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Spotted Bass vs. Largemouth Bass: With commentary on Smallmouth Bass

by Ralph Manns

Spotted Bass vs. Largemouth Bass:


With commentary on Smallmouth Bass


by Ralph Manns


The interactions of the three primary black bass species are determined by the individual characteristics of each species. All black bass are similar. All are basically very flexible in habitat requirements. Given multiple habitats with no or little competition for food or space, each black bass species will expand and occupy all of the available habitats that will work. Some places will be more suitable than others, but the bass population will expand, unless curbed by angling pressure, until all usable habitats hold as many of that bass species as the habitat will support.


Each species has habitats that favor its basic make-up, and each can survive and use habitats that are less suitable for it while more suitable to another. In competition with one another, each bass species tends to be found mainly in the habitat that best fits its particular nature, and to be less common in areas better suited to the capabilities and nature of another black bass species. But, there can be considerable overlap.


These separations are not always predictable, as multiple habitat features come into play and one feature like murky water may imbalance another like vegetation or soft-bottom for spawning. Moreover, the size of individual bass effects their ability to compete with other bass of the same and different species. A very large spotted bass may, for example, out-compete smaller largemouths and occupy the habitat containing the most food, regardless of the needs of smaller bass of the same or different species.


All black bass species apparently arose from a basic riverine stock, the spotted bass line. All black basses have very similar temperature minimums, maximums, and preferences. And aside from musculature and mouth shape/size, basic capabilities are similar. They all eat the same prey, providing they will fit into their mouths.


Spotted bass (SB), and the species close to the SB genetic line (see my article"Identification of Black Basses") have physical and inherent behavioral characteristics developed in response to river habitats. Most of the fresh waters in the warmer part of the United States, save for portions of Florida, the marshy parts of the Mississippi delta, a few large river back-waters offered only riverine habitats. Body shapes, musculature, size, and growth rates of SBs are adapted to living in food-limited riverine habitats.


SBs and close relatives like current and clear water, do well rocky cover, but do well, perhaps equally well, in murky water. They are adapted to spawn and survive during low water conditions and droughts. They tend to be slow growing and relatively short-lived and small, and usually require small prey befitting their comparatively smaller mouths. Their feeding behaviors are based on the tactics that work in current and around rocks. They bite and grab prey frequently rather than just suck-in prey.


Smallmouth bass (SMB) are an offshoot riverine species, but evolved closer to glaciers and have lifestyles better adapted to colder water. They also have lived and evolved in natural lakes for centuries . They are similar to spots in many capabilities and behaviors, but are less well adapted to murky conditions as they are almost totally visual feeders. When water is murky, spots have an edge over SMB, but SMB seem better adapted when waters fail to warm into the high 70s and remain in the lower portion of the black bass tolerance range.


Like SB, SMB have feeding habits that emphasize visual feeding, bite more often than suck-in prey, and are prone to move up and down to attack preyfish from below, tactics most suitable for feeding in strong currents.


Largemouth bass (LMB) are the black-sheep of the black bass family. They specialized and evolved to feed and grow in the backwaters, marshes, and slack-water areas of rivers. Their musculature is adapted to no-current or low-current situations. They are not adapted to fight current continuously, and have less stamina as a result. However, feeding in slack-water allowed LMB to develop features better adapted to feeding there. They have large mouths better suited to either suck prey out of vegetation and rocky cover or to over-run fleeing preyfish. They are masters of the short dash, but are likely to chase preyfish at the surface longer than the more riverine black basses.


How does all this effect anglers and the various bass they want in rivers and lakes they fish? Obviously, riverine black bass species generally do better than LMB in rivers The determination of whether SBs of SMBs dominate in particular rivers tends to be associated with water clarity, which seems necessary for strong SMB populations but not necessary for SBs, and yearly temperature minimums and maximums. The farther north you go, except for cold waters released from some southern reservoirs, the more the habitat seems to favor SMBs over SBs.


The situation becomes more complex in reservoirs. Some reservoirs are riverine in nature, with high flow-throughs. LMB seldom prosper in such waters and they naturally become the domains of either SB or SMB. When reservoirs contain both a riverine upper section and slow moving section near the dam with minimal current and/or many long arms with intermittent stream inputs, they often support all three species. A multiplicity of factors like prey type, the depth range of the prey, type of cover, nature of the current, and just about every other habitat feature such as the dominance of vegetation or woody cover determines which bass species is/are favored and which is/are minimalized.


Species dominance changes with time as reservoirs age and habitat modifies. It is not uncommon for SMB and/or LMB populations to boom when reservoirs are new and full of nutrients. Spotted bass, better adapted to more limited diets and smaller prey, may become more plentiful as habitat for largemouths rots away. But, if a reservoir develops large amounts of vegetation in its old stages, largemouth may resurge and become the dominant bass.


Anglers like large bass, and most fisheries agencies will manage fisheries to produce larger bass if they can. Often this puts emphasis on LMBs and/or SMBs as the SB clan tends to be smaller and shorter lived. But, sometimes the anglers are merely trying to swim upstream and your fisheries biologists should know this and recommend SBs.


Habitat is always setting the parameters and telling you what it will support. Whenever SMB or LMB are replaced by SB itís most likely because the SBs better fit the available habitat. Trying to kill-off the spots will make a bit more food available, but it will go to the other spots, not to any species less able to compete with the spots. If habitat is obviously well suited to the larger black bass species, they will thrive and be found in their own optimum areas. LMB will be in the coves and grass, the SMB will be in the clear current below the dam inflow and rocks near current, and the SBs will take what is left as both LMB and SMB can out-compete them in habitats that favor the two larger species. Spots take the leavings, but will be dominant in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs less suited to the larger species.


The dominance of one species over another can take many twists. Years ago at Lake Travis, TX, I studied the Guadalupe bass ( a species very close to the SB) and largemouth bass there.


A year of high water during the spawn almost always produced a bumper crop of largemouths, and LMB would be the dominant species 3 to 4 years later. Dropping water levels and/or low water conditions limited the LMB spawn and favored the Guadalupes, who like other SB relatives, tend to spawn deeper than LMB. So 3 to 5 years after very low water or severe draw-downs, the population would be mostly Guadalupe bass. Since then, the lake has become more eutrophic (more fertile and food rich) and LMB have reportedly grown larger on average, so perhaps the relationship of the bass populations to water levels has been superceded by some other habitat factor.


If black bass species are fairly evenly matched, harvest control limits that encourage anglers to take SB home for dinner (like a 14-21-inch slot limit on LMB combined with a no limit of 15-inch maximum on SBs) may help a little and free some food resources for use by the larger black basses. But, if SBs are taking over its likely because they fit the habitat better, not because they naturally out-produce LMB or SMB. You canít fool mother nature.


Your choice in such cases is poor bass fishing or SB fishing. I suggest that a good SB fishery is better than a mediocre largemouth or smallmouth fishery.


---30ó


This material is protected by copyright. It may not be reproduced for republication in any way without permission of the author.



     

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