You may have caught a white bass and wondered, are white bass good to eat? Well, it’s complicated. Some people who are overly sensitive to fishy taste will say no. But others love white bass. They key is preparation. Keep reading to find out more.
First a short introduction to one of the most common sports fish in the Eastern U.S. So what are white bass? They are not related to the famous large and smallmouth bass which are sunfish and more closely related to bluegill.
Instead, white bass are members of the true bass family with species like the striper, sea bass, spotted bass, and yellow bass. Sea Bass and spotted bass are commonly considered to be some of the best-tasting fish and are renown in most of Europe for their flavor.
Unfortunately, the white bass has not garnered this reputation. Many people flat out refuse to eat a white bass. Is this a deserved reputation? I would say that is depends on preparation as there are remedies for the fishy tone of white bass meat.
It’s an acquired taste but before you can acquire the taste, you need to acquire the fish, so let’s start there.
White Bass Distribution and Habitat
The native range of the white bass stretches from the Ohio River north to the southern shores of the Great Lakes. In the east, it starts in central Ohio and goes to the center of the Mid-West. The farthest west they are found is generally Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and part of South Dakota.
They are commonly caught in Lake Erie, Lake Michigan, and Lake Superior. They are prolific in the many smaller lakes throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota.
In a river habitat, most of the northern tributaries of the Mississippi are reasonable places to catch white bass. The Arkansas River and Ohio River being notably good, especially in areas below dams and other structure.
Outside of their native range, the white bass have been heavily stocked as a sports fish as far north as Ontario and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. Several lakes in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Alabama have naturalized populations now.
A little research should put you on white bass if you are in the right area. Just remember they prefer large reservoirs with plenty of shallow coastline and most rivers of a moderate size. When spawning, they will move into shallow water in the smaller, upstream tributaries.
Once you have caught a few, it’s time to think about what to do with them.
The White Bass Taste
White bass has a notoriously fishy taste that many people don’t prefer. There are ways around this if, like me, you are not a fan of fishy flavors. Most people compare them to crappie in taste and while somewhat accurate, it isn’t an exact match.
While they may taste a little like crappie, they have a much different consistency. If you over-soak them, you will get a very similar consistency to crappie. While soaking the meat before cooking it can remove some of the fishy flavor, you should be careful to not oversoak. More on soaking below.
Some people say the flesh is buttery or sweet but I have never got these flavors unless I added them. White bass does have a good oil content which can give it that buttery sort of flavor. But, I find it less oily than fish like Cod.
Some of the most popular eating fish have almost no flavor other than the seasonings applied. White Bass is not that sort of fish. Filleted correctly, you can remove most of the overbearing fishy flavor but there will be a distinct taste of fish.
The closest comparison I could make would be to the freshwater striper. Occasionally the diet of the fish can affect the flavor and make it taste similar to walleye but I have found that to be rare. White Perch would be another close comparison.
One of the complications of describing the flavor of a white bass comes from the two distinct meat types. There is a crisp, white meat along the back, tail, and belly of the fish. The inner rib meat is a deep red. The red meat has a very different taste.
Most people get rid of the red meat which has a strong fishy flavor. With the red meat gone, the taste you get is very reminiscent of sea bass or black cod. It has flaky flesh with a very meaty texture.
It is impossible to impress the flavor of a fish in words. Rest assured that when properly prepared, white bass will be just as good if not better than any fish you get at your local supermarket. Especially if you prepare it fresh, right on the lake shore when possible.
Preparing White Bass
White bass are a prolific fish that are often caught in droves. This is fortunate because a 2-pound white bass will yield a surprisingly small amount of edible meat.
If you are ok with a fishy taste, descale the fish while leaving the skin on. Get a couple of large fillets off the back and ribs and go at it. If fishy tastes are not your thing, there are a few methods that have varying levels of success.
Soaking is the most common method of getting rid of any wild taste. Saltwater, lemon-water, sprite, and buttermilk are all reported to help ease the fishy taste. When soaking white bass meat, keep it at 2 hours or less or the meat will get very soft.
Some people also believe that bleeding the fish and removing the mud vein will get rid of that fishy flavor. While this may have marginal success, it won’t greatly affect the flavor. To get the best flavor out of your fish, you will have to do something a little more extreme.
The only tried and true method of getting rid of the fishy taste is to get the red meat out of the fish and use only the white meat. If you do this, you will be severely cutting down on the nutrient value and quantity of meat from each fish.
I find this tradeoff to be well worth it. The white meat is far superior in taste and something I would not want to ruin by leaving the red meat on. If I were starving it would be a different matter but for general cooking, get rid of the fishy parts.
Filleting a white bass is much like filleting any fish of a similar size. Starting at the spine, fillet along the ribs and stay above the blood line. Once you have the fillets off, you can decide whether or not to get rid of the red meat.
If you do get rid of the red meat, you will be left with mostly the smaller back strips. Some people will salvage the white meat from the tail and belly sections but this meat is often so thin that cooking it can be a challenge.
With most fish, the best meat comes from the rib area and that will be gone if you fillet it as I recommend. In the case of white bass, it’s those small back portions leading down to the upper part of the ribs that you want to hang on to.
Try it both ways if you haven’t had it before. Who knows which way you will prefer. Some people love white bass and eat them by the dozens with the red meat on. That’s just not my personal preference.
Cooking White Bass
Grill, smoke, or pan fry? Generally, they are all good options but I find smoking white bass to be less than stellar. The flavors don’t mix well with the smokiness. Give it a shot if you are so inclined and let me know how you did it and if it worked out for you.
Grilling is an acceptable method if you leave the skin on. There are a lot of benefits to grilling fish and the subtle flavors it can add. When seasoned lightly, a grilled fish can be a delicacy.
For some reason, I have never found white bass to be overly successful with more delicate cooking methods. Besides, to make use of the natural oils and flavor of the fish, you want something bolder.
Pan frying seems to be the best method as far as I am concerned. To do it right, you need some light seasonings and a hearty breading. In the end, you will have some amazing, but small, fillets.
If you are going to pan fry, it’s probably best to do so with the skin off but that’s a personal choice. I recommend a deep pan that you can get a good couple inches of peanut oil.
You don’t want so much that you are deep frying but enough that you can get a good, consistent heat around your fillets. Otherwise, you are likely to lose some of your breading.
If you are looking for a recipe, we can hook you up with that too!
How to Fry White Bass
The recipe below uses a batter dip so its best to get that out of the way first. If you mix it beforehand, make sure it is at room temperature before you use it. The quantities below are for about a pound of bass.
You will need:
- 3/4 Cup Non-Rising Cornmeal
- 1/4 Cup Flour
- 1 tsp Salt
- 1 to 1 1/2 tsp Onion Powder
- 2 Tsp Black Pepper
- 1 Tsp Cayenne Pepper or Paprika – Choose one according to taste
I am a fan of Cayenne Pepper but Paprika is more traditional. I also like a little more onion powder but for a milder taste, go with less. All ingredients should be well mixed and stored in an air-tight container. For thinner fillets that are bigger, mix a little extra.
This covers most everything you will need to get going with a fish fry except the fish. White bass are fairly common so I will leave the getting them up to you. If you have bad luck with the fishing, you can use this same recipe on any flaky white fish.
After the batter, you will need:
- 1 Pound Fish Fillets
- 1 Cup Buttermilk
- Salt and Pepper Optional
This is a simple recipe which I prefer and frying is an equally simple process. Heat about 2 inches of peanut oil in a pan to a medium-high heat. You are looking for something between 300 and 350 degrees before you get started.
Feel free to salt and pepper the naked fillets beforehand to your own taste. Dip each fillet in the buttermilk and shake away one at a time. Then pat into the batter mix and immediately add to the pan.
You are looking for a light golden-brown color which will take only a couple of minutes for each fillet. Remove as soon as color is reached and move it to a plate lined with paper towels. Pat each fillet to remove excess oil that can affect the taste.
I find fish served this way to be best with some hot sauce and traditional southern hushpuppies. If you ever needed any motivation to get out there and fish, this recipe should do it. It’s even simple enough that it can be done over an open fire at camp.
Just be careful with the oil around an open flame and try to keep a consistent temperature. I can promise that the fish taste better when you just caught them.