Missouri is home to three distinct species of black bass and in most locations around the state, they are managed as one group. The three are unique enough that most anglers should be able to tell them apart, and they must recognize them as unique in locations that have special regulations.
Largemouth bass are the most familiar. When most people talk about bass fishing, it’s largemouth they are talking about. They grow the biggest of the bunch and can thrive in more habitats. Clear water with limited current provides the best conditions, but they can survive in more turbid areas of lakes and rivers. On streams, they are more likely located out of the flow in large pools and backwaters.
Almost any little farm pond can sustain a reproducing population, and in fact can be overpopulated, stunting their overall growth. The big reservoirs like Lake of the Ozarks have the potential to produce big fish. The state record for a largemouth has stood since 1961 for a 13-pound, 14-ounce fish caught from Bull Shoals Lake.
Almost every image you have ever seen of a bass is a largemouth. Their backs are green with mottled dark and light splotches providing camouflage from above. They are white along their sides and bottoms. A dark stripe runs laterally from the gill to the tail providing a distinct separation.
Its mouth provides the most distinguishing features. When closed, the jaw extends well beyond the eye. When opened, the mouth looks big enough for the fish to almost swallow himself. The small triangular tongue inside his mouth provides the true test for discerning between a largemouth and spotted Kentucky bass.
The spotted bass is similarly colored to the largemouth with a green back, white underside and dark stripe down the middle. The mouth is noticeably smaller, but the real identification trick comes inside. The tongue of a spotted bass has a rough patch like tiny teeth, while the largemouth’s tongue is smooth.
The other difference between the two is the dark spots on the lower half of a Kentucky bass. They are arranged in rows. When his mouth is closed, the jaw of a spotted bass only reaches to his eye. They grow much slower than largemouth bass, and the state record is only about half the size at 7 pounds, 8 ounces, caught from Table Rock Lake in 1966.
Spotted bass are not as widely distributed throughout the state. They are found in tributaries of the Mississippi River south of St. Louis, the Missouri River and its feeder streams and lakes, and in the White River lakes in the southwest corner of the state. In the Bootheel region, spotted bass is the most common of the black bass in moving water.
The smallmouth bass looks less like the other two, other than in body shape and size. Its color is generally more brown than green and while it is darker to lighter from top to bottom, it never gets all the way to white. There also is no dark lateral stripe.
The smallmouth bass has the same rough tongue patch as the spotted bass, and its mouth is similar in size. Smallmouth bass prefer clearer water than their Kentucky cousins, and they can handle a swifter flow. The state record fish is a 7-pound, 2-ounce fish caught from Stockton Lake in 1994.
Black bass fishing season in Missouri is closed from March 1 through the fourth Saturday in May on most streams south of the Missouri River, so the catch-and-keep season begins this weekend on the rivers and creeks of Jefferson County.
Many locations have special regulations, including Big River and its tributaries. Smallmouth bass less than 15 inches must be immediately released unharmed. Largemouth bass must be at least 12 inches long to keep. Spotted bass have no length limit on Big River. Anglers may keep up to 12 fish, but only one can be a smallmouth that is at least 15 inches long and no more than six can be largemouth bass.
The Joachim Creek in Jefferson County also has a special regulation area from Highway V to Highway A. Anglers can keep only one smallmouth bass and it must be at least 15 inches long. Six is the daily limit for all black bass on the Joachim.
Most larger lakes in the state also have special length limits on black bass. Be sure to check area regulations when planning a fishing trip.
John Winkelman is Marketing Director for Liguori Publications near Barnhart, Mo., and the Associate Editor for Outdoor Guide Magazine. If you have story ideas to share for the Leader outdoor news page, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow John on Twitter at @johnjwink99.