One hundred years ago there were two black bass species: largemouth bass and smallmouth bass. In 1926, ichthyologists (scientists who study the classification of fishes) recognized the spotted bass as a separate species.

By 2000, ichthyologists recognized seven species of black bass (fish in the genus Micropterus): largemouth, smallmouth, spotted, Guadalupe, shoal bass, redeye and Suwanee.

Fourteen years into the 21st century, the number of recognized black bass has swollen to 14.

The Florida subspecies was elevated to a species and named the Florida bass. The northern subspecies of largemouth bass retains the name largemouth bass.

The spotted bass (also known as Kentucky spotted bass) that lived in the waters of the Mobile River Basin (which includes the Tombigbee River in Mississippi and most of the rivers in Alabama south of the Tennessee River drainage) are now recognized as Alabama bass; the remainder of spotted bass retained the name of spotted bass.

As I reported last month, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission fisheries scientists identified a previously undescribed species, the Choctaw bass.

This year, the redeye bass was divided into five species, one for each of the rivers where they live. And as I write, the Florida fisheries scientists who identified the Choctaw bass are trying to figure out if the Choctaw bass look-alikes in the Pascagoula and Pearl rivers in Mississippi are yet another black bass species. 

Recognizing the black bass in Mississippi

Largemouth bass are native and live in every public water in Mississippi. I’m sure this large-mouthed (lower jaw extends behind the eye), generally greenish fish with prominent black blotches on the flanks is recognized by everyone who has ever wet a line in Mississippi.

The Florida bass is not native but has been stocked into numerous waters throughout Mississippi.

Although not definitive differences, the Florida bass can be distinguished from the largemouth bass by the number of lateral line scales — 55 to 66 for largemouth bass, 66 to 76 for Florida bass. The lateral line scales are the scales that have pores that run in a gently arching line from behind the gill cover to the tail. Counting these scales takes patience and a magnifying glass.

Separating Florida bass from largemouth bass is further complicated because the two species readily hybridize, resulting in fish with intermediate characteristics. 

Spotted bass, Alabama bass and Choctaw bass are readily distinguished from other black bass — they all look like spotted bass, possessing blotchy spots on the upper sides of the fish and spots on all scales on the lower sides of the fish.

But distinguishing among these three species is difficult, and the differences are not distinct.

Spotted bass can be distinguished from Alabama bass by the number of lateral line scales: 67 or more for Alabama bass, 66 or less for spotted bass. 

Choctaw bass can, with reasonable certainty, be separated from spotted bass by counting fin rays. The dorsal fin (top fin) of black bass has a forward part of hard spines (spiny dorsal fin) separated by a notch from the soft dorsal fin containing flexible fin rays. Choctaw bass have 11 soft dorsal-fin rays, spotted bass (and other black bass) have 12.

The anal fin of black bass (the bottom fin behind the vent) has several short, hard spines, with the rest of the fin made of longer, flexible fin rays. The Choctaw bass usually has nine anal fin rays; the spotted bass (and other black bass) has 10 anal fin rays.

People excited about the newly discovered Choctaw bass swimming in Mississippi waters might be disappointed to learn that those fish in the Pascagoula River are not Choctaw bass.

But be patient: Mississippi might have a black bass species that occurs nowhere else but Mississippi.

The smallmouth bass is the only black bass that does not have a new look-alike species. Coloration varies among individuals, but for all fish the upper jaw does not extend beyond the eye.

Management implications

Do all these new species create management issues? Hard to say right now.

According to Fisheries Bureau Chief Larry Pugh, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks management considers each water body separately, and that often leads to different regulations on different waters.

This functional approach can be used, if necessary, to conserve a specific species on one water to achieve a higher quality of fishing while allowing a higher harvest on another water if deemed appropriate. 

An example would be the possibility of using a higher size limit on waters containing Alabama bass than on waters containing spotted bass.

For years, biologists and anglers have been asking why some waters, such as Bay Springs lake, provide 5-pound-plus spotted bass while other waters give up few spots over 14 inches. It appears that at least part of the answer might be that they are different species.

Now that spotted bass can be separated from Alabama bass, we await tests of differences in growth rate and maximum size. If it turns out that Alabama bass do grow faster or larger than spotted bass, regulations could be implemented on Alabama-bass waters conducive to providing big Alabama bass, and liberal regulations could be applied to populations of the slower-growing spotted bass.

“What I do not foresee is different regulations on a single body of water for these look-alike species — Florida bass and largemouth bass, spotted bass and Alabama bass,” Pugh said. “The need to carry a magnifying glass to count lateral line scales is nothing that Mississippi anglers need to worry about.”