So … what’s so bad about a fast-growing, aggressive strain of bass that’s easy to catch? Sounds like an angler’s dream, doesn’t it?
In several nearby states, that dream has become a nightmare, one that might someday haunt anglers in West Virginia. The nightmare’s name? Alabama bass.
It’s a species of black bass native to the Mobile Bay watershed in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. Before modern genetic testing proved differently in 2010, Alabama bass were thought to be a subspecies of the Kentucky spotted bass, which look a lot like largemouth bass but are usually smaller.
What anglers like about Alabama bass is that they’re every bit as aggressive as their Kentucky cousins, but can grow considerably larger. For that reason, some anglers have taken it upon themselves to stock Alabama bass in waters outside the species’ home range.
“I call those people ‘junior biologists,’” said Mark Scott, fisheries chief for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. “They move these fish without giving any thought to how they might harm native [bass] species.”
Scott said examples of that harm can be found in lakes and rivers throughout the South.
“Alabama bass have been moved all over the place, unfortunately,” he added. “And they’re causing problems.
“They outcompete native largemouth populations, and once they become the dominant species, they tend to stunt, leaving only a lot of smaller fish. They also interbreed with smallmouth bass, creating an undesirable hybrid.”
Mike Bednarski, Scott’s counterpart in the Virginia Department of Wildlife, has seen the consequences firsthand.
“We’ve got Alabama bass in half a dozen waters statewide,” Bednarski said.
“They’re firmly established in Lake Gaston on the North Carolina border, in Diascund Creek Reservoir [near Newport News], and in Claytor Lake. We also have found them in Philpott Lake, Martinsville Reservoir, and in the Chickahominy River.”
Bednarksi said agency officials didn’t even know the fish were there until an angler in Claytor Lake caught what he thought was a state-record spotted bass.
“That fish was so large, we did some genetic testing on it and found out it was really an Alabama bass,” Bednarski explained.
Subsequent testing revealed the other populations. It also spurred Bednarski and his colleagues to issue strong warnings to anglers about importing the non-native species.
“We’ve engaged angler groups like the BASS Federation and [the Bass Angler Sportsman Society],” he said. “They’re some of strongest advocates we have for fisheries conservation, and they’ve been great about helping us to get the word out.”
Bednarksi said he hopes bass fisheries in Virginia can avoid the impacts suffered in other states.
“Alabama bass have pretty much wiped out the largemouth fishery in Lake Norman [in North Carolina and Tennessee],” he said. “In Lake Chatuge, in Georgia, they’ve pretty much lost their smallmouth population. In Lake Heartwell, also in Georgia, the largemouth population has pretty much been replaced by Alabamas.”
Although there’s no evidence that anglers have brought Alabama bass to West Virginia, Scott considers Virginia’s Claytor Lake population to be too close for comfort.
“Claytor Lake is on the New River,” Scott explained. “If the Alabama bass make it out of Claytor Lake and into the river, they could start hybridizing with New River smallmouth. It would be a shame if the world-class smallmouth fishery here in West Virginia ended up affected by the actions of some of some ‘junior biologists’ over in Virginia.”
Bednarksi said that doesn’t appear to have happened yet, and he said Virginia DWR biologists are monitoring the situation to see if it does.
“I’m really concerned about the smallmouth fisheries in both the New and James rivers,” he said. “Alabama bass have become a real threat.”
Partly as a hedge against Alabama bass, West Virginia DNR officials plan to launch a study into a statewide black-bass genetics study later this year.
“Bass fishermen have asked us about stocking the Florida strain of largemouth,” Scott said. “We’re doing this study so we’ll know what we have before we introduce a new strain. If any Alabama bass show up, we’ll look at that, too.”
In the meantime, Scott has a message for bass anglers.
“Please don’t move fish,” he said. “You think you’re making an excellent choice, but you aren’t. If you move fish, the ones you move might outcompete a fish you don’t want them to outcompete.
“Moving fish, even between watersheds, is illegal in West Virginia. Just don’t do it.”