Largemouth Bass: Keeping the Small Ones

Largemouth Bass have long been considered a prized catch for sport anglers, growing to a large size and putting up a good hearty fight when hooked. Millions of dollars are spent each year on specialized equipment to help seek the fish out and on fishing tournaments specifically geared to Largemouths.

I have never been one to fish specifically for trophy-sized fish, although I would certainly be excited to catch a big one! I fish for fun and relaxation, as well as for food. I love a good fish fry, so angling for sunnies with a worm and bobber has always been my go-to. When they’re biting, you can catch a whole mess of them and feed the whole family.

Most of my fishing throughout my life has been on the river that my parent’s cabin is on. When I was younger and had time to spend long, lazy weekends at the cabin, I would sometimes spend the afternoon floating in a canoe on the shallow bays of the river casting a weedless frog across the water for Largemouth Bass. Most often I would catch small Northern Pike that we called “snakes” and an occasional larger Northern, but the real thrill would come when a bass would strike the lure. Largemouth Bass are usually quite exciting to catch because they are aggressive and put up a spirited fight! They twist and turn and dive, and most excitingly, they may leap daringly into the air during a good bout with an angler’s line. In those days I caught plenty of bass on the river, but I never kept any, even though most would have been considered keepers. Why? Everyone told me bass just don’t taste good, that they have soft, mushy flesh and a muddy flavor.

Fast forward to this summer. While fishing for panfish on a nearby lake, we have caught several small Largemouth Bass, mostly 9-10 inches long. We had been throwing them back, but on a trip out with my son the other day, I caught a 13 inch Largemouth. It put up a pretty good fight, even leaped out of the water!

My 13” Largemouth Bass caught on a #6 snell hook with a piece of nightcrawler.

In most of Wisconsin the minimum length for Largemouth Bass is 14 inches. But the minimum length was eliminated a few years ago in many lakes in Northern Wisconsin, including this lake. I decided to keep it.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about throwing back the largest sunfish and keeping the smaller ones in order to keep their population in check and allow the largest ones to continue breeding. The science behind this recommendation by fisheries biologists in many mid-western states including Wisconsin and Minnesota is interesting and makes a lot of sense. In a healthy fishery, the largest fish are the main breeders, exerting their energies defending the nests. This encourages the smaller males to focus on eating and growing in order to become breeders. When the largest fish are removed from the scene by anglers, especially during their summer breeding season, the smaller fish don’t need to use their energy to grow and are able to take over the breeding responsibilities and don’t grow much larger. If anglers keep more of the smaller sunfish and release the larger ones, they are helping to ensure a healthy population with plenty of good eating fish to be had.

Similar science applies to the Largemouth Bass population, which is why many lakes like the one I fish on has no minimum length to encourage anglers to keep smaller fish, which in turn helps the remaining fish to grow larger. The thing is, smaller bass actually taste pretty good, similar to bluegill in my opinion. I think it must be that the older, larger fish that have “mushy” flesh and taste muddy.

The 10” Largemouth Bass. Removing this fish from the fishery encourages the overall population to grow larger.

As an experiment, I kept one 10-inch bass as well. When I filleted them, I was surprised to see how firm the flesh of both fish were, and was happy with the size of each filet. The 10-inch fish yielded 6-inch filets, and the 13-inch fish had 8-inch filets.

I plan to continue to keep the small Largemouths (bag limit is still 5) I catch on this lake along with the sunnies, as long as they continue to strike my little #6 hook with a piece of worm on it! Too easy!


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