If you’ve ever been around a hardcore freshwater bass angler, you’re probably well aware that eating bass is a huge taboo. Depending on the person, eating bass can be almost as offensive as insulting their religion.
Religious tendencies aside, you’ve also probably heard that bass are just no good to eat, or even that they’re “wormier” or “muddier” than other edible fish. These ideas keep most people from ever even trying bass, so the question remains: can you eat bass?
There are plenty of myths and taboos around eating bass, but in this article, I’m going to reveal the truth about it.
Can You Eat Freshwater Bass?
First things first: can you actually eat freshwater bass?
Both largemouth and smallmouth bass (the two most common black bass in North America) are in the sunfish family, the same family that includes crappie and bluegill. These two fish are some of the most popular food fish in the country, so it stands to reason that bass should be edible too.
It turns out that not only is bass perfectly edible, but it’s just as healthy and safe to eat as any other freshwater fish. Bass don’t contain any more parasites or toxins than any other predatory gamefish, and when properly cooked, pose no risk to human health. For more health stats and information about eating bass, check out this article from Livestrong.
The only potential health risk that comes from eating bass is mercury poisoning. Mercury slowly accumulates in the flesh of any predatory fish, so this isn’t a bass-specific risk, but it’s something to consider when choosing your meals. States put out fish consumption guidelines that will tell you which fish (and how much) are safe to eat. But generally, larger and older fish contain more mercury than smaller ones.
Are Freshwater Bass Good To Eat?
As for whether bass taste good, part of the problem is that both largemouth and smallmouth bass are some of the most adaptable gamefish in North America. They can live anywhere from cold, clean rivers to dirty, algae-covered city ponds.
The eating quality of an individual fish has a lot to do with where it lives, so their varied habitat means their taste and texture can vary a lot. But I can say from personal experience that bass that come from relatively cool, relatively clean water taste just as good as any crappie or perch I’ve ever eaten.
Smallmouth bass and largemouth bass prefer different water conditions, with smallies generally thriving in cooler, less weedy water, and largemouths preferring the opposite. This is a big part of the reason that people generally think smallmouth taste better than largemouth. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but in my experience, largemouth bass do tend to have softer meat and “fishier” flavor than smallmouth.
Why Don’t People Eat Bass?
Whether or not you can eat bass doesn’t seem to matter; it’s no secret that most people just don’t.
You’ll hear people say that they don’t eat bass because they taste muddy, they’re wormy, or that they just prefer other fish. But in reality, many of these folks are just repeating what they’ve heard, and have never actually tried a bass themselves (and long ago, I used to be one of these people).
A Successful Conservation Strategy
The real reason people don’t eat bass is because of a decades-long catch-and-release campaign. Bass are an extremely popular sport fish for their aggression and fight, but 100 years ago they weren’t as easy to find as they are today. Overfishing and unenforced laws led these once-abundant fish to the brink of extinction.
Laws were enacted to protect them, but a huge part of the resurgence of freshwater bass is because of a widespread effort to change the culture around bass fishing. Anglers shifted the focus from food to fun, framing the bass as a fish that’s more fun to catch than it is to eat.
The campaign worked, and this idea still prevails in modern bass fishing culture. It’s a great story of conservation success, but the ideas that were popularized then don’t necessarily apply today.
Why You Should Eat More Bass
There was a time when bass were more valuable if you released them, because eating them meant contributing to their downfall.
But I’m about to make a bold statement: if you want to catch bigger bass in your local lake, you should eat more bass. Eating more of the fish that you want to catch may seem counterintuitive, but hear me out on this one.
Biomass: The Most Important Metric
Fish aren’t like people, whose genetics ultimately determine how big they will grow. In the wild, they aren’t limited by genetics like we are; they’re limited by biomass.
Biomass is the total weight of the fish in a body of water. The amount of fish food that’s available in a body of water is what determines biomass, so lakes and rivers all have a unique biomass maximum that limits how much fish they can support.
The thing about fish biomass is that all that matters is the total weight of all the fish in the lake combined. A population of ten 5-pound fish has the same biomass as 50 one-pound fish. That doesn’t make much difference to the ecosystem, and both lakes would have “stable” populations of fish. But if a couple of those smaller fish are removed, then the rest of the fish have enough food to grow bigger.
Of course, there are a ton of factors at play. But the idea that you should release every bass you catch because “it’ll be bigger next year” just isn’t true. Removing a small bass and eating it leaves more food around for the rest of them (and more food on your dinner plate, too). And some of those bass might just get big enough to be your next personal best.
Which Bass Are The Best To Eat?
I mentioned above that smallmouth tend to be better tasting than largemouth, and that fish from cold, clean lakes or rivers are better in general as well.
Another thing to consider is size. Larger fish are usually mushier and fishier, so selecting small to medium-sized fish is the way to go. When keeping a bass for the dinner table, 12-15 inch fish are perfect. That’s the happy medium between being big enough to be worth eating without being so big that they taste bad.
Eating small fish also makes sense for population management. Studies have shown that in almost all fish species, large, old females actually produce more eggs per pound of body weight than smaller and younger ones. Leaving the old breeders around keeps the most productive fish in the water, and solid genetics will get passed on to the next generation.
Removing more small fish also leaves more food around for the big ones. It may seem insignificant, but minor changes to an ecosystem can have a big impact. So if you want to have the best chance at a new personal best, taking and eating a few small bass now and then only helps your cause.
Final Thoughts On Eating Bass
The story of freshwater bass is a story of a huge conservation success. Black bass were pushed to the brink, and catch-and-release culture helped their populations become healthy and thrive again.
But bass are delicious and safe to eat, and their thriving populations mean there’s just no reason we can’t utilize this awesome natural resource. And in the process, we might just help create the next fish of a lifetime.