Rock bass

By Larry Dablemont, Contributing Columnist
Posted 5/3/23

Rock bass are to Ozark flowing streams what crappie are to reservoirs. Creel census figures show that they make up the largest percentage of fish caught and fish kept by stream fishermen in the …

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Rock bass


Rock bass are to Ozark flowing streams what crappie are to reservoirs. Creel census figures show that they make up the largest percentage of fish caught and fish kept by stream fishermen in the Ozarks. Missouri fisheries people once kept track of the fish coming out of the Big Piney, Current, Niangua, Huzzah, and Courtois, and they figured goggle-eye made up 25 to 35 percent of the fish caught and kept. It is likely they overlooked the green sunfish caught when they did that survey. Green Sunfish most likely are caught at a very high rate, but not kept often. Biologists from that long-age time also did a study of growth rates, which showed that rock bass on the Black and Jacks Fork Rivers were three years old when they reached six inches in length. But at Bennett Springs, next to the Niangua River, they were six inches long at two years. Three-year-old goggle-eye there were about eight inches long. Eleven-inch fish (a real rarity even then) from the same waters were seven years old.

The record rock bass was 17 inches long, caught in Ontario Canada, and it weighed 3 pounds. I know of a two-pound, 15-inch rock bass taken from the Big Piney River right at the mouth of Hog Creek back in the early ‘60s. My Uncle Norten was fishing just after dark in a deep hole with a jitterbug, trying to catch a big smallmouth. That huge rock bass, which he landed, was the only one I ever knew to hit a jitterbug at night. In hours and hours of summer night fishing with a jitterbug on several streams in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, I have never caught a rock bass that way. And truthfully I have caught very few of them on topwater lures in the daytime. They are an underwater-feeding type of fish, although on occasion you may catch them in a foot and a half of water in April and May.

One year in the 1980’s, I fished Arkansas’ Crooked Creek often, and that small stream between Harrison and the White River below Yellville was chock-full of rock bass. You could fish all day and catch a boatload of smallmouth on topwater rebels at certain times of the spring and summer, and never catch a rock bass. Switch to a small beetle-spin or grub and bounce it along the bottom, and you’d find out there are as many rock bass as there are smallmouth. But that was a different time. Much of those waters are filled in today.

When I was a boy and Dad and I floated the Big Piney and Little Piney Rivers in the spring and summer, we had the best lure I’ve ever seen for goggle-eye. A man named Art Varner from Salem, Missouri, made a small spinnerbait called a shimmy fly. These lures, one-eighth and one-fourth ounce had lead heads and honeybee yellow and black or yellow and brown bodies, with brown or black squirrel hair tied over them. The small offset spinner rode just above the body, and we’d dress this up with a split white pork rind fly strip. Fished slowly along the bottom, shimmy flies got hung up often, but picked up rock bass, green sunfish, and smallmouth like nothing I’ve ever used. Mr. Varner died in the late ‘60s, and within a year or so, shimmy flies were no longer available. But about that time beetle spins began to appear, and now there are a variety of plastic lures on the same type of spinners, which are very effective for rock bass.

The rock bass does indeed love rocks,. But some of the best fishing I’ve had with minnows and night crawlers has been around large root wads of fallen trees washed into deep water any time of the year, any time of the day. They love a big submerged root wad just as much as a big rock.

I seldom fish for them today, as upper reaches of Ozark Stream have become shallow and the rocks I once fished are becoming covered with silt and gravel. Progress… land clearing and erosion! But last spring I made a trip on the lower Big Piney with old-time riverman and fishing guide Charlie Curran, and we found lots of goggle-eye to be caught on small rubber grubs fished slowly close to the bottom in deeper water. But 80 percent were less than 8 inches. In most streams where rocks are found in deeper water not yet filled in, Ozark goggle-eye can thrive, IF fishermen will abide by that 8-inch rule. They have gone through hard times, but anglers willing to return all smallmouth, and return any rock bass under 8 inches, can play a big role in keeping rivers something like they were in that time long ago when only wooden johnboats drifted downstream, in the pursuit of brownies, goggle-eye and black perch!