Wanna step outside? Spotted bass warnings are no joke

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 13, 2024

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By Dan Kibler 

For the Clemmons Courier

The tackle shop at one of my favorite bass-fishing spots, Winston-Salem’s 365-acre Salem Lake, got a visit from some people with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission the other day. They dropped off a little poster warning fishermen not to move Alabama spotted bass — a subspecies of largemouth bass — into waters where they are not native. It immediately got taped to a counter for all to see.

It’s certainly a serious warning that many bass fishermen know nothing about. The Alabama spotted bass — a distant cousin of the highly regarded Kentucky spotted bass — can be a deal-breaker in reservoirs where it doesn’t belong. And that number is increasing. The state agency that manages fishing and hunting wants to keep that number down, as much as humanly possible.

Alabama spotted bass are not native to any reservoirs or rivers in North Carolina. As their name would suggest, they belong in lakes and streams in the upper Deep South, particularly in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Great populations of spots exist in many lakes, the most-famous being Lake Sidney Lanier, about 45 minutes northeast of Atlanta, and spotted bass fisheries are second-to-none in some Alabama reservoirs on the Coosa River.

Apparently, some North Carolina-based fishermen thought so much of the spotted bass they caught in Lanier — a smaller, more aggressive fish than its largemouth cousins — that they brought them home in livewells and distributed them into a handful of North Carolina lakes.

They first showed up in Lake Chatuge, a 7,000-acre mountain lake near Hayesville that North Carolina shares with Georgia. They were first reported there in 1983, according to published reports. At that time, smallmouth bass made up 70 percent of the lake’s burgeoning bass population, with largemouth bass making up the remaining 30 percent. Georgia’s state-record smallmouth bass is a 7-pound, 2-ounce fish caught in 1973 from Chatuge.

By 1990, they had taken over, really crushing smallmouth numbers but also reducing the largemouth bass population. Biologists in Georgia recognized the problem — more-aggressive spots outcompete native species for food, cover and spawning habitat — and tried to combat it, unsuccessfully. In 1997, Georgia reported that 86 percent of the lake’s black bass were spots, and smallmouth were almost gone.

Alabama spots showed up in Lake Norman first in the early 1990s, stocked by local anglers bringing fish back from other lakes where they thrived. They were an immediate hit with Lake Norman anglers, but that didn’t last. Although Eric Weir of Gastonia, a part-time bass pro, caught a state-record spot – 6 pounds, 5 ounces — on Dec. 26, 2003 out of Norman, they eventually overran the lake, outcompeting largemouths the same way they knocked out Chatuge’s smallmouths. Largemouths now make up less than 10 percent of Norman’s total black-bass population.

A huge Lake Norman bass — 6.97 pounds — was caught by a Surry County fishermen in February 2012, but genetic analysis showed that it was a hybrid, the product of a mating between a female largemouth and a male Alabama spot, ineligible to replace Weir’s state-record fish.

Alabama’s have shown up in Mountain Island Lake and Lake Wylie, downstream from Norman on the Catawba River. They have mostly replaced largemouths on Mountain Island and started to displace them on Lake Wylie.

Alabama spots do the most damage to largemouth bass populations in lakes that are relatively clear and have limited vegetation. Moss Lake is a smallish municipal lake in Cleveland County near Kings Mountain and Shelby, and a Commission study showed that in 2021, Alabama made up about 80 percent of the black bass population, after having first been discovered during a routine electrofishing survey in 2008.

Belews Lake, a 3,863-acre impoundment on the Dan River in Stokes, Guilford and Forsyth counties, was invaded by Alabamas about 10 years ago, and they have already displaced most of the largemouth bass on the Duke Energy reservoir.

Lake Gaston, a 25,000-acre reservoir on the Roanoke River, had its first Alabama bass discovered around 2012. By 2022, they made up 55 percent of the black bass fishery, marked by many smallish Alabamas and a marked decrease in the number of big largemouths. Alabamas have also been documented in John H. Kerr Reservoir, aka Buggs Island, just upstream from Gaston.

Kentucky spots, or “true” spotted bass, are native to drainages in southwestern North Carolina and have been introduced into the Cape Fear River, W. Kerr Scott Reservoir in Wilkes County and the Yadkin River upstream from High Rock Lake. There is no trouble with Kentuckys outcompeting or hybridizing with smallmouths or largemouths.

Mountain reservoirs in western North Carolina have their share of Alabamas, the fisheries are showing changes. At Fontana Lake near Bryson City, smallmouths are disappearing — 75 percent of those examined are hybrid crosses with Alabamas. At Hiwassee Lake in the extreme western corner of the state, Alabamas were discovered in 2019 and are hybridizing with smallmouths and native Kentuckys. Ditto at Apalachia Reservoir, a smaller lake downstream from Hiwassee. Alabamas hybridizing with native Kentuckys and smallmouths has been documented.

At W. Kerr Scott, Alabamas started showing up in 2012, and evidence of hybridization between Alabamas and smallmouth bass and Alabamas and native Kentuckys has been discovered. Kentuckys made up 70 percent of all spotted bass in W. Kerr Scott in 2016.

In reservoirs where Alabamas have taken over, fishermen are generally left with loads and loads of small, aggressive fish — and very few trophy bass. Several years ago, the Commission responded to anglers’ requests and removed the daily creel limits and size minimums from Alabamas — hoping that a huge increase in angler harvest might blunt the fish’s population expansion.