Rhode Island Freshwater Fishing
A Year round Fishery: Catching Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass in Rhode Island
By Tommy Thompson and Corey Pelletier, Fisheries Biologists
Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) and Smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieui) are not native to Rhode Island waters and were first introduced from the Great Lakes area following the Civil War. Both species are highly prized as game fish and are keenly sought after for their fight and often aerial acrobatics. There are several factors contributing to the success of catching largemouth and smallmouth bass but they can be caught by anglers of varied experience. Some factors include seasonal patterns, time of day, weather conditions, water body, fishing pressure, forage species and feeding behavior. Our focus will be on Rhode Island waters and some of the same patterns can be applied to other water bodies regionally.
Understanding the movement of bass over the seasons can greatly increase your chances of becoming a better bass angler. Largemouth bass spawning occurs in early June in Rhode Island waters once the water temperature climbs above 60F. Smallmouth bass spawning usually occurs in late May and early June once again when the water temperatures reach into the low 60’s. Female largemouth and smallmouth bass in Rhode Island spawn at a minimum age of 3 years and are capable of producing 2,000 to 7,000 eggs per pound of body weight. Male bass are territorial and will guard their nests protecting their young for up to 30 days where they then move to deeper water. Generally, both species have similar feeding habits and feed heavily in the late spring into the fall, with decline in feeding during the winter and early spring months.
Forage species vary greatly between water bodies so identifying the local forage and mimicking those with artificial baits or live bait can greatly increase the success of an angler. Largemouth bass can eat virtually any prey item available and the prey can be as large as 50% of the bass’s body length or larger. Small baitfish, crawfish, frogs, shiners, bluegill, salamanders, snakes, small water birds, mammals, and even smaller largemouth bass make up a largemouth bass’s diet. Smallmouth bass prefer baitfish, crawfish, aquatic insects, tadpoles, small mice, frogs and small birds.
Fishing for both species of bass varies from season to season and both can be caught on a wide variety of lures. Popular choices for largemouth bass are spinnerbaits, jerkbaits, crankbaits, top-water lures, jigs, swimbaits, buzzbaits, soft plastic worm, frogs and lizards. Some lure choices for smallmouth bass are curly tail grubs, jigs, spoons, spinners, crankbaits, top-water lures, lipless crankbaits, jerkbaits, soft plastic tubes and worms. During the hot summer months, daytime feeding activity slows down, making early morning and nighttime the prime times for targeting bass. Winters in Rhode Island vary greatly year to year and during some winter months, the potential for ice fishing can be a great way to cure cabin fever and catch some quality bass on tilts and live shiners. The state record largemouth bass for Massachusetts was actually caught while ice fishing. Our previous Rhode Island state record largemouth bass weighing 10.4 pounds was broken in 2016 with an impressive 11.2-pound fish. The long-standing state record smallmouth bass remains at 5.9 pound for the past 40 years.
There are over 80 different lakes, ponds, and rivers in Rhode Island that the largemouth bass inhabits, whereas the smallmouth bass are only found in a handful of water bodies. Some of the more productive smallmouth bass waters in Rhode Island are Stafford Pond, Indian Lake, Watchaug Pond, Beach Pond, Wallum Lake, Pawtuxet River and Blackstone River. Smallmouth bass characteristically prefer cooler, deeper, and clearer water than their cousins, in areas that have gravel bottom, rocks, and boulders. Largemouth bass typically prefer ponds of shallow to moderate depths and slightly stained to murky waters, in areas that have cover such as stumps, boulders, tree branches, docks, lily pads and aquatic vegetation.
Rhode Island DEM Division of Fish and Wildlife conducts surveys throughout the year for largemouth and smallmouth bass to monitor populations and catch rates. The primary survey methods include electrofishing and angler tournament sampling. Electrofishing involves the usage of a uniquely designed boat, designed to apply an electrical charge to the water surrounding the bow of the boat. This electric field briefly stuns fish allowing for staff to collect them with a net. They are then placed in a live well for length and weight measurements and scale sample collection for age analysis. The fish are then safely released back into the water. Angler bass tournaments are another useful source of data used for management purposes. Fish and Wildlife staff attends private catch and release bass tournaments and collects length and weight measurements, and scale samples as a harmless source of essential data collection. Data collected during these surveys are extremely valuable for management decision making. These data are used to determine catch rates, regulation of catch sizes and limits along with overall health of the water body.
Although a small state, Rhode Island has some excellent freshwater resources that provide home to healthy populations of largemouth and smallmouth bass. From small backwoods ponds to large lakes with state maintained boat ramps, bass can be caught within a short drive from anywhere within the state. As a year-round fishing opportunity, a basic understanding of the seasonal patterns and feeding habits of largemouth and smallmouth bass can make the biggest difference in fishing success.
Largemouth Bass Virus
RIDEM, in collaboration with the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, first began testing bass from Rhode Island lakes and ponds in 2006 for Largemouth Bass Virus (LMBV). To date, only three sites in Rhode Island have tested positive for LMBV: Olney Pond in Lincoln Woods State Park (2011), Echo Lake in Pascoag (2014), and Watchaug in Charlestown Pond (2016).
The virus itself is specific to bass and does not impact any other species of fish. Common symptoms of the virus include hyper-buoyancy, spiral swimming and lethargy, which are attributed to damage to the swim bladder. Infected fish may not exhibit any signs of the virus until it is activated by stressful environmental conditions such as high water temperatures, low oxygen levels, droughts, secondary injuries, or bacterial infections. These are conditions that could trigger LMBV and potentially cause fish kills. While fish health biologists have indicated that LMBV is a naturally-occurring fish virus that does not pose a human health risk for people who eat or handle infected fish, all freshwater fish should be thoroughly cooked before being consumed.
DEM’s Division of Fish and Wildlife advises anglers to minimize the spread of LMBV by not transplanting bass from one water body to another*; draining, cleaning and drying boats, motors and fishing gear between each use; not releasing bait fish into any water body*; minimizing the stress to bass caught and released as much as possible during periods of high water temperatures; and reporting all fish kills to the Department at (401) 222-3070. DEM and its federal partners will continue to test Rhode Island lakes and ponds for LMBV.
*As a reminder, transplanting any fish species from one body of water to another or releasing bait fish is prohibited.