|Family overview: The temperate basses are also called the “true” basses or “sea” basses. In Pennsylvania, the temperate basses are represented by three species and one hatchery-created hybrid: The white perch, white bass, striped bass and the striped bass hybrid. The hybrid is a cross between a white bass and a striped bass. The temperate bass family, known to science as the Moronidae, includes species in North America, Europe and North Africa. They are medium-sized to large-sized active predators and favorite trophy and sport fishes. Some species live in fresh water and others are anadromous, which means that they spend much of their life in salt or brackish water but return to fresh water to spawn. Temperate basses are
found in Pennsylvania mainly along the lower Delaware River, in Lake Erie and in the Ohio River watershed, and as introductions to some of the larger reservoirs.
General identification: The temperate basses are deep-bodied fish when viewed from the side, and narrow, or compressed, when viewed from the front. They are silvery and most have dark horizontal stripes on their sides. The scales are large and rough to the touch. All temperate basses have a spine on the outer rear part of the gill cover, and an area of gill-like, secretion-emitting tissue under the surface of the gill cover. They have two dorsal fins, the first with about nine spines, the second with one spine and 11 to 14 soft rays. Temperate basses have three anal spines, a large mouth and a forked tail. The striped bass grows large. Pennsylvania’s angling record is over 50 pounds. The white perch and white bass can grow to some 15 inches, a bit larger in the case of white bass, and weigh several pounds. The striped bass hybrid is a fast-growing sport fish whose length and weight fall between those of its parents.
Life history: All of the temperate basses are school fish, traveling and feeding in groups. They forage on smaller fishes, especially alewives, gizzard shad and smelt, following the little fish up from the depths to just below the water’s surface at night. The temperate basses also spawn in schools. Large numbers move from their saltwater or brackish water homes, or from large impoundments, into streams or onto underwater shoals in the spring. The eggs of white perch and white bass stick to vegetation or rock rubble. Striped bass eggs are semi-buoyant and drift downstream. In the large waterways in which they live, the temperate basses are usually top-level predator fish.
Species overview: Although the white perch has “perch” in its common name, it does not look like, nor is it closely related to, the yellow perch. The white perch is a temperate bass native to the Atlantic Coast of North America, from Nova Scotia to North Carolina. It also occurs in Lake Ontario and the non-Pennsylvania portion of Lake Erie. In Pennsylvania, white perch are in the lower Delaware River and its estuary, where salt water mixes with fresh water, and in the lower Susquehanna River. They are also becoming more common in Lake Erie since colonization this century. Unfortunately, populations have been established in several southeastern Pennsylvania waters by illegal stocking.
Identification: White perch are silvery chunky-bodied fish, about 2 1/2 or three times as long as they are deep, not counting the tail. Their two dorsal fins are separated by a tiny notch. The first dorsal fin has nine spines. The second has one spine and 12 soft rays. The anal fin has three spines and eight or 10 soft rays. The ventral fins have a spine on the leading edge. When young, white perch may look like striped bass, showing lateral dark stripes. The adult white perch has no stripes, or very faint, interrupted ones. The white perch’s back varies from olive-brown to blackish green, shading to paler silvery-green on the sides, and silver-white on the belly. The fins are dusky.
Habitat: The white perch can tolerate a wide range of salinity, living in fresh water, landlocked lakes, brackish backwaters and bays, and fullfledged salt water. It is especially at home in ponds connected to the sea.
Life history: White perch are gregarious school fish with seasonal movements. In the spring they migrate upstream from brackish estuaries to spawn in freshwater runs and tributaries. Then they go back to the deeper, saltier water for fall and winter. They are haphazard about spawning, but have great fertility and spawning success. When white perch spawn, the females and males chase one another in open water, milling about and splashing. The males release milt without pairing with specific females. The females extrude thousands of tiny eggs, about 150,000 for a one-pound fish. The eggs stick to anything they touch and hatch in less than five days. White perch populations fluctuate, but they do not seem to be affected by angling pressure because they are very capable of replenishing their numbers. White perch may overpopulate waters and become stunted and slow-growing. Illegal releases of this species have upset the natural balance of fish communities in several southeastern Pennsylvania lakes.
White perch average eight to 10 inches long and less than a pound, but in brackish water they can grow to 15 inches or so and about two pounds. They have a long lifespan, and fish 12 years old are not uncommon. Their diet varies with the season. White perch eat bottomdwelling insect larvae in the winter and early spring. Then during the warmer months they consume large burrowing mayflies, crustaceans, water fleas and small fish. They seldom go into very shallow water, where minnows are abundant, but remain in deep water by day and near shore at sundown. In marine habitats, white perch eat small fish, squid, crabs and shrimp.
Species overview: The white bass is a freshwater fish, with its largest populations in the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River system. In Pennsylvania the white bass is native to the western counties, especially Lake Erie and the Ohio River watershed. Its species name “chrysops” refers to the fish’s golden eye.
Identification: The white bass is a medium-sized fish, silvery, with an arched look to its back. The maximum size is about 18 to 20 inches, with a two- or three-pounder a trophy. The more usual size is one-half to about two pounds. White bass have a deep body, compressed laterally. The back is blue-gray or steel-gray. The base color of the sides is silvery-white to silvery pale-green, with a yellow tinge on the lower edge. The body is marked with four to seven gray-brown or black horizontal stripes, not as distinct as the stripes of the striped bass. The two dorsal fins are separated by a notch, and the anal fin has three spines and 12 to 13 soft rays. The eye is yellow and the dorsal and caudal fins are clear to gray. White bass have teeth in a patch on the base of the tongue, unlike the white perch, which has a thin band of teeth around the front edge of its tongue. The white bass’s mouth is basslike. The lower jaw projects beyond the upper jaw.
Habitat: White bass inhabit large lakes and small to large rivers. They prefer water that is relatively clear, and they rarely maintain a population in lakes less than 300 acres. Prime white bass habitat includes extensive water acreage deeper than 10 feet, and gravelly shoals or rock- rubble reefs on which the fish can spawn. In recent years, white bass fishing has been exceptional at the Allegheny Reservoir, Warren County.
Life history: White bass are school fish, spawning, feeding and traveling in compact groups. In late April to early June, schools of white bass migrate to spawn over rocky or gravelly shoals, either going to that habitat in a lake or traveling upstream in a river to reach it. The bass appear to return to the same spawning site each spring. Spawning takes place near the surface in six or seven feet of water, at 58 to 64 degrees. The females release 25,000 to one million minute eggs into the current, accompanied by several spawning males. The eggs are adhesive, drifting to the bottom and sticking to the stones. They hatch in two or three days. Successful hatching depends on favorable conditions of current or wave action, and temperature. White bass produce abundant year-classes intermittently. Spawning success and year-class survival usually depend on a variety of environmental conditions.
Young white bass quickly show their schooling tendencies, drifting in large groups and eating zooplankton. As they grow they switch to larger prey, like aquatic insects, crustaceans and their primary food, fish, especially consuming schooling forage fish like gizzard shad. White bass show several daily peaks in feeding activity, which vary seasonally. They retire to deeper water by day and swim toward shallower water at nightfall. Aggressive feeders, white bass may make a great commotion on the surface when they attack a school of forage fish or during spawning activities, a tip-off to anglers of this fish’s presence.
Species overview. In their native habitat, the Atlantic Coast from the St. Lawrence River to Florida and some tributaries of the Gulf of Mexico, the striped bass is a true anadromous fish, living in salt water but traveling to fresh water to spawn. Through stocking, striped bass have reached the West Coast. Striped bass can also live entirely in fresh water as a landlocked form that cannot reach the sea. In Pennsylvania, striped bass are found in the Delaware River, and historically had been found throughout the Susquehanna River, the fish traveling upstream from the Chesapeake Bay. Dams on the Susquehanna had blocked the striped bass upstream migration to spawning grounds, but fish lifts, or fishways, on the dams should soon make access possible to the middle Susquehanna for this and other anadromous fishes. Striped bass have also been stocked in several of Pennsylvania’s large inland reservoirs, with an especially good fishery having developed in Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County.
Striped bass are valuable food fish, as well as much sought-after sport fish. Striped bass provided an important food source for the Plymouth colonists, who as early as 1623, netted enough of the fish to support themselves during the summer months. Captain John Smith wrote of the excellent eating qualities of striped bass. The seagoing stripers along the Atlantic Coast occur in definite “races,” or stocks, different from one another but not so much to be called subspecies, depending on where their home range is located.
When the Santee River in South Carolina was impounded during the 1940s, the striped bass present there produced a population that adapted to a freshwater landlocked existence. Offspring and subsequent generations of these fish have been stocked in many inland waters, reservoirs and the rivers that run into them throughout North America.
South of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, fishermen call stripers “rockfish.” Their species name “saxatilis” means “dwelling among rocks.”
Identification: The striped bass has a smoothly arched profile, slimmer and more streamlined than a striped bass hybrid, until it reaches a weight of five to 10 pounds, when its body becomes heavy-looking. The back is olive-green to steely blue-gray, sometimes almost black. The sides are silvery to pale silvery-green, shading to white on the belly. There are seven or eight distinct dark stripes that run laterally on the side of the body. Striped bass have two dorsal fins, the front spiny-rayed, the second mostly soft-rayed, separated by a notch. The back of the tongue has two tooth 127 patches, unlike the white bass, which has one tooth patch at the base of its tongue. There are three spines and 11 soft rays on the anal fin, with the longest of these spines less than half the height of the anal fin. Young striped bass do not have dark lateral stripes, but instead have dusky bars.
Striped bass catches in the 15- to 20-pound range are not uncommon in Pennsylvania. For sea-living striped bass, sizes in excess of 100 pounds have been reported. The Pennsylvania state records both for marine and landlocked striped bass are over 50 pounds.
Habitat: Striped bass live in salt water, in brackish estuaries and in fresh water. Migratory forms travel from the ocean or saltwater bays into freshwater rivers, above tidal influence, to spawn. Landlocked forms of striped bass live in large reservoirs as roaming, mid-water schools. Significant lengths of flowing water are needed for successful spawning, sufficient to keep eggs suspended before hatching.
Life history: From their saltwater homes, striped bass migrate upstream in the spring to spawn, traveling into the mouths of large freshwater rivers. Over stony riffles, several males chase a large female in what appears to be a battle, but it is actually frantic spawning antics and frenzied swimming–the striped bass’s courtship and spawning ritual. Male striped bass become mature at about two years of age, with the females usually ready to spawn in their fourth year, when they are 18 to 24 inches long. At all ages, the females are larger and heavier than the males. Water temperature signals spawning time, with some spawning occurring at 55 degrees, but most at 60 to 67 degrees. Young females may release just 65,000 eggs.
Striped bass eggs are greenish and somewhat buoyant. After they are released, the eggs drift freely with the current until they hatch, usually in two or three days. Flowing water is critical to the success of striped bass spawning. That helps explain why there is no reproduction or little natural reproduction of the fish when they are confined to inland lakes. Striped bass eggs that sink to the bottom die, because they become covered with silt or because of other factors. Just-hatched striped bass grow rapidly and stay in brackish bays at the end of their downstream float. Juveniles spend their first and second summers in the tidal Delaware River with most inhabitating that area from the Schuylkill River downstream into the state of Delaware. After several years in these “nursery areas,” the adult striped bass become free-ranging along the Atlantic Coast.
Marine striped bass make two migrations, one for spawning. The other, in fish two years old or older, occurs when a small percentage move out of their wintering areas, like the Chesapeake and Delaware bays, and travel north along the coast to New England and southern Canada. There they mingle with northern populations of striped bass during the summer. Then most return to their winter quarters. In reservoirs, the landlocked freshwater striped bass move according to temperature and dissolved oxygen in the lake, favoring cooler arms of the impoundment during the hot summer.
Striped bass feed on just about anything alive that is available. They are a top-level carnivore whether found in salt water or fresh water. Young striped bass eat microcrustaceans, or zooplankton, and midge larvae. As they grow, their diet changes to large crustaceans, mollusks and especially other fish. As adults, striped bass live in roving schools, feeding mostly at night. When chasing forage fish near the surface, the splashing and slashing make a spectacular display. Substantial increases in abundance of striped bass have occurred in the Delaware River since the mid-1980s because of improved river water quality and harvest restrictions.
Striped Bass Hybrid
Morone saxatilis x Morone chrysops
Species overview: The striped bass hybrid is a hatchery-created cross between a white bass and a striped bass. It is stocked primarily because it tolerates warmer water than the purebred striped bass, which, as it grows older and larger, requires well-oxygenated water during the summer. In Pennsylvania it is stocked mostly in the western part of the state, in reservoirs such as Lake Arthur and Shenango Lake, and in the big-river area of the Ohio and Allegheny rivers near Pittsburgh. Here the hybrid typically grows larger than the white bass. Fisheries managers in the state do not tend to stock the striped bass hybrid in lakes and rivers that lead to Delaware or Chesapeake bays to minimize the chance of the hybrids mixing and reproducing with wild marine striped bass.
Identification: The hybrid striped bass’s body is stockier than that of a pure striped bass, and its lateral stripes are discontinuous and less distinct. Its back is dark, almost black. Its sides are silvery, with seven or eight faint and broken-looking lateral stripes, and its belly is white. The anal fin has 11 or 12 rays, and there are two tooth patches on the rear of its tongue. In size it grows to a length and weight midway between its parents. A 10- or 12-pounder is considered a big one.
Habitat: The striped bass hybrid is stocked in larger reservoirs and slow rivers, where there are open-water forage fish like gizzard shad and alewives.
Life history: The striped bass hybrid is fast-growing, which is typical of hybrids. It is generally sterile, and can be stocked instead of the purebred striped bass into waters to avoid the purebred’s potential of reproducing too prolifically and outstripping its food source. However, occasionally fertile striped bass hybrids have occurred, and some states have reported the hybrid back-crossing with the white bass. Striped bass hybrids feast on forage fish as adults.