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Largemouth Bass  at Cabela's

Largemouth Bass

Author: Craig Springer

Often eulogized, the largemouth bass is America's national game fish. This largest member of the sunfish family has an aggressive demeanor and willingness to attack a lure or bait with explosive force.

Largemouth artwork by Duane Raver
It is sought by more anglers than any other fish, and its enormous popularity borders on secular religion in many parts of the United States. This much-acclaimed game fish holds the dubious distinction of being one of the first North American fishes cultured by man. In 1765, largemouths were raised in ponds near Charleston, South Carolina, not for fishing but for fertilizer in the rice fields. Later hatchery efforts were fortunately directed at increasing opportunities for the angler.

Largemouth bass originally ranged in the Atlantic slope watersheds south of Maryland, through Florida to northeast Mexico, throughout the Mississippi River drainage to Minnesota, and the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River basins. They have since been extensively cultured and stocked throughout the United States. Idaho received a planting of largemouths in 1871 and the Erie Canal allowed the natural egress of largemouths to New England waters upon its completion in 1825.

Warm, shallow waters of sluggish rivers, oxbows, and farm ponds are home to largemouth bass. They fancy cover in the form of stumps, rocks, and weed beds, usually over sand or mud. And given the choice of open water or a place to hide, they will hide. Rarely do they wander beyond the area of rooted vegetation. Depending on the season, they can be found at depths from 10 inches to 40 feet.

Largemouths could be confused with smallmouth or spotted bass. But there are two sure-fire ways to separate a largemouth from the others. First, the largemouth has an upper jaw bone that extends well beyond the eye when its mouth is closed. Secondly, they lack scales along the base of the anal and soft dorsal fins -- a characteristic unique to this species of black bass. Though the dorsal fin is one continuous structure, the spiny and soft portions are separated by a deep notch, giving the appearance of two separate fins. The last spine in the front dorsal fin is usually less than half the length of the longest spine. Largemouths lack the tongue teeth found on the spotted bass. Colorwise, the largemouth varies from black to dark green on top, grading into light green on its sides, and to white or light pink on its belly. Its sides are distinctly marked from eye to tail with a dark band, sometimes appearing as a series of dark blotches in older fish.

Young largemouths eat tiny insect larvae, switching to meat when they grow to about two inches long. They become very capable predators of frogs, fish, crayfish, salamanders, snakes, mice, birds, and any other animal unlucky enough to come within reach. Their feeding strategy is to let the unsuspecting prey come to them as they hide in cover. Upon eating a large fish, largemouth bass may not eat for another 40 hours. Feeding is heaviest in the spring and early summer, but declines in the fall and winter. Largemouths rely on fish more than any other black bass.

Largemouth bass mature in their first to third year, spawning in the spring when the water warms to about 65 degrees. Spawning may occur on an unprepared bottom but usually the male fans out a 3-foot diameter nest in a bottom of sand or mud. With his head at the center of the soon-to-be nest, he pivots in a circular motion sweeping away debris with his tail. Nests are normally built within eight feet from the shore in one to 15 feet of water in places lacking current or waves. When the nest is completed, the male nervously leaves the nest in search of ripe females. He entices them to the nest by physical contact. Containing up to 145,000 eggs, she may lay a few hundred eggs at a time, which the male fertilizes as the eggs drop into the nest. She may return to the nest or spawn with another male. After spawning she languishes a short distance away for up to a day. The young rise from the nest about two weeks after the eggs are laid and then school above the nest for about five days. They stay schooled for nearly a month after moving to a nursery area while the male continues to provide protection. Largemouths are more attentive than any of the sunfish. Minnows and suckers take advantage of the strong parental instincts by laying their own eggs in the largemouth's nest. The male bass takes care of the uninvited guests as his own. Males seldom grow beyond 16 inches, while females may exceed 22 inches and live to 16 years. An average two-year old fish is 12-inches long and weighs about three-fourths of a pound.

The Florida largemouth, Micropterus salmoides floridanus, is the only known subspecies. It was originally confined to the Florida peninsula but has since been stocked across the warm, southern portions of the United States from California to Alabama. Hybrids of the two subspecies naturally occur in portions of Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. The Florida largemouth is nearly a carbon copy of the northern subspecies, differing by having more scales along its lateral line and a dark band that appears more like a series of blotches. The Florida subspecies is coveted for its faster growth and larger maximum size.

--Springer is a fisheries scientist in New Mexico

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