March 08, 2018
By Dr. Hal Schramm
Spotted bass are often disregarded by anglers as a smaller sort of bass, and by some fishery managers as a small, aggressive species that can become overabundant and reduce populations of other bass species. But those who have caught "spots" appreciate their whip-cracking strikes and tough fights.
And what about the not uncommon catches of spotted bass over 5 pounds in some southeastern reservoirs and recent catches of 10- and 11-pound specimens in California. What's up with spotted bass?
In 1802, the fisheries world recognized two species of black bass: largemouth bass, Micropterus salmoides, and smallmouth bass, Micropterus dolomieu, first described by French naturalist Bernard Germain de Lacépède. The spotted bass was proposed as a separate species, Micropterus punctulatus, in 1819, but not officially recognized until 1940. Any angler who's tangled with spots might wonder what took so long to recognize such a different fish as a different species. But as we know, there are rules for the scientific community to recognize new species, and the process moves slowly.
Biologists puzzled for decades why some spotted bass populations offered anglers large fish (over 3 pounds) while spotted bass over 15 inches and 1.5 pounds were rare in others. Subspecies of spotted bass—northern spotted bass, also called Kentucky spotted bass, and Alabama spotted bass—have long been recognized. The Alabama bass, Micropterus henshalli, was recognized as a separate species in 2008 after scientists found that it wasn't closely related to the northern spotted bass, but genetically most similar to the redeye bass.
Yet for many anglers and a few biologists, the Alabama bass is still a spotted bass. But recognizing the separate identity of these two "spotted bass" species is important for several reasons, including effective management, angler expectations, and establishing catch records. For clarity, I use the names of these fish now recognized by the American Fisheries Society—Alabama bass and spotted bass.
Spotted bass are native to the southeastern U.S. from the Appalachians west to eastern Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. The species has been introduced peripheral to its native range and as far west as California. While studies have documented subtle habitat preferences, spotted bass can thrive in most waters that contain largemouth or smallmouth bass. They reach sexual maturity at 11 to 12 inches and spawning occurs when water temperatures are 60°F to 72°F. Shallow nests are excavated on firm bottom in shallow water, although spotted bass are known to spawn deeper than other black bass.
Spotted bass are opportunistic predators, with adults consuming primarily fish and crayfish. Although varying throughout their range, spotted bass usually grow to 12 inches in about three years and 16 to 18 inches by age-7. Maximum size rarely exceeds 3 pounds, but state records over 6 pounds have been caught from waters not known to have Alabama bass (Arkansas: 7 pounds 15 ounces; Missouri 7 pounds 8 ounces; Tennessee: 6 pounds 11 ounces).
The Alabama bass is native to the Mobile River basin (Alabama, Black Warrior, Cahaba, Coosa, Tallapoosa, and Tombigbee rivers) in Alabama, eastern Mississippi, and northwestern Georgia. The species has been introduced to California, Texas, and east of its restricted range. Limited habitat studies suggest Alabama bass orient to slow currents in rivers, and deeper water and rock and gravel habitats in reservoirs. They seem to thrive when faced with fluctuating water levels. Spawning isn't well described but seems similar to spotted bass. Diet of adults is fish and crayfish.
Alabama bass grow to 12 inches by age-3 and to 23 inches by age-8 in central Alabama reservoirs. The Alabama state record is 8 pounds 15 ounces, and the California and world-record fish is 11 pounds 4 ounces.
Genetic analysis is the only way to be sure a specimen is an Alabama bass or a spotted bass, but external characteristics can be used to distinguish Alabama bass and spotted bass. The most reliable way to separate the species is to count the "pored scales" (scales with holes) in the lateral line. Although tedious, this can be done with a low-power magnifying glass. Alabama bass usually have 71 or more pored scales, spotted bass 70 or fewer.
Catching spotted bass isn't hard. They're aggressive and commonly mix with largemouths and smallmouths. Finesse presentations like a shaky-head jig, drop-shot rig, small plastics on Carolina rigs, and skirted grubs draw bites, particularly along steeper, hard-bottom areas, rocky shorelines, and long, tapering points with brush. Offshore, small spoons trigger strikes.
Although typically found in deeper water, spotted bass follow shad into creeks in fall and strike jerkbaits. As winter arrives, deep-running, suspending jerkbaits can tease them into biting, while small jigs and spoons continue to work.
Catching giant Alabama bass can be a different story, and tactics depend on the prevailing forage fish. Lake Lanier is a favorite fishing destination for FLW Tour pro Troy Morrow from nearby Eastanollee, Georgia. Blueback herring and threadfin shad are prime prey there. From the bass postspawn through fall, the baitfish and Alabama bass congregate around the lake's countless brushpiles. "You need wind to get the bite going," Morrow says, "and topwater can be the best way to make it happen. Cast past a brushpile and work the lure over it."
Morrow's favorite topwaters are large—a Cordell Pencil Popper or a big walking bait like a Heddon Super Spook or Lucky Craft Sammy 110. He favors chrome and clear on bright days, light translucent and opaque colors on darker days. A 1-foot chop is ideal, but topwaters draw strikes when waves build. When it's too rough to fish on top, Morrow switches to a fluke-style bait, a glidebait like a Sebile Magic Swimmer or Bucca Bull Shad, or a spybait.
When the surface is flat, he may fish a topwater at daylight, downsizing if needed. But when the fish go to the bottom, he relies on a drop-shot rig. "These bass are heavily pressured and dropping on fish rarely works," he says. "Cast beyond the brushpile and work the lure back. You may have to sort through small fish, but the big ones eat the drop-shot, too, and it's the most precise way to fish these piles. If bass merely bump or follow lures, try another spot and return to these fish later."
Winter, which Morrow defines as "when they quit hitting topwaters," calls for different locations and presentations. Lake Lanier was cleared of timber down to approximately 40 feet deep at full pool, hence the need for brushpiles. Concentrate in creek channels and ditches that intersect timber lines. Morrow dredges a Zoom Super Fluke on a Fishhead Spin, drags a football jig with a Zoom Super Chunk Jr., or fishes a drop-shot in channels or ditches. As the spawn approaches, Alabama bass leave the channels and follow the timber edge back to points with brushpiles. Morrow works timber edges with deep-diving suspending jerkbaits.
Veteran pro Aaron Martens, a Californian now living in Alabama, offers a season-specific approach to catching Alabama bass from Coosa River impoundments where the bite can be strongly affected by flow rates. Starting in the spring, the Bassmaster Elite competitor targets hard-bottom banks and docks with jerkbaits and tight-wiggling crankbaits like a Duo Realis Shad 62 DR or a compact jig and trailer. "During summer, you can have both shallow and deep patterns," he says. "Shad-colored, medium-diving crankbaits work along the banks, shallow docks, and the backs of coves when water is flowing from creeks. There are always some fish shallow, but Alabama bass tend to roam open water then. Monitor your electronics to find areas of hard bottom and shellbeds in 8 to 14 feet, sometimes a bit deeper. Deep-diving crankbaits, shaky-heads jigs, and slowly winding heavy bladed jigs are productive presentations.
"In fall, shad start bunching up, and Alabama bass follow them. They commonly suspend, often off depth breaks and points. Search for concentrations of baitfish and cast shad-color medium/deep divers (10 to 15 feet). Shaky-head worms attract bites on bottom in shallower water, when the crankbait bite slows, or current stops. In winter, water temperatures drop into the 50°F range and visibility increases. Again, shallow and deep options can work." Martens combs open water and shallow flats with lipless and billed crankbaits and fishes jigs around docks and brushpiles. His most versatile option for cold-water Alabama bass is a fluke-style lure on a Picasso Suijin scrounger-style head.
Emphasizing Alabama bass' deep water/shallow water split personality, Bassmaster Elite pro Mark Daniels catches big ones from Coosa River lakes in the fall by swimming jigs through patches of waterwillow and pitching small-profile baits like a Missile Baits Missile Craw under a 3/4- to 1½-ounce weight to areas of matted waterwillow stems lying on the surface. On windy days, hard jerkbaits worked off the grassline can be productive, too. "The Alabama bass bite also is exceptional in late winter and early spring," Daniels says. "When the water gets stained, they move shallow like largemouths and aren't shy about eating bigger baits." He targets laydowns and dock posts with jigs, ChatterBaits, and big Colorado-blade spinnerbaits.
Are Alabama bass in California different fish? Maybe, maybe not. FLW Tour pro Jimmy Reese provides guidance for catching West Coast Alabama bass and a few tricks to up the odds for a big bite. "In spring when lake temperature is 58° to 60°F, look for current from water running into the reservoir from creeks," Reese says. "This water is cold. Fish the temperature break where cold creek water starts warming. Make your initial casts with a swimbait in a color to match the prevailing forage, then follow up with a shaky-head or tube. Look for spawning fish on flats with boulders, brush, or trees; fish suspend in shallow bushes and trees as well."
Reese first tries to pull them out with walking topwater lures. He follows with a weightless worm in thick cover. "Summer is tough," he concedes, "and they generally go deep. I recommend probing steeper banks with flatter areas nearby, using deep-diving crankbaits. The bite, especially for bigger fish, improves in fall. Then I fish topwaters over and along long main-lake points and work spoons and jerkbaits in creek arms. Fish bigger swimbaits on points less than 20 feet deep, especially during low-light conditions, for your best shot at a fall trophy."
Winter is a good time to go, and anglers have options for patterns and presentations then. "Points are always good; those with cover are better," Reese advises. "Bottom presentations like jigs, 6-inch Roboworms, and weighted stickworms produce, as do swimbaits. It depends on the lake and the conditions. Scout for trout or kokanee on sonar, then fish in that portion of the water column." His default presentation is a shaky-head worm. Bottom presentations are reliable producers, fished on lighter line, a plus on these highly pressured lakes.
Expectations and Records
Alabama bass get bigger than spotted bass, but that doesn't mean fishing where Alabama bass swim is a guarantee of catching big fish. Aaron Martens has witnessed less frequent catches of big fish over the years in the Coosa River impoundments near his Alabama home. Mike Holley, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources biologist who manages these fisheries, says that sampling suggests no change in the abundance of large Alabama bass in these systems over the last 18 years. Furthermore, tournament records for these lakes indicate the average weight of Alabama bass has been stable at about 2 pounds per fish. Fishing pressure? Change in catchability?
Dr. Mike Maceina, retired fishery professor at Auburn University who has done a vast amount of research on Alabama bass, says the 8-pound 15-ounce Alabama record from Lewis Smith Lake is unlikely to be broken; the fish was caught shortly after the reservoir was impounded when productivity and fish growth were at their maximum.
The giant fish in California are Alabama bass. They originated from a population of pure Alabama bass in Lewis Smith Lake, and Auburn University fishery professor Dr. Steve Sammons confirmed, based on lateral-line scale count, that the world-record fish—Nick Dulleck's 11-pound 4-ounce giant from New Bullards Bar Reservoir—is an Alabama bass. Ideal thermal conditions and a diet of oily, energy-rich trout and kokanee salmon foster fast growth. The limited number of fish used to establish the original population in Lake Perris and sequential stocking of survivors of this original stocking from one reservoir to another makes these populations susceptible to what geneticists call a "founder effect"—that introduced populations carry only a portion of the diverse gene pool of the species. In this case, it might be genes that regulate the maximum size fish can attain.
Nick Dulleck's recent catch is a world record as an Alabama bass, not a spotted bass. The International Game Fish Association (IGFA), an organization that recognizes world-record fish, has ruled that evidence is sufficient to conclude that the fish was an Alabama bass, and established it as the All-Tackle record. It's the first Alabama bass record for IGFA. This recognition of Alabama bass as a different species from spotted bass may have rippling effects for state records wherever these magnificent fish roam.
*Dr. Hal Schramm, Counce, Tennessee, is a fishery scientist, avid bass angler, and freelance writer. He frequently contributes to In-Fisherman publications.