W2’s 2024 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 approaching that magic 60-degree mark when fish move shallow and spawning occurs and that desk chair is definitely less comfortable than 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 2023 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.

   Before we get to the revealing trophy fish data points, it’s interesting to note that based on Rothgeb’s data there were 1,968 Angler Recognitions recorded for 2023 – up from 1,847 in 2022. 

   And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, it’s on to those big fish waters!

   We’ll start with Virginia’s most popular fish – the largemouth bass. Anglers spend more time fishing for them than any other species. We have recreational anglers and tournament anglers fishing every day of the year looking for their personal best largemouth. Knowing where to go to catch a trophy is helpful, right? 

   According to DWR statistics, the best place to catch a trophy largemouth is a private pond (82 trophies with the largest at 10-10). Now, as far as public waters, you’ll want to start with 740- acre Sandy River Reservoir near Farmville. This DWR owned and managed lake produced 23 trophy (eight pounds or 22”) largemouth last year. The next best place to catch a trophy largemouth is Smith Mountain Lake with 17 lunkers caught last year up to 9-8 caught in December. Other good places to search for your trophy largemouth include Briery Creek (7), Lake Prince (7) Lake Anna (6) and the Chickahominy River (6).

   Brown bass anglers have three good fisheries to target a trophy (five pounds or 20”). Leading the way in 2023 was the New River with 53 citations, the largest of which was 5-2 pounds and caught May 17. The James River holds the runner up spot with 41 smallmouth bass in 2023, the largest at 6-3 pounds and caught May 10. All of the Shenandoah River gave up 15 trophy smallmouth, including the main stem, South Fork and North Fork. The Staunton River produced 14 citation smallies. The little Maury showed well with 10 trophy smallmouth bass.

   The quest for a trophy crappie changed a bit recently when DWR split white crappie and black crappie into separate categories. Regardless of the subspecies, one lake is the best to target both – Buggs Island/Kerr Reservoir. This 50,000-acre lake that straddles the border of Virginia and North Carolina and produced 16 certified trophy crappie in 2023 and probably triple that uncertified. The largest freckle was 3-4, 17.25” and caught in early May. 

  However, the leading producer of registered trophy crappie in 2023 (all black) was Little Creek Reservoir with 18 paper fish! This 996-acre water supply reservoir near Williamsburg was created by damming a portion of a Chickahominy River Creek. It’s deep, clear and mostly devoid of structure except for some late submerged aquatic vegetation, but it’s full of nice crappie!

   Other decent places to find a trophy crappie include Lake Anna (8) and Briery Creek Lake (7).

   Muskie hunters can be a secretive lot and it’s not clear how many fish caught are actually registered with Virginia’s Angler Recognition Program. However, based on DWR data, you’ll want to fish either the New River (10) or James River (10) for the best chance at a trophy muskellunge. 

   The largest fish of 2023 taped 49” and was caught by an angler fishing the James River on May 6. Interestingly South Holden Reservoir produced seven trophy muskie last year, so keep an eye on that fishery.

  Blue catfish on your list of trophy fish? Look no further than the tidal James River for your quarry as anglers found at least 36 last year based on registered citations. The largest blue regsistered in 2023 was 61 pounds caught  from Buggs Island/Kerr Reservoir.

     Catching a trophy landlocked striper is not an easy task. They need to be 20 pounds or 37” – a hefty fish for Virginia lakes. By far the best place to target such a beast is Smith Mountain Lake. Anglers registered 12 such monsters in 2023, the largest of which was 25 pounds.

    Other species gaining popularity among resident and visiting anglers include hybrid striped bass (wiper) and saugeye. Lake Anna is the best place to catch both with six trophy wiper registered in 2023. 

  If you want to catch a trophy walleye, the New River is the best place to go with 11 caught last year.

  Trout species on your trophy bucket list? Head to Cripple Creek for rainbow trout which produced an astounding 60 trophy bows last year. Crooked Creek gave up 22 rainbows and 23 brook trout, but the Roanoke River was the biggest producer of brook trout at 33 trophies last year.

  Lake Prince and Western Branch Reservoirs are worth serious angling effort if you are looking to catch a citation red ear (shellcracker). The Pamunkey and Mattaponi Rivers are where to go (this month!) to catch a trophy yellow perch.

     The overall top 10 Virginia citation producing waters in 2023 were: 1) private ponds, 2) the James River, 3) Cedar Springs, 4) the New River, 5) Cripple Creek, 6) Smith Mountain Lake, 7) the Roanoke River, 8) Crooked Creek, (9) Little Creek Reservoir 10) Buggs Island Lake. 

  We hope you have a great spring, and this article helps you check a box or two on your fishing wish list. If you catch a trophy, be sure and post a pic to our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/woodsandwatersmagazine or email us at woodsandwatersmagazine@gmail.com. Our annual Big Bass Contest runs through Dec. 31 and was won by a 9-8 Chick River bass last year. 

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