he said. “It’s like walleye fishing with a live bait rig, only you’re working the bait in the big schools of rock bass and catching them on light tackle.”

That is the key to truly enjoying rock bass: the right gear. The lighter the more fun, Cranbrook says.

“If you find a big school of rock bass while fishing for walleyes, which happens a lot, grab that ultra-light setup and get on them with that,” he said.

Cranbrook says it’s amazing how many rock bass will school like so many other fish species. 

“Never leave a school of rock bass once you find one,” he cautioned. “I’ve caught dozens from a single school of fish. I’ve also come across that one lone-wolf fish, but it is rare. Generally where you find one, you find dozens.”

So why is the rock bass so under-appreciated with anglers? According to Cranbrook, it may be because they are known to harbor parasites, but then so do the perch and pike in lakes where the parasites are present.

“I’ve often heard people say they’re no good to eat. But anyone I know who has tried rock bass finds it is delicious and just as good as the crappies and bluegills they’re used to. 

“People used to throw eelpout out on the ice to die, but now they covet them because they discovered they were great eating. That might happen someday with the rock bass.”

So, the next time you are out on the water and the bite is tough and you feel the tug and it turns out to be a rock bass, mark the spot, grab the light tackle and have some fun and catch some more. It won’t be long before you’ll be appreciating the aggressive nature of this feisty little panfish.

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