If you run in bass fishing circles or keep check on developments within the sport as closely as I do, then you have probably heard about all those huge "spotted" bass that have been caught out West over the last few years. The drums have been beating particularly loud in California, where reports and photos of anglers holding fistfuls of enormous bass with short bodies, fat bellies and gorgeous color have been showing up on social media and on a number of popular websites for quite some time.
In May, the International Game Fish Association officially declared one of the fish a new world record in its spotted bass category. The 11-pound, 4-ounce beauty was caught by Nick Dulleck of San Jose, Calif., on Feb. 12, 2017 from New Bullards Bar Reservoir near Yuba City. It's the same lake that produced Timothy Little's former world record spot of 10 pounds, 2 ounces in 2015 and a host challengers since, including a 10.80 pounder caught in Dec. 2016 by FLW Tour pro Cody Meyer.
In a surprising turn of events, it was recently decided by the IGFA that the organization may have to rescind Dulleck's spotted bass world record and possibly award him an Alabama bass all-tackle world record instead.
It's not that there was something shady about the catch or anything of the sort. Dulleck caught the fish legally and followed all the IGFA world record application requirements to the tee.
The hitch falls under the subject of science and a potential case of mistaken identity, according to Jason Schratweiser, IGFA Conservation Director.
Alabama Bass: A Fish of a Different Kind
According to some fisheries experts, the big bass that took Dulleck's bait last spring may not have been a "spotted bass" as everyone has been claiming for months. In fact, some scientists believe Dulleck's fish - and several other big bass hauled in before it at Bullard's Bar - were an entirely different breed -- likely pure Alabama bass or Alabama bass hybrids of some sort.
Dr. Steven M. Sammons with the School of Fisheries, Aquaculture, and Aquatic Sciences at Auburn University, has seen pictures of Dulleck's fish and says its sheer size indicates it is not a spotted bass. Sammons has performed extensive research on nine different species of black bass, including Alabama bass, over the last 23 years. Also an avid angler, he has caught 14 native black bass species.
"All those big “spotted bass” in California are Alabama bass," Sammons said. "Actual spotted bass (Kentucky spotted bass, northern spotted bass, Micropterus punctulatus) rarely get over three pounds and virtually never over five pounds. I worked in Tennessee on reservoirs for five years (all native spotted bass, no Alabama bass) and never saw one over 2 1/2 pounds."
Interestingly, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, one of the only states that currently recognizes spots and Alabama bass separately, lists a 6 pound, 1-ounce fish caught from Lake Chickamauga in 2011 as a state record for spotted bass. A 7.0 pounder from Parksville Reservoir holds the Tennessee state record for Alabama bass.
Frank Fiss, TWRA inland fisheries chief, says the true identities of both state record fish were determined through genetics testing.
Getting a Name Change
Alabama bass are native to the Mobile River basin of Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. For years scientists recognized them as one of three species of spotted bass, hence the former name "Alabama spotted bass" that existed until scientists determined through DNA analysis and other research that Alabama bass and spotted bass are entirely different animals, particularly when it comes to growth potential.
As a result, the American Fisheries Society in 2013 designated the Alabama bass as a species unto its own. Established in 1870, the AFS is a non-profit organization comprised of fisheries professionals nationwide whose goals are to advance fisheries and aquatic science and to promote the development of fisheries professionals.
Schratwieser says he wasn't made aware of the AFS's stance on Alabama bass until recently, and he pointed out that the designation has created somewhat of a sticky situation that the IGFA is attempting to sort out. The IGFA is recognized and highly respected as the keeper of world record fish catches in a variety of categories.
"We have to get this right," Schratwieser said. "I'm going to have to rely on biologists to help us sort this out. It's a mess."
And caught in the middle of the mess is Dulleck, a 33-year angler who lives and breathes bass fishing and claims he went above and beyond to document his catch so as to leave absolutely no question to its authenticity.
Dulleck, who says he received an e-mail from IGFA notifying him that his all tackle spotted bass world record might be exchanged for Alabama bass record, says he is somewhat confused by the recent turn of events.
"I'm aware of the different species, but I think there are a lot of unanswered questions around the process of what they (the IGFA) are trying to do," he said. "There needs to be some questions answered as far as how they are going to handle it. There are a lot of different aspects to look at - a lot of unknowns. There are several IGFA spotted bass line class records to be looked at and other fish in the 8-9 pound class that have been caught in California and recognized in the past. Do we say all big spots in California are Alabama bass? There are a lot of lines to be drawn, so I don't think its going to be an easy process for IGFA.
"But, at the end of the day it is what it is," he added. "If I wind up with the world record for Alabama bass, that's cool too. It's seems to me that is more than likely what is going to happen and I'm fine with that. My main concern is that this deal gets handled in a way that it is fair for everyone going forward."
Texas Establishes Genetic Testing Protocol
Alabama bass also have taken root in Texas, but only in one lake. Lake Alan Henry, a 2,900-acre reservoir near Lubbock, was stocked with 150 adult Alabama bass in 1996 as part of an experiment. Like many other lakes across the state, Alan Henry does not have a northern spotted bass population.
In January 2016, a 5.98 pound state record caught there underwent genetics testing to determine its origin. The test showed the fish to have pure Alabama bass DNA, linking it to the stocking that was performed 20 years earlier.
In light of the AFS ruling designating Alabama bass as a distinct species, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department elected to establish separate records and regulations categories for Alabama bass that become effective Sept. 1, 2017.
For years, TPWD fisheries scientists have relied on genetics testing to sort out pure Florida bass from intergrades turned into the agency's high-profile Toyota ShareLunker program. Officials there maintain the belief that such testing using a fin clip or scale is the only definitive way to tell the difference between spotted bass, Alabama bass and their hybrids.
The CDFW has chosen to take a different stance. According to Fish, that agency now places spotted bass and Alabama bass under the same records heading rather than opting for genetics testing to verify the origin of record-class fish.
"Genetic work is near a necessity for absolute confirmation of species," Fish said via e-mail. "CDFW does not have the resources to do genetic work on state record applications at this time. For this reason both species are combined in one record category to preserve accuracy."
At this point, there is no evidence that there’s any genetic material available from Dulleck’s trophy fish to verify its species. However, there is evidence that there have never been any spotted bass (as they are now recognized) stocked into New Bullards Bar.
The fate IGFA's newest world record bass appears to be up in the air. Is it a spot, Alabama bass or some sort of hybrid freak? Either way, it's one whale of a fish well deserving of mountain recognition.
Only time will tell how this one shakes out.
Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail, email@example.com