2022 Big Fish Bets

by Chris McCotter

If you are a serious, trophy-hunting angler you know that it’s about the time to get out on an area lake or river and start putting that new fishing license to work. All across the region waters are warming to that magic 60-degree mark when fish move shallow and spawning occurs and that desk chair is definitely less comfortable that the leanin’ post on the front deck of your rig or padded seat on the kayak.

With limited time between tasks from the boss (you know who I’m talking about) you need to fish in the very best places for big fish. With the 2021 numbers just in from Virginia Department Wildlife Resources’ (VDWR) Director of the Virginia Angler Recognition Program, Meghann Rothgeb, we have some suggestions for you. 

Remember, if you do land a trophy, you must obtain photographic evidence of weight or length and then we would urge you to consider releasing it. For a length citation, anglers must lay the fish on top of or next to a ruler and the photo must be clear and legible. Do not lay the ruler over the curvature of the fish’s body. For a weight citation, the photo must show the entire fish on the scale. The scale needs to be clear and legible. Anglers can submit numerous photos in their application if need be.

Once you have the photos, you submit your angler recognition applications through your Go Outdoors Virginia customer profile. Just log into your account and click on the “Add Catch” tile. Enter the details of your catch and checkout.

Once the photos and info are uploaded into your Go Outdoors Virginia account, Rothgeb and the staff at VDWR will examine the application and if qualifies, a fine certificate will be generated on your account and arrive about a month after you submit the citation form and the $5 processing fee. 

You can also submit a photo of your big catch to Woods & Waters Magazine and you’ll be entered their annual Big Fish Contest, winners to get a coveted W2 truck/boat sticker. Winner of the Country Chevrolet Big Bass award will receive some Chevy swag and a $50 Green Top gift card.

Interesting to note that based on Rothgeb’s data there were 1,663 Angler Recognitions recorded for 2021 – up from 1,547 in 2020. 

And now on to those big fish waters!

Blue Catfish

Love ‘em or hate ‘em blue catfish are plentiful in area waters and a lot of anglers love ‘em! 

Buggs Island, the current state record and world record holder for blue catfish produced the year’s heaviest fish at 112 pounds even but was second in the overall “medal” count with 14 citations (down from 18 recorded in 2019). Remember, a citation blue catfish is 30 pounds.

The Potomac River stayed in the top three producing 44 citation blue catfish, (up from 36 in 2019) and topped by a 75 pounder.

The James River was once again blue catfish king with 104 citations in 2019 (up slightly from 100 in 2019) with a 74-4 pound fish at the top caught in April. The biggest blue catfish of the year came from the Appomattox River on March 18 and weighed 86 pounds.


Just about every year we’ve been keeping up with the numbers and Buggs Island (a.k.a. Kerr Reservoir) tops all others in the freckle category. This nearly 50,000 acre lake on the border of Virginia and North Carolina pumps out plenty of big black and white crappie, so many it laps the field usually. VDWR now separates black and white crappie citations, too. There were 170 total black crappie citations (down from 312 in 2020) and 70  total white crappie citations (down from 113 in 2020). 

Based on 2021 numbers Buggs is still THE place to go for the best chance at landing a two-pound or 15-inch crappie, though. Last year Buggs produced 45 black crappie (slightly down from 46 in 2020) and 39 white crappie (also slightly down from 40 in 2020) over two pounds or 15 inches with many, many more not registered.  

That is a great trend that made a lot of folks happy in Clarksville from tackle shops to motels to all the visiting and local anglers that like to crappie fish.  The Town of Clarksville located right on the lake with its angler-friendly hotels and merchants is known in the early spring as Crappie Town USA to freckle fishermen. You’ll find folks that welcome your visit and crappie anglers everywhere you look.

Buggs easily outpaced its nearest competitor, Little Creek Reservoir with 14 citations (15 in 2020). Lake Anna was third with 11 citations (down from 21 a year before).

The largest two specks recorded in Virginia last year weighed an impressive 3-8 and were caught by Christopher Shields and William Braswell in April fishing Buggs Island/Kerr Reservoir. From DRW data, though, the majority of the trophy crappie were caught in February and March last year.

Largemouth Bass

A total of 368 citation largemouth bass were recorded by the VDWR Angler Recognition Program in 2022, significantly down from the 556 recorded in 2021, probably due to the new online system anglers must use.

This category is closely watched by many anglers and it tends to vary from year-to-year. We’ve been following some trends and they continued this year and we even have a new top largemouth lake…

If you want the best chance to land a state citation largemouth bass over eight pounds or 22 inches, it might be a  surprise to learn that Smith Mountain Lake was the top citation producer for 2021. The 22,000-acre highland reservoir produced 17 largemouth bass citations in 2021 (down from 21 in 2020). As we predicted last year an experimental stocking of F1/N1 tiger bass a few years back should continue to keep SML’s numbers in the top three for the state. The heaviest bass caught from Smith Mountain Lake last year was 8-1.

We had a tie for second place between Lake Anna and Briery Creek Lake. Each produced 15 citation largemouths in 2021. 

Briery Creek Lake continues to return to it’s old self after intensive management efforts to bring back the 845-acre lake that once produced a 16-2 ounce, near state record back in 2002. There is a slot limit in effect on Briery; no bass can be harvested in a 16-24” protected slot. The biggest bass last year went 9-2.

Lake Anna held her own in the first full year anglers were required to use their Go Outdoors Virginia online accounts to record citations. This nearly 10K-acre public lake just south of Fredericksburg also received a stocking of F1/N1 hybrid bass in June 2021, so within four years, we anticipate a burst of citations here, too. 

Sandy River Reservoir – sister lake to Briery Creek produced 11 citations last year. Lake Chesdin gave up 10 citations. The vast waters of Back Bay and the Northwest River have begun to do what we predicted – produce trophy bass. 2021 was another good one for this shallow fishery behind Virginia Beach with 10 citation recorded.

Chickahominy Lake was a disappointment last year or folks didn’t record their citations because it went from 37 citations in 2020 year ago to just nine last year. It did have two of the top 10 biggest bass caught last year and many anglers opted not to register their documented 10+ pound bass catches with DWR.

The lake is approximately seven miles and 3,200 acres of cypress knees, lily pads, stumps, hydrilla, milfoil and duckweed that is accessed at Ed Allen’s Boat & Baits or Eagles Landing.

The tidal Chickahominy River is another good big bass fishery that flows about 22 miles from Walker’s Dam down to the confluence with the James River. Anglers fish much of the same type of cover as in the lake, just with tides changing the water level about two to three feet, four times per day.

The river was the recipient of over 200,000 F1/N1 hybrid largemouth bass fingerlings in 2005-2007 as well as supplemental stockings in 2015-17. These bass were a vigorous cross between Florida and northern strains known for attaining great size and flourishing in waters that rarely dropped below 40 degrees and offered good aquatic habitat. Most of the big bass now being caught in both the river and the lake are the results of these stockings.


One of Virginia’s most desirable citations among trophy hunting anglers is one for a muskellunge. A citation muskie is a fish over 40 inches or 15 pounds. The wolf of the water is alive and well in the Old Dominion thanks to careful management and stocking by the VDGIF with several waters producing double-digit citation tallies. It seems muskie anglers like DWR’s new Angler Recognition Program, too, as citation numbers were up 2021.

The New River was again ahead with 28 citations in 2021 (18 in 2019, 10 in 2018, 58 in 2017, 39 in 2016, 66 recorded in 2015 and 84 in 2014). The largest musky for the year was caught from the New River by Ryan Turner at 48.75” long on May 1. The best time to catch a trophy musky according to the DWR stats is April and May.

The James River was second with eight citations (down from 13 in 2020). The Shenandoah River was third with a single citation muskie registered.

 Smallmouth Bass

There were 126 total smallmouth citations recorded in 2021 with the largest a 7-1 specimen caught April 26 from South Holston Reservoir by Chase Montgomery.

Interestingly, the James River unseated the New as the top citation smallmouth bass producer last year with 31 recorded compared to 19. The James also had the second heaviest smallmouth recorded at 5-7. Even Smith Mountain Lake beat the New with 21 citation brown bass. The Shenandoah River produced eight citations and the North Fork South Holston River gave up seven.

The drop in citations for the New River (from 32 in 2020 to 19 last year) is a concern. The resurgence of the upper James is a positive. And the numbers of big brown bass coming from Smith Mountain make it a great option this spring. Remember, a citation smallmouth bass is five pounds or 20 inches. The best time to catch a trophy smallmouth from the data is May and June no matter where you choose to fish.

Striped Bass

The state’s best striper fishery continues to produce impressive citation numbers. Smith Mountain Lake produced 18 citation striper last year (way down from the 66 recorded in 2021) submitted to VDWR. Most off these were length citations from 37-41.25” long. The heaviest fish weighed 23-2 and was caught by Blair Reynolds on July 14. Last year the early spring made for good conditions and March through May was most productive for anglers fishing for big striper on Smith Mountain Lake. 

We’re still hoping to see a 30-pound Smith Mountain Lake striper and hoping 2022 is the year. 

Remember, a citation striper is 37 inches long or 20 pounds – a notable catch in a freshwater lake. 

W2’s Best Bet overall pick if you were planning to take a vacation and wanted to fish on a large body of water with a variety of trophy fish remains Smith Mountain Lake. With consistent showings for striped bass (#1 rank), largemouth bass (#1 rank), smallmouth bass (#2 rank) and the occasional citation crappie and muskie, this lake is worth a vacation visit if you like variety.

Fisheries you’ll want to continue to keep an eye on for 2022 include Briery Creek, Sandy River Reservoir and Back Bay for big largemouth bass. 

Now you have no excuse not to enter our annual Big Fish Contest. Submit your entries at www.woodsandwatersmagazine@gmail.com, by sending a photo to Woods & Waters Magazine, 114 Old Quarry Lane, Bumpass, VA 23024 or posting them at www.facebook.com/woodsandwatersmagazine.

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