When anglers hear the word “bass,” it’s fair to say that they generally think smallmouth or largemouth. That makes sense: these are the two species fishermen across the country are most familiar with. But the bass family--including the genus Micropterus and Morone--is a lot broader than that!
In fact, there are 14 recognized species of Micropterus alone. And depending on where you fish, you might have hooked more than one! Want to know what you’re catching? Curious about the differences between the species and how to identify them?
Since so many fish are called “bass,” we need to draw a line somewhere, and in this article, it’s at the salt. We’ll be focusing exclusively on freshwater species, including white bass (Morone chrysops), but not popular saltwater game fish like the striped bass (Morone saxatilis).
Table of Contents (clickable)
I’ll start our list with America’s most sought-after game fish: the largemouth bass. We’ve written about them before, which should come as no surprise, and if you’re looking for tips--we’ve got you covered!
A perennial favorite on lakes and slow-moving rivers from Quebec to Mexico, and Virginia to California, Micropterus salmoides is the largest of the black bass genus.
Growing to a maximum recorded length of 29.5 inches and a touch over 25 pounds, these brutes favor sub-tropical climates. They prefer warm water, tolerating a range between 41 and 90 F, with an ideal water temperature between 81 and 86 F for feeding and growth. Largemouth prefer muddy or sandy bottoms, clear water, and plenty of vegetation.
Shading from dark green through olive, to pale white and yellow on the stomach, you’ll usually find a prominent, jagged, dark line of splotches running from the gill plate to the tail.
And of course, the largemouth is named for its huge expanding mandible--but keep it closed if you’re not sure what you’ve caught.
The easiest way to identify this species is to look for a mouth that, when closed, protrudes beyond the posterior edge of the eye and a clearly separated sets of dorsal fins.
The first dorsal fin sports 9 to 11 spines; on the posterior, you’ll find 12 to 14 rays. Count them carefully, and look for that long line running from gill to tail.
One of my personal favorites, the smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu) is an aggressive predator with an insatiable appetite and a habit of hitting topwater flies and poppers with extreme prejudice! I used to fish smallmouth on the upper James River in Virginia, and if you haven’t fished for these bad boys, you don’t know what you’re missing.
Growing to an incredible 27 inches and 12 pounds, most smallies are closer to 15 to 20 inches. Preferring very clear water with rocky or sandy bottoms, you’re more likely to find smallmouth in rivers, streams, and creeks than ponds or lakes. They like the water a tad cooler than largemouth, and they don’t mind current at all. Thus, you’ll rarely find them cohabitating.
More evenly colored than largemouth, smallies are often a pale gold-green with speckled scales that sometimes form vertical lines. That’s not always true, and depending on the season, sex, and location, they can be hard to spot. What you won’t find is a row of dark patches below the lateral line as you do with some other species, which can help you make a positive I.D.
Expect 9 to 11 sharp spines and 13 to 15 soft rays. Their anal fin will have 3 spines, as well.
Finally, with the mouth closed, a smallmouth’s upper jaw will not extend past the rear of the eye. That’s a sure sign to help you differentiate it from look-alikes.
The Alabama bass (Micropterus henshalli) can be hard to distinguish from its close relative, the largemouth. Found in a relatively small area of America, it’s restricted to Alabama, Georgia, and western Mississippi. Originally a subspecies of spotted bass, it’s now earned a place of its own.
Growing to as large as 24 inches, their rarity makes them an accidental rather than intentional catch. They prefer a bit more current than largemouth, and you can catch the Alabama bass in streams as well as ponds and lakes.
The bad news? Without a magnifying glass or genetic analysis, they can be tough to differentiate from Spotted bass (Micropterus punctulatus). As scientists report, this fish is “[s]imilar to Micropterus punctulatus but can be distinguished by having 68-84 (usually 71 or more) pored lateral-line scales, 27 or more scales around caudal peduncle, black blotches along upper back not reaching dorsal fin base, and blotches along midside not coalescing into black stripe on caudal peduncle.”
Some tips can help, though. As Heath Anderson explains, with the mouth closed, the Alabama bass’s mouth will not extend beyond the rear of the eye, as a largemouth’s will. It will also sport a connected dorsal fin, whereas the largemouth will demonstrate a clear space between the front and rear dorsal fins. The Alabama also has a rougher tongue, as well as relatively smaller scales on its cheek than elsewhere on its body.
Take a very close look! You’ll see some differences.
If you’re not fishing in the Cahaba River system in the Piedmont region of central Alabama, you won’t run into the Cahaba bass (Micropterus cahabae). Even then, this species is rare, and only a handful of specimens have been caught.
Until recently, the Cahaba was considered a subspecies of the redeye bass (Micropterus coosae), only gaining its independence when genetic testing revealed that it was, in fact, a separate species.
Differentiating it from the redeye is impossible without a lab. Expect red eyes, 10 dorsal spines, 11 to 12 soft rays, and 3 anal spines. Its fins will lack any red coloring, potentially differentiating it from its close kin, and it will often show 6 to 12 vertical blotches running from the gills to tail.
This species was recently described out of the Micropterus coosae complex. As with other close kin, the Cahaba Bass have dusky bars or blotches along their sides and a red eye. It also shares the cheek stripes of the smallmouth.
If you’re fishing the Chattahoochee River system in western Georgia, you might run into the Chattahoochee bass (Micropterus chattahoochae). A native species here--and only here--there are a few subtle signs that can allow you tell it apart from the closely related Redeye bass (Micropterus coosae).
Look for 10 dorsal spines, 11 to 14 dorsal rays, 3 anal spines, and 10 to 11 soft anal rays. Expect redeyes and cheek markings similar to a smallmouth, as well as blotchy markings that are usually darker at the top. An easy tell is the orange-red color at the edges of the tail and rays.
The lakes and rivers of the panhandle of Florida and southern Alabama have been hiding the Choctaw bass (Micropterus haiaka), which is so cosmetically similar to the largemouth that it’s virtually identical. Only genetic testing revealed that this fish is--provisionally--a separate species.
There’s some controversy about whether the Choctaw’s distinct DNA entitles it to a separate species. But one thing’s for sure: there’s no easy way to tell this guy apart from a plain old largemouth, and DNA testing is necessary to be sure.
The Florida bass (Micropterus salmoides floridanus) isn’t a fish you’re going to catch often, and even if you do, without a scientist to help you sample and sequence its DNA, you’ll probably mistake it for a standard largemouth!
As a subspecies of Micropterus salmoides, I’m not aware of any way to tell them apart in the field.
If you’re a bass angler fishing in Texas, you have a chance to catch the state fish, the threatened Guadalupe bass (Micropterus treculii). Native to “the northern and eastern Edwards Plateau including headwaters of the San Antonio River, the Guadalupe River above Gonzales, the Colorado River north of Austin, and portions of the Brazos River drainage,” this species can be encountered in the lower Colorado River and the Nueces River system as well.
Unlike largemouth, this rare look-alike prefers faster-moving rivers to placid water. Able to breed with largemouth as well as Spotted bass (Micropterus punctulatus), it can hybridize, further complicating identification.
According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, “The Guadalupe bass is generally green in color and may be distinguished from similar species found in Texas in that it doesn't have vertical bars like smallmouth bass, its jaw doesn't extend beyond the eyes as in largemouth bass, and coloration extends much lower on the body than in spotted bass.”
The redeye bass (Micropterus coosae) is native to the Chattahoochee, Mobile Bay, and Savannah basins of Alabama, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee. Smaller on average than the largemouth, this species of black bass was split into five new species in 2013, resulting in this list getting much longer!
As with the four other new species, the first sign to look for is distinctively red eyes. You’ll also find 10 dorsal spines, 12 to 14 dorsal rays, 3 anal spines, and 10 to 11 anal rays. Red--rather than orange--markings on the fins can help you differentiate the Redeye from the Chattahoochee, as well as the absence of clear blotches or stripes. Occasionally, redeyes will sport a few markings on their sides, but these will number less than 6.
You can also check the tongue, where you should find a rough patch of “teeth.”
Native to Florida and Georgia, the shoal bass (Micropterus cataractae) was first differentiated as a new species in 1999. Preferring undammed rivers with significant current, it’s most plentiful on the Flint River in Georgia and in Blackshear and West Point lakes. Known as a strong fighter with plenty of endurance, it’s a prized bass to catch.
Closely resembling both the redeye (Micropterus coosae) and spotted bass (Micropterus punctulatus), it can be a hard fish to positively identify.
It can hybridize with spotted bass, and due to increasing competition with this invasive species, anglers are encouraged to release all shoals, but keep all spotted bass they catch in these waters.
Shoal bass have red eyes and a large blotch 50 to 67 percent the size of their eye near the back of the gill plate. Long, vertical stripes are usual, as a are striped cheeks reminiscent of the smallmouth.
A well-known fish in the Gulf states, the spotted bass (Micropterus punctulatus) is endemic to the Mississippi River basin. Like its close relative, the smallmouth, it inhabits clear water streams and rivers with gravel bottoms and significant current.
Named for the dark spots usually below its dark lateral line, it sports a small mouth that, when closed, does not extend beyond the back of the eye. But because it can hybridize with the smallmouth, identification can get complicated. It can also be tough to distinguish from Alabama bass (Micropterus henshalli)--that is, unless you’re in Florida, Louisiana, or Texas, where that species can’t be found.
The spots for which it’s named can, as in the picture above, form a more or less continuous line, so be careful. Look for the three-striped cheek, connected dorsal fins, and a rough, sandpaper-texture tongue.
The Suwannee bass (Micropterus notius) makes its home in rocky-bottomed streams and rivers, where it enjoys currents and eddies that sweep food its way. Found only in the Suwannee River drainage in Florida and the Ochlockonee River drainage in Florida, it’s not usually a targeted species due to its small size.
Indeed, it tends toward the smaller end of the genus, reaching maximum lengths of just 16 inches and just under four pounds.
The easiest way to be sure you’ve caught a Suwanee is to look for a distinctive turquoise color on the cheeks, breast, and ventral areas--though this will often not be present in immature specimens. It usually sports dark, vertical patches just below the lateral line, as well as the striped face common to many black bass species.
Like many members of the black bass genus, the Tallapoosa bass (Micropterus tallapoosae) is a close relative of Micropterus coosae. Its closest kin is the Chattahoochee bass (Micropterus chattahoochae), and it can easily be confused for this relative.
As you suspect, it’s named for the river system it inhabits--the Tallapoosa River--located in east-central Alabama and west Georgia.
Look for red eyes and long vertical bands of darker pigment. Its fins will not feature either orange or red markings, but it will have a small tooth-patch on its tongue.
Confined to the Black Warrior River system in east Alabama, the Warrior bass (Micropterus warriorensis) can be very hard to positively identify if you’re fishing these waters.
It usually lacks a tongue patch of rough “teeth,” but it can have one--though it will be small. It will usually have some orange pigmentation on its rearward fins, and sometimes vertical blotches below the lateral line.
The metrics biologists use to differentiate this species include measurements of head width and scale size and number, and the distinctions are minute.
Common in the waters of the Midwest, but with a range that extends as far south as Louisiana and as far east as Virginia, the White bass (Morone chrysops) is hard to misidentify due to its distinct silver-white color.
A fish that’s fun to catch, it grows as large as 17 inches, but it’s more commonly caught at lengths of 10 to 12 inches using live minnows or lures that resemble fish.
Inhabiting waters from Lake Michigan and down the Mississippi River basin, the Yellow bass (Morone mississippiensis) is sometimes caught by anglers fishing for crappie.
Dark green to silvery-yellow in color, they’re easy to differentiate from other species. Look for seven long, horizontal stripes, the lower of which are usually broken or “bent,” as in the picture above.
For some species, like the Florida bass, there’s just not much information. Nor is there any easy way to tell them apart from close relatives. But for most anglers, most of the time, knowing the difference between largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass will get it done!
We hope that this guide has been helpful for you, and if you have any questions or additions, please leave us a comment below.