CHARLESTON, W.Va. — There is a growing stir in West Virginia’s bass fishing community regarding a new threat to both largemouth and smallmouth bass alike. The Alabama bass isn’t necessarily new, but it’s just now coming to the conscious of West Virginia.
Mark Scott, Assistant Chief of Fish Management for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources first learned about the unusual strain of bass during an informational seminar at the 2020 Bassmaster Classic in Alabama, ironically in a presentation from state fish biologists from North Carolina.
“They were talking about how they had pretty much wiped out the largemouth in Lake Norman. It took them a few years, but anglers now tell me maybe one out of ten fish you catch there will be a largemouth,” Scott said during a visit on West Virginia Outdoors.
The Alabama bass is native to lower Alabama in the Mobile Bay drainage. It is similar to the Kentucky spotted bass in West Virginia. But it grows fast and gets big. plus it’s an aggressive fighter. It certainly sounds like it would be fun to catch. But there are the consequences when you look at the other side of this invasive species.
“Look at Lake Norman,” Scott explained. “If you want to catch largemouth bass and you put a fish in there to out-compete them, that’s not a real smart thing to do.”
The fish seem to edge out the largemouth in competition for food and habitat. According to Scott, once they’ve taken over a fishery and eliminated competing species, they multiply and start to stunt in growth.
“Soon all you have is a lake full of small fish,” he explained.
As sinister as the impact on largemouth sounds, the threat the Alabama bass poses to the smallmouth bass is even worse.
“They breed out the smallmouth. They hybridize and eventually take over that way. Their genetics eventually take over and you lose your smallmouth. Lord forbid we ever lose our smallmouth in the New River, that’s one of the top smallmouth bass fisheries around, so that’s scary,” Scott explained.
But the threat is probably closer than we think. Although the Alabama bass has not been found in West Virginia, Scott admitted they really haven’t looked for it. They plan to start this fall in a study conducted by researchers at West Virginia University which will look at spotted bass from Bluestone, R.D. Bailey, Summersville, and Sutton Lakes.
But in neighboring Virginia they have been found and in one of the least desired places.
“We first determined we had Alabama bass when a couple of what were submitted as state record spotted bass came out of Claytor Lake,” said Michael Bednarski Chief of Fisheries for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.
Bednarski talked about the discovery on West Virginia Outdoors.
“We did a little bit of genetic testing because those spotted bass were so big. We found they weren’t spotted bass, but were actually Alabama bass. Follow up testing in Claytor Lake has shown an extensive invasion of Alabama bass and hybridization of the spotted bass and some of the smallmouth bass in that lake,” Bednarski explained.
Virginia biologists also discovered them at Lake Gaston, Diascund Reservoir, Martinsville Reservoir, and Philpott Lake. According to Bednarski through assistance from anglers, they learned they are also present in the Chickahominy River, which is tied to the James River. But the Claytor Lake discovery is the one of most profound concern to West Virginia anglers since Claytor Lake it is on the New River.
“We are very concerned about the New River with that smallmouth population. At this point we don’t know of any Alabama bass in the New River, but I’ve got my folks doing additional testing this spring to see if they are established and if so, how far the extent goes,” Bednarski explained.
The bass obviously were moved by fishermen from the Alabama drainage to areas where they are non-native. It’s illegal to stock fish in any water in West Virginia without a DNR permit. Scott said however, after the deed is done, it becomes extremely hard to put the genie back in the bottle.
“It’s like pulling a trigger on a gun, once that bullet goes out of the barrel it’s gone. We can’t drain Bluestone Lake and New River and start over. It’s just ruined at that point,” Scott said.