Thursday, July 10, 2014

Adirondack Fish: The Rock Bass

Rock BassFollowing the July 4th weekend, there typically occur stretches of pleasant, sunny weather with highs in the 80’s. This elevates the temperature of the water in the many aquatic settings throughout the Adirondacks to their highest levels of the year and creates conditions ideal for swimming and for our warm water fishes.

Among the residents of lakes and rivers that thrive when the water becomes suitable for wading, lounging, and frolicking are the sunfish, and along the rocky shores of our glacially formed lakes and boulder laden waterways is the rock bass, a ubiquitous and always hungry fish that has frequent encounters with any novice angler that fishes these sites.

The rock bass is a small to medium size, thick-scaled fish that is distantly related to the smallmouth and largemouth bass. Like all members of the sunfish family, the rock bass is characterized by a long dorsal fin supported by sharp-pointed spines along the front section and by more flexible rays throughout the rear portion of this fin. Like its close relative, the black crappie, the rock bass has 5 sharp spines supporting the front section of its anal fin, while the true bass and the other species of sunfish, like the pumpkinseed and bluegill, have only 3 spines in the forward part of this bottom fin.

The rock bass is also identified by its uniform dark green back that transitions to a slightly silvery-olive color on its sides. Additionally, this fish has small, yet conspicuous black spots on its sides that form numerous dashed lines running parallel to its lateral line. The rock bass also has a larger mouth than other familiar species of traditional sunfish, as the back corner of this opening extends to just below its eye.

The large mouth of the rock bass enables this predator to capture and swallow small crayfish, immature fish, and sizeable bugs that it encounters between the cracks and crevices of the rocks that line its aquatic home. Like the smallmouth bass, the rock bass favors settings in which boulders, rocks, and gravel cover the majority of the bottom, rather than weeds and grasses. By lurking in, and traveling through, the complex of submerged passageways of these settings, this fish is able to capitalize on the wealth of organisms that exist in such nooks and crannies.

Rock bass, like the smallmouth, also favor settings in which other forms of debris exist that provides similar sheltered places for prey. In the Adirondacks, trees along the shore that have fallen into the water, provide a suitable haunt for both species of fish. However, the rock bass seems to favor those sites in which there are denser clusters of limbs and twigs that have been pushed below the surface, while its larger cousin seems to favor sites where the debris field is not as thick and can be more easily navigated by a robust-bodied predator.

Underwater currents caused by wind blowing across the surface and the ever-so-slight movement of water from springs, streams and inflowing rivers to the outlet can cause an array of food items to collect and settle among the bottom irregularities that occur in rocky waters, and around the items of debris that form near fallen trees, sunken logs and stumps. This is a prime factor that helps support the abundance of various invertebrates and small fish that are attracted to such sites. The assortment of hiding spots in these places also attract many small organisms, as most predatory fish are unable to access the holes, grottos, cubbies and caverns that form in the space between rocks, stones and chunks of gravel, or that occur in hollow logs, and in dense piles of submerged twigs and sticks. The smallmouth bass, with its chunkier shape and larger size, is occasionally unable to access the smaller crevices and cracks. This provides the opportunity for the rock bass to plunder those numerous tight spaces that are unchecked in an area inhabited by a smallmouth.

Along with scanning the bottom, a rock bass also regularly watches for any movement of small fish or invertebrates traveling anywhere nearby. A worm squirming at the end of a hook is most attractive to this predator, and it will often lunge at such a meaty target in order to prevent another rock bass from capturing this morsel of food. Like several other species of fish, the rock bass often occurs in small schools, especially when they are young.

Like other types of sunfish, the rock bass tends to be rather boney after being cleaned and cooked. Also, the amount of flesh that a single fish provides is usually quite small compared to a smallmouth bass. Catching a rock bass can be a fun experience for the novice, as this fish does provide a good fight, although it is only for a short time before it becomes exhausted. If you are fishing for smallmouth bass, most anglers inevitably snag a few rock bass in the process, as this fish tends to reside in the same general settings as this more prized game fish here in the Adirondacks.

Photo by Wikimedia user Dwmartin.

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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.

3 Responses

  1. Smitty says:

    Tom’s nature articles are always well written and interesting. I especially like his essays on fish. Thanks, Tom.

  2. Tony says:

    I enjoyed your article on the rock bass. I grew up in Hudson Falls and have been away for some 40+ now. I live in Missouri and we have a fish they call a goggle eye. I believe it is the same fish. I have caught them in the Gasconade River in south Missouri.

    My question is this the same fish or a variety?

    • Tom Kalinowski says:

      Hi Tony,
      The goggle eye is another name, which is used in both the mid-west and the south, for the Rock Bass. It is the same species. Thanks for your interest in the Adirondacks, and for reading the Almanack.
      Tom Kalinowski

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