Seeing Spots On Lake Macbride

Seeing Spots On Lake Macbride

This angling destination just south of Cedar Rapids boasts Iowa's only thriving population of the "other" black bass -- the Kentucky spotted bass. (August 2008)

In the 1960s, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources stocked Lake Macbride with spotted bass fingerlings after similar experiments had failed at other lakes.
Photo by Ken Duke.

I was daydreaming when it happened.

The fishing had been slow. I gradually rowed past one of Lake Macbride's rocky points, monitoring the gentle vibrations on my rod from the crankbait trolling behind the boat.

In an instant, the rod arched and almost disappeared over the transom; I grabbed it just in time. The fish bore down and then reversed course, shot into the air, jumping three more times before I could gently work my fingers into its jaw and lift it into the boat. The 11-inch specimen looked odd: It resembled a largemouth bass, but its mouth seemed small -- and it fought like a smallmouth.

I didn't realize it at the time, but I'd just competed the grand slam of Iowa black bass. Over the years, I've caught many largemouths and quite a few smallmouths, but this was my first Kentucky spotted bass, Iowa's third black-bass species.

Completing an Iowa black-bass grand slam requires a trek to Johnson County's Lake Macbride, the only body of water in our state that holds a thriving population of Kentucky spotted bass. They make fishing Lake Macbride an exciting and interesting experience.

"Spotted bass are shaped like footballs (and) never give up," said veteran angler Dan Johnston. "Husky and powerful, they sock a lure, perform aerial acrobatics and dive deep when they spot the boat. Spots may not get very big, but they are true Iowa trophies."

Johnston may know Kentucky spotted bass -- or "spots" -- better than any angler in the state, having grown up on this pleasant 812-acre lake.

Although spots are virtually unknown in Iowa, Southern anglers know Kentucky spotted bass well. Abundant in slow, flowing rivers and creeks from central Missouri eastward to the Atlantic Ocean and south to the Gulf of Mexico, they are the dominant game fish in many areas. Spots also thrive in Southern reservoirs, especially those with rocky dropoffs.

Many Southern anglers target spotted bass, and Iowa anglers can learn from them. One of the best may be Indiana's "Bayou" Bill Scifres.

"I started fishing around 1935 and caught bags of (spots) from southern Indiana streams using a Johnson Silver Minnow -- a lure that's still around -- with a yellow and black tail," he said. "This fish is very common in the southern part of our state but only occasional up north."

Anglers often describe spots as a blend of smallmouth and largemouth bass. Their long, horizontal stripe resembles that of a largemouth bass, but their habitat, feeding habits and fighting ability are much more like a smallmouth's. Smallies generally prefer cool, clear water in the northern half of the country. Spots occupy the same types of habitat down south. The closest natural spot population to Iowa is in central Missouri.

"Although an inexperienced angler could mistake a spotted bass for a largemouth, there are several easy ways to tell them apart," said Johnston. "Spots are usually much chunkier than largemouths. They are a strong fish. Proportionally, their mouth is smaller and their tail is larger than a largemouth's.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources biologist Paul Sleeper noted that spots are never bronze-colored like a smallmouth. Usually the stripe down their side is less distinct than a largemouth's, and they have a series of spots that form distinctive rows along the lower part of the fish.

In the early 1960s, the now-defunct Iowa Conservation Commission, the forerunner of today's IDNR, decided that our fishery would improve if spots lurked in Iowa's streams, especially those in the southern part of the state, where smallmouths were rare. Shortly thereafter, the state imported a number of breeder fish from the South and produced fingerlings in the old Lake Wapello hatchery.

In 1963, commission staff released fingerlings in the Middle Raccoon River and Whitebreast Creek; the experiment failed. Although there were occasional reports of spots being taken by anglers, the fish never took hold, and the state gave up.

"But they had some fingerlings and a couple of hundred breeders left," recalled Bob Middendorf, a longtime fisheries biologist then stationed at Lake Macbride. "I got hold of them and stocked them in Lake Macbride. No one really knows why they took off, but they sure did. Within a few years, about half the black bass in Macbride were (spots), with the balance being largemouths."

For a while, occasional spotted bass were also caught in Coralville Reservoir and down the Iowa River to Iowa City. It's now likely that Macbride is the only water in Iowa that has a reproducing population of this interesting bass. The good news is that they're thriving there.

When Middendorf retired, Paul Sleeper became the area's fisheries biologist and now keeps a close eye on all fish in Lake Macbride. Neither he nor Middendorf is completely certain why spots thrived in the lake but failed everywhere else.

"Spotted bass love rock, probably because crayfish are their preferred food," Sleeper said. "Parts of Lake Macbride have many natural rocky ledges and dropoffs that support a huge crayfish population. The habitat is similar to some Southern reservoirs where spots do well. Macbride also has reasonably clear water. So these may be reasons they do so well this far north."

Although Sleeper's recent data indicate that the catch ratio of spots to largemouths is now about 30 to 70, respectively, he thinks that the apparent drop in spots may be inaccurate or temporary. "Spots usually live in water a little deeper than where we sample," he said, "so we may be missing many. Also, in 2002 we finished adding thousands of tons of riprap to the lake's shoreline. Before the renovation, much of the lake had a muddy shoreline that (didn't) appeal to them. Spotted bass stayed up near the natural rock. They love riprap, but it takes rock that's (been) in water five or six years to develop a complement of plants and animals that form the base of the food chain. Spots are now showing up along the riprap in the formerly muddy shoreline areas. They are more widespread around the lake, and I predict that they'll thrive."

Rock is the key to findi

ng good spot fishing in Lake Macbride. "They always seem to be close to rock, but rock isn't always visible from a boat," observed Johnston. "The lake has a few rocky humps below the surface, and I've caught many spotted bass near them."

With rock now widespread at Lake Macbride, spotted bass anglers can either concentrate along riprapped shorelines or work the natural rock drop offs near the dam.

"When I fish rock at Lake Macbride, about half the bass I catch are spots," said Lloyd Bender, another experienced Iowa angler. "The rest are largemouths. When I get away from rock, most of the fish are largemouths."

Spotted bass prefer a crayfish diet, but they're not likely to pass up any easy meal. "They eat a lot of shad, and readily take insects off the surface," said Dan Johnston. "That leaves anglers plenty of opportunities to use a wide range of tackle.

"I'd suggest starting with any lure that resembles a crawfish. Crankbaits in crayfish colors work very well. So do jigs, and brown and orange colored ones seem to work best. When the fish are feeding on shad, any imitation that resembles these silvery forage fish will work."

Bender often casts to riprap and natural rock at Lake Macbride. "If I'm targeting spotted bass, I use lures slightly smaller than I would for largemouths," he noted. "Smaller crankbaits and spinnerbaits work very well, and I've had outstanding success using them in virtually any color. The fish don't seem all that selective. Inline spinners also work very well."

"Topwater plugs are one of my favorite ways to fish for spotted bass," Johnston added. "Most traditional poppers and floating plugs are deadly when the fish are working the surface. Often a bass will zoom up from deep water and nail a Zara spook or other surface lure."

No "best time" for targeting Lake Macbride's spots exists, he added. "Success might be slightly higher in the spring, when fish are spawning," he remarked, "but these are fish that love warm water, and they'll aggressively feed all summer and into the fall. August is a great month."

Completing a grand slam of Iowa black bass is an appealing goal. Largemouths are easy to find in the Hawkeye State, and smallmouths are fairly common. Kentucky spotted bass are the toughest of the trio -- not because they're hard to catch, but because of their very limited range.

Lake Macbride is always a fun place to fish, and a must-visit destination for anybody looking to fill out the grand slam.

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