The subject—beyond my family’s misguided fishing adventures—was the rock bass we caught from Minnesota’s Many Point Lake. Those “red eyes” were destined for dinner, despite the opinions of culinary experts brandishing fillet knives in the cleaning house. And so go the polls with regards to rock bass—beloved by few, ignored by many. But rock bass have many positive attributes, including table qualities, that should appeal to anglers across a broad swath of North America.
Distribution and Biology
Rock bass have a cosmopolitan distribution. Their native range includes nearly the entire eastern half of the U.S. and portions of Ontario, Quebec, and Manitoba. Across that range, they’re known as red eyes (not to be confused with the redeye bass of the southeastern U.S.), goggle eyes, and several other colorful handles. Four species of rock bass exist: northern rock bass (Ambloplites rupestris), southern rock bass or shadow bass (Ambloplites ariommus), Roanoke bass (Ambloplites cavifrons) and Ozark rock bass (Ambloplites constellatus).
They’re similar yet slightly different renditions occupying different parts of the continent. Rockies can be of varied hues. On the dark end of the spectrum, they resemble the overall hue of their cousin, the smallmouth bass, but in some waters they’re nearly gold in color. Within their range, they often are abundant and rather large when compared to more popular panfish species that may suffer from overharvest of larger adults by anglers.
Rock bass remain an overlooked member of the panfish tribe, yet they’re unbelievably good on the business end of a fork, and indiscernible when served with crappies and bluegills. They are a bit more pungent when first cleaned with a fillet knife, an odor I attribute to a diet high in crayfish. But rockies are opportunists, and prey on a variety of food types. While remarkably curious and aggressive in their pursuit of calories, renowned fighters they are not.
Like all sunfish, rock bass have a protracted spawning period that can last for more than a month. In the Upper Midwest, spawning generally occurs from late May to the end of June, but I’ve observed males guarding nests during mid-July when summer has been late in coming. In northern Wisconsin, we usually starting catching age-0 rock bass in scientific seine hauls by mid- to late July. All of this happens earlier as you move south. I’ve plucked male rock bass from nests in early May on Tennessee streams.
Male rock bass build and defend nests that are generally isolated from the nests of other males, unless cover offers privacy or suitable habitat is lacking. I’ve seen male rock bass on beds in virtually every habitat, but they display an affinity for drowned lumber and bulrush beds in northern lakes.
During spawning, rock bass are aggressive, so move quickly while casting downsized bass baits. Rapala’s Husky Jerk HJ06 (2½ inches) or 1½- and 2-inch Rebel Crawfish do well. If you’d rather not deal with multiple hooks, swim a 2- to 3-inch curlytail grub on a 1/8-ounce jig through nesting fish. Don’t be hesitant to go bigger when it comes to lure size. Rock bass have large mouths and can easily engulf baits sized for smallmouth bass.
After the spawn, lake-dwelling rock bass become habitat generalists, but their affinity for woodcover and bulrush remains strong. Sight-fishing through large stands of bulrush can be effective, but some of my best spots for big rockies are isolated beds of bulrush adjacent to or removed from larger stands. The three largest rock bass I’ve ever seen came from an isolated clump of bulrush where the Mississippi River entered a Minnesota lake.
In bulrush, I like fishing a 3-inch tube in green pumpkin, Texas-rigged on a 1/0 offset worm hook with a 1/4-ounce bullet sinker, or a 1/8-ounce fox-hair jig tipped with a grub or Zoom Tiny Salt Chunk or similar trailer. Getting the bait in general proximity to cover is usually enough to get bit.
In early summer, also check expansive shallow- to middepth flats containing patches of vegetation like milfoil and pondweed. Many huge rock bass are caught each June around stands of developing pondweed on 6- to 10-foot flats on several Minnesota lakes. Trolling Rapala Original Floaters as large as the F11 size (43⁄8 inches) is effective for searching large areas.
My current rock bass spots consist of a series of retired beaver lodges on a northern Wisconsin lake. Hard to beat a slipbobber rig in these situations, especially with kids. Dangling half a ‘crawler or leech always works, but at times you can save the livebait and twitch a Berkley Power Grub or Tube under your cork.
Stream fish may not always run large, but the simplicity of the fishing is appealing—a light rod-reel combo, a smattering of lures, a pair of old tennis shoes, and a free afternoon. Rock bass can seemingly be anywhere in streams, but they prefer areas of slow to moderate current, with the most fish seeking cover. Woodcover is prime, especially crowns of fallen trees and root wads with numerous smaller branches.
In many streams, rock bass congregate around stands of water willow or other emergent aquatic plants. The same for eel-grass beds in northern locales. A small crankbait twitched along the edge is ideal, but spinners, like a #3 Mepps Aglia or #1 or #2 Blue Fox Vibrax, and 1/8-ounce Blakemore Road Runner also are standbys. Boulder piles and rock ledges always are worth a cast.
Generally, harvest regulations for rock bass are liberal, but in smaller streams and rivers, they’re not as limitless as they seem in larger waters. Missouri currently has an 8-inch minimum length limit on rock bass in some Ozark streams to help prevent overexploitation. Voluntarily release of large fish on small streams seems prudent.
*Daniel Isermann is a fishery scientist at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point and contributes to many In-Fisherman publications.