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Suwannee Bass  at Cabela's

Suwannee Bass

Author: Craig Springer

Though anglers have known about this north-Florida prize for decades, it wasn't until 1949 that the Suwannee bass was scientifically described as a distinct species.

Suwannee Bass artwork by Joe Tomelleri
It is one of the rarest members of the sunfish family and not a great deal is known about it. This newcomer--a close relative to the smallmouth--offers Florida anglers excellent sporting opportunities in a beautiful setting.

Suwannee bass have the most restricted distribution of all the black basses. They are found only in the limestone sinkhole region associated with the Suwannee and Ochlockonee Rivers in Florida as well as a small portion above the Florida-Georgia state line. Remarkably, though these two river systems are 75 miles apart, the Suwannee bass does not live in any of the streams lying in between them. The Santa Fe River, which is a tributary to the Suwannee River, harbors the majority of the entire population.

Though sometimes mistaken for smallmouth, redeye, or spotted bass, the Suwannee has some very distinctive features. Largemouth bass are the only other black bass living in the same waters. But unlike the largemouth, the Suwannee bass has a shallow dorsal notch and an upper jaw bone that does not extend past the back of the eye. Scales are present on bases of dorsal and anal fins. It also has several diamond-shaped vertical bars along its sides and additionally, there rests a dark spot at the base of the tail. The most prominent and distinguishing attributes of this species are tones of turquoise on the cheeks and breast area.

Habitat of the Suwannee bass consists of spring-fed rivers and spring runs. They concentrate in the rocky pools and riffles near swift-flowing waters of rivers. They also have a fondness for places in the spring runs with undercut banks or overhanging vegetation. They also take to fallen trees, underwater drop-offs, and isolated rocks. Florida largemouth bass occurs throughout the range of the Suwannee bass but it takes to the slower, quiet water.

Crayfish comprises most of the diet of the Suwannee bass, but they do take insects and fish. Young fish eat aquatic insects and small crustaceans. Scientists studying feeding habits of this fish have learned that there is really no given time of day when they feed the most. Feeding seems to occur around the clock. Growth rates of Suwannee bass are lower than other black basses. After their first year, they may reach four inches in length. Fish caught by anglers are seldom larger than 13 inches; however, a two-pound Suwannee bass would be something to brag about.

Spawning starts about February when the water warms to about 68 degrees, and may last until June. Like the other black basses, they construct a nest and guard their young. The nests are built over sand along the stream edge and as many as 5,500 eggs are laid.

For being a small bass, they are strong fighters and offer great sport for flyfishing or spinning tackle. A 12-inch fish would be considered a trophy. But the security of the Suwannee bass is not guaranteed safe. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission considers this fish a "Species of Special Concern." The natural range of this fish is quite limited. They are threatened by a potential loss of habitat from impoundment of rocky areas in rivers and from water pollution.

--Springer is a fisheries scientist in New Mexico

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