AUBURN, Ala. — As black bass species go, the shoal bass is clearly a nonconformist. Unlike its largemouth and smallmouth cousins, the shoal bass is quite particular about its habitat and forage.
The "shoalie," as it is affectionately known, is found in only a handful of cool, rocky Southern rivers and streams. It cannot survive in rushing smallmouth rivers or deep largemouth bass lakes. The shoal bass consumes such black bass staples as crawfish and minnows, but it can also subsist on tiny aquatic insect larvae.
While Southern anglers have pursued the shoal bass for more than 50 years, the fish was not officially recognized as a separate black bass species until 1999. It was, and still is, frequently mistaken for a redeye bass. The shoal bass is found only in the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, Chipola, Flint and Ocmulgee river drainages of Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
Florida's shoal bass population is considered stable, so it is not protected by any special regulations. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission is engaged in a two-year study of the Chipola River shoal bass that could determine if protection is warranted.
Georgia is home to the largest shoal bass population in the world, thanks to a resurgence in the population. In the late 1950s, the shoal bass inhabiting the Chattahoochee River downstream from Lake Lanier began to disappear because a new dam cooled off the water. But the rapid growth of Atlanta and its suburbs in the 1990s dramatically increased the temperature of the summertime storm water flowing into the Chattahoochee, and shoal bass slowly returned.
"We decided to stock shoal bass for five years," explained Chris Martin, Georgia senior fisheries biologist, "to see if we could restore the population." Officials released more than 200,000 shoal bass into the Chattahoochee near Atlanta. Now the shoalie is the foundation of a popular summertime bass fishery for metro Atlanta anglers.
By contrast, the Alabama shoal bass population is barely clinging to viability. In 2006, the state outlawed the harvest of shoal bass from its historic habitats in the Chattahoochee River tributaries.
"Our objective is to restore shoal bass to all of the historic shoal bass streams in Alabama," explained Steve Rider, Alabama Aquatic Resources coordinator. Only four such streams exist, and they all flow into the Chattahoochee from the west.
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources purchased 2,000 shoal bass fingerlings from a Georgia state hatchery in 2007, then fattened them in Alabama hatchery ponds and released them into the four streams. Researchers from Auburn University are monitoring their progress. At the same time, the Auburn scientists are scouring the state for possible new shoal bass habitat.
While Alabama fishing regulations prohibit the harvest of any shoal bass from the Chattahoochee tributary streams, a confusing reciprocal agreement with the state of Georgia allows Alabama anglers to harvest shoal bass caught in the Chattahoochee River reservoirs, such as Lake Eufaula. However, if such fish are weighed in on Alabama soil after a tournament, they must be returned to their source water body. They may not be transported to or eaten in Alabama.
Alabama B.A.S.S. Federation Nation official Robin Clark said his organization wants to preclude even the possibility of a state fishing violation. Accordingly, Federation Nation officials no longer allow shoal bass to be counted as part of a tournament angler's limit.
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