A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Art Lander’s Outdoors: The spotted (Kentucky) bass not recognized as a separate species until 1927

Once thought to be a hybrid between the largemouth bass and smallmouth bass, and easily confused with the largemouth bass in coloration, the spotted bass was not recognized by ichthyologists as a separate species until 1927.

The spotted bass is one of four species of black bass found in Kentucky waters. All are members of family, Centrarchidae, which includes sunfish and crappie.

Identification in Scientific Literature

(Image provided)

The species was first described in 1819 by French naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, a botany and natural science professor at Transylvania University (1819-1826).

Rafinesque collected the specimen at the Falls of the Ohio, and named it Calliurus punctulatus, with the genus meaning “beautiful tail,” a reference to the colorful tail of the immature specimen he collected.

His description was detailed in Ichthyologia Ohiensis, a natural history of the fishes inhabiting the Ohio River and its tributaries in Kentucky, published in Lexington in 1820. In 1927 the species was renamed Micropterus punctulatus, and Rafinesque was credited with describing the species.

On February 27, 1956, Kentucky’s General Assembly passed Senate Resolution 70, establishing the spotted bass as Kentucky’s state gamefish. Soon afterward, the legislation was signed into law by Gov. Albert B. “Happy” Chandler.

From that date, the spotted bass became known as the Kentucky bass, a common name that is widely accepted throughout much of the fish’s geographic range.

Coloration and Size

The spotted bass has an olive-green back with irregular markings of darker green. Its sides are paler, with a mid-lateral band of semi-connected darker bars. The belly is pearl, with longitudinal rows of dusky (dark green spotted) scales.

The spotted bass closely resembles the largemouth bass but has a smaller mouth. Its jaw bone doesn’t extend beyond the rear margin of the eye, like a largemouth bass, but ends near the center of the eye.

In Kentucky, adult spotted bass are commonly 8 to 15 inches in length, weighing eight ounces to two pounds. (Photo provided)

Its tongue has a small patch of teeth. Its eyes have an orange or scarlet-red iris.

In Kentucky, adult spotted bass are commonly 8 to 15 inches in length, weighing eight ounces to two pounds.

After reaching 2 3/4 pounds, spotted bass develop a very broad girth which tapers to a sleek, powerful forked tail.

Kentucky’s state record spotted bass was caught from a farm pond. It’s believed that the fish was trapped in the pond by receding flood waters, where it grew to such enormous size. The fish weighed 7 pounds, 10 ounces and was caught by A.E. Sellers of Louisville, on June 13, 1970, in Nelson County.

Distribution in Kentucky

The spotted bass was chosen as the state gamefish because of its abundance in the Ohio River, and tributaries to the south, which arise, or flow through the state.

Present in all of the state’s river drainages, the spotted bass is common in the streams of northeastern Kentucky.

Geographic Range

Somewhat of a regional fish, the spotted bass is native to the streams of the Gulf Coast from Texas, north to eastern Kansas and central Illinois, east to southern Pennsylvania, and south to the Florida panhandle.

The spotted bass has also been widely introduced into waters outside of its geographic range.

According to the International Game Fish Association (IGFA), there are three recognized subspecies of the spotted bass — the northern spotted bass (Micropterus punctulatus punctulatus), the Alabama spotted bass (Micropterus p. henshall), and the Wichita spotted bass (Micropterus p. wichitae).

The Wichita spotted bass appears to be limited to the West Cache Creek, Oklahoma. Alabama spotted bass have been widely introduced into California.

Habitat and Food Preferences

Spotted bass have habitat preferences somewhat in between the largemouth and smallmouth bass, thriving in waters that are warmer and more stained than preferred by the smallmouth bass.

Their preferred habitat is gravel substrate, chunk rock, boulders or rock walls.

Once thought to be a hybrid between the largemouth bass and smallmouth bass, and easily confused with the largemouth bass in coloration, the spotted bass was not recognized by ichthyologists as a separate species until 1927. (Painting by Rick Hill, courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.)

They inhabit small streams with a gradient of two to three feet per mile and larger streams with slightly less gradient.

In Kentucky’s major lakes, spotted bass tend to live in deeper water near dams and around riprap, and often school up and suspend in open water.

Juveniles feed on small crustaceans and midge larvae. Adults eat insect larvae, crayfish, frogs, worms, annelids (ringed worms), salamanders, and minnows.

On January 1, 1988, the minimum size limit on the spotted bass was lifted, enabling anglers to creel spotted bass of any size in Kentucky. The regulation change was made because spotted bass have a slower growth rate and most fish never reached the statewide 12-inch minimum size limit.

Also, biologists felt that allowing anglers to remove more spotted bass would increase growth rates for largemouth and smallmouth bass.

The IGFA all-tackle world record spotted bass weighed 11 pounds, 4 ounces, and was caught on February 12, 2017, from New Bullards Bar Reservoir in northern California.


The spotted bass makes its nest in shallow water, where there’s a gravel bottom, and spawns at water temperatures within the range of the smallmouth bass.

Their eggs have a short incubation period, which makes them less susceptible to predation. They occasionally hybridize with smallmouth bass.

Fishing Tips

Spotted bass are fun to catch on light spinning tackle.

Minnows and nightcrawlers are two of the best live baits.

Rig live minnows on a No. 4 bronze hook, with a split-shot lead sinker positioned about 12 inches above the hook. Cast to rocky points or rock walls in lakes, or drift through deep holes in streams.

Top artificial baits are small jigs and plastic grubs. Fish deep and hang on. Spotted bass can often be caught from depths exceeding 30 feet in deep, clear lakes.

The spotted bass is a widely distributed black bass, common in rocky streams, especially in the Licking River and Kentucky River basins.

It’s a little bass with a big reputation, known throughout the bass fishing world as the “Kentucky Bass.”

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment