Roanoke bass (Ambloplites cavifrons)

Roanoke bass
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Roanoke bass fact file

Roanoke bass description

GenusAmbloplites (1)

The Roanoke bass, a poorly known sunfish, is the largest species in the genus Ambloplites (3). Often confused with the similar, and more widely ranging, rock bass (Ambloplites rupestris), the Roanoke bass has a large, robust and somewhat compressed body, which is predominantly olive green, brown or tan, fading to grey and cream on the underside (4). It is distinguished from closely related species by the finer scales on the sides and the naked or incompletely scaled cheeks, and the presence of numerous iridescent gold to white spots on the upper body and head of the adult. With bright red eyes, the Roanoke bass is also often referred to as the “red eye” (3).

Length: 30 – 35 cm (2)
0.9 - 1.1 kg (2)

Roanoke bass biology

The reproductive biology of the Roanoke bass is largely unknown, but is considered to be similar to that of the rock bass. During the spawning season, from mid-May to mid-June, the male builds a nest in unvegetated shallows over gravel substrates and guards it from intruders (10). Maturity occurs at approximately two years old, typically when the Roanoke bass has reached a total body length of 15 centimetres and a body weight of 75 grams (9). Populations appear to be dominated by large juveniles and adults, suggesting that reproductive rates, and/or survival rates of young juveniles, within this species may be low (3) (8) (9).

As with other species in the Centrarchid family, the Roanoke bass is a carnivorous fish, preying on small aquatic invertebrates when young and consuming an increasing amount of crayfish as it matures (9).

Throughout many parts of its range, the Roanoke bass occurs alongside the morphologically similar rock bass. Although each species has slightly different habitat requirements, the rock bass is considered a better competitor for prime habitat. These two species are also known to hybridise (2).


Roanoke bass range

The Roanoke bass occurs in the United States where it has one of the smallest ranges of native game fishes (4). It is endemic only to the Chowan, Roanoke, Tar and Neuse river drainages of Virginia and North Carolina (5). Historically, intentional stocking for sportfishing has occurred throughout these drainages; however, such efforts to increase populations of Roanoke bass have generally failed (6) (7).


Roanoke bass habitat

The Roanoke bass occurs in medium to large streams with firm substrate, high levels of dissolved oxygen, and a near neutral pH (8) (9). It rarely occurs in lakes, instead preferring well-flowing parts of pools, areas of moderate to swift currents, and the deeper water around the shelter of large boulders or tree roots (3).


Roanoke bass status

The Roanoke bass is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern


Roanoke bass threats

The range of the Roanoke bass has receded and it is now nearly extirpated from parts of the Roanoke River where it was once widespread (11). The decline of this species has been brought about by the adverse effects of substantial habitat alterations such as siltation, impoundment construction and the creation of large reservoirs, compounded by the impact of wide-scale introductions of rock bass, with which the Roanoke bass competes and hybridises (2). Furthermore, parts of the Roanoke River have experienced chronic pollution, at times causing major fish kills (12) (13).


Roanoke bass conservation

The rarity of the Roanoke bass throughout its native range has led to the states of North Carolina and Virginia listing this sunfish as a Species of Special Concern (7). The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has proposed changes in fishing regulations for 2011, imposing stricter limits on the number of fish caught each day and a minimum catch size. The implementation of these measures should hopefully help protect the Roanoke bass from overharvesting (14).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.


This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

This species information was authored as part of the Arkive and Universities Scheme.


Feeding on flesh.
A species or taxonomic group that is only found in one particular country or geographic area.
A category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
When two different species or subspecies cross-breed.
Animals with no backbone, such as insects, crustaceans, worms, molluscs, spiders, cnidarians (jellyfish, corals, sea anemones), echinoderms, and others.
Referring to the visible or measurable characteristics of an organism.
The production or depositing of large quantities of eggs in water.


  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2010)
  2. Jenkins, R.E. and Cashner, R.C. (1983) Records and distributional relationships of the Roanoke bass, Ambloplites cavifrons, in the Roanoke River drainage, Virginia. Ohio Journal of Science, 83(4): 146-155.
  3. Cashner, R.C. and Jenkins, R.E. (1982) Systematics of the Roanoke bass, Ambloplites cavifrons. Copeia, 3: 581-594.
  4. Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (March, 2010)
  5. Page, L.M. and Burr, B.M. (1991) A Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of North America North of Mexico. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.
  6. McBride, F.T., Jones, R.I. and Harris, F.A. (1980) Growth rates and food habits of Roanoke bass in the Eno and Tar Rivers, North Carolina. Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Southeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, 34: 341-348.
  7. Jenkins, R.E. and Burkhead, N.M. (1994) Freshwater Fishes of Virginia. American Fisheries Society, U.S.A.
  8. Smith, W.B. (1971) The Biology of the Roanoke Bass. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Statewide Fisheries Research, Final Report. Project F-19.
  9. Petrimoulx, H.J. (1983) The life history and distribution of the Roanoke bass Ambloplites cavifrons Cope, in Virginia. The Progressive Fish-Culturist, 46: 120-125.
  10. Petrimoulx, H.J. (1984) Observations on the spawning behavior of the Roanoke bass. The Progressive Fish-Culturist, 46: 120-125.
  11. U.S. Geological Survey (March, 2010)
  12. Jackson, H.W. and Henderson, C. (1942) A study of the stream pollution problem in the Roanoke, Virginia, metropolitan district. II. Macroscopic invertebrate and vertebrate faunae. Bulletin of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, 51(35): 91-105.
  13. Cairns, J., Jr., Crossman, J.S., and Dickson, K.C. (1971) The recovery of damaged streams. Association of Southeastern Biologists Bulletin, 18: 79-106.
  14. Freeman, D. (2010) Public Hearings: Applying to 2010-2011 Fishing, Hunting and Trapping Seasons. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, North Carolina. Available at:

Image credit

Roanoke bass  
Roanoke bass

© Noel Burkhead, USGS

Noel Burkhead


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