Rock bass smash any bait tossed in front of them but fight with all the ferocity of paper towels once hooked.
Still, one must admire this low-profile member of the sunfish family because it strikes when all other fish ignore your efforts. Whether you’re futilely pitching a spinnerbait for largemouths, a No. 5 Mepps for smallmouths, or a jig and leech for walleyes, you can trust the stubbiest rock bass in the shallows to wrap its oversized lips around hooks meant for bigger fish.
More important, when you take rock bass home for dinner, they’ll defy you to distinguish them from bluegills, crappies or pumpkinseeds in taste and appearance.
So what if all other anglers look puzzled when you keep a “red-eye,” lay it on the cleaning board, and fillet it alone or with perch, walleye or bluegills. Most anglers simply ignore rock bass and really don’t know what they think about the species. When asked, they just assume the worst and blurt nonsense: “I hear they’re mushy and taste fishy.”
At least that’s what I said last week after landing and keeping the first of five unusually large rock bass while fishing with my wife, Penny, on Lake Gogebic, the largest inland lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Admittedly, I had nothing to back up the comment, and should have stayed neutral. After all, I brought home and cleaned every rock bass I caught during childhood, and packaged them with all the other panfish and bullheads in my parents’ basement freezer. And when Mom fried up those rock bass, no one scornfully pointed them out on the serving platter.
Penny, being a more deliberate sort, sensed my uncertainty and typed “rock bass edibility” into Google. Seconds later, she nodded approvingly when total strangers with no verifiable culinary credentials disputed my assumptions in online articles.
“Says here that rock bass meat is white, firm, flaky and tasty,” she reported, and suggested I put the 11-inch trophy into our boat’s live-well.
When I caught the rock bass’ twin minutes later, Penny consigned it to the livewell, too. She pronounced: “We’ll eat one for dinner. If we don’t like it, we’ll turn the other one loose after we clean up. But if we like it, you can clean the other one in the morning.”
That made sense. We kept our boat moored to the lodge’s nearby dock, making the plan simple and convenient.
And then I caught three more rock bass, the smallest measuring 9 inches. After we returned to the dock, I plopped one rock bass into a bucket with a foot-long perch Penny caught, and set off for the fish-cleaning shack. Little did the other four rock bass realize their fate rested on their colleague’s palatability.
About a half-hour later, the verdict was in. “The Google guys were right,” Penny said. “This tastes good, and the fillet is white and flaky.”
I agreed, and turned my thoughts to our boat’s live-well. “His four buddies are doomed.”
This was great news, of course, because those five rock bass were the largest I’ve landed in a lifetime of fishing. Sure, they weren’t close to the Wisconsin record rock bass — a leviathan of 2 pounds, 15 ounces, caught in Waupaca County’s Shadow Lake in June 1990 — but each was bigger than the 6-inch rock bass I’ve typically caught and released the past 60 years.
If Penny was disappointed in my general ignorance of most things rock bass, she didn’t let on. Then again, I’m hardly alone. Rock bass are easily ignored. I don’t know any angler who targets them, intentionally or occasionally. In the parlance of commercial fishermen, rock bass are the bycatch when targeting more popular fish like walleyes, smallmouths, largemouths, bluegills and yellow perch. They aren’t known for hanging out in large schools, and you’ll seldom catch enough keeper rock bass in one trip to stuff two adults.
After cleaning our rock bass the next morning, Penny and I got into another discussion as we rinsed and packaged their fillets: Is it OK to eat fish afflicted with “black-spot disease?”
This was an obvious question, given that nearly every fish we kept that week carried evidence of diplopstomiasis, or fluke disease. This disease of freshwater fish is caused by a flatworm larvae that causes tiny black cysts to form on the fish’s fins, skin and flesh. Fish afflicted with it look as though someone sprinkled them with hand-ground black pepper.
Actually, Penny and I hashed out these edibility questions years ago. If we had released every fish our girls caught with black-spot disease, we would have gone home empty-handed many times and lived on store-bought fish sticks. Whether we were fishing southern Wisconsin or southern Ontario, we kept and ate many crappies, bluegills and northern pike peppered with black dots from tail to gills.
There’s nothing appetizing about pinhead-sized grubs, so we just ignored them and didn’t tell the kids. They’re unsightly, not unsafe. If you cook the fillets thoroughly, the parasite vanishes into oblivion. And because you should cook all fish thoroughly anyway, you’re not exactly taking extraordinary measures.
Just in case you’re wondering, the Department of Natural Resources isn’t working on any research projects to control or eradicate black-spot disease, either. That makes sense. Why get the government involved when you can just crank up the heat when baking, grilling, pan-frying or deep-frying your fillets at home?
If you’re lucky enough to land a meal of rock bass, don’t go looking for something to fret about. Simply look forward to some fine dining soon.
Rock bass are members of the sunfish family. Though they lack the fight of smallmouths and largemouths, they taste as good as bluegills and pumpkinseeds.
— Patrick Durkin photos
“Black-spot disease” is common on many fish caught in the Great Lakes region, but doesn’t harm humans or affect the fish’s taste. Simply cook the fish thoroughly.