On Spotted Bass
March 18, 2014
Spotted bass are the Rodney Dangerfields of the bass world, suffering from a literary identity complex. Articles on spots so often start with "they closely resemble largemouths," or "they're more like smallmouths." They get "no respect." Spots are spots and they are cool. They fight like things possessed and deserve their own spotlight. A few generalizations: They love rocks; they often suspend; they stage near spawning sites on big, slow-tapering flats in spring; and they prefer woodcover to weeds when they can find it. Spots favor moving water more than largemouths and, like smallmouths, they often move to upstream areas above current breaks to feed. The most prominent tactic developed particularly for spotted bass involves shaky-head worms on standup heads like Buckeye's Spot Remover Jig. But when spots look up, they push shad toward the surface and often attack topwaters. When they feed upward, it's hard to beat walking baits and, at that time, they ignore bottom-hugging tactics. Conversely, when they're feeding down, suspending baits and topwaters are useless. Spots thrive in lakes and rivers from the East Coast to the West, but two regions are known for producing giants. Terry Scroggins, a five-time B.A.S.S. tournament winner, has placed in the top-ten 45 times over his career. He has a soft spot for spots and thinks the Coosa River system is the best for a net bender. "The best venues for spots are on the Coosa, from Logan Martin to Mitchell Lake and down to the Alabama River," Scroggins says. "That region has some of the biggest spots in the country. Lewis Smith Lake in Alabama produced one over 9 pounds. Lake Lanier in Georgia is part of that region that harbors jumbo spots." That arbitrary "Spotted Kingdom" Scroggins describes probably produces more spots over 5 pounds per angler hour than any other region, but the world-record spot, a 10.27-pound goliath, was taken from Billy Creek on Pine Flat Lake, California. The monster was caught by Bryan Shishido during a tournament in 2001. The previous record (9 pounds 9 ounces) was caught in the same lake five years prior. Obviously, Pine Flat Lake has a stake in the Spot Capital sweepstakes. Indeed, the strain of spots stocked there are from Lewis Smith Lake in Alabama. "For true giants, the best fisheries are in California," says FLW pro, Jacob Wheeler. "You rarely catch them over seven pounds in the South or Midwest. Alabama spotted bass are more abundant in the Coosa River system, which has the best fishery for average size, lots of 5-pounders."
Tactical Differences"No doubt, we're seeing bigger spots than ever," says Mike McClelland, a six-time champion on the B.A.S.S. tour. "I think, here in Arkansas, people have learned to fish for them more efficiently with side-viewing sonar and Structurescan. High-tech electronics help because spots suspend so much. And bigger ones are harder to catch, just as with smallmouths and largemouths. The better we become, the bigger fish we're going to catch." Spots are fools for jerkbaits in spring, and suspending minnows slide into McClelland's wheelhouse. "I feel the best method is to soak it — pause for long periods of time between twitches or snaps," he says. "I don't want a suspending bait to float up or sink at all. I may add a lot of action to attract fish, then I let it sit while they approach. It has to stay put. Spotted bass are aggressive; you can't go too big on any jerkbait. I use SPRO McSticks in different sizes to cover the 3- to 7-foot zones, and the big-lipped SPRO McRip 85 when I need to get a little deeper. Spring is prime, but jerkbaits catch spots any time of year." For jerkbaits, he uses baitcasting tackle — a Falcon Signature Series 6-foot 8-inch rod with a soft tip and a strong backbone. Early in the year, he employs a 5:1 gear ratio reel, switching to a 7:1 when the water warms. He favors SunLine Reaction SC, a hybrid between fluorocarbon and mono, touted for sensitivity. If a jerkbait won't suspend perfectly, McClelland switches hooks to alter its buoyancy. "McSticks come with #5 Gamakatsu trebles," he says, "but I change to #6s to keep baits from sinking. If they float, I replace with #4s to keep them down. I change one at a time, starting with the front hook when I want to add weight, and with the rear hook to lighten the lure. You want the lure to suspend at a slightly nose-down attitude. A 20- to 30-degree angle is about right. Spots typically strike from below. If a lure's nose-down, spots take it head-first, upping the odds of boating the fish." McClelland often pursues spotted bass in Beaver Lake, Table Rock, and other Ozark venues near his home. "Here in Arkansas, right up until they spawn, spots hold off steep-dropping points, boat docks, and in cedar trees that have fallen on steep slopes. With the first good warming trend in spring, spots start showing up in those deeper staging areas. I've caught them just as well in 42°F water as in 52°F. But when water temperature spikes upward in spring, the bite starts heating up." In other places (particularly lakes with fewer smallmouths competing for shallow flats at the same time), spots behave more like smallmouths than largemouths when staging, Scroggins says. "Spots spawn deeper — 6 to 8 feet deep, like smallmouths do in clear water. They relate to rock. Coosa River spots are shorter, thicker, and grow larger; in the rest of the South and Midwest, spots are long and thin. They don't necessarily behave the same all over either." Notably, fish geneticists have recently postulated that Alabama spots are a separate species, quite distinct from Kentucky spotted bass, and more genetically similar to largemouths. Lipless cranks are one of the best baits in spring, Scroggins says. "When those Coosa-system spots hold near bottom, I use drop-shot rigs a lot. But when they get on flats in bays near spawning grounds and start feeding, the XCalibur Xr50 gets a lot of bites. I fish a Smithwick Rogue as well in spring, and a 3- or 4-inch Yum Money Minnow on a jig. "Lure choice and action depends on weather conditions. After a front, I let a Rogue sit 15 to 20 seconds between twitches and subtle snaps. With lipless cranks, I use a stop-and-go retrieve, or I hop it off bottom, pumping the rod tip from 10 o'clock to 12 o'clock so the bait jumps 2 to 3 feet. About 90 percent of my bites come when it's falling."
Blade And Plastic Tactics Lake Lanier, Georgia, is on the northern fringe of the Spotted Kingdom. I fished it one late-winter day with Kevin VanDam, who found some outrageously big spots hovering over a hump topping out at about 20 to 25 feet. He was excited because they were rising for spinnerbaits. He likes spinnerbaits. After pointing out where the hump was, VanDam said, "Pitch it, let it fall for about 15 seconds, and slowly pump it back." The lures were moving about 10 feet over their heads, but spots would rise to the bait, just as predicted. I've also fished Lanier with McClelland, where we scored with SPRO McSticks. But he also uses a compact, twin-bladed spinnerbait, especially from postspawn right through summer and fall. "That's another great way to catch spots when they suspend," he says. "Spots tend to suspend in the water column and follow baitfish in open water after the lakes warm up. "They often hold around wood when they can find it. When they suspend higher, you can burn a spinnerbait through the tops of timber. War Eagle Custom Lures makes the Screaming Eagle, a 1/2-ounce double-willow with small profile that's perfect for spots. I generally base color selection on water color. My favorite patterns are Spot Remover and Mouse." Like McClelland and Scroggins, three-time FLW tournament champion Jacob Wheeler also professes affection for pitching jerkbaits at spots. "During the Prespawn Period, especially, it's my favorite way to catch big spots," Wheeler says. "When fish are a little deeper, I like Storm's Twitch Stick, which goes a little deeper than a Rapala Husky Jerk or X-Rap. That bait entices them to rise more when spots suspend, which they do a lot. Getting it two feet deeper can be critical, especially in clear-water fisheries like Lewis Smith Lake. "When spots suspend during the Prespawn Period, you can catch them over 100 feet of water with a jerkbait," Wheeler adds. "But at other times they hold near bottom in 15 to 25 feet. That's when I switch to a drop-shot rig. I use VMC Spinshot Hooks above VMC Tungsten Drop Shot Cylinder Weights. Cylindrical weights glide over cracks, making them much better around broken rock and woodcover. They're efficient on any kind of bottom. Most of the time I use a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce Cylinder Weight with a 20- to 24-inch dropper when pitching around cover. The line is at an angle toward bottom, so you need more distance between weight and hook." Overall, Wheeler considers drop-shotting with a tapered worm like the 5.5-inch Trigger X Probe one of the most effective and consistent ways to catch spots throughout the year. "There are lots of ways to catch them, but drop-shotting is dominant," he says. "The Trigger X Probe floats, which is important. That natural horizontal look fools them in clear water, where they can be picky feeders." Wheeler alters his approach when fishing the drop-shot vertically. "When I'm dropping straight down on fish when I see them with electronics, I use a 1/2-ounce weight to get down as fast as possible," he says. "I use a 10- to 15-inch dropper to the weight in that situation. VMC Spinshot hooks are super-sharp, high-quality hooks, and their ability to eliminate line twist with the built-in swivel is marvelous. Line twist can become a problem when pitching drop-shot rigs, so I appreciate those hooks. Drop-shotting is the one technique you can turn to all year-round when spots are feeding down." Other anglers I've fished with on Lanier, like TV personality Hank Parker, preferred to swim plastic grubs horizontally on jigs during summer, fall, and winter — especially in clear water when spots are suspended, spooky, or finicky. Match jig weight to depth — 3/32-ounce down to 6 feet, 1/8-ounce to 10 feet, 1/4-ounce to 16 feet, and so on. Count it down and reel slowly to keep the grub swimming horizontally, just above the level spots are marking on sonar. The fish were finicky the day we fished and Parker chose smoke grubs, but any colors that approximate or mimic shad can be effective. Spots have excellent vision, so mushroom-style heads from Gopher Tackle or VMC help by creating a seamless profile between jig and plastic, especially when you replace the grub with a realistic swimbait. "The spotted bass is the most aggressive of all the basses," Scroggins says. "Cold fronts don't affect them as much as largemouths. They're almost always ready to feed. But they always have a suitcase with them — always on the move. You must cover water to find them, but once you find them they're easier to catch than the other two species." And they fight like demons. "I think they're tougher than smallies," McClelland says. Well, let's not get carried away, but catching spots — especially the giants in the Spotted Kingdom, the Coosa and Alabama River regions — makes a memorable, bucket list kind of day.