Note: This article first appeared in the July/August 1991 issue of The Conservationist magazine. Recently updated. Authors- Andy Kahnle, Kathy Hattala and Eileen Stegemann. Seventh in a 14-part series describing the Freshwater Fishes of New York.
The True Bass Of New York
Highly aggressive gamefish, New York's true bass are extremely popular with many anglers. From bank fishing along lake tributaries to surf casting on Long Island's beaches, true bass provide anglers with a diversity of fishing opportunity.
Also called temperate bass, true bass live in a variety of habitats. Large and small lakes, rivers, estuaries (water bodies open to the sea) and nearshore ocean are all home to one or more species of these bass. True bass are found in waters with a salt content ranging from fresh to full seawater, and two species, the white perch and striped bass, can easily move between fresh and saltwater.
True bass are distinct in appearance. They are generally silvery white in color and most have dark horizontal lines along their sides. True bass are spiny-rayed fish with strong spines in their dorsal (back), anal (bottom rear), and pelvic (bottom front) fins. They have two separate, or only slightly connected, dorsal fins and numerous small teeth.
While many people think true bass are relatives of the smallmouth and largemouth bass, they are not. Smallmouth and largemouth bass are black bass, which are actually members of the sunfish family. True bass and black bass not only differ in appearance, but also in habitat requirements and spawning behavior.
True bass spawn or reproduce in the spring. Adult bass migrate into rivers or shallow water areas of lakes to disperse their eggs. They are broadcast spawners, simply releasing the eggs into the water. Eggs hatch quickly, within two to four days. Unlike other fish, such as black bass, true bass do not build nests and do not provide parental care for the young.
True bass release a tremendous number of eggs during spawning. A single female striped bass has been known to release as many as four million eggs! This huge number of eggs makes up for the lack of parental care and helps make sure enough young fish survive.
Bass feed on a wide range of organisms. Young bass eat insects and crustaceans. Older bass primarily eat small fish. True bass are schooling fish and can act together in an organized method of feeding. White bass are especially known to herd schools of baitfish to the surface. The bass then attack in a "feeding frenzy," often forcing the baitfish to jump out of the water.
True bass are among some of the most exciting freshwater fish species in New York State. Ranging in size from six to 55 inches, these bass can provide fishing opportunity for all kinds of anglers.
As a group, true bass are aggressive gamefish and put up a good fight when hooked. During feeding, they will often strike just about anything you put in the water. If anglers locate one of these feeding concentrations, fishing action can be fast and furious.
At one time, several species of true bass were important commercial fish species. However, for some, declines in catch and market value reduced their commercial value. The one exception is for striped bass which remains one of the more sought after species on the east coast.
Three species of true or temperate bass and one hybrid are found in New York's waters: striped bass, white perch, white bass, and hybrid bass. A brief description of each is provided in the chart. Persons interested in finding more detailed descriptions for any member of the temperate bass family can refer to, "The Freshwater Fishes of Canada," by W.B. Scott and E.J. Crossman and "The Inland Fishes of New York State," by C. Lavett Smith.
Striped bass are very important sport and commercial fish in the United States. Their speed, power, and large size makes them one of the most exciting sportfish. Known as New York's accessible giant, striped bass in the 50+ pound range are taken every year.
Striped bass or "stripers" are the largest of New York's temperate basses. They are easily distinguished by the seven to nine dark horizontal lines found along their sides, two to three of which extend from the head to the base of the tail. Unlike white bass or white perch, stripers have a streamlined body shape, with the depth of the body generally less than the head length. In addition, striped bass have two patches of teeth on the tongue.
Striped bass are found in both fresh and saltwater. They generally occur around rocks and wrecks in nearshore waters, rivers and large reservoirs. Striped bass are found along the Atlantic Coast from the St. Lawrence River in Canada to the St. Johns River in Florida. In New York State, they are found seasonally in the tidal portion of the Hudson River and coastal waters around Long Island.
Stripers are migratory fish. In the ocean, they move north in the summer and south in the fall and winter. Striped bass found along the mid-Atlantic coast are produced in the Hudson and Delaware rivers, the Chesapeake Bay system, and the Roanoke River. Hudson River striped bass are most commonly found between New Jersey and Cape Cod. However, they can travel as far away as North Carolina and Nova Scotia.
Striped bass vary considerably in size, ranging from 18 to 55 inches in length and three to 70 pounds in weight. They are slow to mature and are long lived. In New York, female stripers do not mature until five to eight years old and fish 25 years old have been caught in the Hudson River.
Smaller striped bass in the ten to 20 pound range generally travel in large schools. Older and larger fish are usually in small "pods" of only a few fish. Adult striped bass are voracious feeders, primarily eating fish and invertebrates, especially crabs and squid.
Striped bass are anadromous, migrating to freshwater from the sea to spawn. Spawning takes place in the Hudson River estuary in May and early June. Stripers broadcast their eggs near the surface over deep water that has some current or turbulence. The semi-buoyant eggs drift with the current and hatch in two to four days. By early summer, young striped bass move to shallow water nursery areas of Haverstraw Bay and the Tappan Zee. In early fall, they begin to move out of the estuary to nearshore coastal areas. Adult stripers leave the estuary right after spawning and join other striped bass migrating along the Atlantic Coast.
Striped bass are a favorite of many New York anglers. Since stripers are know to occur around rocky areas near jetties and dropoffs where there is some current or turbulence, anglers should concentrate their efforts there. Many of these areas can be found by studying a good set of navigation charts. Best fishing is around high tide in the evening, at night, or on overcast days.
Anglers use a variety of methods and tackle to catch these incredible fighters. On the Hudson River, striped bass fishing is best during the spring spawning run from March to June. During the early spring, when water temperatures are cooler (about 50 degrees Fahrenheit) and the bass are less active, bottom fishing on slow drifts with blood worms provides some success. As the water warms up (above 56 degrees Fahrenheit), trolling with lures such as jointed plugs or bait is the most effective method for catching Hudson River stripers. Although boat fishing provides the best catches, shore anglers also take their share of fish. Jigs and plugs retrieved on a fast cast may catch a striper warming itself in shallow water areas during high tides.
In saltwater, boat anglers catch the most stripers by trolling or controlled drifting using large plugs or spoons or fresh cut bait or eels. For surf fishing along Long Island, casting plugs, spoons or jigs may produce good catches. Surf casters should fish on a moving tide.
Striped bass have been a valuable commercial fish species in New York. Unfortunately, striped bass from New York were found to contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Levels were highest in bass from the Hudson River and in 1976, the state banned their sale. PCB levels have dropped significantly since then, but remain above the federal action level of two ppm. The presence of PCBs also led to a ban in the 1980s on the sale of striped bass from the marine waters around Long Island. This has been partially lifted and a limited fall commercial fishery is now permitted.
Seldom reaching more than 12 inches in length, white perch are the smallest members of New York State's true bass. They are easily told apart from other true bass because white perch have no dark stripes and no patches of teeth on their tongues.
Like striped bass, white perch can live in both fresh and saltwater. Although white perch prefer brackish waters, they also live in rivers, lakes and reservoirs. They often occur in large schools in turbid shallow areas. They are rapidly expanding their range in the state and can be found in the Hudson River and its tributaries south of Troy, small lakes east of the Hudson, fresh and brackish waters of Long Island, the Seneca River and Mohawk River systems, Oneida and Chautauqua Lakes, and in Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.
White perch are prolific breeders. Schools of spawning white perch crowd into tributary streams or along gravelly shoal areas in lakes and large rivers to deposit their eggs. The tiny eggs sink to the bottom and attach to vegetation and rocks. Young perch eat plankton and insects while older perch feed mostly on fish.
White perch are tasty fish with white, flaky flesh. At one time, they were an important commercial species in New York. Today, their large numbers and catchability make them popular panfish. Although small in size, they can put up a good fight when hooked. White perch are especially easy to catch in the spring during spawning. They can be caught by still fishing with worms or grubs, or by casting small flies or lures. Best catches are taken at dusk or after dark.
Strictly a freshwater species, white bass have a limited distribution in New York State. They are medium-sized (nine to 15 inches long) and sporty fish that are a favorite of local anglers.
White bass occur in the open water habitat of large lakes and reservoirs, as well as some large streams and rivers. They prefer clear water over firm bottom and usually travel in large schools. Sometimes confused with striped bass, white bass can be distinguished by their deeper body shape and single tooth patch on the tongue. In addition, white bass have only one of their dark stripes run the entire body length from head to tail.
Spawning takes place in tributary streams, nearshore areas and over shoals. Female white bass release their eggs near the water surface. The eggs sink and attach to rocks, sticks and bottom vegetation and hatch within two to four days.
White bass are fast growing predators. Individuals up to 17 inches long and nine years of age have been taken in Oneida Lake. White bass are known for feeding at the surface in large schools. They primarily eat insects and fish.
White bass are locally popular sportfish. Their aggressive nature and schooling tendency make them one of the easiest fish to catch. The best fishing is in spring when schools of white bass move inshore. Casting or trolling streamer flies, jigs, spinners, and spoons or still fishing with minnows will produce good catches. Since white bass often feed near the surface, be sure to keep lures and bait off bottom.
Hybrid bass are a cross between striped bass and white bass. They were originally developed to provide large sportfish that have the fighting quality of striped bass and feed on open water prey fish. Hybrid bass are stocked in waters with large populations of forage fishes and do not appear to compete with sunfishes or black bass.
Hybrid bass are similar in appearance to both parents. They have two patches of teeth on their tongues like striped bass, but are deep-bodied like white bass. The dark stripes found on hybrid bass are usually broken into short dashes.
Hybrid bass are most often produced from a female striped bass and a male white bass. The young grow well in the hatchery and are usually stocked in the fall as fingerlings.
Hybrid bass are fast growers. In New York, hybrids reach eight inches in length in the first year and are double that by age three. Adult hybrid bass feed in open waters and primarily eat forage fish, such as alewife and gizzard shad.
Hybrid bass are popular sportfish. They are hard fighting and good eating. Anglers use the same fishing methods as those for white bass.
The future of hybrid bass in New York is uncertain. Although the fish are doing well in the state's waters, anglers have not learned how to catch them consistently. Hybrids also have shown the trait of moving downstream from reservoirs into waters where they may not be wanted. However, hybrid bass have only been in New York for a short time (since the 1980s) and they may prove to be an exciting addition to the state's fisheries.
Fish that move through, and are caught in, territorial waters of more than one state or nation are often managed by interstate or international agreements. The Atlantic coastal stock of striped bass is one such species and a good example of interstate cooperation at its best.
The Atlantic coastal population is made up of striped bass from many East Coast estuaries. The greatest contribution come from the Chesapeake system, followed by the Hudson River. High market demand in the early 1970s led to a record catch of striped bass in 1973. Fishing was especially intense for the Chesapeake stocks, both in the bay and along the coast. Consequently, over fishing occurred and the Chesapeake stocks collapsed in the mid to late 1970s. The collapse affected anglers coastwide.
In response to this decline, Atlantic Coastal states formed a work group under the leadership of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an interstate management agency. This group included representatives from 12 states, as well as the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, the District of Columbia, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. A coastal striped bass management plan was completed in 1981, which included a variety of harvest restrictions. Several plan amendments and very restrictive harvest regulations followed, including increasing the minimum size limit of coastal striped bass up to 38 inches and reducing the number of fish anglers could keep to only one fish per day. In addition, striped bass fishing in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay was totally eliminated.
By the late 1980s, the cooperation and sacrifices of anglers, including those in New York, began to pay off. Striped bass production in the Chesapeake and abundance along the coast began to increase and limited fishing was once again allowed.
The Hudson River striped bass stock also benefited from the restrictive harvest regulations. Their abundance stayed stable through the 1970s and today is at the highest level in years.
Many species of fish look alike, making it difficult to tell them apart. In addition, many types of fish have different common names in different parts of the country. To distinguish one organism from another, biologists give each a scientific name that is unique to that organism. The names are derived from the Latin language and consist of a genus and a species. The genus name is first and is capitalized. The species is second and is in lower case. Both the genus and species are either underlined or italicized when written. While several organisms in the same "family" share a common genus name (like family members sharing a last name), they have different species names. Occasionally, two members of a family are so similar that one is considered a subspecies of the other. In these cases, the organisms are given two species names. Here are the common and scientific names of New York true bass:
|Common Name||Scientific Name|
|striped bass||Morone saxatilis|
|white perch||Morone americana|
|white bass||Morone chrysops|
|hybrid bass||Morone saxatilis cross Morone chrysops|
More about True Bass:
- Similarities And Differences Among New York's True Bass - Comparing New York's true bass species.