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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Rock bass, at home in rocky, cool waters, are a favorite with stream fishermen

Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a series about Kentucky’s native sunfish species.

The rock bass (Ambloplites rupestris) is most often caught from rocky, cool water streams in Central and Eastern Kentucky.

A favorite with stream fishermen, the rock bass in known by the common names of red eye or goggle-eye.

Statewide, there’s no daily creel limit, with no minimum size limit.

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

Size and Coloration

A favorite with stream fishermen, the rock bass in known by the common names of red eye or goggle-eye. (Photo from KDFWR)

A medium-sized sunfish, adults are eight to 10 inches in length, rarely more than 12 inches, or weighing more than 1 1/2 pounds.

Kentucky’s state record rock bass weighed 1 pound, 10 ounces and was caught from Casey Creek, in Trigg County, in 1975.

Coloration is olive green, with saddle-like blotches across its back, brassy sides, and a dusky belly. Distinguishing characteristics include a large mouth, rounded pectoral fins, and large eyes rimmed in red. Scales have dark spots, forming lengthwise, narrow stripes, and their anal fin has five to six spines.

Geographic Range / Distribution in Kentucky

The rock bass’s native range includes the east-central states of the U.S. and southern Canada.

This area extends roughly from northern Louisiana, northward to North Dakota and Manitoba, Canada, eastward across the Great Lakes states, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec, and south to northern Alabama.

The rock bass is absent from stream drainages along the Atlantic coast.

In Kentucky, the rock bass is found throughout most the state but absent from the Purchase Region, and mud-bottomed, warm water streams.

Most abundant in cool water, rocky streams where smallmouth bass are present, the rock bass is common in most streams of the Licking and Kentucky River drainages.

Food Habits

Rock bass are carnivorous, feeding on minnows, aquatic insects, and crustaceans. Adults feed heavily in the late evenings and early mornings.


When water temperatures reach 60 degrees Fahrenheit, rock bass begin spawning activities, as their spawning timeframe is similar to the smallmouth bass.

The male builds a circular nest, eight to 10 inches in diameter, using his tail to clear away debris.

One or several females may deposit as many as 5,000 eggs into one nest, which the male quickly fertilizes. The male guards the eggs until they hatch three or four days later, then the fry move into shallow, protective waters near aquatic vegetation or woody debris, out of the current.

The male will not eat during spawning and once the fry emerges from the eggs, they will protect them for a few weeks, acting aggressively towards potential predators or fishing lures cast close to the fry.

Rock bass can also be readily caught on small crankbaits that imitate crayfish, such as the Rebel Teeny Wee-Craw, a 1/10-ounce lure with #14 hooks. (Photo from Rebel Lures)

Fishing Tips

Fish with an ultralight spinning tackle in deep, rocky pools, or near vegetation or wood cover at the edge of deeper water.

Live bait anglers fish crayfish, hellgrammites and minnows. Rock bass can also be readily caught on small crankbaits that imitate crayfish, small Mepps spinners, and 2-to-3-inch plastic grubs, rigged on 1/16-ounce lead jigs heads.


Next week in the series: Longear Sunfish (Lepomis megalotis)

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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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