Rock me Gently...By: Tim Allard
Tied on the end of the line is my favourite crankbait. In my 7-year-old mind, there's nothing it can't catch. It's like kryptonite for anything with fins. I fire out a cast and slowly retrieve the bait as it wiggles over rocks and wobbles beside waving weeds. It passes a boulder and a flash streaks out from the structure to smash the crankbait.
"Got one," I holler to my brother. The fish darts sideways. Spastic head shakes telegraph up my line, amplified by the noodle-rod's tip. I gain ground with the reel and soon crane in the panfish. Large red eyes stare at me as I use pliers to remove the treble hooks.
"What is it?" my brother asks.
"Rock bass," I reply, as I gently plop the fish back into the water.
That day was one of many on summer weekends my brother and I spent shore-fishing for panfish. Back then, the next best thing to catching an elusive smallmouth was rod wrestling with a feisty rock bass.
Twenty-five years have gone by and I'm at a kid's fishing derby. Rock bass are as popular as ever with tykes scurrying along the shoreline. Although the redeyes I caught as a child have long since passed on, their progeny continue to hook the next generation on angling.
Unfortunately, for all their tenacity once hooked, rock bass are underrated. If there were a magical place in our province that held 5-pound-plus rockies, I'd go in a heartbeat to wet a line. Aggressiveness aside, rock bass are also delicious in the pan. So, let's take some time to celebrate this small, but spunky, centrarchid.
Rooting out Rockies
The typical habitat of these fish, as their name implies, is rocky areas, whether in shallow pools in a small river or along a lakeshore. Weed growth and wood cover will boost the area's appeal to these diminutive bass.
Ever on the lookout for wind-blown terrestrial insects to fall on the water, a significant population of rock bass is often within casting distance from shore, making them perfect for kids to target off cottage docks or public-access points. But, rock bass aren't limited to the shallows.
Come late summer, I've had good success fishing hard-bottomed points and tapering flats in 10- to 25 feet of water. Over the years, I've stumbled on these deeper and usually larger rock bass when downsizing for smallmouth or walleye. Since this discovery, I often keep an ultralight rod in the boat. Landing a couple of rockies on this gear is a good way to lighten the intensity that sometimes creeps into us when chasing more popular sport fish. Rock bass suffer from "small-fish syndrome," if you will, but always give it their all once hooked to prove they're worthy of their "bass" name. On ultralight tackle, a tug-of-war with one is always exciting.
A Bait Smorgasbord
There's no shortage of presentations that can be used to hook rock bass. Rarely discriminating, these aggressive fish grab pretty much anything they can get their mouths around. Here are a few of my favourite baits from over the years of fishing for rockies.
When it comes to starting a youngster on rockies, nothing beats a bobber and worm. Part of the fun from my early angling years was searching the yard at dark with a flashlight and collecting night crawlers for bait. Of course, you can buy worms at bait and tackle shops and sometimes corner gas stores. Other options are artif icial soft baits. Keep things simple: a bait hook, split shot, a small float, and some bait are all you need to catch rock bass.
These days, I leave the night crawlers at home, but still use a float and jig setup for shallow spring and summer panfishing. The float's weight lets you toss baits a good distance and you can tweak the running depth of the jig by sliding your bobber-stop or fixed float up or down the line. Remember to occasionally twitch the bobber to make the jig come alive. Rock bass often hit hard and run with jigs, so strikes are signalled easily by a sinking or moving float.
Panfish jigs in 1/32- to 1/16-ounce are best for shallow water. Hair, tinsel, and feather jigs are ideal when the action is fast and furious, as they take more abuse than plastic-bodied jigs - and rock bass will abuse your baits. This said, the gliding or spiralling fall of a tube jig really appeals to rockies. Shad, minnow, and twister-tailed plastics are also good jig-body options.
I'm also a fan of swimming jigs in the shallows for rock bass. With an ultralight rod and 4-pound-test line you can toss these tiny baits a good distance. Count down the bait for a few seconds and then begin twitching the rod as you slowly reel in line. You cover a lot of water this way and can watch rockies chase your offering. More often than not, one will dart forward and crack the jig – proof once again that these fish rarely back down from anything potentially edible.
The Fast Track
As noted earlier, using small crankbaits and minnowbaits to work shallowwater rock bass is effective. With f loating crankbaits you can pause, raise, and run them around obstacles. Using crankbaits is also a good way to bypass smaller panfish and target bigger rock bass. Just bear in mind most hard baits are clad with treble hooks, so if fishing with youngsters, be sure to help remove hooks from fish.
Topwaters can also be an exciting way to catch rock bass. Toss these baits along shallow rocky shorelines and bring them in on a twitch-pause retrieve. These small bass can easily take down a 2-inch topwater, and will even hit much larger lures.
Fun on the Fly
On a 4- to 5-weight fly rod, rock bass put up an aggressive scrap. Their abundance also makes them the perfect targets for beginners to use to hone their fly-fishing skills. Tossing a floating grasshopper or a small popper near shorelines and rocky shallow flats is a favourite fly-fishing technique for rockies. They can also be fooled with streamers and wet flies such as a muddler minnow or a woolly worm.
Rods for Tots
An ice-fishing combo is an alternative to a kid's fishing rod for open-water panfishing. Light, short, and easy to handle, winter rods are great for dock fishing.
The aggressive rock bass is responsible for getting countless children hooked on a lifelong passion for angling, myself included. This summer, occasionally shift your fishing focus to these red-eyed scrappers. Whether you're alone, with a friend, or introducing a youngster to fishing, rock bass have a way of putting an infectious smile on everyone's faces. Enjoy the grin and fish for them more often.