THERE WAS A TIME not too awfully long ago when a fisherman who reeled in a football shaped “spotted bass” weighing upwards of three pounds could call it a spot and feel pretty good about it.
But that’s not the case anymore. Just because a fat bass with a really serious weight problem looks like a spotted bass doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what it is. In fact, there’s a good chance it may be some sort of hybrid or an entirely different animal altogether.
For years the fisheries science community recognized three subspecies of spotted bass—the northern spot, the Wichita spot and the Alabama spot. The northern spot (also called the Kentucky spot) is the most widely distributed across the U.S. and is native to waters in portions of eastern Texas.
In 2011, however, the American Fisheries Society whittled the list to two when it removed Alabama fish from the spotted bass family and reclassified it as a species unto its own—the Alabama bass.
Established in 1870, the AFS is a non-profit organization comprised of fisheries professionals nationwide whose goals are to advance fisheries and aquatic science and to promote the development of fisheries professionals.
The Alabama bass is native to the Mobile River basin of Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. The AFS elected to remove the fish from the spotted bass list after extensive DNA testing and other research revealed that the Alabama bass and the spotted bass are way too different to place them under the same family tree.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the fish is their growth potential. Biologists say northern spotted bass, the most widely distributed, rarely grow beyond three pounds. Alabama bass, meanwhile, are genetically wired to grow significantly larger.
Dr. Steven M. Sammons with the School of Fisheries, Aquaculture, and Aquatic Sciences at Auburn University, has performed extensive research on numerous species of black bass, including Alabama bass, over the last 25 years.
An avid angler, Sammons says he has caught 14 different native black bass species. In five years of working and fishing in Tennessee, he claims he never documented a single native northern spotted bass over 2 1/2 pounds.
“Actual spotted bass (Kentucky spotted bass, northern spotted bass, Micropterus punctulatus) rarely get over three pounds and virtually never over five pounds,” Sammons said.
Sammons added that it is much easier to differentiate between the two fish in person as opposed to a photo. The biologist said Alabama Bass are more brassy, leaner, and have a more pointed head; whereas, spotted bass are greener, fatter, and a blunter head.
“But the surest way is size,” Sammons said. “If you have a population where the fish routinely reach 3-5 pounds, you have Alabama Bass, not spotted bass.”
Dr. Michael Maceina, also fisheries scientist at Auburn University, agreed with Sammons’ assessment. Macenia has invested a considerable amount of time researching the fish. He says the largest angler-caught Alabama bass he is aware of within its native range weighed 8 pounds, 15 ounces.
Alabama bass have found their way into several different water bodies over the years, some through illegal releases and some via state agency stockings. The fish have even found their way outside their home range as far west as California, where the California Department of Fish and Wildlife began stocking them as early as 1974.
One California lake where the fish have fared exceptionally well is 4,700-acre New Bullards Bar, where Alabama bass upwards of six pounds are fairly common and back-to-back world records weighing 10 pounds, 2 ounces and 11 pounds, 4 ounces were caught in 2015 and 2017. It’s worth noting that the mountainous lake also is stocked with protein-rich kokanee salmon.
Maceina says he thinks the magnum size of the Alabamas coming out of New Bullards Bar and other California reservoirs could be attributed to a combination of diet, habitat conditions and possibly even low-density populations. “It’s amazing to see how much larger Alabama bass get in California compared to the size in their native range,” he said.
You don’t hear much about Alabama bass in Texas, probably because they have been stocked in only one Lone Star Lake with no immediate plans to release them elsewhere.
In 1996, Texas Parks and Wildlife released 150 adult Alabama bass in Lake Alan Henry, a West Texas lake where northern spotted bass do not exist. The experimental stocking was performed to see how the fish would do in the 2,900-acre reservoir near Lubbock.
Obviously, the transplants have adapted well to the classic spotted bass environment provided by the deep, rocky impoundment built along the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River.
In 2011, Alan Henry produced a 5.62 pounder that at the time replaced the long standing spotted bass state record of 5.56 pounds caught from Lake O’ the Pines in 1966. The lake kicked out an even larger fish weighing 5.98 in Jan. 2016. Genetics testing of both Alan Henry bass confirmed they were pure descendants of 150 fish stocked in 1996.
In Sept. 2017, TPWD became one of a handful of state game and fish agencies to recognize the AFS ruling declaring the Alabama bass a separate species.
TPWD created a state record category in its Angler Recognition Program specifically for those fish and placed the 5.98 pounder caught in 2016 by Josh Helmstetler of Big Spring at the head of the list. Meanwhile, the 5.56 pound spotted bass reported 53 years ago at Lake O’ the Pines has been reinstated as the state record spotted bass.
As earlier mentioned, any spotted bass as heavy as the ‘Pines fish is highly suspect these days without genetics testing using a scale or fin clip to confirm its true DNA. By no means is that to say it is a genetic impossibility for a native spot grow that large, but they are extremely rare.
“When it comes to state records, you can never pass on the notion that it was just a genetic freak,” Sammons said. “State records can be a lot bigger than average, because genetics is a weird thing, and every once in awhile you get some freak that grows twice as fast as everyone around him/her. I think most state records are like that.”
Perhaps the largest spotted bass ever documented through genetics testing was a 6.1 pounder caught from Tennessee’s Lake Chickamauga in 2011. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which also recognizes spots and Alabama bass separately, lists the fish as a state record for spotted bass.
Texas bass anglers love to catch big fish. Given the Alabama bass’s ability to grow significantly larger than northern spotted bass, and how the fish have fared at Alan Henry, it might seem like a good idea to some anglers for TPWD to initiate some sort stocking programs on other Texas lakes.
TPWD director of inland fisheries director Craig Bonds isn’t a fan.
“At this time, TPWD does not plan on stocking Alabama bass in more Texas lakes,” Bonds said. “We do not want to risk potential negative inter-specific competition with recreationally and economically important largemouth bass fisheries, nor do we desire to risk hybridization with other endemic black basses in Texas, especially in areas where active restoration efforts are in place for native Guadalupe bass. In general, there is less support and acceptance within the broader fisheries management profession for further range expansion of black basses.”
Ethel was the very first bass in the ShareLunker Program. She became a symbol of how good management and forward thinking could drive conservation efforts to wonderful results. Over the years, millions of people have travelled to see Ethel, only a few were aware of the dramatic events behind Ethel’s survival, and because of her survivial, the establishment of the ShareLunker Program.
—story by MATT WILLIAMS