Bass Species Explained: Black vs Temperate, Peacock, Smallies + More!

Updated August 31, 2020

Introduction

In this article we have created a catalog for all North American bass species. It is designed to help inform anglers on the basic regions, environments, physical characteristics, and habits of the numerous types of bass species.

In this resource we will cover:

  • Smallmouth Bass
  • Largemouth Bass
  • Spotted (Kentucky) Bass
  • Gaudalupe Bass
  • Alabama Bass
  • Florida Bass Species
  • Suwannee Bass
  • Redeye Bass
  • Shoal Bass
  • Striped Bass
  • White Bass
  • White Perch
  • Yellow Bass
  • Peacock Bass Species
  • Rock Bass
  • Black Sea Bass
  • White Sea Bass

Table of Contents

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Bass Species of North America

Bass are becoming a growing target for many fly anglers, and for good reasons. Bass are considered to be one of the most sought after sport fish in the country. They are strong fighters, and generally easy to catch, making them a desirable fish for fly anglers. 

In addition, these fish are a warm water species, and can be found in many locations where other (more common) fly fish species don’t exist—mainly trout. Although, because of how widespread bass are, most regions where trout are found will also have bass probably not too far away, making them a good alternative when trout fishing is not ideal. 

Black Bass Species Vs. Temperate Bass

There are basically two different types of Bass in North America; Black and Temperate. Black bass are the most common and usually what we think of when we hear “bass.” This is the category that smallmouths and largemouths fall into. One important fact to point out is that black bass are technically in the sunfish family, while temperate bass are considered “true bass.”

Temperate bass are found in both fresh and saltwater mostly along the east coast of North America. Some species, including striped bass are anadromous—living in the ocean and migrating into freshwater rivers and tributaries to spawn. 

Bass Anatomy

There a few physical characteristics of bass that are used to tell them apart from other species. 

Mouth – This is the defining feature and difference between many bass species. They are described by how far the upper jaw extends and if a bass is considered to have a large mouth than their upper jaw extends to the middle or past the eye. Some bass species with large mouths include.

  • Largemouth
  • Florida
  • Redeye
  • Shoal species

Lateral line scales – A fishes lateral line is an internal organ that helps them sense slight vibrations in the water. Many bass species can be differentiated by the number of scales on their lateral line. 

Types of Black Bass 

There are roughly 9 different types of black bass in North America, but several more species are sometimes included. The number is often argued among biologists who feel there is a lot of crossover with minimal genetic differences among subspecies. For this article we are going to focus on just the main 9 species. Bass have historically been prominent east of the rocky mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. But over the last several decades black bass—primarily small and largemouths have been introduced to other locations in North America and throughout the world. 

Smallmouth Bass

Smallmouth or smallies, are a common game fish and prized for their strong fighting ability. These fish have a historic range of the upper Mississippi river basin, the great lakes region and north through Canada and the Hudson Bay. Since the 1800s, and development of the western rail system, smallmouths have been introduced to the American west. On the other coast they were planted in many eastern US streams to replace native brook trout as their numbers were diminishing due to pollution. 

Smallmouths get their name due to the small size of their jaw—a smallmouth’s jaw does not extend past their eyes when looking at their profile. They are bronze to brown colored, sometimes with a green or yellowish hue. They have dark vertical bands along their sides, sometimes difficult to see in naturally darker fish. A smallmouth’s color will differ depending on their environment and diet. River smallies may be darker and actually more torpedo shaped, while lake dwelling fish may be lighter and more oval shaped. Males tend to be smaller than the females and range between 1-4 pounds with the record being caught at 11 pounds. 

They have a wide range of habitats from clear rocky streams to placid weedy lakes. They require cold to semi-cold waters and are most active in water temperatures between 60-75 degrees. They also need cleaner water than the other black bass species, often found in similar habitats and conditions as trout. 

Largemouth Bass

Largemouth bass are one of the biggest black bass species. Because of their size and remarkable fighting ability, largemouths are a favorite target for anglers all across the country. They have a historical range similar to smallmouths. However, they are more tolerant to warmer and more polluted waters. Most think of largemouths as primarily a southern fish, however they have been transplanted throughout the west and northeast as well.

Largemouth bass are distinguished by their larger, more extended jaw. Their upper jaw extends past their eye. Largemouths tend to be green, olive, and yellow depending on their location.They also exhibit a segmented dark green/brown lateral line sometimes showing up in patches or blotches. Again like smallmouths, females tend to grow bigger—averaging about 2 – 7 pounds, but it’s not uncommon to catch something in the double digits. The world record largemouth was caught at 22 pounds. 

Because of largmouth’s ability to tolerate warmer and more polluted waters, they tend to be found in murky weed filled lakes and rivers. They are considered lazy hunters and will inhabit shallow weedy beds, drowned tress, and other rocky structures. In rivers they will seldom be found in faster moving water, preferring slow runs. One feature of largemouths to mention is their potential to be caught in shallow water throughout the summer. This is unlike smallies which retreat to deeper and cooler waters as temperatures pick up.

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Spotted Bass “Kentucky Bass”

 

Spotted bass, also known as Kentucky bass are another species of black bass native to the Mississippi River basin and Ohio River Basin but have been introduced into other waterways in the Midwest and east. Currently they have a smaller range than their small and largemouth cousins and can be found from Texas to the Florida panhandle and north to Ohio and West Virginia. They inhabit similar waters to largemouths but people argue they tend to be caught in faster water, as opposed to the sluggish water largemouths love. 

Many anglers mistake spotted bass and largemouth bass, mainly because of the striking similarities in color. One key difference between the two is that spotted bass have a smaller mouth; meaning their upper jaw does not extend past their eyes. 

Guadalupe Bass

The Guadalupe bass is a rare black bass subspecies and is only native to a small portion of central Texas (including the Guadalupe river and tributaries). The Guadalupe bass looks very similar to a smallmouth bass, but tends to be more olive-green in color. This state fish of Texas is also known to breed with smallmouths, making it even harder to distinguish this  hybridization. 

Guadalupe bass are generally small compared to other black bass. They rarely exceed 2 pounds, with the record caught at 3 pounds 11 oz. They tend to live in similar waters to smallmouths, requiring faster currents and deep pools within streams. Another unique characteristic of these fish is their predilection towards bugs. While most bass species eat smaller fish and crustaceans, Guadalupes prefer small subsurface and surface insects.

Alabama Bass

The Alabama bass was not granted species classification until 2008, up until then it was considered a subspecies of the spotted bass. This fast growing bass looks virtually identical to the spotted bass with only genetic testing or tedious scale counting to ascertain it’s true identity. The scales on a bass’ lateral line have a pore to sense water movements. If you have a magnifying glass it’s possible to count the number of porous scales on the bass. Generally an Alabama bass will have 71 or more porous scales, while spotted bass have 70 and fewer.

The Alabama bass is native to the Mobile river basin including rivers and streams in most of Alabama, eastern Mississippi, and northwestern Georgia. They have since been introduced to neighboring states of Virginia, and South Carolina. These aggressive feeders will grow large very quickly, and are incredibly adaptable to new environments. There are concerns in several southern states about the introduction of Alabama bass that can spawn with both smallmouths and spotted bass, creating impure strains of all three species. 

Florida Bass Species

Next up we have the Florida Bass, another species often refuted as merely a largemouth bass. However, in 2002 biologists discovered enough genetic differences to warrant their own classification. Florida bass are widely recognized for their huge size, and fast growth rate. The Florida bass species can grow up to one pound every year! The current US record is over 17 pounds! 

Florida bass are native to Florida, south of the panhandle. They have since been introduced to other states across the south. Florida bass have different behaviors and preferences when it comes to their environment. First off, they tend to do better in warmer waters than even largemouths. They also tend to be found in shallow water among weed beds and debris, and surprise their prey, while other species of black bass tend to chase their prey in open waters.

By appearance it’s hard to spot the differences between the Florida bass and largemouth unless through rigorous genetic analysis. In addition hybridization with largemouths has blurred these differences even more. Some believe that counting the lateral line scales will provide ways to differentiate. Largemouth bass typically have fewer than 70 scales on their lateral line, while Florida bass will have more than 70. Some believe that Florida bass have evolved to exhibit darker colors to help mimic the darker shallow waters they inhabit in Florida.

Suwannee Bass

The Suwannee bass is relatively unknown due to its limited range. Historically, Suwannee bass are native to the Suwannee and Ocklochanee rivers and tributaries of Florida and Georgia. They have since been introduced to other river systems in Florida and Georgia. 

The Suwannee bass are not known for their size and remain one of the smaller black bass species. The world record is just shy of 4 pounds. 

Suwannee bass can be distinguished by their darker color with separate olive green patches that run horizontal across their lateral line—slowly emerging into one solid line near the tail. They are feisty little fish and can be real fun to catch, comparable to the fighting abilities of smallmouths. They like shallow fast moving water, typically over limestone and sand. a big source of their diet consists of crayfish, but may prey on smaller fish species as well. 

Redeye Bass

The redeye bass is another smaller and lesser known bass native to the southeast. There are several different strains of redeye bass, with some anglers and biologists believing they are separate species altogether. They have a native range which includes Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina—but have been introduced to Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida, and one river system in Kentucky. It is important to note that while some northern states and Canada have a red eyed bass, they are in fact a separate species called rock bass. 

Redeyes have a larger mouth—their upper jaw extends past their eye. They are usually brownish green with dark vertical bars along their side.They are also known for having reddish brown fins and white tips on their tail fin, further separating them from other bass. They generally have red eyes, but despite the name some of these fish might not have red eyes at all. Even types of smallmouth and spotted bass can possess red eyes making identification challenging. 

As mentioned above they don’t grow very large, and can be fairly elusive to anglers. They live in semi fast rivers and streams, eating primarily insects; another unique feature of the redeye. 

Shoal Bass

Formally considered a subspecies of the redeye, it wasn’t until 1999 when enough genetic evidence was gathered to create a separate species. Shoal bass are native to a small region consisting of portions of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. It has since been introduced to neighboring regions as well. 

Shoal bass are small to medium in size, rarely growing more than a few pounds with the world record holding strong at 5 pounds. Shoalies as they are referred to, are often mistaken for redeyes or smallmouths. Their jaw extends past their eyes, which are usually tinted red. In addition, they exhibit a greenish brown body with dark vertical stripes along their sides. Shoal also possess 2-3 horizontal bands stretching from their eye across the gill plate. 

Like their name suggests, shoal bass can be found in cold clean streams huddled near shoals and other limestone formations. They are another bass species with a preference for insects, but will also consume more traditional bass foods such as crayfish and small prey fish. 

Temperate Bass Species

Temperate bass are often regarded as the only, “true bass species.” There are 4 species present in North America living in fresh, salt or brackish waters. These fish are popular among anglers and gaining more recognition among fly fishers. 

Striped Bass

This is the most well known, and popular of temperate bass species. The striped bass or “stripers” are beloved by many east coast anglers for their size and fighting ability. In contrast many anglers view striped bass as invasive and disruptive of the natural order of endemic species.

Striped bass have a North American range stretching from Nova Scotia down into Mexico on the east coast. They are anadromous; meaning they spend most of their time in the ocean and returning to the rivers and tributaries to spawn. Stripers have been planted throughout much of the United States, and can be found in at least one waterway in all 48 continental states, excluding Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and Minnesota.

Stripers are a metallic silver color, with dark brown to black horizontal lines that run across the body from the gills to tail. These horizontal lines eventually fade the closer to their underbelly. Striped bass can get very large and ocean dwelling fish can be caught on average between 20-40 pounds. Inland, landlocked striped bass don’t grow as large, but can still reach sizes upwards of 50 pounds. Currently the saltwater striped bass record is 81 pounds, while the freshwater record is 64 pounds! 

These large fish are predatory and will eat mainly smaller fish, crustaceans, and insects. In freshwater rivers or lakes striped bass will be most active at night and prefer temperatures between 65 – 75 degrees Fahrenheit. During the day and in higher temperatures they will be more sluggish sitting in the deeper cooler parts of the lake or river. 

Striped bass have been known to mate with white bass creating a hybrid often referred to as hybrid bass or wipers. Hybrid bass are smaller in comparison to stripers and are better suited to bigger temperature fluctuations and less oxygenated waters. 

White Bass

White bass are probably the second most popular temperate bass species. They have a native range throughout most of the Midwest and west of the Appalachian mountains. They have since been widely introduced across the rest of the country, and have served as an important sport fish for some locations. However, white bass are often overlooked due to their smaller size and lesser fighting abilities.

White bass are small in comparison to their larger cousins, striped bass, but look very similar. They have a white/silver to green colored body with dark horizontal stripes running from their gills to tail. They are more circular or pan-shaped than striped bass. The average size of white bass is roughly 12 – 14 inches—with the record caught at over 6 pounds. 

White bass prefer clean clear rivers and lakes. They have a tendency to be found in deeper parts of the lake.  They spawn in the spring usually between March – May, migrating into small rocky rivers. Most smaller fish eat small crustaceans, plankton, insects—while the larger white bass may consume small fish. 

White Perch

White perch are not actually a perch but a type of temperate bass. These little anadromous fish are fairly uncommon and rarely targeted by anglers. They are found in salt, fresh and brackish waters along the east coast tributaries, and great lakes. 

White perch are the smallest of the temperate bass species rarely exceeding 12 inches—with the record caught at 3.5 pound. They are pan-shaped with a dark green to brown back fading to white through their sides and belly. They also have a distinct dark lateral line that runs from gills to tail.  At times their fins and belly may have a pinkish red hue. 

White perch are another species that are often seen as problematic due to competition for food and habitat with other more desirable sport fish. In addition, they eat the eggs of these preferred fish species. Other than eggs white perch eat small insect nymphs and larvae, small crustaceans, and plankton. 

Yellow Bass

The last North American temperate bass is the yellow bass. These little fish are native to the Mississippi river and its tributaries. There have been some introductions to other states but their small size receives little enthusiasm from anglers. Yellow bass prefer to live in waters between 50 – 75 degrees but can withstand temperatures over 80 degrees. Like other temperate bass, they are more active at night, and requiring sandy or gravel bottoms with some light vegetation.

They are similar in shape to the white bass, the main difference is the yellow or gold color it possess and the horizontal stripes that run along the body are fragmented or broken. They grow to only 10-11 inches or about half a pound, with the record caught at 2 pounds. Yellow bass eat small minnows, crustaceans, and insects—most of the time swimming in schools in search of food.

Other “Bass” Species

We have decided to include a few other fish species that although have the name “bass” in them are actually another type of species. 

Peacock Bass Species

Peacock bass are probably the most well known, faux bass species out there. These colorful fish are actually a type of large Cichlid, native to the Amazon and other regions of tropical South America. They were introduced to southern Florida’s waterways in the mid 1980’s. The intention was that these predatory fish would help keep the population of other non-native species to a minimum. Since their introduction they have been instrumental in curbing the influx of invasive Tilapia and Oscars from Florida’s waterways. 

Two subspecies the speckled peacock, and butterfly peacock were introduced. However, as the butterfly peacock flourished, the speckled peacock has not, and intentionally fishing for them is now illegal.

Peacock bass are a one of the most exotic looking fish species in the country and if it’s not for the bright colors, their size and strength are what attracts anglers. These fish are similar in shape to largemouth bass and other black bass species. Peacock bass have green, yellow, orange, and blue colors throughout their body, with 3 dark vertical stripes along their sides. They also have a black circle with a yellow halo outline at the base of their tail. Peacock bass are fast growing fish, and can grow over a pound a year. On average the butterfly peacock will be about 3-4 pounds with the Florida state record topping in at 9 pounds. 

Peacock bass are sensitive to cool water temperatures, and can only survive in the most southern regions of Florida. There has been attempts to introduce them in more northern waters with zero success. Peacocks tend to live in slow-moving canals, rivers, lakes, and ponds. They are fierce predators and prefer areas where they can ambush prey such as vegetation, down trees, rock piles, and bridges. Their main diet consists of smaller fish, and are strictly a daytime eater. 

Rock Bass

Rock BassRock bass tends to look like smallmouth bass but are more closely related to a perch than other black bass species. They are native to the Midwest, and great lakes region. These little fish are easy to catch and a popular game fish especially for children or beginner anglers. Because of this they have been introduced to other parts of the country, primarily eastern states.

Rock bass are oval in shape and olive to brown in color with rows of dark spots along their bodies. They generally have red eyes and a large mouth that sits below their snout. A unique feature of rock bass is their chameleon-like ability to change color to adapt to their surroundings. They rarely exceed 12 inches or 1 pound, with the record being caught at 17 inches and 3 pounds.

These little fish prefer clean well oxygenated lakes and rivers with a mix of vegetation and rocky bottoms and structure. Rock bass are often found near rocky shorelines and don’t seem to spook very easily by human presence.

Black Sea Bass

Black Sea BassBlack sea bass is another mislabeled bass species. These marine fish are actually a type of grouper. They are native to the east coast of North America from Canada down through Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. Black sea bass are known for coming into shallow bays and sounds where they can be targeted by fly anglers. However, they are most often found in deep open waters. 

These bass impostors grow fairly slow and on average will reach about 24 inches and 9 pounds. They are dark in color with large scales,but a smooth head and gill cover. They possess a long anal fin and rounded tail fin. They are protogynous hermaphrodites; meaning they sometimes mature as females but later change to male.

White Sea Bass

On the western coast of North America we have another sea bass, the white sea bass. This is yet another phony bass that is actually a species of Croakers, also known as Drums. They are present from Southern Alaska south to Baja California. 

White sea bass have an elongated body and a pointed head with a large mouth. They are bluish silver in color and juveniles will have vertical Parr marks. These fish can grow very large up to 50 pounds with the record topping out at 93 pounds!

They will travel into shallow waters following schools of sardines, anchovies, and squids. This makes them accessible for fly anglers to target them

Conclusion

catch-releaseWe hope you enjoyed reading about North American bass species and maybe learned a few things. Please leave a comment sharing what you liked, some suggestions for improvement, and maybe your favorite bass species to fish for. 

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