W2 2023 Big Fish Best 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, you need to fish in the very best places for big fish. With the 2022 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 to be eligible for the Angler Recognition Program (see  story on next page) and then we would urge you to consider releasing it. 

   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!

  There were 124 trophy blue catfish registered with the Angler Recognition Program in 2022. The largest weighed 97-8 and was caught by Ethan Craig fishing August 23 on the tidal James River. The James produced 78 of these citation fish. State record holder Buggs Island produced four. 

  Virginia anglers certified 154 crappies (black and white) last year. The largest weighed 3-8 and was caught by Bobby Whitlow (of Bobcat’s Bait & Tackle) from Buggs Island Lake. This 50,000-acre reservoir on the border of Virginia and North Carolina produced the most citation freckles, as it always does, with 13 recorded fish (there were probably over 100 not certified).  The Roanoke River nearly unseated the undisputed heavyweight of big crappie, though with 11 citations last year. Lake Anna anglers caught 10 citation crappie. Diascund Reservoir, an electric motor only fishery just west of Williamsburg had eight citations. The bulk of the citations, regardless of the fishery were caught in March and April.

  There were just 29 trophy striped bass certified in the Angler Recognition Program last year. The heaviest weighed 24 pounds and was caught by Stuart Kindle on April 7 fishing the tidal James River. Smith Mountain Lake was by far the best place to catch a citation striper with 16 fish up to 21 pounds. Claytor Lake produced five citations up to 23-4. Most of these big fish were caught in March, April and May.

  A trophy muskie (40 inches or 15 pounds) is a rare and elusive catch. There were only 27 certified last year. Most (11) came from the New River or the James River (8). The largest weighed 41 pounds even and was caught by Jonathon Keller fishing April 27 at Hungry Mother Lake. The New’s largest muskie was 23-12. The James’ largest weighed 18-12.

 Trophy smallmouth bass fishing is a popular pastime among Virginia anglers if the citation numbers are a relative indicator. There were 162 trophy brown bass certified by Virginia last year, the heaviest weighed 6-11 and was caught by Dustin Elliot on November 25 fishing the upper James River.

   The James and the New often vie for the title of top trophy smallmouth fishery. This year anglers fishing the James had 30 citations. Anglers fishing the New had 22 citations. The Roanoke River gave up an astounding 22 citation smallmouth bass with the majority of them being caught by Barry Palmer. The Shenandoah River continues to improve. If you combine the citation totals from the North, and South Forks and the main stem you get a respectable 15 fish. Smith Mountain is by far the best lake to catch a trophy smallmouth with 12 certified last year. Staunton River had 11 citations. The South Holston produced six citation smallmouth.

  As you might have guessed largemouth bass are the most sought-after trophy based on citation totals. There were 300 fish over eight pounds or 22 inches certified last year. The largest weighed 13-12 and was caught by Rodney Stubbs from a private pond (he was the winner of the 2022 Woods & Waters Big Bass Contest) on March 19. The heaviest bass certified caught from public water was a 10-15 caught from Notoway County Lake.

   Private ponds were the top producers of trophy largemouth bass, shucks, we all know they’ll live in pretty much a mud puddle! The top public water last year to catch a trophy largemouth from was Sandy River Reservoir produced 12 citations for anglers. Hunting Run Reservoir, just north of Fredericksburg has finally come around and it had 10 citations. Nearby Briery Creek gave up nine citations. Smith Mountain Lake, ever steady also had nine. Little known Lake Tecumseh behind Sandbridge off Back Bay produced seven citations. It’s a good kayak fishery.

  So, in summary here are the places you’ll want to target this season for the biggest fish: tidal James River: blue catfish, Buggs Island: crappie, Smith Mountain Lake: striper, James River: smallmouth bass, Sandy River Reservoir: largemouth bass, New River: muskie.

  What about an overall Best Bet for big fish? Once again, our pick is Smith Mountain Lake with top scores for striped bass, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass and even a few crappie.

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