It was the final morning of the March 2016 Costa FLW Series event on Sam Rayburn Reservoir. Montgomery bass pro Kris Wilson and I were looking for five good bites to improve our respective weights.
Wilson, a well-known Carolina-rig specialist, had positioned his boat on a main lake flat in close proximity to an underwater water drain so we could drag our baits around the perimeter. Within seconds we both felt the rap-taps of bass chomping our lizards. Wilson set the hook first, reeled the fish to the boat and swung it aboard.
“Spot,” he said, seeing the feisty 11-inch bass. Mine wasn’t much bigger. Fat, sassy and legal to keep under statewide limits, yes, but it was well shy of the 14-inch minimum required by the tournament rules. No sooner had I released my fish than Wilson caught another one of about identical size. “Let’s make a move,” he said. “These spots aren’t going to do us any good.”
“Spot” is the abbreviated nickname many anglers use for a spotted bass. Also known as Kentucky spotted bass, these sport fish are widely distributed throughout the Ohio River basin as well as the central and lower Mississippi River basin.
Spotted bass are found in several coastal states, including Texas, where they are native to several river systems from the Guadalupe to the Red River, exclusive of the Edwards Plateau region.
Not surprisingly, spotted bass aren’t near as popular with Texas bass anglers as their hallowed largemouth cousins. This is especially true with tournament crowds.
As a rule the fish don’t grow very big. Not in these parts, anyway. Fish measuring 15-17 inches long (2 1/2 to 3 pounds) are considered giants. Those that grow beyond that are extremely rare.
Before someone points to the 5.92-pound bruiser that Josh Helmstetler of Big Spring caught at Lake Alan Henry in January, or the 5.62 pounder that Erik Atkins caught from ‘Henry in 2011 as two such genetic freaks, you should know that neither of those fish were true spotted bass.
Instead, both fish were found to be descendants of the 150 Alabama bass that were experimentally stocked in Alan Henry in 1996. Native to watersheds across the southeast, Alabama bass bear a striking resemblance to spotted bass in that they both have a short jaw and distinctive tongue patch.
But the similarities end there. In fact, the American Fisheries Society declared the Alabama bass as a species unto its own about 1 1/2 years ago.
Prior to that, the Alabama bass was considered a sub-species to the spotted bass. As a result, the Atkins bass was recognized by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as the first new state record in the spotted bass category since 1966, when a 5.56 pounder was reported from Lake O’ the Pines.
Helmstetler’s bass was also tagged as a new state record spot. However, in light of the AFS ruling, there has been some talk within the TPWD inland fisheries division recently about creating a new records category exclusively for Alabama bass.
If that does happen, the former state record spot from Lake O’ the Pines would likely be reinstated, even though some experts question whether or not that fish was positively identified as a spotted bass 50 years ago.
Best spots For Spots
Although spotted bass can be found in a number of East Texas water bodies, they are much bigger players on some lakes than others. According to Spencer Dumont, TPWD’s East Texas regional fisheries director, the vast majority of lakes across the region with populations of spots consist mostly of small fish—12 inches or lessin fairly low abundance. However, Dumont said there are a handful of lakes across the region where the fish are found in greater numbers. Among those lakes are Toledo Bend, Sam Rayburn, Bob Sandlin, Jacksonville, Cypress Springs and Palestine.
“Of these reservoirs, Jacksonville and Cypress Springs not only have abundant spotted bass populations but they are substantial contributors to the fishery,” Dumont said. “For example, at Jacksonville, spotted bass are even included in their Thursday Night Open tournaments in what they call the ‘Kentucky Derby’—the best five spotted bass wins the side pot.”
Spotted bass are small at Jacksonville, but an occasional 13-14 incher does show up, Dumont says. Since there is no statewide minimum length limit on spots, anglers are allowed to retain spots of any size, up to the five fish daily bag allowed by statewide bass regs.
As good as the spotted bass population is at Jacksonville, Dumont says survey data indicates an even stronger fishery at 3,500-acre Cypress Springs, where anglers frequently report fish in the 13-15 inch range and some as large as 17 inches.
Why is it that spotted bass seem to do better in Jacksonville and Cypress Springs than other lakes around the region? Dumont thinks it could boil down to habitat, or a lack of it.
The biologist says the common denominators on the two lakes is that both are devoid of aquatic vegetation and are not near as high in nutrients as many other east Texas lakes.
“It could be that the habitat at these lakes isn’t in the wheelhouse of largemouth bass, but it is for spotted bass, resulting in fewer largemouths eating and competing with spotted bass,” he said.
The biologist added spotted bass tend to prefer clearer, less productive water than largemouth bass do.
“Although spotted bass can be found in some of the same areas as largemouth bass within a reservoir, they tend to spend more time in deeper water,” he said. “On reservoirs that have lots of vegetation with off-color water at the upper end and clearer, deeper water in the lower end, you’ll tend to catch more spotted bass in the lower end.”
Spots: Summer Fun Fish
TPWD District 6 supervisor Todd Driscoll of Brookeland agrees with that theory and says the proof is in the puddin’. Driscoll competes in quite a few weekend tournaments, but also does a considerable amount of “fun fishing” for spotted bass on the side.
When chasing spots on his home lake, Sam Rayburn, during the summer months, Driscoll always keys on deep, underwater points or drops with hard clay or sand bottoms at the lake’s southern reaches more than anything else. He relies heavily his Garmin electronics to help him pinpoint the location of the fish before he feeds them a bait, usually a spoon of some sort.
“I’ll occasionally catch one around a brush pile, but if I’m looking for spotted bass exclusively, those deep structure types of places are where I look—that’s what the spots like,” he said.
It’s a Numbers Game
Driscoll refers to spotted bass as “fun fish” for several reasons. For starters, they tend to run in large groups. They are also aggressive by nature and fairly easy to pattern from one day to the next.
“When I go fun fishing, it’s all about the number of bites I get,” he said. “That’s the neat thing about spots. They’re a school fish, and they are generally pretty aggressive. Where you catch one there are most likely going to be others. It’s not uncommon to catch 10-20 off a single spot, but you might catch 50 or more before they move or quit biting. The average fish will be 8-13 inches, but you will occasionally catch one 15-18 inches.”
As earlier mentioned, Driscoll prefers to go after spots with a spoon more than anything else. He likes it because the bait gets to bottom quickly, which enables him to make precise, vertical presentations to fish that he can clearly see on his electronics.
“It’s ‘video game’ fishing,” Driscoll said. “You can catch them casting a Carolina rig or something else, but you can’t be near as efficient as you can with a spoon and good electronics. A drop shot works well, too, but with a spoon you never have to change out plastics between fish.
“With a spoon all you have to do is stay on the fish with your electronics and free spool the spoon to bottom,” he added. “When you catch a fish, just unhook it and drop it right back down again. It can be really fast fishing once the fish get fired up. It’s a lot of fun.”
—story by Matt Williams