Judging by the myriad lure options and differing bass fishing techniques, bass eat a big range of things. Fighting to be top of the food pyramid in their natural environment, what a bass eats usually boils down to whatever doesn’t eat them first.
But while those predatory and defensive instincts provide a fun fishing experience for anyone tempted to throw a lure into bass dominated waters, it can get confusing too. Especially when anglers start to ask questions about food preferences in the hope of better targeting fish.
The Bass Diet: Key Information
Understanding what bass eat is an important way of bettering your bass fishing experience and helping you increase your catch rate. In general, usually as the apex predator in their environment, you’ll notice them going for most things. It pays to know how things change across species, seasons and habitats, however.
Adaptable and present in a range of different environments, from lakes and rivers to streams and reservoirs; bass, no matter where they are, survive by dominating the weak or small. For adult bass that could mean feeding off smaller fish like minnows, perch, and sunfish. As well as each other.
Their diet doesn’t only revolve around other species of fish though. Adult bass are also known to eat insects, frogs, crayfish and even small aquatic birds. Basically anything they’re physically able to eat, size of their mouths withstanding.
Bass that are under two inches in length, usually classified as “fry,” are an exception. These fish don’t exhibit predatory behavior and instead feed on insect larvae and plankton until reaching a size adequate enough to go after bigger food sources.
How a bass eats is also an indicator of the overall health of their population. Waters where large numbers of bass grow speedily, healthily, and make it in large numbers through to adulthood can obviously be considered to have rich ecosystems. Fishing these is the bass anglers dream.
From a biologists point of view, bass are opportunistic feeders, eating whatever is in their environment with the common motivator of survival. The bigger the bass, the bigger the prey it will be able to go after and physically swallow. That doesn’t mean, however, that big specimens only go after bigger sized snacks.
Fish experts claim that bass will feed on any size of meal, given that it fits in a bass’ mouth. Analyzing the contents of their stomachs, biologists have found bass to also eat lizards, snakes, baby ducks, and eels.
Possibly one of the biggest takeaways these studies have shown, however, is that there is such a thing as a preferential food source. In their attempts to bolster flagging populations of bass, these experts have seen that there is a preference for soft-bodied fish (like the spineless threadfin shad) more than anything else. Granted the two species live in the same environment.
Seasonally speaking, one thing that’s always on the menu for smaller bass are insects. As a vital food source to young bass, insects (and their larvae) provide an all-year-round meal for fish that are around 8 inches or less in length.
Plankton, as another year-wide food source, provides nourishment for the crappie, bluegill, and shad that the bigger bass feed on. Obviously in summer, with increased light, plankton populations will be on the rise. The knock-on effect is that small fish populations grow larger as a result, with more plankton to go round.
Adult bass, on the other hand, will not usually feed on plants (with the theory being that it’s only consumed by them by accident when eating other sources). They will, however (as they do most things), process it digestively thanks to the acid environments of their stomach.
Whatever preference a bass might have for a certain food source, biologists seem to think that it could come down to nutrients. Specifically key vitamins and minerals they need to grow.
This is illustrative from the example of large-size bass eating madtoms (a small member of the catfish family). Although these fish have three very bone spines, bass will usually go for them even when there’s plenty of other, softer-bodied species, available.
As far as survival and defense go, you’ll also see, judging by all the irregularities of bass fishing lure bodies and trailers, that bass will have no fear taking something that might look out of place in their environment. Naturally curious, they have a behavioral tendency to get up close to whatever might seem alien in the water.
Figuring out why bass want to eat and how can be considered the less frustrating side of learning about this species’ habits. As every bass angler can attest, however, there are sometimes spent fishing when it seems that feeding is the last thing a bass might have in mind. What’s that about?
First things first, rule out the obvious. Is the time of year you’re fishing a prime time for catching bass? Given that bass tend to pre-spawn in the spring when water temperatures are on their rise, it might just be that you’re fishing in a season when so few bass are present in the water.
Fishing for bass in the morning and evening might work better also. Outside of the intensity of sunlight at the heat of the day, bass seem to be more active in their feeding practices. This also appears to be the case in cloudy conditions or muddy waters too.
Something else to be aware of is your lure type too. You’re far more likely to get increased activity with something that resembles prey that actually lives in the environment you’re fishing. Especially if the population of whatever your lure resembles is pretty large at the time of year you plan to fish.
Then there are the times when nothing seems to work. Even after paying attention to a shrinking strike-zone, being more accurate in the cast and taking care to understand and present something that bass are likely to be familiar with. What do you do then?
One of the first recommendations of the pros is to develop an analytical and accepting mindset. Then adjusting your approach accordingly, without panicking.
That might mean changing your rig to go with something that enables you to fish heavy cover. Or slowing down a retrieve and going for a finesse approach rather than power. Downsizing your lures, rotating your location and changing your presentation are all good recommendations too.
A bass motivation to feed is only as good as your motivation to get them to bite. One of the great things about bass fishing is that the onus is on you to figure out how best to make that happen.
Does Diet Differ Between Bass Species?
As we’ve previously discussed, diet can differ a fair amount between different species of fish. When it comes to different bass species, however, specifically those of the largemouth and smallmouth varieties, there are certain parallels.
Telling the difference between the two species, usually done via stripes, scales, fins, and mouth position, is hard to do by diet alone. Both types are predatory and love feeding on whatever is in the water.
The Largemouth Bass Diet
Largemouth bass, that on average live around 16 years, have a fairly long feeding history when it comes to fish. Gifted with a very attuned sense of smell, largemouth are also effective hunters thanks to their strike speed. Easily taking in erstwhile prey from the cover of rocks, grass or the roots and limbs of sunken trees.
Natural prey of the largemouth are generally the same as its smallmouth relative. Both are opportunistic and will go after whatever they feel they can catch.
Some things they won’t go after, however, as long as they’re bigger in size, are pike, walleye, and muskie. For these fish, the largemouth is often on the menu. Unless easier pickings happen to be close by.
The Smallmouth Bass Diet
Smallmouth feed more in regards to their environment compared to largemouth bass. Especially as they’re generally found in clearer and cleaner water, as well as fast-moving waters like rivers and streams. Despite sometimes occupying the same areas, largemouth tend to stay away from these types of waters.
As a result of this difference, their diets can vary somewhat. In cool waters, as well as in winter and autumn seasons, you’ll often find smallmouth feeding on abundant crayfish. In areas where there is a water current insects will be popular too.
Perhaps the biggest difference in the way both species feed can be seen when smallmouth occupy fast-moving water. Here their behavior changes somewhat as they turn from roving predator to sneaky bottomfeeder. Even turning over rocks and other obstacles to shake out crayfish, insect nymphs and whatever else might turn out to be hiding.
In the summer you’ll also see smallmouth feeding on prey that live between rocks like darters and sculpins. Insect hatches are also rife at this time of year providing a further food source.
Diet According to Habitat
Where a bass lives has a lot to do with what it eats also. Bass living in big open water, like lakes and reservoirs, will tend to have a broader diet than fish in smaller or fast moving bodies of water. That’s because the added size brings greater variety.
Bass across the continent will have varied diets too. Those in the north, used to colder waters, will probably be more used to small fish that thrive outside of warmer temperatures. Those in the south could be more prone to crayfish, worms, and insects. Especially given the longer summers.
Fishing outside of the US, you’ll also find bass have similar diets in that they’ll generally eat whatever is native to the water. This adaptability is one of the main reasons why bass stand up as one of the world’s most popular game fish.
Selecting Lures Based on Feeding Habits
Having spent some time discussing the feeding habits of bass and how they might differ between species, habitat and season, it’s probably best to discuss how you can use this knowledge in your angling.
Understanding how bass feed can help you better tailor your lure and line presentations and help you bring in more fish. Knowing that they’re predatory, it makes sense then to always have some kind of lure body or trailer that resembles something living or wounded. Even better if you can model it on what’s available and what the bass might be feeding on in the water you’re fishing.
Possibly the best approach to take is to do some investigation on the area you plan to fish. What fish can you visibly see in the water? What are other fishermen having success with? How are bass most likely to feed given the temperature, conditions and water type?
After piecing together some of what’s happening on the area you’re hoping to fish, it’s time to then pay more attention to lure choices. If you’re fishing fast water you’re likely to need a heavier line so that the water won’t run with your lure too much and make the presentation look unnatural. That narrows down your choices with lures also. As you’ll have to use something that fits the line.
Still water areas like lakes and reservoirs leave you more open in terms of lure choice. Here you can try lures like jigs, crankbaits, soft-body worms, and tubes, experimenting until something really sticks out in terms of both yours and the bass’ preference.
In water where there are a lot of minnow or shad, it’s going to make sense to choose a lure body that mimics that species. In colder water, you might want a soft-body lure that mimics a crayfish or worm. It’s mainly about matching what the usual food source is to how your lure looks and moves.
As for what happens when the bass aren’t biting? Then it might be time to try something a little more out there. Something that’s brightly colored, multi-jointed or has a wild trailer. Also, consider your technique. If you’re power fishing in quiet water where fish are easily spooked, the sensible thing would be to change tact first thing rather than your lure type.
One of the fun things about bass fishing is that there’s no hard and fast rule about what lure type to use and how. Due to bass not being fussy with what they eat, you might be surprised about the types and appearance of lures that deliver good results. It’s almost as if anything goes.
But while you deliver angling preferences over time, based on what you learn and understand in terms of what bass eat, it’s important to remain open-minded. Just like the bass themselves, it pays to be adaptable.
That’s something to seriously bear in mind should you wish to survive and make traction in the sport.