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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Ky’s fourth species of Black Bass a mystery limited to Cumberland headwaters

Anglers across Kentucky are intimately familiar with the largemouth, smallmouth and spotted (Kentucky) bass.

These three black bass species are found in most of the streams and reservoirs in the state’s nine major river systems — the Tennessee, Cumberland, Tradewater, Green, Salt, Kentucky, Licking, Little Sandy and Big Sandy.

But the state’s fourth species of black bass is something of a mystery fish.

Kentucky’s fourth species of black bass, the redeye bass, has a very restricted distribution in Kentucky. (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

The redeye bass (Micropterus coosae), first identified from specimens taken in Georgia and Alabama in 1940, is a species similar in appearance to the spotted bass, but has a very restricted distribution in Kentucky.

Author William M. Clay wrote in The Fishes of Kentucky that “the first records of this species (in Kentucky) are from Martin’s Fork of the Cumberland River, Harlan County, where is was taken (sampled) on three occasions during July and August of 1961 by a field party of Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) biologists.”

He further noted that “there are no earlier reports of its occurrence in the Cumberland River or elsewhere in Kentucky…it may be that this population is a relict which has found asylum here above the Cumberland Falls.”

But in a 2005 news release from KDFWR the mystery was solved, when it was reported that the redeye bass in Kentucky are “an isolated population that was introduced into the Martin’s Fork (of the Cumberland River) drainage in the early 1950s.”

Size and Coloration

The redeye bass is an elongate, slender fish with a large mouth, whose jaw bone extends to or slightly behind the rear margin of the eye.

Its back and sides are generally olive to brown with darker brown mottling. The belly is pearl to gray, with longitudinal rows of black dots that resemble bars.

Its eyes are red and a small tooth patch is present on the tongue. The upper and lower margins of the caudal fin are edged in white.

The dorsal fin contains on average about 10 spines, the anal fin three spines.

Breeding males may take on a light bluish-green color on their lower head and throat.

Geographic Range/Distribution in Kentucky

The redeye bass is native to the Coosa River drainage in Georgia and Alabama. It is at home in cool streams and rivers in the foothills of mountains.

Martin’s Fork supports Kentucky’s only population of redeye bass. (Photo from Harlan County tourism)

In Kentucky, the redeye bass is found only in Martin’s Fork of the Cumberland River, which arises in Bell County, in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, and flows northeastward along the border with Virginia.

This headwater tributary eventually merges with the Poor Fork, near Harlan, Kentucky, to create the Cumberland River, which flows for 695 miles to the Ohio River, at Smithland.

In 1979, Martin’s Fork was impounded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, creating a 340-acre reservoir. Martin’s Fork Lake, bisected by Ky-987 and is in Smith, which is southwest of Cawood in Harlan County.

Food Habits

Redeye bass eat aquatic insects, crustaceans, and small minnows.

Kentucky State Record

The Kentucky state record redeye bass weighed 1.21 pounds and was caught by Seth Goodwin, of Smith, Kentucky, on May 25, 2013 from the Martin’s Fork of the Cumberland River.

In Kentucky, there’s a six-fish daily creel limit on redeye bass, singly or combined with other black bass species, and like the spotted bass, there’s no minimum size limit.

KDFWR has reported that the redeye bass was introduced in the state in the early 1950s. (Photo from Ky Tourism)

The redeye bass is a member of family Centrarchidae, the sunfish family, which includes 18 species of fish in Kentucky.

Growing to a maximum reported overall length of about 19 inches, the redeye bass is one of the smaller black basses.

The likely world record for redeye bass weighed 5 pounds, 2 1/2 ounces, caught from Lake Jocassee, in South Carolina.

But because the redeye bass so closely resembles the shoal bass (Micropterus cataractae), there are uncertainties in the record books.

In 2013, the redeye bass was split into five separate species.

Micropterus coosae is restricted to the Coosa River system.

The other recognized species, which were formerly considered subspecies, are:

• Micropterus cahabae of the Cahaba River system in Alabama.

• Micropterus chattahoochae of the Chattahoochee River system in Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

• Micropterus tallapoosae of the Tallapoosa River system inn Georgia and Alabama.

• Micropterus warriorensis of the Black Warrior River system in Alabama.

In North America ichthyologists now recognize 14 species of black bass.

Just catching a redeye bass would be worth the long road trip to Harlan County, but the odds of beating Kentucky’s state record are probably astronomical.

In any event, the story of the redeye bass in Kentucky is an interesting footnote to our rich history of black bass fishing, which dates back to the early 19th century.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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