For my money, rock bass are the biggest little gamesters in the creek. A bantamweight who charges out from beneath a submerged root mass to nail your lure with a jolt you’ll feel all the way into the rod’s cork grip.
A friend once wryly remarked that “rock bass fight big for their size.”
Yup. Rock bass attack like a Jack Russell terrier on a rat. I’m always both thrilled and fooled by their ferocious strike, which is far out of proportion to their welterweight measurements. Even after decades of catching rock bass, both intentionally or as an adjunct during my stream smallmouth forays, I still consistently overestimate their dimensions, and defy any angler to accurately guess their weight in ounces during the initial moments of battle.
Rock bass are members of the sunfish family. Stout, heavy-bodied fish, olive colored overall, with dark mottling and brassy overtones. Their eyes are slightly protuberant and a startling ruby red. You’ll hence hear rock bass referred to as a google-eyes, red-eyes, or red-eyed bass.
Their scientific name is Ambloplites rupestris. The former derives from the Greek for blunt armature, and the latter from the Latin for living “amongst the rocks.” Ergo, a stubby, thick-scaled fish which inhabits the stony sections of a stream.
That certainly describes the rock bass in a nutshell.
The biggest rock bass I ever caught came from the Stillwater River — a foot-long specimen that weighed several ounces over a pound. A dandy rock bass by anyone’s standards, as most rock bass taken from Buckeye waters go between five and eight inches. Once or twice a season you might even creel a nine or ten inch specimen.
But rock bass do grow considerably larger.
The Ohio state record rock bass, caught in 1932 from Deer Creek, by George A. Keller, was 14 3/4 inches long and weighed 1.97 pounds.
However, a 3-pound rock bass was caught from Indiana’s Sugar Creek in 1969. Another 3-pound fish was taken from the York River, in Ontario, Canada, in 1974. And third monster rock bass, weighing 3-pound, 2-ounces came from Elk Creek in Erie County, Pa., in 1971.
Rock bass in the 17-inch range! Unbelievable! And there have been reports of even larger rock bass taken over the years.
I’ve also heard tales how, back in the late-1800s and the early years of the Twentieth Century, scores of huge rock bass were caught from the bays and shallows surrounding the Lake Erie’s picturesque islands. Exciting fishing, I’m told, because the fish were surface feeding on the hordes of “Canadian soldiers” — a local name for the multitudes of Hexagenia mayflies which hatch during the twilight hours of summer.
Many of these eagerly feeding fish were said to have exceeded a foot in length. And like any rock bass, regardless of size, from the moment of hook-up onward they no doubt yanked and tugged for all they were worth!
The best local rock bass streams are also the best smallmouth bass waters, though I prefer to do my rock bass fishing on smaller creeks and jump-across headwaters. Like smallmouth, rock bass are a “quality water” species. But unlike bronzebacks, rock bass prefer holding water — pools and pockets — rather than direct current.
Ambush predators, a rock bass will eat everything from minnows and crayfish to frogs, mollusks, and bugs which accidentally plop in the drink. While extremely opportunistic, a rock bass won’t chase a lure around like a back bass or bluegill. In order to induce a strike, you have put your offering close to their hidey-hole.
Rock bass are the perfect ultralight target, regardless of whether you like spinning gear or fly tackle, so long as you scale your lures and flies accordingly.
As a boy I mostly fished Twin Creek, Bear Creek, Wolf Creek and the Stillwater River. Rock bass were my inevitable quarry. They long ago earned my respect and still continue to hold my attention.
You can catch rock bass throughout the season, but April and May are my favorite months. A springtime rock bass expedition is special—a perfection triple conjunction of time, place and objective which is synergetic, one of those cosmic congruences too delightful to ignore.
Though my piscatorial career has expanded exponentially, I continue to revisit those same streams…and I’ve never lost my fondness for catching rock bass. While they’re not jumping, tailwalking smallmouth, they’re feisty scrappers, full of steam—and always lots of fun!
I think rock bass rock!
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at [email protected]