After driving into the early morning hours, we arrived in Austin, Texas, in anticipation of a full day ahead. We grabbed a few hours sleep at the downtown Hampton Inn, and woke at 7 a.m. to complete our whirlwind quest for all the recognized bass species (and one subspecies).
We had yet to catch a qualifying northern largemouth — at least one that we thought to put on the board and photograph. With only a day left to fish, and the reality that we'd have to cut out the Louisiana swing (I sure did want to catch a bonus, line-spooling redfish), we had to find a place close by that we could catch a northern from kayaks while we waited for the Guadalupe River outfitters to open their doors (there is no free access to the Guadalupe below Canyon Lake). I called on our Texas B.A.S.S. Federation Nation conservation director, Tim Cook, for help. After talking to him, it was decided that Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin was the best bet.
Lady Bird Lake is an electric motor-only lake that runs through the city of Austin, just a few blocks from the hotel. We arrived at the lake at 7:30 a.m., and, after buying our Texas fishing license over the Internet from our laptops, we launched the kayaks for a quick attempt. Within an hour, we had a chunky 20-inch northern largemouth in the 'yak.
The northern largemouth is the most adaptable and widely distributed of the bass species. They can live in relatively small streams, large reservoirs and expansive natural lakes. They tend to prefer the quiet waters of pools over fast-flowing waters when found in streams. They generally associate themselves with some type of cover, whether it be downed trees, aquatic vegetation or large boulders.
The largemouth bass has a deep notch between the spiny and soft dorsal fins that extends to (or nearly so) the back of the bass. They generally have a broad black stripe along the midline of the body from the head to the tail. However, when caught in murky or deep waters, the stripe may be faint to nonexistent. The lower side lacks spots and the jaw extends beyond the eye when closed.
With the largemouth in the bag, we headed to the Guadalupe River. When we arrived, the relatively small river was a milky-green color, which worried me somewhat. I knew the bass wouldn't be brightly colored, and I was right. After launching our kayaks, we immediately caught a few largemouth bass. As suspected, they were a very pale green and poorly marked. Now I was really worried because the river also contained smallmouth, which had anatomical features (dorsal fin notch and jaw position) very similar to the Guadalupe. If the ones we caught weren't brightly colored, making the call between the species would be difficult.
To make a long story short, we caught three candidates for a Guadalupe. The first, a small fish that didn't make the 12-inch mark, was caught before I could negotiate the rapids above, and, in the interest of the fish, it was released before I got there. The next one, a qualifying 13-incher, I was able to see before it was released. At first I said it was a Guadalupe, but I had doubts. On any other river, I might have dismissed it as a smallmouth. However, something about the appearance said this wasn't a smallmouth. The third fish I called a smallmouth, then had doubts, which made me question the second fish. So, did we catch a Guadalupe or not? After a nine-hour float and several more largemouths, we had to go, and we still weren't sure if we had accomplished our goal.
On our way back to Florida, I called on some colleagues with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for help. After reviewing the photos we sent their way, they said the second fish we caught was (likely) a pure Guadalupe, while the other two were probably hybrids between the Guadalupe and smallmouth bass.
In the end, we seemed to have accomplished our feat of catching the final species on our swing after all, but the experience shed some light on a very troubling problem. The Guadalupe's range has diminished due to water use and reservoir construction. In most of the remaining waters in their range, they have to contend with smallmouth bass that will readily hybridize with the Guadalupe, earnestly placing the pure Guadalupe in danger of extinction. In muddy or dingy streams, it can be very difficult to tell the two species, or their hybrids, apart — even for a fisheries biologist.
In order to avoid the confusion that we had, you need to catch a Guadalupe from the streams that have the best chance of harboring pure strain Guadalupe. Apparently, there aren't that many left. Contact the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department before venturing to Texas, and they'd be glad to help, but do it soon. As our population continues to grow and water becomes increasingly scarce, the Guadalupe bass stands to lose out in the end, and the opportunity to catch a pure Guadalupe might someday vanish forever.
In summary, our trip was very special, and one that very few have had the opportunity to do in their lifetime. One of the best pieces of advice I can give to anyone considering the quest for a BASS Slam is to call upon state fisheries agencies for help in planning your trip. State agency biologists have committed their careers to helping you catch fish and protecting the resource. An often overlooked resource for anglers, they are more than willing to shed any insights or advice on the species or locations that you seek. Most of them got into the field because they are like you and I — they love to fish. And you know as well as I that all anglers love to talk about fishing. They're always ready to help. All you have to do is ask for it!
On to the Smallmouth
With disappointing results on the redeye, and a very tight schedule to keep, we headed to northern Alabama for perhaps my favorite fish to catch in streams. I knew as soon as we arrived at the Flint River just outside of Huntsville, Ala., that we wouldn't have much trouble catching smallmouth here. I just hoped at least one would measure (long enough by the Slam standards) in the few hours we had to fish. Two of them did, and we caught over 20 smallmouth in all.
Smallmouth bass are abundant in the cooler mountain streams of the middle south northward through suitable waters into Canada. They can be found in many southern reservoirs as well. Naturally common in the streams and lakes of the Midwest, smallmouth have been introduced, both legally and illegally, in many of the western states. Pretty much every state, except Florida, offers an opportunity to catch smallmouth somewhere.
If you find a stream or river that has smallmouth bass, you're probably going to have a good day of fishing. These fish are so aggressive and can be caught on a variety of lures. In the summertime, I used to float and wade the streams of western Arkansas where 50 fish days weren't uncommon. They can be found in still as well as flowing water, around boulders as well as emergent grass along the stream edge.
The smallmouth bass is probably the easiest of the species to identify from the others. They get their nickname of "bronzebacks" or "brownies" from the mostly brown or copper base color, with darker brown mottling along their sides and back. They have off-white to grayish-white bellies. Like the other species, their dorsal fins are well connected with a shallow notch between the two. As their name implies, the jaw does not extend beyond the eye.
Aside from their willingness to strike my lure, regardless of my presentation, river smallmouth live in places I love to frequent. Boulder and bedrock-lined cool mountain streams are my favorite places to chase smallmouth. You're very likely to catch a variety of other fish in the sunfish family in these streams as well.
Smallmouth are intolerant of sedimentation, requiring waters with clean gravel and rock bottoms. For this reason, they are usually pretty good indicators of excessive development or land disturbance in a watershed. As sediments start to accumulate from erosion of disturbed lands and water temperatures begin to rise from lack of forested canopy, the smallmouth will move elsewhere if possible. In worst cases, they may not be able to maintain viable populations and will simply vanish. That is why riparian buffer zones are so critical to healthy streams. Leaving terrestrial plants in a broad strip along a stream or river helps protect the health of the aquatic community and keeps the smallmouth happy.
Today our luck ran out. The elusive redeye remains the only fish that we haven't been able to catch for the Slam.
Well, that's not entirely true. We did manage to catch a couple of redeye, but they were well short of the qualifying 12-inch mark. However, since none of us have ever fished for them before, and with the Guadalupe still some 900 miles away, we didn't allocate nearly enough time to get to know this fish and find the big ones.
Although they can thrive in larger rivers like the Tallapoosa where we fished today, the redeye is really a small-stream specialist. In the larger rivers and streams, where other bass species are present, they tend to live almost exclusively in and around shoals and rapids, where their larger competitors have difficulty maintaining a home. In this swifter water, they love to hide under boulders and slab rocks, waiting to pounce on prey as it drifts or swims by.
In smaller streams, where they are the only bass present, they are king. You'll find them in the pools and around woody structure, as well as in the swifter water. However, you're not as likely to find larger specimens of the species in the smaller streams. Regardless, catching a 12-incher won't be easy.
Even though we probed the ideal redeye habitat along the Tallapoosa River, both above and below Lake Martin, we couldn't catch a large enough redeye in the allotted time, so we were forced to move on. That just means we've got another road trip ahead in the near future!
As for identification, do not go by their name alone! A lot of other freshwater fish have reddish eyes. The redeye bass will most likely be confused with the spotted bass, which also can have red eyes. The distinguishing characteristic is in the fins, especially the caudal (tail fin). A redeye's fins have a reddish tint, and the caudal fin typically has a white margin on the top and bottom. The anal fin also tends to have a white margin along the edge. Another giveaway is the turquoise blue hue that some, but not all, may have around their "cheeks."
When you do get a chance to fish for the redeye, give yourself a couple of days and plan a float trip down the Tallapoosa River or one of its tributaries. You're sure to catch lots of fish, as we did, but finding a good redeye specimen might take some time.
Unfortunately, we didn't have enough on this trip.
With the Florida largemouth and the Suwannee bass out of the way, our next stop was for shoal bass. The shoal is perhaps the most unique and interesting species of the Micropterus genus, according to Dr. Steve Sammons of Auburn University. They do some strange things. You find them at the head of a fast flowing riffle or shoot rather than in the eddies down below. They have been known to make huge migratory runs to favorite spawning shoals, passing over numerous, similar shoals for no apparent reason. According to Dr. Sammons, they tend to act more like a trout or salmon than a bass. After fishing for them, we agree.
When most people think of the shoal bass, they think of ... well, shoals. This species is commonly found above the fall line of the Flint River in Georgia, as well as its many tributaries. Filled with boulders, rocks and gravel, and combined with a steep gradient, these streams are typically made up of swift flowing waters with lots of runs, riffles and pools.
However, we fished for the shoal in some rather unique habitats that were well below the fall line near Albany, Ga.
Habitat overload is the best way to describe it. We fished a tributary of the Flint that was more like a slough in some hardwood bottoms than a river. The amount of trees, logs and cypress knees in and along the edge of the small stream were mind boggling and quite challenging to maneuver with a kayak. There was no way to cast to even a tenth of the cover. Unfortunately, the area has been getting a lot of rain and the creek was a little muddy. In what normally was a productive, though different, area for shoal bass, we struggled. However, we did land three that qualified.
A shoal bass is similar to the Suwannee in that the spiny and soft-rayed dorsal fins are well connected, as opposed to the deep notch to the back in a largemouth. They typically have broad, vertical bars or blotches, rather than the dark lateral stripe, and again, the jaw does not extend beyond the eye.
The shoal successfully conquered, we headed to the Tallapoosa and met up with Dr. Sammons for spotted bass and a shot at a redeye. The area of the Tallapoosa that we fished was absolutely beautiful. No shortage of habitat here either, but this time it was in the form of swift riffles and runs in clear water. We found qualifying spots, as well as one small redeye. However, we'll focus more on that species tomorrow morning.
The spotted bass is relatively easy to identify. Like the Suwannee and the shoal, the dorsal fins are broadly connected, and the mouth doesn't extend past the eye. True to their name, the spotted bass have horizontal rows of spots along the belly, below the lateral line. Check out our trip photo gallery for some great pictures to help you identify the spotted, shoal and all of the species.
Regardless if we individually or collectively accomplish the slam in five days or less, this trip, and the experience of pursing all 7 species (and one subspecies) of bass in such differing habitats and geographic locations, is a very special experience. It's bound to make anyone more appreciative of our country's natural resources and the opportunities that we can and should pass on to future generations.
I knew it would be tough to do, but I figured that at least two of us could catch a Florida largemouth bass over 16 inches.
The bite was good, but the small lake we were fishing gave up mostly short fish, while the lily pads claimed the few bigger fish we were able to entice. Fortunately, this five-day trip to catch all eight species is a collective effort and we finally landed one that measured greater than 16 inches.
Since we all live in central Florida, we can catch that species any day in our backyard. So on to the next, which was the Suwannee bass.
Arriving at the Santa Fe River, just outside of High Springs, Fla., took me by surprise. The first thing that popped into my head was that this must have been what the old Florida was like! Spanish moss-draped cypress trees that defined the narrow flow of a tannic, though cool, Florida stream. No development in sight. I was truly impressed by the natural beauty of the surroundings.
We quickly got bites as we pitched our crayfish imitations to the abundance of downed trees (Suwannee's are known for their preference for mud bugs). I landed one that was close to 15 inches not long after we began. Unfortunately, due to the tannic water, the fish wasn't as colored up as they are in clearer waters. Looking at my fish made me realize that someone whom had never fished the waters of Florida might need a few tips to help them properly identify the difference between a largemouth bass and Suwannee.
The first place to look is the dorsal fin. The notch between the soft and spiny dorsal of a largemouth goes to the back, while the Suwannee, like spotted and smallmouth bass, has a very shallow notch.
Next is the mouth. The largemouth has a jaw that extends past the eye, while the Suwannee's jaw stops short (just under the eye). Those are a couple of characteristics that will tell the two apart, regardless of the water. In clearer waters, the coloration will make it much easier to distinguish the two. At times, the Suwannee will even have a turquoise color around its head and fins.
We ended up doing quite well on the Santa Fe, with all three of us catching at least two qualifying Suwannee bass. However, the scenery and the uniqueness of the river were the real treat. I couldn't believe that, even in this crowded, development-minded state, such remote places still existed.
At one point, I stopped to consider what would happen to this place if or when the surrounding communities developed quickly and carelessly. What would happen to these awesome Suwannee bass whose populations are already limited to a few streams? I couldn't help but feel remorse at the thought.
If you ever get a chance to come to Florida and fish for the Suwannee bass in either the Suwannee River or its handful of tributaries, don't hesitate to go. I can assure you that you won't be disappointed. And don't wait too long!