By: Lance Coley (RedHeron)
If you’re a fisherman from the Southeast, especially Alabama and Georgia, then you’ve probably heard of or even caught spotted bass…whether you knew it or not. Spotted bass are a spunky, generally aggressive, and generally numerous fish that can give a river fisherman a run for his money…especially on light tackle. Pound-for-pound they will put the meanest and strongest of largemouth to shame. When hooked, they typically bulldog for the bottom and burst into short drag-stripping runs, making them less likely to perform the aerial antics that largemouth and especially smallmouth are known for. They can be so aggressive, it is not uncommon to see the schoolmate of a fish you are fighting trying to steal the lure out of its mouth! In a river system where strong currents can encourage opportunistic feeding by limiting the time a fish has to “study” its prey and make a decision to strike, this aggressive behavior becomes even more prevalent. All these characteristics makes for a fish that is an absolute joy to pursue, yet is often overlooked by those fishermen hunting the more popular largemouth. In this article, we will discuss how to identify a spotted bass, where to find them, and-most importantly-how to catch them.
The spotted bass tends to go by a myriad of colloquial names that includes, but is not limited to: spot, Kentucky bass, Kentucky redeye (or just redeye), and green trout. To add to the confusion, there is another species of bass called the redeye bass; and the shoal bass, endemic to the Apalachicola River basin, is also often referred to colloquially as a redeye as well.
Clear as mud, right? Well first, let’s try to make it a little easier to identify a spotted bass, so next time you catch one, you’ll know for sure. Spotted bass differ from their brethren in several ways. The back of the jaw terminates at approximately the center line of the eye-which makes their mouths slightly bigger than a smallmouth’s, and slightly smaller than a largemouth’s. Most specimens will also have a small tooth patch on the tongue. Coloration is similar to, yet subtly distinct from that of largemouth. The overall coloration is an emerald-olive back with several darker splotches; dark olive brown or black lateral markings that often begin as closely spaced splotches just behind the gills and turn into a solid or almost solid line towards the tail; a semi-separated dark spot at the base of the tail (at the end of the aforementioned lateral markings); and a yellowish-white belly with faint lateral rows of tiny spots. The soft ray and spiny ray portions of the dorsal fin are also bridged together, unlike on a largemouth, where the two portions of the fin display a large degree of separation. Sometimes, spots will have red eyes (hence the colloquial names), but this is not a dependable means of identification.
There are actually two flavors of spotted bass-the Northern or Kentucky Spotted bass (Micropterus puntulatus); and the Alabama Spotted bass (Micropterus henshalli).
The Kentucky spots are native to the Mississippi River basin; so basically, you can find them all over the east-central part of the U.S. However, in the northern reaches of the Mississippi basin, smallmouth bass begin to replace the spots. On average, Kentucky spots tend to be a little smaller than their Alabama brethren-expect 9″ to 13″ specimens to make up the majority of the catch, and consider a 16-incher worthy of braggin’ rights. Otherwise, the differences are primarily with things like scale count and the size of the tooth patch. If you see enough of them, the two species will begin to actually look different because Kentucky spots tend to have a shorter, wider head, which makes them look just a little bit stumpy when compared to their Alabama cousins. They also tend to be a little darker in coloration, although this can change with water conditions.
The Alabama spots are native only to the Mobile River basin, which includes such rivers as the Tombigbee, Alabama, Black Warrior, Coosa, Talapoosa, and other countless tributaries in Northeast Mississippi, most of Alabama, and Northwest Georgia. Size-wise, expect most fish to be around 12-14″, but be prepared for fish that exceed 18″, especially on larger waters, so size your lures and equipment accordingly. In addition to topping out a little higher on the scales, Alabama spots tend to have a little more emerald green in their coloration, as opposed to olive green. They also have slightly narrower and longer heads, giving them a longer, more streamlined look. The dark lateral markings of the Alabama spots can sometimes have a vertical striping effect and generally does not coalesce completely into a solid line towards the tail, but rather keeps some degree of “splotchiness”.
Several coastal river basins between the mouths of the Mississippi and Apalachicola Rivers, such as the Pearl, Pascagoula, Escambia, and Choctawhatchee have spots also; however, many believe these to be intergrades of the Kentucky and Alabama spots. As you might expect, these fish tend to split the difference on size and appearance.
Spots have also been legally and illegally introduced into many other river systems across the southeast (and even areas of the west coast) for sport, often to the detriment of other native species. The most notably detrimental stockings are that of the Apalachicola basin where they compete and interbreed with the native shoal bass (creating “spoal bass” hybrids), and in the reservoirs of the upper Tennessee River, where they compete and interbreed with the native smallmouth population (creating “meanmouth bass” hybrids). They were also introduced along with shoal bass into Georgia’s Altamaha basin much to the detriment of the native redeye bass population. So basically, if you’re in a river in the southeast, especially one that drains into the Gulf of Mexico, there’s a darn good chance of you catching a spotted bass.
Where can I find them, and how do I catch them?
Like I said, these fish can be found in just about any river in the Southeast. These spunky fish are habitat generalist (meaning they can live anywhere), and they love current and various river habitats including boulders, chunk rock, gravel bars, sand bars, and woody cover. They generally do not relate to soft vegetation such as grass and lily pads. Here’s a general breakdown of what to expect throughout the year…
In the spring, look for spots in relatively shallow water environments such as rocky shoals, sand and gravel bars with scattered timber or other current breaks, the mouths of feeder creeks, and under undercut banks or other current breaks in riffles and runs. Although the fish will be primarily hanging out in shallow water, nearby deep water access is preferable for the larger specimens.
Jigs that imitate small to medium sized craw fish can be deadly effective this time of year. Another good choice is a 4″ or 5″ plastic worm with a small bullet weight, which can mimic anything from craw fish to bait fish. Generally lighter weights such as 1/8oz or 3/16oz are best. If the fish are more active, a shallow diving crank bait or a spinner bait will certainly do the trick as well. As the water warms in late spring, you may try jerk baits or even small top water plugs, such as a zara spook or tiny torpedo.
The best presentation usually involves an upstream cast and a downstream retrieve; however, more importantly, you want to try to keep the lure in the strike zone as long as possible, so don’t be afraid to break that rule in certain situations. Bring the lure as close to potential cover as possible. The cooler the water, the less distance the fish will be willing to swim to take the offering. Also, if the water is stained as is typical in the early spring, the fish may not even see the lure if it is more than a few feet away. Clearer, warmer water is a little more forgiving to inaccurate casters, but you must cast to your target areas from farther away in order not to spook these fish while they are in shallow water. Of course, a late cold snap could drive the fish back to their winter haunts and make them a little tougher to catch.
Summertime will typically drive the fish to similar, but deeper types of areas…although, if they’re really active, they may still be found shallow. The typical low, clear water conditions of summer tends to push the fish out into the main channel of the river, where they can find the depth and current they desire. The current seams formed by deeper eddies are prime areas. Oftentimes, they can be seen out in the open in small schools just cruising flats and bars adjacent to deeper pools and not really relating to any sort of cover. Sometimes when you see them doing this, you can back off the area, fan cast to it with search/reaction lures, and catch them. But if you can see them, they can probably see you, and they most likely aren’t gonna bite.
This time of year, spots will begin to key heavily on shad, if they’re available, or other kinds of bait fish. Light colored spinner baits, crank baits, and hard and soft-plastic jerk baits will generally be the go-to lures; however, those jigs and small worms can be priceless if the fish seem timid, are hanging in deeper water, or are buried up in cover. This can happen in the summer, especially on those really bright bluebird days. Traditional lake presentations, such as shaky heads and drop-shot rigs can be effective on deeper, slower rivers that offer the bass deep water refuge.
As mentioned earlier, sometimes the fish just cruise around featureless water. Spots that are doing this are usually searching for bait fish. When a school of bait fish is found, the spots will usually herd the bait fish towards shore and use the bank as a sort of trap to catch them. Sometimes, the bait fish will even jump up on shore trying to escape. Always keep a fluke, senko, or other weedless bait fish-imitating lure tied on a spare rod so you can make a quick cast if you see this sort of frenzied schooling activity close by. Cast onto the bank and make a quick, jerky retrieve with a few pauses here and there. This schooling activity may also take place out in open water over a deep hole where the spots can ambush the bait fish from below; so keep a look-out for jumping bait fish in these areas as well.
Of course, there’s always those days in the heat of the summer when it seems like the fish just don’t want to bite anything. On days like this-it almost seems counter intuitive-a buzz bait can save the day, even at high noon. Cast it parallel to deep banks and over submerged timber or boulders where there’s a little current. Make two or three casts to the same area before moving on. You might call this an “aggravation technique”.
Fall can put spots all over the place depending on how the weather has been. Typically, they will continue to follow the summer pattern. But as the water initially starts to cool off and the sun beats down with a little less ferocity, they will move back into
shallow areas to feed. However, there is a caveat. Typically, the water is still low and clear in the fall, so these shallow fish will generally stay in areas with quick access to deep water; and the clearer the water, the more easily spooked they will be. Continue to look for and take advantage of the cruising/schooling/bait fish-busting behavior, and concentrate on making your lures imitate shad and bait fish.
When those cold fronts start pounding in as Old Man Winter approaches, spots will start to pull back into deeper and slower water. Luckily, spots don’t seem to get as sluggish in winter as their cousins, but you do have to slow down a little to catch them. Current is still important, but expect to find the fish near the current rather than in it. Multiple fish will often congregate in these refuge areas. Slow rolling heavy spinner baits or even slowly retrieving a medium or deep diving crank bait often works very well in locating fish in these deeper pockets. Heavier jigs and small soft plastics with heavier bullet weights (3/16oz to 3/8oz) can then be used to fish the area more thoroughly.
Those mid-winter Indian summers that are so prevalent in the Deep South will put the fish momentarily back into the spring/fall pattern, so don’t ignore those old shallow water haunts if it’s been warm and sunny for a few days.
Of course, all that is just a rough guideline. Like all bass, spots are opportunistic feeders, so if you notice a pattern that diverges from the norm or you aren’t catching fish in the areas you would expect them to be in, don’t be afraid to fish outside the box!
So whether you’re wet-wading a little sandy south Mississippi stream with ultra-light equipment, kayaking a rocky Alabama fall line river, or blasting your 20ft bass boat up the Coosa River in north Georgia, you’re in prime habitat for spotted bass…and chances are, they’re willing and ready!