TEXAS FRESHWATER by Matt Williams

SLOWING DOWN By Joe Dodggett
March 25, 2016
True Green
March 25, 2016

Seeing Sports or Alabama Bass?

A tip of the hat goes out to Josh Helmstetler of Big Spring.

 For those who may not have heard, the 29-year old angler was fishing at Lake Alan Henry Reservoir near Lubbock on January 9 when he hooked and landed a bass that was subsequently certified as the heaviest spotted bass ever reported in the Lone Star State.

Interestingly, however, Helmstetler’s catch has since raised some questions with TPWD inland fisheries biologists. The questions revolve around the fact that the fish was verified to be an Alabama bass instead of a native spotted bass and whether or not the department should create separate state and lake record categories for that species.

Either way, the fish will rank as a new state record of some sort. More on that later. First, here’s the details behind Helmsteler’s fish.

Placed on certified scales at Klemke’s Sausage Haus in Slaton, the bass weighed a whopping 5.98 pounds. As of this writing, the fish tops the former state record spot of 5.62 pounds that was set in 2011, also at Alan Henry, by Erik Atkins of Lubbock. The Atkins bass was particularly noteworthy at the time because it beat out a 5.56 pound state record from Lake O’ The Pines that had stood for 45 years.

 There’s a pretty good fish tale behind Helmstetler’s lunker. For starters, the prize catch couldn’t have been more timely.

The angler caught it while competing in a Big Spring Bass Club team tournament. Club rules allow each team to weigh in three bass per day. The combined weight of the record spot and two other keepers that Helmstetler and his partner, Justin Gard, brought the scales that day weighed 10.97 pounds. They easily grabbed the victory.

To hear Helmstetler tell it, the weather was cold and blustery the day the record class fish came calling. It was so cold that he broke out the snow ski gear he wears when he hits slopes each winter in Ruidoso, N.M. “I even had my goggles on,” he said. “The high was supposed to be about 37 degrees that day, but don’t think it ever made it.”

Helmstetler said he and Gard were fishing over at a large flat bordering Big Grape Creek when they got into a group of fish in about 10 feet of water. They had caught about a dozen bass using Rat-L-Traps and suspending jerk baits before the bite began to wane.

Thinking the school of fish may have relocated, the anglers decided to move farther out on the flat closer to the creek channel. Their intuitions were correct. Not long after making the move Helmstetler felt the rap-tap of a bass inhaling his jerk bait, a 5/8 ounce LIVETARGET Glass Minnow BaitBall in a silver natural color pattern.

“She hammered it,” he recalled. “At first I thought I had hold of the biggest bass of my life, because it was fighting so hard. Once I got it up to the boat I was sort of disappointed because it didn’t look very big. But when got it out of the net I was like, ‘holy crap, this is a huge spot!’”

Or at least that’s what Helmstetler thought, as did Atkins when he reeled in his 5.62 pound former record five years ago.

Actually, neither fish was determined to be a spotted bass, which are native to many watersheds around eastern Texas. Instead, TPWD fisheries biologists determined that both fish were the descendants of the 150 adult Alabama bass that were stocked at Alan Henry in 1996 as part of an experiment to see how the fish would fare in the deep, rocky impoundment near Justiceburg.

According to Charlie Munger, the TPWD fisheries biologist who oversees Alan Henry, spotted bass and Alabama bass bear a striking resemblance to one another in that they both have a short jaw and distinctive tongue patch.

However, that is about as far as the similarities go. In fact, the biologist said the American Fisheries Society designated the Alabama bass as a species unto its own about a year and a half ago. Prior to that, the Alabama bass was considered a sub-species the spotted bass. 

In light of that finding, and the fact that high water on Alan Henry last spring may have flushed some of the Alabama bass downstream and into reservoirs with spotted bass populations, Munger says the department is kicking around the idea of creating a records category strictly for Alabama bass.

“At this point I don’t know how it is going to be handled,” Munger said. “It’s a problem we’re aware of and one that we are addressing. As of right now it (Helmstetler’s fish) will be listed as a spotted bass record, though based on what the impetus is from some of our district biologists, Austin staff and genetics lab it potentially could be retroactively made into an Alabama bass state record.”

If that’s the case, Munger says the 5.56 pounder caught from Lake O’ The Pines in 1966 will likely be reinstated as the Texas state record for that species.

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Email Matt Williams at [email protected]

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