February 08, 2021
By Ken Duke
The first rule of trophy fishing is that you must fish in waters that hold trophies. You can use the best methods and baits ever made, but unless you cast them in the right waters, you will fail to catch exceptional fish. Fortunately, if you're targeting giant spotted bass and live in the southwestern United States, you’re already in the right neighborhood, and the best waters are close by.
What's more, these waters are proven trophy producers. In fact, they've produced multiple world-record spots in recent years, and there's absolutely no reason to believe that the next world-record spot will come from anywhere else.
The biggest spots have come from California’s New Bullards Bar Reservoir in Yuba County, about 90 miles north of Sacramento. Not long ago the lake produced a flurry of record-breaking spotted bass, culminating in an 11-pound, 4-ounce leviathan caught by Nick Dulleck on Feb. 12, 2017.
But Bullards Bar is just the latest California spotted bass factory. Beginning in the 1980s, the Golden State began turning out world-record spots from places like Lake Perris and Pine Flat Lake. They didn't generate nearly the buzz of the record-class largemouths coming out of southern California at about the same time, but savvy anglers took notice and began chasing the spots in earnest.
One of the most successful spot chasers is Bass Pro Tour standout Cody Meyer of Auburn, Calif. When he's not casting for cash on the sport's premier tournament trail, he can usually be found chasing big largemouths and spots close to home.
One for the Ages
On Dec. 16, 2016, Meyer and a fishing buddy hit the spotted bass mother lode on Bullards Bar. Together, they had a day for the ages.
"We wanted to get some photos with big spotted bass," Meyer explains, "and the very first area we pulled into produced a 6-12 and an 8-8. That was more than good enough to fill our photo shoot needs, so we wrapped that up and kept fishing. That's when my buddy caught his personal best spot, a 7.47."
Unbelievably, things were about to get much better.
"I saw what appeared to be a big fish on my Garmin Panoptix LiveScope unit," Meyer says. "The fish was 40 feet deep in 200 feet of water, and I made a cast."
Meyer's bait was a weightless Strike King Ocho stick worm—not a heavily-weighted, fast-falling lure as you might expect. The Ocho probably sank at a rate of less than a foot per second. Fortunately, the bass saw it in the extremely clear water and decided to meet it less than halfway down.
"The fish came up and hit the bait at about 15 feet, and I set the hook," Meyer says. "I fought her in that deep water until she tired out and we could grab her."
On the water, the giant spotted bass weighed more than 11 pounds. That's when Meyer called his friend Tim Little of TacticalBassin.com. The two have been friends since high school. Little is not only a big-bass specialist and well-known YouTube personality, but at the time he was a warden with the California
Department of Fish and Wildlife and qualified to certify a new state record.
While they were on the phone, Meyer continued to fish, casting a big swimbait. He had to hang up when he connected with another big fish, which weighed 8 pounds 4 ounces.
By the time Little arrived at Bullards Bar to certify Meyer's biggest bass, the fish weighed 10.8 pounds, topping the world record at the time of 10.6 pounds. The five biggest spotted bass Meyer and his friend caught that day totaled 42 pounds. Its a one-day catch that may never be equaled, though Meyer's world record lasted less than two months.
Catching a mammoth spotted bass is not an easy thing to do. These are fish of deep, clear waters, and they relate more to a lake's roaming trout and kokanee than to shoreline cover or even deep-water structure.
"Except when they're spawning," Meyer says, "these fish are roamers that suspend in deep water and chase bait when they get hungry. They're unpredictable."
To locate them, Meyer keeps a close eye on his sonar units. He looks for trout and kokanee, and says the best time to catch giant spots is between Thanksgiving and spring break, when the trout are shallower and the spots are more active.
"The trout and kokanee have a smaller air bladder than bass," Meyer says, "so they appear as longer streaks on the sonar screen." He calls them "spaghetti strings."
Wherever he finds the pasta he knows the spotted bass will be around the same depth. That's when he starts looking for structure, a point, hump, rock pile or bluff, that tops out in that same depth range.
"The spots will use that structure to confine the bait," he says. "They’ll trap their forage against the surface or bluff wall."
To catch these fish, Meyer usually opts for a big paddle-tail swimbait like the 8-inch Huddleston Deluxe or the 5 1/2-inch Strike King Shadalicious. When there's surface action, he opts for a large walking bait like the Strike King KVD Mega Dawg. All come in trout patterns attractive to spots.
He throws the big swimbaits on 20-pound-test Daiwa J-Fluoro Samurai fluorocarbon line. The topwater gets 50-pound J-Braid x8 and 20-pound J-Fluoro leader.
Both are cast on the 8-foot heavy-action Daiwa Tatula Elite Ish Monroe Signature Series Swimbait Rod and Tatula 300 series casting reel (6.3:1 for the swimbaits and 7.3:1 for the Mega Dawg). Work the swimbaits slowly and the topwater fast to draw fish up from deep water.
"These fish may only feed a couple of times over the course of the day, so timing is critical," Meyer says.
His final piece of advice is unusual and worth heeding.
"The trout and kokanee are big baitfish—8 inches or longer—and a spot’s mouth is smaller than a largemouth's," Meyer says. "When they hit, they usually do so with their mouths closed to stun the baitfish, then they come back to eat it. Make sure they have the bait before you set the hook."
Meyer’s methods will work anywhere you find big spotted bass and trout or kokanee. He’s landed trophies at Bullards Bar and Camanche reservoirs as well as New Melones Lake, Pine Flat Lake, Whiskeytown Lake and Lake Shasta.
Like the largemouth, spotted bass are not native to California or anywhere else in the American southwest. They're transplants from eastern waters, and they arrived not long after western anglers and fisheries managers realized that California was capable of growing world-class largemouths.
Take the right genetics—like those found in Alabama’s Lewis Smith Lake, home of numerous world-record spotted bass dating back to the 1960s—and combine them with a food source that really packs on the pounds (rainbow trout and kokanee salmon), and you have a formula for record bass.
The last record spot to come from Smith Lake was caught by then-15-year-old Phillip C. Terry in March of 1978. That bass weighed 8 pounds 15 ounces and eclipsed the previous record by just over an ounce. Since that time, every record has come from California, and the current all-tackle world record, weighing 11 pounds 4 ounces, topped Alabama's biggest spot by more than 25 percent. If size is your standard, California—along with trout and kokanee—is the best thing that ever happened to the Alabama spotted bass.
The spotted bass (Micropterus punctulatus) was first identified by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque in 1819. Since then, the species has been subdivided and shuffled. For several decades, there was the northern spot (M. punctulatus punctulatus, 1819), the Wichita spot (M. punctulatus wichitae, 1940) and the largest of the group, the Alabama spotted bass (M. punctulatus henshalli, 1940). One or more sub-species are found in 27 states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
The Wichita spotted bass was invalidated a few years back, and the Alabama spot was recently redesignated as the Alabama bass (M. henshalli). It's certainly true that not all of these "spotted bass" are created equal, but it’s certain that the Alabama bass is the biggest and the one that tops the record books. What does all this mean to anglers? Not a lot, really. But it may cause record-keeping organizations some headaches as they sort things out.