Here we go: the battle of the heavyweights. The champion of the west versus the king of, well, almost everywhere. Trout versus bass! Which is stronger, bigger, more accessible, more catchable… better?
I’ll start with bass. If you scroll through the channels of cable TV and see a fishing program, chances are it’s bass the anglers are fishing for. Largemouth bass are found in every state - including Alaska! They’re frog slurpin’, lilypad lurkin’ tournament winning bucketmouths. A “worthwhile” one measures a few pounds, but they grow as big as at least twenty-two pounds! Now that’s a one in a million, put it on the wall, no, make-a-statue-out-of-it-gargantuan. But they're out there.
We don’t usually think of trout in giant terms, but they can grow to at least forty-four pounds - twice as big as bass! To be sure, conditions have to be suitable, perfect really, for growing these extremely rare behemoths. Trout reach those gigantic sizes in places like New Zealand (where they’re eating excess food that sinks down from salmon farms), and in certain reservoirs in the lower forty eight and Canada. Of course, the average trout is much, much smaller than forty pounds; twenty inches, maybe four pounds, is the benchmark for a really nice one, and your average trout fisher is pretty happy with a fifteen incher.
Now, I’ve caught my fair share of bass. And about two thirds of them I could have back casted behind me on the hook set. My childhood summers were spent partly in Massachusetts, where my aunt lived on a pond that was chock full, boiling, overrun with overeager, cookie cutter little largemouth bass. I caught hundreds of them on my first fly rod, and I don’t think a single one of them was bigger than fifteen inches. They provided the best opportunity possible for a young fisherman to learn the basics of fly fishing. Catching them could not have been easier. It may not be fair, but that experience cemented in my mind the idea that bass are, well, boringly easy and kind of a nuisance. After catching thirty in an afternoon, I couldn’t help but think that in the world of bass, I needed to weed through legions of puny “strip dinks” for every somewhat worthwhile bigmouth.
So let’s start small. Which fish, in small sizes, wins the everyday, poor man’s fish contest? I’m talking value and interest in the average fish we get, rather than those we want. After catching hundreds of mini largemouth and as many small trout, the difference in my mind is clear: small trout win. Why? Maybe it’s because I live in western Washington, a land of picturesque cold water streams and forests. But really it comes down to the fact that, frankly, in my humble opinion, trout just fight harder.
But—and this is a big but—truth be told, I’ve never caught a legitimately big largemouth. Maybe I would have more respect for their fighting ability if I had. Based on the fight times of the bass that are landed on TV, though, bass come to the boat fairly readily. Bass live in warmer, lower oxygenated water than trout do. Lower oxygen levels mean that a fish’s muscles can’t operate at the rate of a coldwater fish like a trout. Cold water allows fish to fight longer and recover faster. That’s a big reason I prefer trout.
But don’t count bass out! What about the “big” ones, which to me means the nice big potbelly ones tipping the scales at several pounds or more? They have several attributes that make them extremely appealing gamefish. First of all, unlike trout, they are accessible to nearly the entire US population. From Hawaii to Minnesota and down to Florida, if you have a hankering to get a bend in the rod, there is probably a bass pond or lake near you. Second, largemouth eat lures off of the surface in dramatic fashion. A trout’s rise is usually a somewhat delicate affair, but a big largemouth makes a boil like a brick thrown into a flushing toilet. Indeed, some largemouth fishermen throw nothing but topwater lures, just as some trout fishers only fish with dry flies.
Thirdly, largemouth eat big “baits,” as in lures. Their natural diet consists of baitfish and sunfish and frogs and crayfish and even rodents and birds—allowing for lures that you can actually see and grab with your whole hand. There’s no need for a magnifying glass to see your hook eye on a size 20 midge—a fairly typical fly in much of the range of American trout. Along those lines, bass are rarely as selective as trout. In some east coast trout streams, trout key on not just a specific tiny insect, but either the male or female of a practically microscopic mayfly! With bass, there’s usually more than one thing on the menu. They may be hitting one food source more than others, but they never come close to the selectivity of a spring creek brown trout. Which arguably makes for a more pleasant experience; you don’t have to bring nine hundred costly lures with you on the lake (although many people do!). By contrast, I live in fear of the day when there’s a big hatch and I don’t have the right trout fly.
Don’t get me wrong, I like fishing to structure and lily pads. I like fishing topwater and big flies/lures. I think the places where bass live are pretty cool. And I think bass themselves look and are pretty cool. I love the epic hook sets that the bass anglers on TV throw down. I’m sure the big ones fight harder than the little guys. I just happen to be a trout guy.
Clearly, I’m heavily biased by where I live and the fish I pursued growing up. If I lived in Oklahoma, you bet I’d be a full on basshead. Perhaps we can just call it a draw. They’re both admirable gamefish. They’re both titans of the freshwater fishing world, supporting massive industries. I wouldn’t mind catching a big one of either species.
So what is your take? Weigh in below in the comments!