Choctaw Bass

By Carolee Anita Boyles

FWC biologists discover what will be a new bass species.
Cool, clear rivers of North Florida hold several basses, including the recently identified Choctaw bass.

When Chris Paxton, Regional Fisheries Administrator for the Northwest Regional Office of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) went out last fall to sample black bass in several north Florida streams, he didn’t know he was going to come back with a new species of bass.

“We were investigating hybridization that’s occurring in the Chipola River between the shoal bass and spotted bass,” Paxton said. “The spotted bass isn’t native to Florida, but over time has come down through the Flint River.” Since the spotted bass and the shoal bass have hybridized in Georgia, FWC biologists want to find out whether Florida has the last genetically “pure” population of shoal bass remaining.

When Paxton and biologist Katie Woodside submitted fin clippings from some of the fish they sampled to FWC geneticist Mike Tringali, Tringali found that they were from a heretofore unknown species of black bass, tentatively named the Choctaw bass (Micropterus haiaka).

At this point, little is known about the Choctaw bass.

“We don’t know its population or its range,” Paxton said. “We know it occurs west of the Chipola River, in the Apalachicola system, but we don’t know how extensive they are. There are a lot of unanswered questions, and a lot of research still to be done. ”Before the FWC can establish management goals for the species or keep Big Catch and other records, it must be accepted and approved by the scientific community as a new species. It’s a complex process that takes months or even years; biologists expect it to be complete by late 2013 or early 2014.

At this time, Choctaw bass are subject to the same regulations as all other black bass. Biologists are not concerned about the impact fishing may have on the species should bass anglers choose to target them.

“Most bass anglers are catch and release anglers,” Paxton said. “We’ve seen local anglers with the fish over time, and it seems to be thriving.”

Although it’s too soon for FWC to start maintaining records for the Choctaw bass, biologists are discussing what will be done.

The Choctaw bass is very similar to the spotted bass, shown here.

“Florida manages its black bass in the aggregate, and this species will become part of that aggregate,” Tringali said. “The other management and conservation issues that surround this fish deal with the longstanding practice of anglers moving bass around. Our concern is that this fish doesn’t get moved around, nor that spotted bass or Alabama bass or any other basses be brought into its natural range. The result would be interspecific hybridization, which often leads to either the genetic replacement or assimilation of the native species.”

Simply put, if anglers move Choctaw bass around or move other bass into their range, the risk is that the Choctaw bass eventually will be bred out of existence.

Besides the Choctaw bass, Florida has four other species of black bass. The largemouth (Micropterus salmoides) is indisputably the premiere black bass in Florida. The main characteristics that separate it from other bass is that the upper jaw extends beyond the rear edge of the eye and the first and second dorsal fins have a deep dip between them. The documented state record fish was in excess of 27 pounds.

The shoal bass (Micropterus cataractae) is a quite a bit smaller than the largemouth; state record for this species is slightly under 8 pounds. As the name suggests, shoal bass like shoals where rivers are dropping in elevation. Sometimes called the redeye bass, this fish has dorsal fins that are connected,
and its upper jaw doesn’t extend past the eye. The shoal bass doesn’t have the dark lateral band that the largemouth has, but has “tiger” stripes on its sides. Although the shoal bass historically has been found in the Apalachicola River, few are found there today. The best place to find shoal bass now is in the Chipola River.

Compared to even the shoal bass, the spotted bass (Micropterus punctulatus) is small; state record is less than four pounds. The spotted bass has a clear connection between its first and second dorsal fins and an upper jaw that doesn’t extend past the eye. As its name implies, it has spots on its sides; it prefers smaller, slow-flowing rivers and streams with rock or gravel substrate. It’s native throughout the Gulf states and up into the Mid-Atlantic states.

The Suwannee bass (Micropterus notius) is another small bass that rarely grows longer than 12 inches; the state record is less than four pounds. Mature fish show bright turquoise coloring on the belly, breast and cheeks, and then have a shallow dip between the dorsal fins. The Suwannee bass originally was found in only the Suwannee and Ochlocknee river systems, but it’s been moved to a number of other northwest
river systems. It prefers fast-moving water in rocky areas. FS

First Published Florida Sportsman October 2013