Spot Check for Bass

By Greg Stoner | March 2, 1998
From Missouri Conservationist: Mar 1998

Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie... and bass fishing? To many Missouri anglers, bass fishing is not so much a hobby as it is a way of life. Bass anglers help support the economy with their purchase of boats, motors, depth finders, rods, reels, travel and lures-so many lures.

What is it about bass that has caused this following? What causes grown people to invest thousands of dollars to pursue an animal with a brain the size of a pea?

There are as many reasons as there are bass anglers. Most enjoy the fighting and acrobatic abilities of bass. Many enjoy figuring out the "pattern" of the day-the combination of lure and location that will attract the most bass. Some enjoy the competition of tournament fishing, while others look forward to eating the deep-fried version of their catch.

The Conservation Department is trying to improve black bass fishing for anglers. To this end, fisheries biologists are looking closely at the individual species of black bass and their potential in Missouri waters.

In Missouri lakes and reservoirs, bass anglers devote most of their attention to largemouth bass because they are abundant, and they grow to large sizes. A 5-pound smallmouth will earn an angler bragging rights. A 5-pound spotted or Kentucky bass is even more rare. However, 5-pound largemouth bass are relatively common. Occasionally, a lucky angler will catch a largemouth over 10 pounds.

Among anglers, the spotted bass is probably the least well known of the three black bass species. Although originally living only in Missouri's bootheel, this feisty game fish has spread throughout the southern half of the state due to stocking.

Until recently the Conservation Department did not focus on spotted bass. In most reservoirs the fish were relatively uncommon, compared to largemouth bass.

In 1976, the Conservation Department established a 15-inch minimum length limit on black bass in three Missouri reservoirs. Although the regulation successfully increased the number and average size of black bass in these impoundments, it had a different impact on spotted bass than it did on largemouth bass.

For example, at Lake of the Ozarks the annual harvest of spotted bass, which do not grow as big as largemouth bass, has decreased by 80 percent since the 15-inch minimum length limit went into effect. Because the spotted bass population is almost totally protected from harvest, the number of spotted bass in Lake of the Ozarks has increased steadily since 1976. During the mid-1970s, spotted bass made up about 20 percent of the black bass population. Spotted bass now make up almost 50 percent of the black bass population.

Reversing the Trend

The decrease in the harvest and increase in numbers of spotted bass under the 15-inch regulation are due to their relatively slow growth. For example, a 15-inch largemouth bass at Lake of the Ozarks is between 4 and 5 years old. A 15-inch spotted bass is between 6 and 7 years old. As a result of this slower growth, few spotted bass ever reach the legal length of 15 inches before dying of natural causes.

Effective March 1, 1998, the Conservation Department is reducing the minimum length limit for spotted bass on Lake of the Ozarks to 12 inches. Anglers will be able to catch and keep some of the spotted bass that would otherwise die of old age. The 15-inch minimum length limit still will apply to largemouth and smallmouth bass on Lake of the Ozarks.

"Anglers should not have any problems with this if they will take the time to learn the difference between the three species of black bass," says Jack Cramer, a conservation agent on the Lake of the Ozarks. "I think the regulation will be welcomed by novice anglers, who may want to harvest some bass to eat but have difficulty catching black bass over 15 inches in length."

On Lake of the Ozarks the number of spotted bass over 12 inches is equal roughly to the number of largemouth bass over 15 inches. Therefore, the regulation essentially will double the number of bass that anglers can catch and keep.

On the same date, a 12-inch minimum length on spotted bass and a 15 inch minimum length limit on largemouth and smallmouth bass will go into effect on the Missouri portions of Norfork Lake and Bull Shoals Lake. These regulations will increase the numbers of black bass by reducing the harvest of small bass. They also will align with regulations on the Arkansas portion of the lakes.

It is now important that anglers learn to distinguish the three black bass species if they intend to keep any fish. The more liberal length limit on spotted bass should be viewed as a bonus for anglers who learn to tell the three species apart.

Anglers who are unsure about black bass identification should release all black bass less than 15 inches in length. Identification assistance and literature are available at Conservation Department offices statewide.

  1. Check for horizontal stripe and length of jaw - Largemouth and spotted bass both have a dark horizontal line on each side of their bodies. Smallmouth bass lack this horizontal line, but may have vertical bars instead. The back edge of the jaw of largemouth bass extends beyond the back of their eyes, unlike the jaw of a spotted bass.
  2. Check for a tongue patch - Spotted bass (and most smallmouth bass) have a rough patch on their tongues. Largemouth bass usually do not. If it doesn't have a tongue patch it has to be a largemouth.
  3. Check the size of the scales behind the eye - The scales right behind the eyes of largemouth bass are nearly as large as those behind the gill openings. On spotted bass, the scales right behind the eyes are much smaller than the ones behind the gills.


This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer