Largemouth or spots?
Every contender in the 2002 CITGO Bassmasters Classic had to answer that question as he tried to figure out how he would attack Lay Lake. A few anglers, including Classic champ Jay Yelas, were able to manage mixed catches of largemouth and spotted bass.
While Yelas' tailwater tactics drew strikes from both of Lay Lake's black bass species, most anglers have to choose which species to focus on in waterways that support spotted bass in addition to largemouth and, possibly, smallmouth.
"I need a mind-set that I'm going to go spotted bass fishing," says Tom Mann Jr. of Buford, Ga. "Catching them requires different tactics and fishing different kinds of areas."
Mann lives on Lake Lanier, one of the nation's elite spotted bass lakes. He has scored one Bassmaster Tour win on his home waters, and he has never finished below ninth in a BASS tournament on Lanier. In hitting those high marks, he hasn't weighed in a single largemouth.
Beyond Lake Lanier, however, Mann is considered a favorite on any lake that supports hefty spots. "I'll almost always target spots anywhere they grow to big enough sizes that I could actually win with them," he says.
Spotted bass are found throughout much of the South and in some Western waters, but in many lakes, a spot over 2 pounds is a rarity. Through the southern half of their range, especially in Alabama and Georgia, quality spots make up an important part of the bass population.
James Buchanan of Mobile, Ala., also turns to spotted bass when he has that option, both for tournament advantages and for simple fun. He contends that a big spot will out-pull even a smallmouth of comparable size, and he would rather catch spots than either of their cousins.
From a tournament-strategy standpoint, Buchanan often starts out looking for the usually aggressive spots in order to get a limit. Where spots grow plenty big enough to win with, he's apt to stick with them throughout the tournament. A Federation angler who also fishes the Sportsman's Association of Black Bass Anglers and People of Color Outdoors tours, Buchanan has fished extensively on most of the South's premier spotted bass lakes.
Spots offer three major advantages that tournament pros consistently point toward: First, they tend to hang together, so where an angler catches one, he usually will find more. Second, they feed very aggressively. And third, they are quite dependable.
"One key with spots is that when I get on a good pattern, I know it will hold up," Mann explains. "They are not nearly as affected by weather patterns as largemouth, largely because of the deeper water they stay in."
The most obvious disadvantage of fishing for spots in a tournament is that they don't grow nearly as big as largemouth. As a basis for comparison, the spotted bass world record is 10 pounds, 4 ounces, which is less than one-half of the 22-pound, 4-ounce largemouth mark. Four- or 5-pound spots are considered heavyweights even in the best lakes, so a spotted bass angler needs limits of high-quality spots to compete with largemouth anglers in most tournaments.
In addition, largemouth and spots prefer distinctively different habitats, and moving from one to the other is not always practical. Spots, which abound in the deep, open waters of many reservoirs, may be miles away from prime largemouth areas. Just as significantly, many anglers don't understand spotted bass behavior well enough to pattern them effectively.
When Mann intends to fish for spots in unfamiliar waters, he typically begins by searching out the deepest and clearest waters in the lake, especially near junctures of major tributaries with the lake's main river channel.
"The first thing is to always think offshore — except during the spring — and to think deep," he declares.
Within likely areas, Mann will fish every bit of cover or structure he can find in the 20- to 40-foot range. He especially likes offshore humps and ridges that rise out of the deeper water. Along with fishing those areas, he spends a lot of time watching his electronics, looking for subtle humps or dips, or for any kind of cover that should hold fish on a specific spot.
"Learning how to read your electronics and detect subtle differences in the bottom is essential for spotted bass fishing," Mann says. "You're not looking for fish on the depthfinder screen. You are looking for structure that will hold those fish at the right depth range."
Buchanan also makes heavy use of his electronics to locate brushpiles, rocks and other cover, having observed that spots tend to hold precisely in the cover. However, he often begins his search for spotted bass by following visible clues.
He frequently starts with bridge crossings, which offer rocks and bridge pilings at a variety of depths where they span major channels. He also likes docks, especially main lake docks that stretch into or close to deep water. The best docks for spots have brushpiles off the ends of them, he notes.
On hydroelectric power lakes, Buchanan also looks for "funnel" areas along the main river channel, where currents are likely to be strongest. "Spots really relate to current, and they feed more aggressively where current is running," he says.
Lures for spots
Because of the spots' aggressive nature, Buchanan and Mann will start out fishing the surface much of the time. "Spots often will come from 15 or more feet down to take a topwater lure," Buchanan says.
Mann generally begins throwing topwater plugs for spots sometime in early April and keeps surface lures in his arsenal through at least early December. Since he often catches bigger spots on topwater offerings, he commonly tries surface presentations at each new location he visits.
His favorite topwater plug is a Yo-Zuri Hydro Pencil, an erratic "walking" plug that he can cast a long distance. "That can be important for spots, especially when the water is really clear," he believes. Any color pattern is good, he adds, "as long as it has a white bottom."
Mann also likes a pearl sparkle Zipper Minnow for bringing spots to the surface. Some days the fish aren't quite aggressive enough to take a big plug, but they will come and get a soft plastic jerkbait darting back and forth across the top.
Buchanan throws topwater plugs almost exclusively for the first few hours of the morning, and he'll keep one tied on and handy all day. A few casts every now and then will reveal whether a fish is willing to dart to the top and smash a bait. Buchanan, like Mann, likes to walk the dog, favoring an Excalibur Super Spook Jr. for the job.
In addition to topwater plugs, Buchanan will sometimes try to draw aggressive spots up out of cover with a Smithwick Rattlin' Rogue or a spinnerbait. For either, he varies his retrieve a lot. "Spots like something a little bit erratic," he has found. "I'll get a spinnerbait's blades turning, drop it to the bottom, pop it up a few times and let it drop again."
Mann turns to spinnerbaits for spots primarily in the fall. Keying on steep, rocky points and bluffs with a ½-ounce War Eagle Screamin' Eagle, he catches a lot of big spotted bass every fall. "Put it right on the bank, and they kill it," he says.
While aggressive tactics produce some heavyweight spotted bass and huge fun, serious spot fishermen also spend a lot of time probing deep structure with jigs or soft plastic offerings. In clear lakes, especially, catching spots often demands finesse presentations and downsized offerings.
For working every inch of vast humps, Mann likes a Zipper In-Line Power Jig, which he simply bounces along the bottom. He especially likes a jig when the water is cold or the spots are extra deep.
For similar situations and for working the deep ends of points, Buchanan prefers to drag a Carolina rigged Yum Shakin' Worm across the structure. He likes dark colors, like green pumpkin and june bug, for the 5-inch finesse worms, because he believes spots can see those hues better in their deep water haunts.
When Buchanan has zeroed in on specific cover, like brushpiles off the ends of docks, stumps atop humps or rockpiles on points, he turns to what he calls the Shake-E-Head. The approach calls for a Yum Floatin' Jitter Worm, rigged weedless on a ¼- to ½-ounce stand-up jighead.
Buchanan casts to the cover and lets the bait fall to the bottom, and the floating worm stands straight up from the jighead. A slight shake of the line brings the worm to life.
"Don't move the jighead," he says. "Just shake the line to make the worm quiver."
After several shakes, he moves it just a little, and then goes back to shaking. The approach doesn't cover much water very quickly, which is why he only turns to it when he has specific cover pinpointed; however, it is irresistible to spots.
Mann also fishes worms on leadheads, shaking them on the bottom in areas where he expects to find fish. He uses Zipper In-Line jigheads and Shakin' Worms. However, his go-to approach for fishing prime spotted bass areas is drop shotting a Zipper Drop Shot Shaker. "Drop shotting is tough to beat for spotted bass," Mann says. "A vertical approach is ideal for targeting fish that are holding on deep structure."
Mann doesn't go quite as light as many western pros do when he fishes a drop shot rig. He typically fishes with 8- or 10-pound-test line, and he often uses baitcasting gear. The real advantage baitcasting tackle offers, he points out, is that it eliminates line twist as a problem. He pegs the rig with a 1/4- or 3/8-ounce Extra Edge sinker, using the lighter weight if the water is less than 25 feet deep.
He believes many anglers miss out on the benefits of drop shotting by putting too much movement into the approach. "With a drop shot, you don't want the weight to move. Just jiggle the worm," he said.
More often than not, if an angler has done a good job locating prime spotted bass waters and delivering a drop shot, it won't be long before a fat spot also will move the worm — and the weight, the line and the rod.