It’s a trade-off for bass anglers. Florida strain largemouth do grow larger, but they are more finicky than their northern cousins.
With the country deep in the Great Depression, George Washington Perry wanted to catch some fish to feed his family. On June 2, 1932, the 20-year-old farmer from Helena went fishing with his friend Jack Page, and the bass fishing world changed forever.
That day, George chose to fish Montgomery Lake, an oxbow off the Ocmulgee River, not far from the farm. George and Jack fished the old Telfair County oxbow many times and even kept a homemade boat there ready for their next piscatorial adventure. George spotted a commotion near a stump and cast toward it with the only lure he had, a Creek Chub Fintail Shiner in a natural fish-scale pattern.
A giant bass smashed the lure. No one had ever seen such a fish in Georgia or anywhere else. It measured 32.5 inches long and 28.5 inches in girth, but more importantly, it weighed 22-lbs., 4 ozs. Nearly a century later, the fish still holds its honored place atop the largemouth bass world record roster, albeit now shared with a fish caught in Japan in 2009.
Since 1932, no fish caught in Georgia came within 4 pounds of Perry’s bass. In September 1987, Ron Petzelt caught the second-largest Georgia bass, one weighing 18-lbs., 1-oz., while fishing Lake Margery on what is now part of Marben PFA near Mansfield.
In April 1965, Nickey Rich caught a 17-lb., 14-oz. bass while fishing Chastain Lake near Kennesaw.
Declared a separate species, although most people can’t tell the difference between a pure Florida and a northern largemouth, the Florida variety gained a well-deserved reputation for growing fast and reaching enormous sizes. Many states tried to grow bigger bass by stocking millions of Florida largemouth. Some states, most notably Texas and California, achieved outstanding success with that effort.
The California state record stands at 21.75 pounds, the closest bass caught in the United States to Perry’s lunker. California produced at least 20 bass exceeding 19 pounds in recent decades. The Texas state record sits at 18.18 pounds. Mexico and Japan also introduced Florida bass into some lakes and produced fish breaking the 19-lb. mark.
With a world-record largemouth to its credit, Georgia historically did not do much bass stocking until fairly recently. The state shares a long border with Florida. Several rivers that flow into the Sunshine State originate in Georgia. The two states even share some waters, such as Lake Seminole near Bainbridge. Bass don’t know when they cross state lines.
“We very seldom see a northern largemouth bigger than 10 pounds,” stated Scott Robinson, WRD’s assistant chief of Fisheries. “We don’t have a Florida bass stocking program. We have a bass stocking program, and it’s only been in the last few years that we started large-scale reservoir stockings of largemouth bass. Our position has always been that bass typically produce more offspring than what can survive in the reservoirs.”
Bass with some Florida genes already exist in most Georgia waters, but Florida bass can’t tolerate cold water as well as northern largemouth. The two types of bass hybridize where their ranges overlap, which includes most of northern Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. Naturally, Florida bass or hybrids range as far north as the Georgia Piedmont Region. Therefore, the Peach State did not need to stock Florida bass like other states, since nature already did it.
“Most states try to achieve some percentage of Florida bass genetics persisting in their reservoirs, but we already have those Florida genes in practically all our reservoirs,” Robinson explained. “In places like Lake Allatoona, we already had 50 percent Florida genes before we did any stocking. What we have in Georgia and neighboring states is an intergrade fish between Florida bass and northern largemouth bass. They have some genes from both species. How much varies depending upon where the fish is in the state.”
Many lakes with large Florida bass populations do tend to consistently produce bigger bass, but not every lake. Even some lakes in Florida seldom produce a double-digit largemouth, while neighboring lakes recurrently deliver fish in the 10- to 14-lb. range and some bigger ones.
“One of the most important factors in growing largemouth bass is that they have good habitat and plenty of food,” Robinson said. “Genetics are a piece of the puzzle, but good habitat and plenty of food will override genetics in some cases. It really takes an ideal situation to produce trophy largemouth bass.”
To produce more trophy bass, Georgia began a Selective Breeding Program a few years ago with the goal of introducing genes from larger, fast-growing fish into systems with habitat that can support giant largemouth. The state collects bass from areas that commonly produce bass that grow larger and faster than other members of their species. The state selectively breeds these fish and releases the offspring when the fish reach about 12 inches long. It takes longer to grow a 12-inch bass and more effort, so the state can’t produce as many of them, but a 12-inch bass stands a much better chance of survival than a half-inch fry or 3-inch fingerling.
“We look for fish that we know are from populations that grow fast,” Robinson commented. “We raise the first generation of these fish in hatcheries until they reach about 10 to 12 inches in length. It takes about one year for a hatchery fish to reach 12 inches. In any batch of fish, some will grow faster than others. They might reach 14 to 15 inches. We take those fast-growing fish from that batch and keep them as brooding stock to grow the next generation of bass.”
Where does the state get these fast-growing fish to selectively breed? Some of them come from the waters around George Perry’s old fishing grounds near Montgomery Lake.
“Montgomery Lake isn’t much of a lake anymore,” Robinson said. “It naturally filled in with sedimentation and aquatic plants over the years. It’s only about knee deep most of the time, but we have sampled quite a few bass from around that area and tested them genetically. We see 80 to 90% Florida genes in individual fish in that area, so that area does have quite a bit of Florida bass influence. More than likely, George Perry’s fish was probably one of those bass with 80 to 90% Florida genes.”
Georgia stocked many of these northern-Florida hybrids in state public fishing areas, such as Lake Marben, which produced the 18-lb. No. 2 bass. Ocmulgee Public Fishing Area, a 106-acre lake near Cochran, recently produced a 13-lb. bass that still swims in the lake. The state inserts microchip tracking devices into each fish in the Selective Breeding Program before releasing it, so biologists can track individual fish.
“We’ve stocked only females in some specialized fisheries like the Ocmulgee PFA and several other places where the fish have plenty of forage food to eat and good habitat,” Robinson said. “We’re stocking fish with 80 to 90% Florida bass genes. In those fish, we’ve seen some incredibly high growth rates. When they have good habitat, they might grow up to 3 pounds per year, some of the highest growth rates among largemouth bass that we’ve documented anywhere. In late February 2020, we shocked up and released a 4-year-old bass weighing more than 13 pounds at Ocmulgee PFA. That was one of our hatchery fish. Anyone who catches a 13-lb. bass could take advantage of our Trophy Bass Program.” (See bottom of article)
Any of the PFAs should provide anglers excellent chances to catch big fish. Three lakes on the Chattahoochee River, which separates parts of Alabama from Georgia, can also produce double-digit largemouth. These include West Point Reservoir, Lake Eufaula and Lake Seminole. The Chattahoochee River and the Flint River flow into Lake Seminole on the Georgia-Florida line.
“Lake Seminole and Eufaula produced big bass in the past,” Robinson said. “Paradise PFA is known for big bass. Some water-supply reservoirs that have been built in the past 20 to 30 years have great potential for producing big bass, such as Hard Labor Creek Reservoir near Social Circle. It’s only a few years old, but it has the potential to produce some big bass in the near future. Tired Creek Lake in Grady County has been producing some huge fish.”
While most people agree that Florida bass have the potential to grow faster and reach larger sizes, many anglers also complain that Floridas are much harder to catch than northern largemouth. Northerns characteristically act more aggressive and eat almost anything. Sometimes, Floridas become extremely finicky, which frustrates many anglers. Some people say that Florida bass grow larger because they can be more challenging to catch so they live longer. Escaping capture could allow bass to live longer and therefore grow bigger.
“We hear that Florida bass are harder to catch than northern bass,” Robinson said. “Some research has also shown that. In the 1990s, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department did research where they compared the catchability of Florida bass with northern bass. They did find out that northern largemouth bass were more aggressive and tended to bite lures more often. It’s a trade-off, aggressive fish versus size.”
Walker Smith, managing editor at Wired2fish.com, lives on Lake Sinclair where he does a good bit of his fishing, and he also keeps his finger on the pulse of bass fishing everywhere.
“I’m a firm believer that Florida bass are much tougher to catch than any other bass,” Walker agreed. “Florida bass are incredibly sensitive to temperature changes. If the water changes a degree, Floridas shut down. The bite is over, and anglers need to find them again. Florida bass are also very sensitive to water level changes. It the water levels change just a little bit, they become tough to catch. That’s what makes them so challenging to catch. The northern strain of largemouth bass can better handle small temperature changes. Florida bass can make a person eat a lot of humble pie.”
The bigger a bass grows, whether a Florida or a northern, the more difficult it becomes to catch. Add the legendary persnickety nature of Florida bass and anglers really need to come up with mighty enticing methods for catching any double-digit Floridas. Bigger does not necessarily mean better for tempting trophy Florida bass.
“Florida bass are enormous, and they are mean, but they are finicky,” Walker said. “In 2019, I caught a Florida bass that weighed almost 13.5 pounds in a private lake. I caught it on very light line. That same fish was caught again this year by another person fishing for crappie with 4-lb. test line. We could tell it was the same fish because of its distinctive markings. It was over 14 pounds at that time. Versatility is the key to catching Florida bass.”
Bass usually start spawning in south Georgia in February. By May, most Florida and northern largemouth in Georgia have already laid their eggs, although some bass in northern Georgia possibly have not spawned yet. After dropping her precious cargo, the female moves on to recover from her ordeal. Male bass, however, remain behind to guard the nests. Males commonly spawn with multiple females, so they might stay on the nests for weeks to protect the eggs and fry from predators. While on the nests, male bass eat very little, but might grab something that looks threatening to its offspring.
“In May, many anglers target male bass guarding fry on the nests,” Walker noted. “A Florida-strain buck bass can weigh more than 5 pounds. That’s not something that happens with northern bass. When the males stay on the nests, they corral the fry on vertical cover or in front of grassbeds. Dock posts are a big deal for catching fry guarders.”
Bass staying on the beds won’t chase anything too far from the nest. Therefore, use a bait that hovers in the strike zone for a long time. Rigged with the hook inserted in the middle of a straight worm, a wacky-style rig sinks slowly. As the worm sinks, the tantalizing tips vibrate seductively. Just toss it over a good area and let it sink. Usually bass slurp a wacky worm as it falls. Sometimes, it spirals down, simulating a dying shad.
“Florida bass are harder to catch because they are so finicky and nobody will ever be able to convince me otherwise,” Walker explained. “Because they are so sensitive, we must finesse them sometimes. For fishing fry guarders, the number one technique is a wacky rig. It’s incredibly simple but still highly effective. I use a 5-inch stick worm, like a Yum Dinger or a Senko. With that, I use a No. 2 VMC finesse Neko hook stuck right in the middle of the worm. Once it’s rigged, the wacky worm has a parabolic bend downward when someone holds it up.”
Walker recommends fishing a wacky worm without a weight, so it stays in the strike zone longer. He fishes it on a medium to medium-light spinning rod loaded with 6- to 8-lb. test monofilament line.
“I frequently go up to docks wearing my polarized sunglasses and see fry guarders,” Walker said. “Male bass often sit below the ball of fry looking up for airborne predators or other fish that might want to eat the fry. Without a weight, a wacky rig falls so slowly that it hovers right next to the fry. The bass gets mad at the worm and bites it. I almost always catch it on the first cast.”
Besides around dock pilings, Walker also fishes wacky worms in the backs of south-facing short pockets in May because those pockets receive intense afternoon sunlight and warm quicker than many other places, making them good spawning spots. He also fishes wacky worms around weedy edges that create vertical cover for bass. If the worm doesn’t work, he runs a swim jig or frog parallel to the grass edge.
“When guarding fry, bass don’t get in the grass as much as they get in front of it,” Walker said. “When I’m fishing bank grass, I’ll position my boat in a way that I can cast parallel to the front of that grassbed. I’ll run a Spro Bronzeye hollow-belly frog right along the grassy edge, keeping it in the strike zone as long as possible without any wasted time fishing dead water. In May, I also like to fish a 1/2-oz. Strike King Hack Attack heavy-cover swim jig tipped with a Yamamoto paddle-tailed Zako trailer in green pumpkin or bluegill colors. When the bait gets close to the ball of fry, I’d pop the line. That causes a reaction strike.”
While often busy with his Wired2fish.com duties, Walker Smith also does some guide trips on Sinclair. He can be reached at 770.480.1860.
While not every lake consistently produces double-digit lunkers, the Peach State offers anglers many options for some of the best bass fishing in the nation. Just about every suitable freshwater system in Georgia harbors strong, healthy bass populations with some big fish.
Earn A Free Replica Bass Mount By Catching a Georgia Giant
Anyone who catches a giant largemouth bass anywhere in Georgia could receive a free replica mount of that fish as a reminder of that day, courtesy of DNR.
“To take advantage of our Trophy Bass Program and receive a free replica mount, a person must catch a largemouth bass weighing 13 pounds or more in Georgia and report it to WRD,” said Scott Robinson, a DNR biologist. “Applications must be submitted within 90 days of the catch.”
After catching a potentially qualifying fish, call WRD. A state biologist or technician will come out to certify the species and obtain information about the fish so the angler can enter it into the Trophy Bass Program. The fish must be weighed on a certified scale before two witnesses, each at least 18 years old.
If all requirements are met, the person catching that giant bass will receive a free replica of that fish. During normal business hours, report the fish to the nearest WRD office. After business hours or on weekends, call the DNR Ranger Hotline at 800.241.4113 to report a catch.
For more information on the Georgia Trophy Bass Program and other fishing awards, see www.georgiawildlife.com/fishing/anglerawards.
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