Twenty-five years ago, Alabama bass didn’t exist in Lake Norman. Today, they’re a dominant game fish.
This abundant member of the black bass family has taken over the open-water basins of the lake north of Charlotte. Alabama bass have out-competed and displaced largemouth bass except in upper lake coves and creeks.
Fishing guide Bob Curan said his clients land more Alabama bass than any other fish. He knows them as spotted bass. “I would say 70 percent of what I catch is spotted bass,” Curan said. On a recent January day, he said, clients trolling live bait in 25-40 feet of water caught 25 in two hours.
What’s an Alabama bass anyway? They originated in the Mobile River system in Alabama. Scientists in 2008 determined that the fish, similar to a spotted bass, was a distinct species (Micropterus henshalli).
Then genetic testing in 2014 showed Lake Norman’s spotted bass to be Alabamans and not a spotted bass sub-species, according to Lawrence Dorsey of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
How did the Alabamans get into Lake Norman? They arrived in the late 1990s when anglers, hoping to boost the lake’s fishery, made unauthorized introductions of the non-natives.
The Alabamans quickly spread. Dorsey, District 6 fisheries biologist, and Michael Abney of Duke Energy Carolinas authored a 2016 article on a study entitled “Changes in Black Bass Population Characteristics after the Introduction of Alabama Bass in Lake Norman, North Carolina.”
“While Alabama bass are now likely the dominant black bass species in the main basin of Lake Norman,” they wrote, “largemouth bass remain more abundant than Alabama bass in the upper coves zone and it is unclear if this pattern exists in other areas of the reservoir that have not been sampled historically.”
Dorsey said Alabama bass like Norman’s clear water and move around a lot, making it easier to find food. They’ve made their way downstream into Mountain Island Lake, the next lake on the Catawba River chain.
The Alabamans don’t grow as big as their largemouth cousins. Curan said a large fish will measure 20 inches long and weigh four pounds. Norman produced the state record fish in 2003 of 6 pounds, 5 ounces.
Curan, who operates Fishin’ Lake Norman, doesn’t target Alabama bass but seeks out baitfish such as threadfin shad, which attract a range of game fish.
Once he finds balls of baitfish on his boat’s fish finder, he puts out 6-to-7-foot medium rods tied with 8-or-10-pound-test monofilament line. At the end is a Carolina rig consisting of an egg sinker, three-foot-long fluorocarbon leader and No. 1 circle hooks. The bait is live shad or shiners.
Curan slowly trolls the rigs through the water column. While 7 of 10 fish caught will be Alabama bass, others will be white perch; hybrid striped bass, a hatchery-raised fish stocked by the wildlife commission; crappie or an occasional largemouth.
Anglers can also catch Alabama bass by jigging a metal spoon, such as a Hopkins, Castmaster or Little Cleo. Topwater lures work when fish are feeding on the surface. And the Alabama rig – what else? – is effective with its five-lure spread.
Curan has been fishing Norman since 1997 and has been guiding for two years. He was not aware that the spotted bass were actually Alabama bass until interviewed for this article. So which puts up a better fight pound for pound – an Alabaman or a largemouth?
He said Alabama bass tend to be a little more aggressive. “Spotted bass tend to jump out of the water more than largemouth bass,” he said. “They pull about the same as a largemouth. I think a spotted bass will fight a little more harder than the largemouth.”
Tale of two fish
Alabama bass look like largemouths but differ in several ways. The Alabama’s upper jaw extends to the back of the eye; the largemouth’s upper jaw goes beyond the eye. Alabamans have a rough patch on their tongues. Fishing guide Bob Curan says Alabama bass colors are brighter. “They’re a much prettier fish,” he said.