This most admirable fish is nothing more nor less than a large marine perch which, when it enters estuaries for spawning purposes at the end of summer, sometimes proceeds up rivers into fresh water. Indeed, it is said that the Romans not only kept bass in captivity, but also bred them in aquaria filled with spring water. Mr. Arnold, of Guernsey, repeated this experiment—omitting the breeding part of it—not only with success, but went so far as to say that the flesh of the fish was greatly improved by the sojourn in fresh water.
Though anglers who have cast their lines among shoals of these fish and caught nothing, may question the fact, there is not much doubt that the sea perch were anciently called wolves on account of their voracity, and, perhaps, also because of a certain sense of cunning they appear to possess when surrounding the sand-eels, young herrings, and mackerel, etc, on which they largely feed. They have various local names : in Kentish waters are often termed sea dace, while at Heme Bay they are dignified by the name of white salmon. In Scotland, where they are very scarce, they are sometimes termed gape mouths ; while at Belfast the people persistently call them white mullet, or king of the mullets.
In form the bass is less graceful than the dace of fresh water, but is built on finer lines than the chub, and may be always recognised by the prickly dorsal fin, similar to that worn by the freshwater perch. The back is dark blue, while the sides and belly are silvery. It has a liberal allowance of teeth, some placed in crescent shape on the roof of its mouth, others in a small patch at the base of the tongue. Its mouth otherwise is very leathery and tough, and, so far, very different from that of the mullet. With regard to size, a ten or twelve pounder must be considered a large fish, though occasionally one of 15 lbs. is caught by the angler. Yarrell mentions one of 28 lbs., but I must confess to being somewhat distrustful of the weights of fish given by the older ichthyologists. It is said that a bass of 22 lbs. was once netted near Heme Bay Pier. A friend tells me he had an account of a bass weighing 24 1/2 lbs. after being cleaned, from a trustworthy man who himself caught the fish.
For angling purposes bass may be divided into two classes : those which run from about two pounds to five pounds, and may sometimes be seen in immense shoals, hunting sand-eels or fry ; and the large and more aged fish which, in the dusk of early morning, will be seen swimming in stately fashion in little companies of two to five in number, or thereabouts, close to the edge of steep rocks, round wooden piers and jetties, and among the old woodwork of harbours. It is these large, shy, old fish which the enthusiastic bass fisher feels it an honour and a duty to catch. They are the Thames trout of the sea. But for lively and continued sport commend me rather to the shoals of smaller bass when well on the feed. On many days even these cannot be caught, though to all appearance they are savagely and hungrily chasing their unfortunate prey. As in freshwater fishing, much depends upon the weather. If it be very bright and sunny the fish are scared by the line, and are not to be deceived into deeming a piece of indiarubber band a succulent worm or a baby eel. Under such conditions baits to be tried are the curb-chain spinner (p. 143) or a white unvarnished sole-skin phantom with silvered head. The angler, however, will catch nothing unless he keeps out of sight and the boat is worked noiselessly.
From an English bass-fisher's point of view, the most interesting parts of our coast are those bordering Devonshire and Cornwall, portions of Wales, and the Island of Anglesea. Sometimes they are fairly plentiful in or near the estuary of the Thames, as, for instance, at Heme Bay. Not that bass are wanting elsewhere, for they can occasionally be found, even in considerable numbers, on the East coast, as far north as Scotland, and even Norway, where, however, bass are very scarce. In Ireland they are caught on the east and south coasts, and I have known large shoals enter the Shannon estuary, and swim up the mouth of a tributary river. Probably, when sea fishing is still further recognised as a sport, places will be found on the Irish coast where bass are very plentiful.
Speaking generally, the bass is a summer fish, not leaving the deep sea and approaching the coast until the mild weather sets in. Much depends on the state of the weather. If it be cold their coming will be delayed, while in warm, genial seasons they may be expected somewhat earlier than usual. On the coast of Devonshire bass have been captured as early as February, but it is usually March or April before any quantity is observed. Thence onwards, until the cold weather comes again and drives them into deep water, these fish will be found, either in shoals or singly, off headlands, in races, playing about the bars of rivers, and towards the end of the summer entering the estuaries in large numbers. Sometimes they are feeding on the surface, sometimes on the bottom. While the youngsters play about in the sharp running water and perpetrate fierce onslaughts on shoals of innocent sand-eels and herring fry, the more elderly fish, as I have pointed out, coast round the rocks, and enter harbours and other places where there is plenty of refuse for them to feed upon. In such situations their tastes appear to degenerate, for they will often scornfully turn away from a delicate sand-eel presented to them alive, while a malodorous piece of oily ray's liver they will suck in greedily.
There are few baits bass will not take at times ; but, as I have pointed out, where fish develop a taste for scavengering, their tastes must be pampered, and if ray's liver is not available the entrails of chicken or rabbit (if somewhat high so much the better) may often be used with success. Of squid, cuttle and octopus they are particularly fond. The largest bass I ever hooked came like a tiger at a piece of squid I was using as a bait for conger, one night off the Welsh coast. I was hand-lining, and thinking I had an eel on, which would have to be hauled by main force away from the rocks, I brought this fish up to the surface in double quick time. There he rolled and splashed in a bath of incandescent silver as it were, for the water which he lashed with his tail was full of phosphorescence. He brought such consternation to the heart of the little Welsh lad who was with me, that the youth of many consonants to his unpronounceable name was too unnerved to use the gaff, and while I was abjuring him to do his duty the hook came away, the great fish disappeared, and nothing was left but flecks of phosphorescence on the surface of the dark water. He was every ounce of fifteen pounds. Indeed I might add another five pounds to his weighty and who can contradict me ? There is the one redeeming point about a lost fish. It is the proud privilege of the lamenting angler to fix the weight of the dear departed without the least fear of contradiction.