Know Your Bass: How to Identify Different Species

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Know Your Bass: How to Identify Different Species

Most outdoors enthusiasts will agree that bass fishing is the most popular pastime in recreational angling. Each year, hundreds-of-thousands of anglers hit waters across the United States and the world in search of a trophy-level bass.

What the majority of these anglers are targeting, however, are species that can be classified as black bass.

Less common and less popular — but still very fun to catch — are four species of bass that fall under an entirely different category.

Before we discuss the differences between white bass and striped bass, we need to look at some biological similarities (and differences) between various species.

A Quick Lesson in Bass Biology: Species, Genus, Family, and Order

Biological Classifications List
Biological Classifications Chart (photo via Peter Halasz/Pengo/Wikimedia Commons)

If you, like so many of us, were the type who didn’t pay much attention in biology class, then terms like species, genus, family and order can be kind of confusing.

While understanding these terms is not required for catching bass, it does help to understand the differences between various species of bass.

Black Bass Species: Largemouth, Smallmouth

As we mentioned above, there are thirteen species classified as black bass. These species fall under the genus Micropterus.

The most common and popular Micropterus species are the:

  • Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides)
  • Smallmouth Bass (Micropterus dolomieu)

Other Micropterus species include:

  • Chattahoochee Bass (Micropterus chattahoochae)
  • Shoal Bass (Micropterus cataractae)
  • Redeye Bass (Micropterus coosae)
  • Spotted Bass (Micropterus punctulatus)
  • Florida Bass (Micropterus floridanus)
  • Warrior Bass (Micropterus warriorensis)
  • Tallapoosa Bass (Micropterus tallapoosae)
  • Suwanee Bass (Micropterus notius)
  • Guadalupe Bass (Micropterus treculii)
  • Alabama Bass (Micropterus henshalli)
  • Cahaba Bass (Micropterus cahabae)

Temperate” Bass Species: White Bass, Striped Bass

Less common and less popular — but still very fun to catch — are four species of bass that fall under the category genus Morone.

The two most popular species in the Morone genus are:

  • White Bass (Morone chrysops)
  • Striped Bass (Morone saxatilis)

There are two other species in this genus, however. One of these, in fact, is not even classified as a “bass”.

  • Yellow Bass (Morone mississippiensis)
  • White Perch (Morone americana)

A second genus, Dicentrarchus, contains two additional species of bass. These species are native to the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.

  • Spotted Seabass (Dicentrarchus punctatus)
  • European Seabass (Dicentrarchus labrax)

All in Order, but Out of the Family

In the chart above, you will see a sequence of categories:

Species > Genus > Family > Order

Black bass fall under the family Centrarchidae, while temperate bass are categorized under the family Moronidae.

Interestingly enough, you have to reach the Order level — Perciformes — before all of the above species fall under the same category.

Black bass actually share their Family with both black and white crappie, rock bass, and numerous species of sunfish.

Species in the Moronidae family, however, are limited to the six listed above.

*Note: There is a third classification of bass known as Asian seabasses. These two species (Japanese sea bass and Blackfin sea bass) are the only two species that fall under the Lateolabracidae genus. Also, the species commonly known as the “peacock bass” is actually a member of the Cichliformes family. It does not align with the other species until the Class level (as part of the Actinopterygii, a category of ray-finned fish).

Looking at the Most Popular Species of Bass: How to Tell the Difference

Now that we have determined some categorical differences between bass species, it is time to take a look at several of the most popular and commonly caught species of bass.

For economy’s sake, we will be looking at six species that carry the “bass” name that are the most likely for anglers to catch.

What is a Largemouth Bass

Common Name: Largemouth Bass

Species Name: Micropterus salmoides

Popular Nicknames: Lunker, hog (or hawg), pig, black bass, bucket mouth, bucket bass, green bass, chub, biggie, largie, tank, ditch pickle, toad

Current World Record Largemouth Bass: The current record is a tie between two anglers:

  • 22 pounds, 4 ounces: George Perry in Georgia (1932)
  • 22 pounds, 5 ounces: Manabu Kurita

Where can you find Largemouth Bass: Largemouth bass are arguably the most popular sport fish in both the United States and around the world. Anglers fishing domestically in the U.S. can find largemouth pretty much anywhere in the country. While the fish is more popular in the eastern U.S., some of the largest largemouth bass ever caught have been found in California. Texas, Florida, Georgia, and other southern states are known to be popular largemouth destinations.

Internationally, largemouth bass are popular in numerous parts of the world, including most of continental Europe, New Zealand, Japan, the Philippines, Lebanon and Guam.

Physical Characteristics of the Largemouth Bass:

  • Coloration: Largemouth bass are known for having a distinct “green” coloration, though this varies according to numerous factors. While a bright, almost emerald-green hue can be found, largemouth bass generally carry a color range between olive and dark gray.
  • Horizontal Stripe: A distinguishing characteristic of largemouth bass are pronounced (and often a series of) horizontal stripes. These stripes generally have a sharp or wavy pattern and appear much darker than the rest of the fish’s coloration. There will often be a prominent stripe running from the gill plate to the base of the tail.
  • Long Jaw: Hence the name “largemouth bass,” the fish’s upper jaw (or maxilla) will extend past the orbital.
  • Big Eyes: Once largemouth bass reach a certain weight — usually around 8 or 9 pounds — their eyes will become big and bulgy.

What is a Smallmouth Bass?

What is a Smallmouth Bass
Photo via Chas Savage/Premier Angler

Common Name: Smallmouth Bass

Species Name: Micropterus dolomieu

Popular Nicknames: Brownback, smallie, brownie, bronze bass, bronze bass, brownie

Current World Record Smallmouth Bass: Although history has debated the validity of the record, the longstanding belief is that the smallmouth world record belongs to David Hayes. He caught an 11 pound, 15 ounce smallmouth on Dale Hollow Lake.

Where can you find Smallmouth Bass: One of the most popular gamefish in the United States, smallmouth bass can be found throughout the northern part of the country. They are generally found as far west as North Dakota and as far south as the northern parts of Alabama and Georgia.

Internationally, smallmouth bass can be found in the UK, across Europe (and into Russia), as well as Japan and parts of Africa.

Physical Characteristics of the Smallmouth Bass:

  • Vertical Leap: Unlike the largemouth bass (which have horizontal patterns), smallmouth will generally have staggered, vertical bands that run down the sides of its body.
  • Bronze Beauty: While color will vary by location and conditions, smallmouth bass are often brown or have a bronze/copper coloration. At times, there will be shades of green, black, or even lighter colors like yellow.
  • Red-eye Special: While not all smallmouth bass have the stereotypical red eyes — sometimes these are brown — many will have a pronounced hue. Make sure that you do not confuse these for rock bass, however, which also tend to have red eyes.

What is a Rock Bass

Common Name: Rock Bass

Species Name: Ambloplites rupestris

Popular Nicknames: Red-eye, google-eye, rock perch

Current World Record Rock Bass: Tie — 3 pounds (caught in both Pennsylvania and Ontario)

Where can you find Rock Bass: Rock bass are generally found within the eastern United States and Canada. They can be found in varied numbers in southern states, but are prevalent in the Great Lakes region.

Physical Characteristics of the Rock Bass:

  • Similar, but Different: The rock bass has many similarities to the smallmouth bass. That said, it is a much smaller fish, generally weighing less than a pound into adulthood. Both species do tend to have red eyes, but rock bass have a series of dots on their body (as opposed to the vertical bands of a smallmouth).
  • Dorsal Fins: Rock bass have a pair of continuous dorsal fins. The anterior row is spiny, while the posterior row is smoother. Smallmouths have the same spiny/smooth fins, but the smoother fins tend to raise higher than on rock bass.
  • Round and Round: While the smallmouth bass tend to have a more narrow, angular body shape, rock bass are more rounded. Their body shape often resembles a sunfish more than other species of bass.

What is a Spotted Bass

Common Name: Spotted Bass

Species Name: Micropterus punctulatus

Popular Nicknames: Kentucky bass, Alabama bass, black bass, Wichita bass, northern bass, northern spotted bass, Coosa bass, Coosa spotted bass

Current World Record Spotted Bass: The IGFA conventional tackle world record spotted bass is 10 pounds, 4 ounces. It was caught by Bryan Shishido on Pine Flat Lake, California, in April 2001.

Where can you find Spotted Bass: While frequently found in the eastern United States, spotted are found heavily in the Mississippi and Ohio River basins. They are also frequently caught across the Gulf Coast area, from Florida to eastern Texas.

Physical Characteristics of the Spotted Bass: Of all the species on this list, the spotted bass resembles the largemouth bass more than any other. They tend to have similar markings, body shape, and coloration. There are a few pronounced differences, however:

  • Dorsal Fins: While there is a pronounced notch between the two dorsal fins on largemouth bass, the spacing is much more shallow on a spotted bass.
  • Short-jaw: The upper jawbone of a largemouth bass extends beyond the eye while the spotted bass’ jaw does not.
  • Mouth Size and Bands: As a loose rule of thumb, spotted bass will often resemble a largemouth bass except for the fact that their moths are smaller. The spotted bass also tends to lack a consistent lateral stripe near the base of the tail.
  • Also Not a Smallmouth: To complicate matters, the spotted bass may also resemble a smallmouth at times. Since the species are known to hybridize, it can be difficult to tell the difference. The spotted bass will lack the vertical striped of a smallmouth, however.

What is a Striped Bass

Common Name: Striped Bass

Species Name: Morone saxatilis

Popular Nicknames: Striper, Atlantic striped bass, rockfish

Current World Record Striped Bass: The IGFA world record for striped bass is 88.81 pounds, caught by Gregory Myerson in 2011.

Where can you find Striped Bass: As an anadromous fish, the striped bass migrates between fresh and salt waters. It is typically found within the northeastern United States, particularly in the St. Lawrence River region. Efforts have been made to introduce striped bass into new regions, however, including Georgia, Arkansas, the Carolinas, and the Pacific Coast.

Physical Characteristics of the Striped Bass:

  • Silver Tint: Unlike the other bass mentioned on this list, the striped bass generally carries a white/silver coloration.
  • Long, Horizontal Lines: A series of “dotted” horizontal lines run from the edge of the gill plate toward the base of the tail. In striped bass, more than one line should generally reach the base.
  • Size Matters: Unlike the white bass (which we will look at next), striped bass are typically much larger. Average striped bass will be between roughly 4 to 20 pounds.

What is a White Bass

White Bass

Common Name: White Bass

Species Name: Morone chrysops

Popular Nicknames: Silver bass, white, sand bass

Current World Record White Bass: A pair of 6 pound, 13 ounce white bass share the world record. They were caught on Orange Lake, Virginia (1989) and the Amite River, Louisiana (2010).

Where can you find White Bass: Another widely circulated species, the white bass is especially popular in the Great Lakes, Midwest, and Central states.

Physical Characteristics of the White Bass:

  • Size Still Matters: When compared to the striped bass, white bass are much smaller. Most adult white bass will be between roughly 9 and 13 inches, where mature striped bass can reach 20 to 35 inches easily.
  • Get in Shape: White bass are known to have rounded bodies whereas striped bass have a longer, more slender shape.
  • Watch the Colors: Like the striped bass, white bass often have a white or silver body. This can sometimes take on a light green hue. White bass generally have white bellies and a darker back.
  • Dorsal Fins: The white bass has a pair of dorsal fins. The first (or anterior) set are sharp/spiny. The back (or posterior) are smoother and softer.

Final Thoughts on Different Species of Bass

Even for experienced anglers, there are subtle differences between certain species of bass – largemouth and spotted, for instance – that can cause moments of reflection.

That said, the best way to reinforce the ability to quickly and accurately determine the difference is to get on the water and catch these different species of bass. Going on the water with a guide or a friend who is skilled at catching them is also helpful. Experienced anglers may be able to point out differences that you might miss at first.

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