One of New York’s most overlooked game fish, rock bass live in rivers, lakes and streams all over the state. Rock bass are chunky, medium-sized sunfish that typically reach 6 to 10 inches in length and have large mouths and huge red eyes, earning them the nicknames “red-eye” and “goggle-eye.” Rock bass are generally mottled dark brown, and can become lighter or darker to blend in with their surroundings.
Habits and Habitat
True to their name, rock bass gravitate to rocky and gravelly areas in lakes and rivers, often sharing habitat with smallmouth bass. Rock bass often strike baits intended for smallmouths, earning themselves a reputation as a nuisance fish among some anglers. They prefer clear water, and are generally found less than 15 feet deep in lakes and reservoirs. In rivers, they are most common along steep rocky shorelines, around bridge abutments and in deep pools, especially where fast-moving water spills into a deeper area.
Rock bass spawn in late May to early June in New York, often just after black bass and just before other sunfish. They dig out nests on flats with gravel or muck bottoms, and unlike sunfish they rarely spawn in colonies, instead keeping their nests separated in the manner of bass. They defend their nests vigorously, and readily strike baits and lures that enter their territory.
Rock bass are predatory in nature, and generally hunt by hiding in rocky crevasses and ambushing minnows, crayfish and invertebrates that pass by. They can be caught at any time of day, but often feed most heavily at dawn and dusk. Live baits typically elicit vicious strikes from rock bass, and are most successful when fished within a foot or two of bottom. Artificial lures can often be just as productive. Small jigs tipped with tubes, curlytail grubs and other small soft plastics are some of the best lures. Natural colors like green pumpkin, junebug and watermelon seem to be just as effective as outlandish shades like chartreuse and hot pink.
Lakes and rivers all over New York State contain rock bass, but several waters stand out. The Finger Lakes, including Conesus, Seneca and Canandaigua lakes contain ample rock bass populations. Chautauqua and Oneida lakes are also productive, but New York’s most prolific rock bass factories may be the Great Lakes. Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River offer an abundance of rocky drop-offs, reefs, rip-rap shorelines and piers which harbor rock bass in astonishing numbers.
As always, you must have a New York fishing license to fish for rock bass. These fish are unregulated in most waters, however, so you can catch and keep as many as you want, at any size, at any time of the year.