Larvae to Lunker

The Fascinating Life Cycle of A Florida Bass

FWC November 24, 2014

Florida bass may be the quintessential sport fish. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 2011 10.6 million anglers 16 and older fished for largemouth bass in the U.S. and enjoyed 171 million days pursuing these prized game fish. In Florida alone, 756,000 anglers enjoyed fishing for Florida bass, which have been stocked far-and-wide due to their tackle-testing attributes and potential to reach trophy status.

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Photo: Jerry McBride

Anglers from around the world travel to Florida for an opportunity to tangle with the official state fish, and countries as far away as Japan stock them to generate fishing excitement. Although bass are at the top of the food chain in Florida’s lakes and rivers, their life begins as a tiny egg half the size of a BB. For the fortunate few that survive, this is the beginning of a fascinating life cycle.

As bass continue to mature, sunfish, shiners and shad make up a large percentage of their diet. Frogs, salamanders, snakes, mice, turtles and birds also lose their lives to these masterful hunters.

Florida bass sexually mature between 24 and 36 months and feed heavily prior to spawning because they barely eat when they are nesting. Although anglers readily catch bass when they are protecting a bed, this has far more to do with parental instincts than with hunger. Prime water temperature for spawning ranges from 65°F to 70°F, but bass will spawn outside these parameters. Biologists and anglers know Florida bass spawn as early as December in Lake Okeechobee, whereas nesting may not start until late March across the northern reaches of the state.

Florida bass prefer to nest in 24- to 48-inches of water, with the presence of rooted vegetation, logs or rocks nearby to provide concealment and a buffer from powerful currents. The father of the family shapes a nest by rotating around a pivot point and fanning debris away with his caudal fin in an effort to reach a stable, sandy layer. The resulting nest is typically twice as large as he is long. Once he is happy with his bachelor pad, he lures a female to spawn through courtship activity with nips and bumps, vivid color changes and prodding her into the nest. Some would call this flirting.

Spawning bouts typically occur late in the day during low light conditions. During the release of eggs, the male and female align in the same direction. The female initiates the transaction by releasing eggs, followed by the male’s release of milt. Mom instinctively lays her eggs on leaves, stems or roots in the nest. The adhesive eggs stick to the debris, preventing them from sinking into the sediment or washing away. The act will take place several times during courtship. The resulting larvae lay on the bottom where they are susceptible to predation by insects, crustaceans and juvenile fish.

Exactly how long the incubation period lasts after fertilization depends on water temperature. At 70°F, eggs hatch in as little as two days. At 64°F, eggs hatch in five days. Timing is vital as winter spawns are highly susceptible to cold fronts, which prolong egg incubation and extend predation. Average spawns produce approximately 8,000 fry, with survival rate depending on parental care, water temperature, and the abundance of predators. The chances of a newborn bass surviving to enjoy its first birthday are far less than one percent.

Upon hatching, fry are smaller than a grain of rice and transparent. They cannot swim and look more like a tadpole than a fish. A yellow yolk sack, which provides the developing fry nutrition, dominates its appearance along with large black eyes and a pronounced spinal cord. By day seven, larva develop pigmentation and fins, which help them emerge from the nest. Mature males continue to provide parental care as the emerging fry congregate. Guardianship finally ends when newborns reach one-inch in length and begin to disperse. They do this to avoid predation and to feed more aggressively on microscopic invertebrates before moving on to tiny fish and increased nutrition. Interestingly, grass shrimp and crayfish comprise a large percentage of their diet and remain extremely important food sources throughout their entire lives.

With a disproportionately wide mouth, bass swallow forage whole with almost no limit to prey size. For instance, a 16-inch bass would have a gape of two-inches, allowing it to easily consume a five-inch long cichlid. As bass continue to mature, sunfish, shiners and shad make up a large percentage of their diet. Frogs, salamanders, snakes, mice, turtles and birds also lose their lives to these masterful hunters.

Bass are cold-blooded, so temperature directly affects digestion. Consequently, largemouth feed most actively at temperatures between 65°F and 85°F and digest food faster in warm water. Feeding frequency declines when temperatures fall below this range and generally intensifies at dusk and dawn, but can peak anytime under ideal conditions. Largemouth bass are notorious ambush predators. Concealed by vegetation, they hover nearly motionless as they wait for unsuspecting prey to swim by. What many people don’t know is that in open water bass are active hunters and frequently school to round up scattered glass minnows and shad.

Bass growth rates vary from lake to lake and season to season. What we do know for certain is that female bass grow faster, larger and live much longer than their male counterparts. An average two-year old male will be 10- to 12-inches. A two-year old female will be twice that size and it will take her nearly 10 years to reach 10 pounds. Males never get that large. Female Florida bass can live up to 16 years and weigh more than 20 pounds, although the official state record is 17.27 pounds.

Individual bass behave differently, some swim great distances while others stay in a well-defined area. Some prefer offshore waters while others prefer to remain near shore. In general, Florida bass spend more time away from shore than anglers realize, especially when vegetation extends into the middle of a lake. The exception is during spring when bass move to shallower shorelines to commence their spawning rituals.

Many bass have home ranges—defined areas where they spend much of their time. The average home area is three acres in a vegetated lake and 32 acres in a lake without vegetation. When caught in one area and released in a different part of a lake, homing instincts kick in and drive bass back to their original home ranges, although they may relocate to spawn or if water quality becomes degraded.

For enthusiastic fresh water anglers, understanding the life cycle and characteristics of this fascinating game fish only helps you increase your score and to become a better steward of these valuable and intriguing freshwater predators. Bass growth rates and habitat needs as well as the fish’s prolific ability to repopulate a healthy lake are vital data used to ensure the future health of this fascinating fishery. To learn more, visit Florida’s Black Bass Management Plan at myfwc.com/fishing.

Catch & Release

Be sure to visit trophycatchflorida.com and sign up for an incentive-based conservation program. Registering makes you eligible for a Phoenix Bass Boat powered by a Mercury outboard. If you catch, document and release a Florida bass over eight-pounds you can earn more than $100 in gift cards, plus a certificate and shirt.

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