Eufaula's Catch-And-Keep Bass

After years of stressing catch-and-release fishing, it looks like we need a new direction on this South Bama reservoir.

"Put that one in the livewell, John. You can eat him."

I was unhooking a spotted bass from a plastic worm when Jackie Thompson, a longtime guide on Lake Eufaula, made that statement.

With some surprise, I looked up at my old buddy.

"You want me to fry this bass?" I asked.

In these days of catch-and-release angling, his response was surprising, especially from someone who makes his living helping folks catch bass.

With a big grin he said, "Yep, you can keep your legal limit of spotted bass and take them home to eat. Spotted bass from Lake Eufaula taste delicious."

Before you jump to any conclusions, rest assured that there was more behind his answer than the desire to satisfy my hunger.

All of his life Jackie Thompson has encouraged catch-and-release bass fishing. Naturally I wondered why he suddenly decided to let spotted bass from Lake Eufaula swim in a skillet full of hot oil.

"The spotted bass have made tremendous headway in Lake Eufaula," Thompson explained. "As their numbers grow, they don't seem as susceptible to disease as the largemouth bass are. Five years ago, my party and I would catch only one or two spotted bass in a day of fishing. Now we take at least as many spotted bass as we do largemouths. Our lake biologist has told us that we need to start keeping some of the spotted bass to prevent the crowding that currently hinders bass growth.

"Since largemouths seem to get bigger quicker than spotted bass, and because most of our customers come here to catch big largemouths, we need to remove some of the spotted bass. The state enforces no (size) limit on spotted bass like it does on largemouth bass, and we believe that the spotted bass can stand more catch-and-eat pressure."

Keeping some spots will ensure that Eufaula continues to produce big largemouths. Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Thompson confirms what most Eufaula bass fishermen have accepted as a fact in the last few years - the growing number of spotted bass. Along with this growth, the size of both spotted and largemouth bass in the lake has declined. Biologists agree that anglers need to take more bass out of the lake than they have in the past. It is the spotted bass that need to go.

"If we catch a really big spotted bass that weighs 4 pounds or more, I encourage an angler to release it," Thompson reported. "But I try to get them to take smaller spotted bass home to eat.

"Too, spotted bass freeze better and have firmer meat than do largemouth bass and other fish in the lake. Spotted bass filets keep their freshness longer in the freezer than some of the other species do."

Besides Thompson, many of the other guides and some of the local bass clubs follow this same advice on Lake Eufaula. That policy does not seem to be adversely affecting the population either.

"We seem to catch just as many spotted bass as we've ever caught," Thompson noted. "I can't tell that keeping spotted bass for the table has had any impact at all on the bass population. But if we don't reduce the number of bass on the lake, we won't catch as many big bass as we have in the past."

Thompson guides anglers on Lake Eufaula about 15 times a month, and he hopes that all of his parties develop a taste for spotted bass. No doubt Thompson and the people who fish with him may garner ill will from some anglers for killing and eating the "sacred cow." But like so many other things we encounter in life, catch-and-release fishing is not an absolute truth. On a number of lakes around the Southeast, biologists have recommended for some time that anglers take out more bass than they have in past years.

Harvest recommendations virtually always make scientific sense at the time they are introduced. Whether it is a limit on taking game fish or a rule against shooting whitetail does, there are biological reasons for the regulations. However, once a deer herd or a bass population expands past the carrying capacity of its habitat, some of the reproductive segment of the population needs to be harvested. Not surprisingly, some anglers have resisted the idea of keeping any bass, just like some hunters were dragged kicking and screaming to the point of view that some female deer needed to be culled.

This same type of philosophy works with a bass fishery. A lake can only support a certain number of pounds of healthy fish. If you overcrowd that lake with too many small fish, then they become stunted from lack of forage, which leads to waters that are full of small ones that grow slowly and exhibit generally poor health.

Alabama has a staff of very competent fisheries biologists who make use of the best management techniques available for present conditions. The fisheries biologists know how to monitor a lake, determine the health of the fish in the lake and make harvest recommendations.

On the other hand, most fishermen have only individual experience on which to base opinions. Sometimes, after a couple of trips to the lake when the fish are not biting, anglers find it easy to convince themselves that the bass population is declining. Personally, if I made that assumption, it would indicate that an awful lot of lakes in the region are in trouble. More likely, I have just been fishing in the wrong places with the wrong lures.

Fisheries biologists are by nature a cautious crowd. If they say Lake Eufaula needs to have some bass harvested to help the fish remain healthy, then like Jackie Thompson we need to willingly remove some of the overcrowding fish.

All lakes have a constantly changing fish population. Sometimes lakes have too many fish, sometimes they don't have enough fish. The fisheries biologists in Alabama make suggestions on each specific lake to take those peaks and valleys out of the fish populations. When they have a peak to deal with, there is no reason not to reap the benefit in the form of fresh filets of spotted bass on the dinner table.

Spotted bass thrive throughout Lake Eufaula, but they tend to concentrate along rocky banks and clay bluffs and on the main-river channel. The spots usually prefer faster current than the largemouth bass and are less likely to be found in backwater areas.

About the only time that you find spots and largemouths congregating in the same areas is when the weather becomes really hot or very cold. At these

times the fish, especially the larger ones of both species, seek out deep channels on the flooded creek or river channels.

"I fish all over Lake Eufaula and have caught spotted bass in every section of the lake," Thompson reported. "Spotted bass eat the same baits as the largemouth. They like worms, crankbaits, spinnerbaits, jerkbaits, grubs and jigs, just like the largemouths do. So, when you fish for largemouths, you're also fishing for spotted bass."

On the other hand, Thompson has noticed that the spotted bass seem more sensitive to color than largemouth bass do. In particular, he believes that spotted bass prefer chartreuse, gourd green and crawfish colors.

If you want to know what fish are doing at any point in the season and where on the lake they are likely to be found, it makes sense to turn to someone who makes a living studying those facts. Obviously, Jack Thompson pays close attention to these matters. Also, such knowledge is the livelihood of fisheries biologists as well.

"Lake Eufaula built its big-bass reputation by producing large numbers of big largemouth bass," noted Mike Newman, fisheries biologist for District VI of Alabama's Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. Making sure that the legacy continues is one of the biologists' main concerns. At their recommendation, last year, Alabama and Georgia agreed to lower the size limit for taking largemouth bass on Lake Eufaula from 16 inches to 14 inches. They also maintain regulations that put no minimum size limits on spotted bass.

"Lake Eufaula's bass population won't suffer at all if anglers remove some of the bass from the lake," Newman emphasized. "That lake has a large population of bass.

One reason that the recognition that Eufaula was getting overcrowded was slow in coming has to do with the way it is surveyed.

"We conduct electrofishing surveys in creeks and shallow-water areas because the technique only works in shallow water," Newman stated. "Because we can't monitor fish populations in deep water with our surveys, we very rarely see spotted bass. The spotted bass usually prefer deeper areas of the lake more closely related to the main-river channel or main-creek channels, where electrofishing works the least effectively.

"We have to rely on the reports of fishermen to determine spotted bass populations."

Newman went on to say that from anglers' reports, he believes that the number of spotted bass in Lake Eufaula has continued to increase. However, he points out that he has no scientific evidence to substantiate that belief.

"Spotted bass tend to like clearer water than largemouth bass do. Because of the droughts we've experienced in the last few years, the water in Lake Eufaula may have cleared up more than normal, which can cause an increase in the number of spotted bass. However, this is just a guess on my part.

"I really don't see the spotted bass displacing the largemouths in this shallow and fertile lake. But with the 16-inch size limit the state had on the lake, we've drastically increased the number of bass to the point that we need to decrease the population.

"We tell most of the fishermen that if they want to keep some bass to eat, they can. Anglers can keep any size spot they want to take home and eat."

In the past, a 3-year-old bass on Lake Eufaula would grow to 16 inches long. However, in recent studies, biologists have learned that a bass requires more than four years to reach 16 inches.

"This fact indicates that Lake Eufaula has an overabundance of bass," Newman said. "There are still plenty of 3- to 5-pound bass in Lake Eufaula, but the number of 8- to 10-pound bass taken from the lake has steadily declined. Typically, if you lower the number of bass in a lake, they have more to eat, and the remaining bass get bigger quicker. Lakes run in cycles. Eufaula produced the most really big bass when the lake had the lowest number of bass in it.

Of course, you cannot keep any spotted bass unless you catch them first. In the late summer your best bet is to target steeply inclined clay or rocky shorelines. Deep-water points with some structure on them are also good places to look.

At the lower end of Lake Eufaula, just offshore of George T. Bagby State Park on the Georgia side of the reservoir, there are several points that drop from 10 feet of water down to 40-foot depths. If you find concentrations of fish while using your depthfinder in this vicinity, the action can be fast. Try dropping a chrome, pearl or gold 1/2-ounce jigging spoon down to them. If they prove reluctant to strike, switch off to small Carolina-rigged plastic worms. Expect to find mostly spotted bass, but there are likely to be some largemouths mixed in here as well.

A bit up the lake between the buoys at river miles 79 and 80, the Alabama shore has a stretch of steep clay banks. Target these with the jigging spoons and Carolina-rigged worms. Deep-diving crankbaits are also worth a try here. The best depths to target are the 15- to 30-foot range.

Farther up this side of the lake is the mouth of Thomas Mill Creek. The rock ridges and steep clay banks on either side of the creek mouth are good places in which to find spots at this time of year.

On the upper end of the impoundment, check out the east side of the old river channel between river miles 97 and 98. This is directly east of the Old Creektown Recreation Area, on the Cotton State side of the lake. Run over the area with your depthfinder on. When you mark fish, they are likely to be on the edge of the ridge. Again, toss Carolina rigs or jigging spoons to attract the spotted bass.

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