Fishing for autumn rock bass

By Keith Sutton Originally Published December 2, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated November 30, 2012 at 11:29 a.m.
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Keith Sutton

This beautiful panfish is a shadow bass, the most widespread species of rock bass inhabiting Arkansas waters.

Few waters in our country are as beautiful as the crystal-clear Buffalo National River in the Arkansas Ozarks. And as I learned several years ago, few fish swimming in this scenic mountain stream are as lovely as the little rock bass, a panfish often caught here during autumn fishing excursions.

I was fishing with a friend, Mark Kilburn of Little Rock, hoping to catch some to photograph for a panfishing book I was writing. Kilburn started fishing for rock bass when he was just a youngster. Few anglers know more about catching them.

“See those rocks up in that pocket?” he asked as we walked the stream bank opposite a deep pool. “That’s an ideal spot to catch a rock bass. Just like their name says, rock bass like rocks.”

With that, Kilburn proceeded to prove his theory. He cast a 1/8-ounce black jig to the spot he’d pointed out, then let the lure sink. A fish quickly struck the bait.

At first, the bow in Kilburn’s rod convinced me he had hooked a smallmouth bass, another common sportfish in the Buffalo. But when the fish on Kilburn’s line declined to jump and display the smallmouth’s typical acrobatics, I knew otherwise. After a short but impressive battle, Kilburn landed an 8-ounce rock bass.

This was the first rock bass I had ever seen, and I was struck by its unique beauty. The fish’s metallic sides glistened with rich yellow hues like a gold bar from a pirate’s chest. Set within this lustrous matrix were flecks of ebony and two large, crimson eyes — eyes with a depth of color that drew one’s gaze to them immediately. The effect was that of an exquisite jeweled fish cast in fine gold and inlaid with sparkling rubies.

After putting the fish on a stringer, Kilburn cast back to the same spot.

“There’s never just one,” he said with a grin. And sure enough, he added a second rock bass to the stringer seconds later. Three more followed, all taken from that single pocket.

Thanks to Kilburn’s expert instruction, I, too, caught a mess of rock bass that day. And when we left that beautiful river full of beautiful fish, I was as much a rock bass fan as he.

Most folks consider these sporty little panfish nothing more than “freebies” — it’s fine if you catch one, fine if you don’t. Despite their small size, though, rock bass give anglers the sense of having faced a challenge and won. Fishermen who pass the fish by because of their small size miss a lot of fun.

Arkansas’ rock bass trio

Rock bass have something of an identity problem. They’re members of the sunfish family but belong in a genus all their own. In appearance, they are a cross between a smallmouth bass and a sunfish. They have the smallmouth’s bronze hues and wide mouth, yet they are small — usually 6 to 8 inches long — and retain the distinctive sunfish shape.

Most anglers know them all by the common nicknames “goggle-eye” or “redeye.” Actually, however, there are three species of rock bass in Arkansas. All are look-alikes, with similar habits and habitat requirements. And all sport scarlet-red eyes. It’s little wonder most fishermen are completely unaware of the distinctions.

The shadow bass (Ambloplites ariommus) is Arkansas’ most widely distributed species, occurring in the Red, Ouachita, Arkansas, Illinois, Little Red, Strawberry, Black and St. Francis river drainages. The Ozark bass (Ambloplites constellatus), a native of the White River system, is especially common in the Buffalo River. The northern rock bass (Ambloplites rupestris) was introduced into Arkansas waters from elsewhere and is found only in the Illinois and Neosho river drainages in the northwestern corner of the state.

Catching them

Small plugs, spinners, jigs, flies, poppers — all these and more can be used to entice rock bass. For the best action, however, I use small live crayfish. Just run the hook up through the tail and leave the barb exposed. Fish tightline style, with just enough weight to carry the bait down.

Other productive live baits include small minnows, worms and, insect larvae such as hellgrammites. Ultralight or medium spinning or spincast tackle is ideal.

Eddies, currents, breaks and rock ledges are prime rock bass hideouts, and the angler who fishes these hot spots should have little trouble finding these feisty panfish.

Eddies — areas where a stream’s current swirls in a reverse pattern contrary to the main current — create little backwaters where crayfish, minnows, hellgrammites and other rock bass forage become trapped. Rock bass are instinctively aware that eddies provide a smorgasbord of food items. Work a bait or lure through the swirl in a stop-and-go fashion, and get ready for a tussle.

Current breaks create areas of reduced water flow where rock bass can rest and feed on critters floating by. Slack-water areas around logs, stumps and fallen trees may hold an occasional fish, but rock bass, not surprisingly, prefer those created by large rocks. Use a bobber to float a small jig, live crayfish or other bait past big rocks. Strikes usually occur when the offering comes around the side of the rock, directly behind it or several feet downstream.

Rock ledges adjacent to deep pools are also favored rock-bass sanctuaries. Here, you should present your offering deep, where bigger fish hold. But keep the bait or lure close to the ledge. Cast to the structure, let your bait settle to the bottom, and hop it back in with a slow, methodical retrieve.

Wade fishing and canoe fishing are popular on Arkansas’ rock bass waters. Regardless of the method you use, however, don’t move too fast. Rock bass are school fish, and the biggest mistake many goggle-eye anglers make is catching one fish, then moving on before working the hole for additional schoolies. It’s best to beach your canoe or anchor it when you’ve caught a fish, stopping long enough to work the area thoroughly.

Rock bass are near the

bottom of most fishermen’s “most wanted” lists. The fish are small, they lack glamour and prestige, and they aren’t very challenging to catch. For some anglers, though, little victories mean the most. If big fish are the spice of life, then little fish like rock bass are the meat and potatoes. Anglers who overlook these miniature marvels are missing a lot of fishing fun.

None Keith Sutton can be reached at .

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