Trophy fish, big problems

Trophy fish, big problems

Alabama bass provide anglers with a trophy bass opportunity in the Tenn-Tom Waterway lakes. (Photos courtesy Larry Pugh)

Spotted bass are often disregarded by bass anglers as a smaller sort of black bass. But those who have caught “spots” appreciate their whip-cracking strikes and hard-swimming fights. And the not uncommon catches of “spotted bass” over 5 pounds in some southeastern reservoirs and recent catches of 10-and 11-pound spots in California challenge the “smaller black bass” image. What’s up with spotted bass?

New species of bass

The fisheries world recognized only two species of black bass — largemouth bass, Micropterus salmoides, and smallmouth bass, Micropterus dolomieu — in 1802 when the black bass were first described. The spotted bass was recognized as a separate species, Micropterus punctulatus, in 1940. 

For decades, biologists puzzled over why some spotted bass populations offered anglers large fish (over 3 pounds) while spotted bass over 15 inches and 1.5 pounds were a rarity in most populations. Subspecies of spotted bass — the northern spotted bass, also called Kentucky spotted bass, and the Alabama spotted bass — have long been recognized and explained part of the big spotted bass-small spotted bass mystery. 

The Alabama bass, Micropterus henshalli, was recognized as a separate species in 2008 after genetic analysis revealed that it was not closely related to the spotted bass but genetically most similar to the redeye bass. Yet, for many anglers and even a few fisheries biologists, the Alabama bass is still a spotted bass. Recognizing the separate identity of these two bass species is important for several reasons, including effective management, angler expectations, establishing catch records, and problems caused by Alabama bass.

For clarity in this article, I will use the names of these fish now recognized by the American Fisheries Society: Alabama bass and spotted bass.

Big Alabama bass, like this 7-pound, 7-ounce giant from Lock E, are native to the Tombigbee River.

Similar but different

Spotted bass are native to the southeastern U.S. from the Appalachians west to eastern Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. 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. Although Alabama bass and spotted bass are stream dwellers, both can thrive in reservoirs. The big “spotted bass” in Bay Springs Lake, located in northeast Mississippi, are likely Alabama bass.

Genetic analysis is the only sure way to determine whether a specimen is an Alabama bass, a spotted bass, or a hybrid of either species with either a largemouth or smallmouth bass. Although tedious, anglers can distinguish Alabama from spotted bass. Both have small mouths, conspicuous round, dark blotches on the upper flanks and back, and small dark spots on each scale on the lower flank. The two species differ in the number of lateral line scales, the scales with small pores that are visible as a slightly arched line on the side of the fish running from behind the gill covers to near the tail fin. Spotted bass have 70 lateral or fewer lateral line scales, Alabama bass have 71 or more. Lateral line scales can be readily distinguished and counted with a low-power magnifying glass.

The dark side

Alabama bass are aggressive and commonly mix with largemouth and smallmouth. Finesse presentations like a shaky head, drop shot, small plastics on Carolina rigs, and skirted grubs draw a lot of bites, particularly along steeper, hard bottom or rocky shorelines and long, tapering points with brush. Offshore, small spoons trigger strikes. Although tending to be found in deeper water, Alabama bass often follow shad into coves in the fall and will crush jerkbaits. As winter rolls around, deep jerkbaits effectively test Alabama bass’ patience.

So what’s the problem? Hybridization, for starters. They are rather promiscuous in their selection of mates and seem particularly fond of smallmouths.

Angler-introduced Alabama bass have essentially eliminated smallmouth bass in Chatuge and Nottely lakes in Georgia; and a dwindling, genetically pure population of smallmouth bass in nearby Blue Ridge Lake is sustained by heavy stocking. High percentages of Alabama bass-smallmouth bass hybrids have been detected in reservoirs in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Recent genetic analyses have found Alabama bass-smallmouth bass hybrids in Tennessee River lakes, including Pickwick Lake.

Alabama bass also appear able to displace largemouth bass. In three North Carolina reservoirs, Alabama bass numbers have increased dramatically while largemouth numbers have dwindled over 10- to 30-year time spans. In Lake Norman, largemouth abundance in electrofishing samples has been less than 20 percent of historical catch rates for the last 15 years, coinciding with a period of rapid increase in abundance of Alabama bass. Noteworthy and significant is that the combined abundance of Alabama bass and largemouth bass has remained rather stable — Alabama bass don’t add to the bass fishery, they replace largemouth bass.

What about Mississippi? 

Spotted bass occur throughout the Magnolia State. Alabama bass are native to the Tombigbee River, now the Tenn-Tom Waterway. There is no evidence of suppression of largemouth bass in the Waterway pools. 

The Tenn-Tom Waterway connected the Tombigbee and Tennessee rivers and provided a passage for Alabama bass into the Tennessee River. In addition, Alabama bass caught in Bay Springs Lake during Pickwick Lake bass tournaments occasionally are released into Pickwick. Although the Alabama bass have had access to Pickwick Lake for over 35 years, biologists have found only a low incidence of Alabama bass hybridization with smallmouth bass in Pickwick Lake. 

What, if any, effect Alabama bass will have on Pickwick Lake is unknown. Larry Pugh is a fisheries biologist, former MDWFP fisheries chief and now Deputy Administrator, and accomplished bass angler who has tangled with dozens of big Bay Springs Alabama bass. Pugh’s take on Alabama bass: “Enjoy the opportunity to catch true trophy Alabama bass. But ensure that these fish are not moved out of their native range into any of Mississippi’s other productive bass fisheries.”

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