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HomeNL-2014-01 5 Nature Nook

Nature Nook
Jan. 2014
by Chris Arceneaux

What do Bass Eat and Why do Mullet Jump?
 Or More Appropriately What is Swimming Under my Canoe?

If you are an amateur birder like me, you quickly learn to identify our local feathered species and their habits. If you’ve ever fished for your supper you will find yourself scanning the water to look for signs under the surface. Not all fish show themselves so it helps to pick up on what’s happening under the boat.

Fish have to eat. Predator fish like largemouth bass, sometimes referred to as black bass, are at the top of the food chain. Their prey include other finfish like shad. Two common shad species are gizzard shad and threadfin shad, both members of the herring family. Shad are usually found in large, constantly moving schools. You might see a ripple on the surface of a lake with little or no wind, a good indicator that a school of shad has surfaced. Shad are filter feeders straining zooplankton from the water column. Their high oil content fatten up predators like bass and catfish.

Other small fish include shiners, a very common sport fish bait sold where smelly fishermen launch their boats. Shiners refer to several small and silvery fish varieties. The panfish that kids often kick-start their fishing passion with are sunfish. Impale a piece of an earthworm on a tiny brass hook and expect sunfish to pull the bobber under the nearest lily pad. Common to Texas are Bluegill and Red-Ear. Most folks just call them bream (pronounced “brim”).  A big one is 8” long. There a gazillion of them in Herman Park. To see them just toss out some bread crumbs.

white & black crappie  
A more glamorous sunfish is Crappie. Black and White Crappie to be exact. Both are fun to catch and very tasty. They are called white perch in northern Texas, specks in other areas and sac-au-lait in Louisiana. You probably won’t see a crappie unless you are looking under a dock in very clear water. They tend to run deep and in heavy cover unless breeding when they move to the shallows. Common catching size for crappie are 10-14”.

Let’s step back in time a bit and look at what I call dinosaur fish. Two species are the bowfin and gar. The bowfin is the last surviving member a family of fish dating from the Jurassic period. They have powerful jaws and a mouthful of sharp teeth. Bowfin or choupique (shoe-pick) are now sought after for their black caviar. A unique feature of bowfin is they can live in low-oxygen waters and burrow in the mud during low-water periods using a primitive lung to exchange oxygen. They are bottom dwelling so we are not likely to see one unless it’s at the end of a fishing line.

alligator gar  
Now garfish, another living fossil, we’ll see on the surface gulping air in their crude lung. Some like the Alligator Gar can reach up to 8’ in length. Gar are quite toothy. It’s easy to see why they are associated with alligators. For canoeists, it can be a little unsettling for one to surface near our boats. Their bony scales are more like armor than the glittering flakes from most modern fish. They are sought commercially but don’t try cooking any unless you are literally starving. We don’t make caviar from their eggs which are toxic. Besides the Alligator Gar, we have the Spotted Gar, and both the Longnose and Shortnose Gars. Gars are predators and not very picky, eating insects when young, fish and waterfowl when older.

  largemouth bass
The king of freshwater fish in Texas and most of the country are Largemouth Bass, a Sunfish and not a true bass. Major fishing tournaments have focused on this one fish for decades because they are exciting to catch and can get pretty big. A 10-lb bass is very large, a 14-pounder is huge. The Texas record is 18.2 lbs from Lake Fork. If you are paddling next to a large stump and you caught swirl in the corner of your eye the size of the wash tub, it’s probably a bass swallowing a bream.

Juvenile largemouth bass consume mostly small bait fish, grass shrimp, and insects. Adults occupy deeper water than younger fish, and shift to a diet consisting of smaller fish, snails, crawfish, frogs, snakes, turtles, salamanders, bats and even small water birds, mammals, and baby alligators. That’s quite a list, but how would a bass catch a bat? I’ve seen bass lures that resemble fish, snakes and frogs, but never a bat. But there are bats that catch fish… and that’s for another newsletter.

Prey items can be as large as 50% of the bass's body length or larger. There is a reason they are also referred to as “Bucket Mouth”.

flathead catfish  
Catfish, the Friday night staple for many a southern family, inhabit all of Texas lakes and rivers. Of the many fresh water species, the ones gliding the lake and river bottoms below us are generally the Blue, Channel and Flathead Catfish. “Cats” are considered bottom feeders, but do feed anywhere in the water column for shad and other forage species. With specialized barbells, or whiskers, they feel for their food in the dark as well as detecting it by smell. Domestic catfish do not have scales, but a tough protective skin. Hence the phrase, “more than one way to skin a cat”, just to let you know the originator wasn’t talking about “Fluffy”.

Lesser known freshwater species are Drum, Carp, Striped Bass and White Bass. Striped Bass and hybrids, the fishery creation of mixing Stripers and White Bass, are mainly in lakes like Toledo Bend in East Texas. White Bass are a lake species too, but congregate up in sandy creeks like Luce Bayou to spawn in early Spring. More information on our freshwater species can be found at:

A few saltwater species like Mullet venture far inland up our freshwater rivers and bayous. Small mullet are sought after for bait. They are a favorite target of most saltwater game fish. Large mullet 6" to 20” have little commercial value. And to why do they jump? Maybe leap is a better word. If you see a school of mullet explode in panic on the top of the water, then a predator has closed in on them for its dinner. But a lone mullet leaping two to four times in lazy arcs, landing on their sides, remains a mystery. We want to assign character traits like, dislodging parasites, gulping air, or to get their bearing as some of the reasons. Maybe, it’s just shear happiness that they can leap from their watery environment.

Leaping to escape a
hungry and bigger fish
   Just jumping    The other mullet,
business in the front,
party in the back

Happy New Year and have fun on the water!

The author, 
Chris Arceneaux