Not long ago, several people fished together. One angler used shiners to catch white perch. A Louisiana Cajun corrected him on the species identification and used jigs to catch sac-a-lait. Others caught papermouths. The biologist in the group caught Pomoxis nigromaculatus and a few Pomoxis annularis.

By the end of the day, they all argued about who caught what species of fish, but in reality, they all caught the same two species — black and white crappie. The two species represent the sunfish family, a large group of fish with a severe identity crisis.

Striped bass—a
true bass.

Take for example the premier member of the sunfish family, largemouth bass. Long ago, when many folks considered fishing a recreation instead of an industry, some people called this familiar mouthy creature a “green trout,” although it’s not a trout, nor even a bass! However, it is green — most of the time. The Green Trout Masters Classic just doesn’t sound right or perhaps professional angling associations couldn’t think of any good acronyms that spelled G.R.E.E.N. T.R.O.U.T. Maybe the title wouldn’t fit on any business cards so this sunfish became a bass.

Smallmouth bass—not a
true bass.

Believe it or not, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, smallmouth bass and Kentucky spotted bass also belong to the sunfish family and are closely related to bluegills.

Bluegills; goggle-eyes, which people may confuse with black crappie; rock bass, which some people call goggle-eyes; pumpkinseeds; redear sunfish; fliers; red-breasted sunfish; green sunfish and a bunch of other diminutive species also belong to this diverse family.

Most people can’t tell more than one or two species of sunfish apart anyway, so they lump them all together as bream, perch or panfish with one exception. People easily identify redear sunfish by their red trimmed “ear flaps,” which aren’t really earflaps.

Rock bass—a northern sunfish.

A little scarlet trimming on the gills gives these stocky olive green to golden sunfish their common name. Here simplicity ends. Their propensity to eat snails, crushing them with grinding teeth in their throats, give them another common name, shellcrackers.

Other people call them stump knockers, yellow bream or strawberry bream, but they don’t eat berries or taste like strawberries. In Louisiana, most people call them chinquapins, possibly named because their color resembles acorns on a chinquapin or chestnut oak.

To make matters worse, some people call crappie white perch, calico bass, strawberry bass, silver bass or bachelor perch, although crappie are neither bass nor perch. To further muddy matters, many people call crappie speckled perch or specks. They’re no relation to speckled trout, or specks, which are not really trout, but drum—but not a freshwater drum, which many people in Louisiana call gaspergou. Instead, they’ret a member of the saltwater drum family.

Getting confused yet? Wait, there’s more. Don’t confuse crappie, often called white perch, with white perch. White perch—panfish-looking creatures—are actually bass and not perch, but are not related to largemouth bass, which are sunfish. White perch inhabit the Northeast and some Atlantic states and look like small white bass.

Many people call a largemouth bass black bass, although some look almost pure white, but they are not white bass, which oddly enough, is a bass and not a sunfish. When hunting around thick weeds in clear water, largemouth bass look green or sport green and black camo patterns. When caught in muddy rivers or pulled from dark depths where they don’t need much color, largemouths look almost solid white.

Now that you are thoroughly confused, let’s return to talking about bass. No, not those green or brown creatures with big mouths—or small mouths depending upon which section of the country one fishes. Those are sunfish, remember?

I’m talking about bass—temperate bass such as striped bass, white bass, yellow bass, and our little friend, the white perch—the bass white perch, not the sunfish white perch. These bass collectively share little in common with those green bucket-mouthed marauders of weed beds.

Many people call striped bass rockfish or rock bass. Don’t confuse these rock bass with rock bass. Remember that a rock bass is a northern sunfish that looks similar to a goggle-eye, which some people call a warmouth, which closely resembles a black crappie. Just to be fair, many Northerners call rock bass goggle-eyes while many Southerners call goggle-eyes rock bass.

Back to white bass, which many people call silver bass or sand bass and often confuse these with true striped bass, also known as rock bass. White bass somewhat resemble white crappie, also known as silver bass or sand bass. Don’t confuse white bass with white perch, which, as you recall is really a bass and not a perch, except for the crappie one that is a sunfish.

Northern pike—whose Southern cousin, the pickerel, swims East Texas waters.

To further complicate matters, yellow bass, or barfish, look similar to white bass, which look similar to striped bass, except for their golden color. They all sport black stripes, or bars, on their sides, hence the name barfish. Of course, white bass and striped bass also sport black bars and many people call them barfish too.

Just to make it even, people often call a yellow bass, a striper. They also call yellow bass “streakers” (maybe because they always swim naked, even when in school), brassy bass (I like that name) or a golden bass. Don’t confuse golden bass with golden trout, which, ironically, is actually trout, unlike a green trout or a speckled trout, neither of which are trout. Remember, a green trout is a bass that’s not really a bass, but a sunfish and a speckled trout is really a saltwater drum, although some people call them weakfish or seatrout.


Did you get all that? And you thought your family had problems! Understanding colloquial fish identification takes more effort than unraveling the shifting intricacies of a Mideast military-political alliance. 


I didn’t even get into northern fish, like muskellunge, northern pike and pickerel, which all look almost identical. In the South, people call pickerel pike or jackfish, not to be confused with a saltwater jackfish … oh forget it! 

Ready for a quiz? Me neither. I think I’ll just order some fish sticks for lunch. Nobody knows what kind of fish, if any, goes into those things anyway.


—story by John. N Felsher 


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