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WILD NATURE

Fishermen falling for new bass species hook, line and sinker

  • This Choctaw bass was collected from Florida's Holmes Creek in February 2012. The fish will now likely be a top target for catch-and-release fishermen in the southeastern United States. (FWC)

There’s a new bass in town, and fishing fanatics predict anglers will find its lure impossible to resist.

State wildlife experts in Florida confirmed the newest member of America's top freshwater fighting family is the Micropterus haiaka, now known as the Choctaw bass. The fish has been around for years, but was previously lumped in with another, nearly identical-appearing species, the spotted bass. But word that there could be a new-ish fish on the other end of the line is enough to send anglers scrambling for their tackle boxes. 

“I suspect there will be a lot of folks who will want to go out and catch one now,” said Robert Cartlidge, president of The Bass Federation. “Anything new is obviously exciting and there’s certainly some excitement about it.”

Scientists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission first noted a DNA profile that did not belong to any recognized species while testing a bass specimen from Florida’s 92-mile-long Chipola River as part of a larger genetic study of the popular game fish in 2007. But confirmation took years. 

“We didn’t set out to find a new species,” said Mike Tringali, who heads the genetics laboratory at the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. “It found us.”

“I suspect there will be a lot of folks who will want to go out and catch one now."

- Robert Cartlidge, president, The Bass Federation

After confirming the initial find, scientists then searched for the DNA profile in bass captured in nearby rivers to determine its range. The Choctaw bass was found to inhabit river systems in Alabama and Florida, including the Choctawhatcee River. The species is also suspected to be living in the Pearl River in Mississippi and Louisiana, according to Tringali.

Once formally recognized, Tringali said the fish would be the tenth species of bass, and the first new species found since 2009. At just a few pounds and roughly 14 inches in length at full maturity, it’s not one of the larger bass, he said.

The proposed name references the geographic connection to the indigenous range of the Native American Choctaw tribe. The scientific designation “haiaka” is translated from the Choctaw language, meaning “revealed” or “manifest,” Tringali said. The American Fisheries Society will now approve the suggested scientific name for it to become official.

The physical characteristics of the Choctaw bass are very similar to the spotted bass, making distinction between the two difficult by the naked eye. They can typically be distinguished from other bass by counting scales, fin rays and gill rakers, which are comb-like projections inside the fish’s gills to prevent particles from collecting on the gill filaments. Genetic testing, however, is required for foolproof identification, FWC officials said.

Choctaw bass have typically been found in the upper reaches of rivers and streams, avoiding stream headwaters and tidal zones closer to the coast. Cartlidge said the fish have also seemingly staked out their own environments, as spotted bass and Alabama bass have not been found in any location were the Choctaw has been located.

“The Choctaw bass has carved out its own niche,” he said. “They fill the void.”

Cartlidge, an avid fisherman, said he’s never caught a Choctaw bass, but he suspects they’ll represent a “new challenge” for anglers.

“They’ll want to catch and release one just to say they’ve done it,” he said. “This [discovery] adds a new wrinkle to that.”