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The Northwoods River News | Rhinelander, Wisconsin

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home : outdoors : outdoor news August 18, 2017

1/7/2017 7:25:00 AM
The lake where you live
The bass that isn't
Ted Rulseh

Rock bass are present in many of our Wisconsin lakes. They are aggressive feeders. They are often found out in the same kinds of habitat as smallmouth bass. One thing they are not is bass. They are actually members of the sunfish family, with bluegills and pumpkinseeds.

Rock bass (sometimes called rock sunfish, goggle-eye and redeye) look something like a cross between a bass and a bluegill. They're thicker through the body than bluegills (though not as thick as a bass). The general body shape is longer than a bluegill's, but more oval-shaped than a bass. The mouth isn't small and roundish like a bluegill's; it resembles that of a bass, though it's not proportionally as big.

Like their panfish cousins, rock bass have a two-part dorsal fin, a spiny portion fore and a soft-rayed portion aft. Perhaps the most interesting thing about rock bass is their coloring. The eyes are usually bright red. The belly is white; the body ranges from golden brown to olive with rows of black dots. The sides often have a mottled pattern that can vary greatly from one fish to another.

Anglers often catch rock bass when pursuing smallmouth bass. They tend to bite aggressively but after an initial surge don't put up much of a fight. They let themselves be reeled in, as if saying, "Fine, you caught me, just get this hook out and let me go." And most anglers do release them. They're not bad to eat, but they're far less tasty than bluegills or crappies. As the water gets warm in summer, their flesh can get rather mushy.

You'll find rock bass living in groups, mostly in cooler, clearer lakes, in areas with gravel or rocky bottoms. Submerged logs and brush are added attractions. They feed on underwater insects, crayfish and small fish, including their own. Sometimes they rise to pluck bugs off the water's surface. They tend to eat heavily the early morning and the evening.

Because they're known to eat on days when nothing else will, they've been known to help anglers avoid getting skunked. For the same reason, they can be a good species to target when fishing with kids, for whom it's all about numbers, not size.

Speaking of which, rock bass get a bit bigger (and heavier) than bluegills or pumpkinseeds. They average about six to eight inches long; some can grow to as long as a foot, but that's a rarity, especially in colder northern waters.

Rockies, in the manner of other sunfish species, spawn in late spring, males fanning out nests over shallow, gravelly areas and guarding the nests aggressively. Usually several nests can be found close together. Once hatched, the young rock bass are prey for bass, northern pike and, to a lesser extent, walleyes.

An interesting quality of rock bass is that they can quickly change color to silvery or blackish to match their surroundings. They are actually quite beautiful when lifted from the water, even more so if by chance you observe them while snorkeling.

Ted Rulseh, who lives on Birch Lake in Harshaw, is the author of the "The Lake Where You Live," a blog where readers can learn about the lakes they love - the history, geology, biology, chemistry, physics, magic, charm. Visit Ted may be reached at

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