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Three Ways to Catch the Neglected Rock Bass

The tiny spinnerbait hit the water with a delicate “plop” a scant foot from the shoreline as we floated silently down the Shenandoah River. The current swirled backwards in an eddy there, making it a prime hangout for the fish this river is famous for—the smallmouth bass. The instant I engaged the spinning reel handle, a sharp strike telegraphed up the thin graphite rod. Setting the hook with a solid sweeping motion, I felt steady resistance from a stubborn quarry on the end of the line… surely a tail-walking smallmouth.

But something was different. This fish felt strong, but somehow not as powerful and full of the leaps and runs I had come to expect from a pugnacious smallmouth bass. Welcome for sure, as any gamefish would be on a hot sunny day on a river. Just not what I was expecting.

As I worked the fish in, I realized why the fish felt different. A plump rock bass had nabbed the small spinnerbait I was using. Reaching down, I twisted the hook free and released the plump, brass-colored panfish back into the glass-clear water, none the worse for wear.

No, the humble rock bass won’t win many popularity contests among anglers. These fish are not sleek and powerful like a landlocked striper. They don’t jump like a belligerent largemouth bass or streak wildly through the currents like a silver-sided rainbow trout. And their fight definitely won’t match the antics of a sassy smallmouth.

But despite their lack of spectacular credentials as a gamefish, these stocky little panfish are strangely appealing. Maybe their dependability is what makes them so attractive as a quarry. Rock bass can almost always be counted on as a fill-in for those days when other gamefish develop a case of lockjaw. They have saved the day on many a smallmouth outing for me on waters such as the James, Potomac, and Rappahannock, not to mention my home water—the Shenandoah River.

But rather than just relegating rock bass to the role of fill-in or “day-saver” when other species are not cooperating, consider this proposition. Try focusing occasionally on this quarry for its own legitimate value as a gamefish. After all, the rock bass is a stubborn, if not spectacular, fighter when an angler uses light tackle.

Often called “goggle eye” or “red eye,” the species is also a handsome fish. Well… in a rugged sort of way! The fish’s Latin name, Ambloplites rupestris, gives a clue to the habitat the rock bass prefers. Rupetris means “of the rocks.” Stone and rubble-covered rivers as well as some rocky lakes are prime rock bass fishing grounds.

Rock bass don’t grow large. A five- to seven-inch fish is typical. Studies have shown it takes six years for a rock bass to reach eight inches. As for weight, a 12-ounce fish is absolutely a trophy. The world record rock bass was a tie between one fish caught in the York River in Ontario, and one taken in Lake Erie, Pennsylvania. Those fish weighed just 3 pounds. The Virginia state record is a 2 lb. 2oz. fish caught in 1986 by Larry Ball in Laurel Bed Lake.

Rock bass can be caught with just about any angling method imaginable. I’ve even caught them when downrigging for stripers with large diving plugs that were almost as big as the rock bass were. That’s certainly not the ideal way to take this diminutive fish, though. Ultralight spin tackle with four- to six-pound line and light fly rods in the four- to six-weight class are much better gear for this quarry.

In lakes, you can find rock bass in coves, around rubble and rock-strewn points, reefs, and any areas where hard bottom is found. In rivers, rock bass favor deep pools, eddies near shore, pockets behind boulders, ledges, and shaded shoreline spots where they often hover within inches of the bank. Besides stones, rock bass also hang around logs, deadfalls, and underwater stumps.

Lure

Top artificials for spin fishing include grubs with plastic twister tails, jigs, in-line spinners, soft-plastic jerkbaits, banana-shaped wobblers, thin-minnow plugs, and small spinnerbaits like the Beetlespin. Four-pound test line is perfect, but opt for six-pound if you might latch onto some black bass as well as the targeted quarry.
Three things are vital for success with rock bass. The first is that your lure falls close to the shoreline on days when fish are holding near the banks. The second important point is to retrieve slowly. Rock bass don’t like to chase down a fast-moving bait. The third rule for rock bass fishing is to keep the offering near the bottom when fish are holed up in deep water. Let your lure nick the lake or river floor occasionally for the most action.

Live Bait

Natural bait works extremely well on rock bass. Hellgrammites, earthworms, and two-inch long minnows are all excellent. Use them with a small bobber and split shot or two for weight. This is a great way to introduce a youngster to fishing. And chances are you’ll pick up some largemouths and smallmouths this way as well.

Fly Fishing

Using flies is another great way to catch rock bass. If fish are hovering near shore they’ll nab a small sponge rubber spider, deer hair bug, or cork popper cast close to the bank. Allow it to rest, then twitch the fly gently. Strikes will be soft and delicate, a lot like a bluegill nails a fly.

Use an eight- to nine-foot rod, four- to six-weight forward floating line and four-  to six-pound tippet. If fish aren’t cooperating on top, go with small sub-surface offerings such as the Hare’s Ear, Montana Stone, or Yuk Bug. Small streamers such as the Zonker, Matuka, Muddler, or Clouser Minnow in sizes 2-8 will also fool rock bass. Keep the rod tip low to the water and fish those minnow-imitating flies with short, sharp strips of line.

Don’t be surprised if a few smallmouths nab these offerings as well. Be ready, or they might just jerk the rod out of your hand!

It would be hard to think of a more fun-packed way to spend a warm, sunny afternoon than floating or wet-wading a shaded stream casting to willing rock bass mixed in with bonus smallmouths. And if your son or granddaughter are free or a neighborhood kid wants to come along, take them, too. This is a great fish to focus on when introducing youngsters to the sport of angling!

– By Gerald Almy

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