Yes, you can eat largemouth bass, but there are a few reasons why you will not find America’s favorite sportfish in your local grocery store. By following these simple recommendations, you can cook a delicious and healthy meal.
Cooking largemouth bass is easy and can be delicious, but there are a few considerations that must be kept in mind. Fishing regulations and restrictions due to pollution must be followed. The taste of largemouth bass varies based on the time of year, and different sizes of fish require different cooking methods.
Minimum size and seasons vary by state, so be sure to check local regulations. Many states have a season when bass fishing is “catch and release” only. The minimum size for a legal keeper varies by state from 12 to 15 inches. If a 12-inch bass is legal in your state, use discretion before planning a meal, because a 12-inch bass is not quite enough to make a filet, but can be cooked successfully using the methods described below. Under most conditions taking and eating bass is perfectly legal, although many anglers do not keep largemouth bass because of sportsmanship.
Bass fishing is a serious sport in the United States. The mighty largemouth bass is king of the American sportfish. Bass fishing is freshwater fishing at it’s finest. No other fish allows for such mastery of various techniques as bass fishing.
There are professional bass fishermen and fisherwomen who make their living based on their skill at catching and releasing largemouth bass.
There are thousands of local bass fishing clubs, with competitions and circuits dedicated to catching the largemouth. All of these competitions, careers, and pastimes are based on catch and release fishing.
There is endless debate about the sportsmanship of eating bass. Many bass anglers object to eating bass, and to them, the thought of eating a bass would be like eating a soccer ball or baseball glove. Still, other sportsmen fish for the thrill of the hunt, and rightfully believe that in-season bass are perfectly legal for the taking.
There is also the issue of bass that have swallowed a hook and may not survive if you aren’t really good at extracting it or one that the hook/ hooks have accidentally gotten into the gills and tore the gills up.
Avid anglers have plenty of methods to prevent this, including large lures, barbless hooks, quick hook setting, and tools to remove deep hooks. However, despite the best efforts, fishing is inherently dangerous for the fish, and if the hook is too deep and can’t be safely removed then the most sportsmanlike destination for the bass is the frying pan.
Fish in some lakes may be unsafe to eat due to pollution. The risk of poisoning due to pollution is driven by the condition of the lake more than the type of fish, although some fish are more susceptible to contamination than others. Mercury and PCBs are the most common contaminants that can be passed to humans. Mercury is a chemical contained in air pollution that is carried into lakes and rivers by rainwater. Mercury collects and persists in these bodies of water, and long-lived carnivorous fish such as bass also accumulate mercury.
Unfortunately, the amounts of mercury contained in fish such as bass can be harmful, especially to children. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are groundwater pollutants that persist for decades. PCBs are carcinogens and women and children are particularly susceptible. Most states will publish advisories for specific lakes that are determined to be unsafe for eating fish. These published listings must be checked before eating bass from freshwater lakes.
Mountain lakes at higher elevations are at less risk for the accumulation of these chemicals. Lakes at lower elevations that are fed by tributary streams and lakes closer to industrial areas are at higher risk.
Bass Are What They Eat
Largemouth bass feed voraciously on fine fare including frogs, salamanders, worms, larvae, minnows, and baby snakes. Unfortunately, the taste of the lake carries through into the taste of the fish. This effect is particularly noticeable in the summer.
Cooking strategies and expectations should be adjusted in the summer because of the mud like flavor of summer bass. Baking is the least preferred cooking method in the summer because the fish cooks in its natural fluids and the baking process recirculates the muddy taste of the lake.
There is no hazard associated with this taste and it does not mean the fish is any more unhealthy to eat, it is just a taste caused by summertime conditions in the lake that most people find undesirable.
Smallmouth bass are a close cousin of the largemouth, but they swim and hunt in more open water so they are less likely to have a muddy flavor. Smallmouth bass are also not necessarily smaller than their largemouth cousins, so if you are fishing for a summertime meal smallmouth bass are a great bet.
Cooking Strategies for Smaller (but still legal to keep) Bass
Chilean Sea Bass and Striped Bass are found at the world’s finest restaurants, but the largemouth bass found in freshwater lakes in North America is not common in grocery stores or restaurants. Salmon, tuna, and catfish dominate America’s consumption of fish. It takes a large fish to make a good filet, but the most common “keeper” size largemouth bass weigh in at one or two pounds, whereas tuna and salmon are routinely caught in the 10-30 pound range.
A one or two-pound bass will not make much of a filet, but these fish can be cubed into tasty morsels. This method is especially helpful because 1-2 pound bass are very common, and a successful day of fishing could yield 6-12 bass of this size. Instead of a filet, strip the skin off and remove the bones, then slice the fish into bite-size squares. Dip the bass into melted butter, then place the top of the square into a bowl of finely crushed potato chips. Place the bottom of the bass in a frying pan, and fry until the meat is a solid white color. Two 12 inch bass prepared this way would make an entrée for one adult or appetizers for a family.
Cooking Strategies for Summer Bass
So you’ve caught a lunker bass in the summertime and it is headed for your table. What’s the best way to overcome the taste of the lake and bring out the delicious flavor? Think spice, lots of spice and a good deep fry.
First, filet the fish and leave the skin on. If the flesh is thick score the meat with a knife to about one half the thickness of the filet. This will allow the flavor of the spices to permeate into the fish.
After scoring the flesh, let the fish soak in a mix of water and lemon juice for 10 minutes. Then spice it up!
Make yourself a mix of paprika, onion powder, and garlic powder if you like. If not, try curry for an exotic flavor. Old Bay seasoning is always a safe bet, and because it comes in an easy to use can it is the simplest method.
This can be really helpful if you are camping.
After applying copious amounts of your favorite spice, pan-fry the fish in peanut oil or vegetable oil. Then taste and enjoy! Summertime bass is “an acquired taste,” but if prepared as described you will not go wrong.
Large “Lunker” Bass
A seven-pound bass or larger is big enough for filets. Fileting a fish is an acquired skill and it does take practice. An improper filet tends to ruin the chance of recovering the flesh for cooking, so it is best to practice first before cutting into a trophy largemouth.
Panfish such as bluegill are good for practicing your filet skills and they are very tasty and easy to cook. If you are lucky enough to get hooked into a seven or eight-pound lunker then one fish this size should feed two people.
A nice filet of cold-water bass is easy to enjoy. Bass are less active in the winter, so catching them requires significant patience. Even though bass are less active in the winter, most of their usual food is gone for the winter, so an anglers bait can be very tempting. Winter bass tend to grow larger, so fishermen who brave the elements to enjoy winter bass fishing will likely be rewarded. Cooking bass in the wintertime should be kept simple to bring out the natural flavor of the fish. Simply filet the bass, lightly season the fish and bake the fish in aluminum foil.
The decision about eating largemouth bass is ultimately up to the fisherman. An informed decision must take into account fishing regulations, the risk of pollution, the taste, and preparation of the fish. If the sportsman in you wants to put fresh bass on the table after considering regulations and pollution, then go for it! Perfection will come with practice, and after work and experimentation, you will master your cooking and fishing techniques. Enjoy!