Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Adirondack Fish: The Smallmouth Bass

800px-Smallmouth_bassThe prolonged period of hot and humid weather that the Adirondacks have recently experienced has warmed the waters in our many lakes and ponds to their highest temperatures of the season. This is a welcome occurrence to those that enjoy swimming and simply wading in our waterways, however it can create a challenge to those aquatic creatures that are better suited to the cool waters of our mountain wilderness.

Among the fish impacted by high water temperatures is a popular game species sought by anglers for its feisty temperament after being hooked and its mild and flavorful taste after being cooked- the smallmouth bass.

The smallmouth bass is a large and robust member of the sunfish family characterized by a covering of tough scales and a long dorsal fin divided into two sections: one supported by sharp-pointed spines and the other containing more flexible rays. Despite its name, the mouth of this predator is quite large, enabling it to swallow sizeable creatures. Because a close relative, the largemouth bass, frequently inhabits the same general waterways, and relative mouth size is a quick and easy way to distinguish between the two species, it is this facial feature that is used to name both fish. (The smallmouth bass has a mouth opening that ends just under its eye while the largemouth has a mouth opening that extends beyond this point on its head.)  The smallmouth bass also differs from its slightly larger and chunkier cousin in having a series of vertical stripes on its side, while the largemouth bass is characterized by a dark lateral band across the middle of its side.
Because the smallmouth bass prefers cooler waters than any other member of its family, it tends to thrive in the Adirondacks. Additionally, it favors clear, clean waterways, both stationary and flowing, and has been used by conservationists for over a century as an indicator of the health and clarity of aquatic systems. Like several other predatory fish, the smallmouth bass locates prey using its well developed sense of sight. The clearer the water, the easier it is for this fish to spot a potential meal from a distance. Should the turbidity increase, the distance that this fish can scan for food decreases correspondingly.

While the smallmouth bass will attack any smaller creature on the bottom or swimming close by, it does prefer to prowl the nooks and crannies around piles of rocks, submerged stumps, sunken trees, and other sizeable objects along the bottom. It is in these settings that various species of crayfish concentrate. The mouth of the smallmouth bass is lined with a thick layer of skin which protects it from a set or two of sharp crayfish pinchers as they are momentarily held in its mouth before being swallowed. Similarly, a bass will not hesitate to chase after and catch a perch or a sunfish which have pointed spines in the dorsal fin on their back.

As the water warms above the low 60 degree point which this bass finds most favorable, it spends increasingly more time foraging in deeper holes, or places near springs where it is cooler. Greater depths, however, may not contain the same concentration of prey as places closer to the surface which can limit the quantity of food ingested by this predator. Additionally, because sunlight is absorbed by microscopic matter in the water, light levels deteriorate with depth making it more of a challenge for this bass to spot prey as it moves into deeper water.

When the water is warm, this bass tends to avoid spending long periods of time in sunny spots where its body would absorb solar radiation, elevating its temperate further. During times of clear weather, bass are known to be most active in the early morning and later in the day when the sun is lower on the horizon and not as intense.

On a more positive note, when the water is warm and the smallmouth is confined to greater depths, it avoids the clutches of both the osprey and bald eagle which will attack any fish that stray close to the surface. Also, creatures like the otter and mink are not as likely to target a fish that is well below the surface, as too many other creatures are present in the warm waters above.

At this time of year, experienced anglers are the main threat facing the smallmouth bass. Anglers that are well aware of rocky sections of bottom favoring low 60 degree temperatures can take advantage of this animal’s instinct to spot a moving object in the vicinity and grab hold of it. By setting the hook before it can reject an artificial lure, or completely swallow an item of bait and make release impossible, a summer sportsmen can enjoy the struggle put up by this great game fish. Landing a bass can be an accomplishment, as this fish can easily throw the hook as dances on the surface and the line loosens ever so slightly. Fishing for smallmouth bass is a great way to spend time in summer, especially on a quiet evening here in the Adirondacks.

Illustration: National Digital Library of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

One Response

  1. News and Reviews July 24, 2013 | Leo's Log says:

    […] The smallmouth bass is a large and robust member of the sunfish » Continue Reading. […]

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