These fish are my best citations from each species for which I have a citation. (Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries calls trophy fish “citations.”) In Virginia, catching citations in five different species earns you a Master Angler I award, catching citations in 10 different species earns you a Master Angler II award, etc. Rather than attempting to break my personal best in a given species, I have been focusing on achieving successive levels of Master Angler. This means that once I have caught a citation in a given species, I will generally not try to target another citation in that species again. I do this primarily to broaden my horizons as an angler.
After discovering Mike Puffenbarger in 2008, I have headed to beautiful and pristine Lake Moomaw at least once a year, usually in the spring, although “spring” 3,000 feet up in the Blue Ridge Mountains often feels a lot like winter back in the part of Virginia where I’m from. Mike is an extremely accomplished angler and hunter, and my trips with him are always incredible. On our trip together on a 32-degree morning at the end of March 2011, I caught a 14.5-inch yellow perch, my biggest yellow perch ever. Mike was overjoyed for me and referred to the fish as a citation. I asked what he meant, and he explained the program to me, and I have been targeting different trophy species throughout Virginia ever since.
On the same Lake Moomaw trip that produced my first official citation ever (my 14.5-inch yellow perch), I caught a 24.25-inch chain pickerel, my second official citation ever. Unfortunately, Mike was filming my catch when I thought he was taking pictures, so I unknowingly released this fish without having gotten a picture of me with it. Luckily for me, I caught another citation chain pickerel (this one 24 inches) on my next trip with Mike, and I was sure to get a proper picture.
Before beginning my Master Angler quest in March 2011, much of the fishing I did on my own was for largemouth bass. Virginia offers prime bass fishing, hosting annual FLW tournaments and occasionally Bassmaster Tournament events. There are largemouth bass in most rivers, lakes, and farm ponds throughout the state. I headed to one such farm pond on a beautiful 78-degree day in early June 2011, looking for a citation in my third different species. I had fished the pond once before and knew that big bass were in there, and I was very happy to find a trophy largemouth hungry for a soft plastic worm. The fish measured 22 inches, good enough for my coveted third different species citation.
While technically invasive to Virginia, blue catfish are one of the best fish in Virginia to target. The current world record of 143 pounds comes out of Virginia, and the number of trophy blue catfish (30 pounds or greater) in the James River in particular draws thousands of fishermen to the state each year. I had caught several citations (blue catfish was my fourth species), but a 50+ pounder had eluded me, so I turned to the man who held a state record and recently put a client on another state record: Josh Fitchett (rivercatn.com).
We fished a typically warm and humid summer night on the Potomac and Josh put me on some spectacular fish. I caught 11 blue catfish, with four being over 30 pounds. The biggest, and still my personal best, was a 61-pounder. This fish earned me Angler of the Month honors in Virginia.
My annual spring trip to Lake Moomaw with Mike Puffenbarger in April 2012 produced trophies in yet another species: smallmouth bass. The fishing was very slow, but two of the four smallmouth bass that I caught were trophies, one measuring 20.25 inches and the other measuring 20 inches. These two females each had smaller males with them and were probably only days away from beginning the spawn.
This was the fifth different species of which I caught a citation, giving me my Master Angler I.
After completing my Master Angler I, I continued my Virginia citation quest by fishing for different species in pursuit of my Master Angler II.
My friend’s parents live near Lake Monticello and we all went out there for some fishing. Being an avid follower of the Virginia DGIF website since learning of the citation program’s existence from Mike Puffenbarger in 2011, I knew that Lake Monticello does not produce many trophies, averaging only one citation per year since 2006. I therefore only expected to catch some little fish and enjoy time with my friends. However, as luck would have it, I caught an 11.5-inch trophy sunfish.
I fished with Forest Pressnell on the New River near Wytheville for trophy walleye. Forest is best known for his musky and smallmouth trophies, but I needed a citation walleye, and Forest delivered. Our day on the water in February brought freezing rain and below-freezing temperatures, with ice eventually accumulating to over half an inch. Nonetheless, Forest put me on a good walleye spot that yielded a 25.5-inch, five-pound trophy after several hours of fishing in those miserable conditions. My “waterproof” pants proved to be anything but, and my hands did not return to a normal color until about Harrisonburg, but it was definitely worth it for my seventh different citation species.
Musky fishing can be very slow and quite frustrating, with “good” days sometimes defined as simply having one fish follow your lure to the boat one time. Having had no luck catching a citation musky on my own, I turned to Mike Coley of Savage Strike Guide Service for help. We fished the New River in sunny but still-freezing conditions in December. Fishing with a musky expert definitely turned out as well as I had hoped it would. Within an hour on our first day, I had landed my first fish, a beautiful 41-inch citation musky. Less than forty minutes after that, I had another citation. The next day I caught three more muskies, with the last being my personal best, a 44-inch, 25-pound trophy. Trophy musky fishing success like this is not typical, and I have Mike’s vast fishing expertise to thank for it.
My citation white perch was definitely the biggest surprise of my Virginia citations thus far. I often catch white perch by mistake or to use for bait, but I do not remember ever catching one bigger than 10 or 11 inches. Moreover, the Potomac River has produced only five registered white perch citations since 2006. I was fishing for bait with my light tackle rod when I felt something noticeably heavier than the small white perch I had been catching. I was quite surprised to find not a sunfish but a 13-inch citation white perch on the hook. While white perch are not necessarily a fish to write home about, I was very happy to get a citation in a species that I never expected to cross off my list, and I was even happier to have caught a citation in my ninth different species, putting me one step closer to my Master Angler II.
After completing my 49th state and scheduling my Hawaii trip, I turned my attention back to my Virginia Master Angler quest. Lake Frederick is well-known locally for its trophy bass and northern pike. After several failed attempts over the years at a citation pike, I learned of the lake’s citation carp opportunities. Les, the local expert, gave me a few pointers and, five hours into my third attempt to catch a citation carp, I finally landed a 36-inch trophy. Carp are much-maligned, in this country at least, which is too bad because this fish took many runs and put up a great fight, made better by the light tackle I used. It may not have been the most glamorous fish I have ever caught, but the carp’s trophy size meant that it was my tenth different species with a citation, giving me my coveted Master Angler II.
For targeting crappie, I enlisted the help of Lake Anna’s foremost guide, Chris McCotter. Chris specializes in light tackle fishing for Lake Anna’s more popular game fish (largemouth bass and striped bass), but he is also a superb crappie fisherman with an invaluable knowledge of the lake’s many areas of submerged structure. Chris is an excellent teacher and a joy to fish with, and, after several attempts, he put me on a 15-inch citation crappie. (I will say that, if the minimum for a citation were 14 inches instead of 15 inches, Chris would have put me on many citations.)
Virginia has superb rainbow trout fisheries and rainbow trout are one of its most sought-after game fish. Rainbow trout citations numbered 2,495 over the past six years, an average of 415.8 per year, far exceeding the totals for almost every other species. Cripple Creek leads the state in rainbow citations and I headed to Cedar Springs Trout Farm in the dog days of summer in search of my 12th species. The fish were even bigger than I had dreamed, but unfortunately also much smarter, which required me to use every technique I knew. Luckily, I had a few takers, landing four trophy rainbows, with the biggest being 23 inches and 4.65 pounds, making rainbow trout my 12th different species with at least one citation.
The brook trout is the Virginia state fish. Its brilliant coloration more than makes up for its lack of size. Whereas Cripple Creek is easily the best place for trophy rainbow trout, it is just one of several good places for trophy brook trout. I had only seen and caught rainbow trout over the course of the morning. In fact, I was so sure that I was reeling in an undersized rainbow that I hardly paid attention to the first part of my fight with what ended up being my first and only brook trout of the trip, a gorgeous 16-inch citation. This beauty marked my 13th different species with a citation.
Many years ago and long before I learned of Virginia's Angler Recognition Program, I caught this 12-inch rock bass on the Cowpasture River in Bath County while fishing for trout and smallmouth bass. I had forgotten about it until I was studying the remaining species for my Master Angler Quest and remembered that I had already caught a trophy rock bass. Fortunately, Virginia allows belated submissions, so this rock bass became the 14th species for which I have at least one citation.
I have done a lot less fishing since the birth of my son, but I still try to get out once in a while to target trophy fish and to continue my quest for successive levels of Master Angler in Virginia.
In search of my 15th different species, I headed to the James River to chase big flathead with Mike Ostrander (discoverthejames.com), who has put clients on many citations of different species over the years. Mike knew the best spots and I was fortunate enough to catch two monster citation flathead with him. The first was 38 inches and 27 pounds and the second was 39 inches and 26 pounds.
These two trophies meant that I have caught at least one citation in 15 different species, which made me a Level III Master Angler in Virginia.
2019 started off amazingly. For my first trip of the year, Eric Gibson and I headed to the South River to target trophy brown trout. Virginia's 25-inch minimum for trophy browns is relatively high; there are only four states in the country with higher minimums. Fortunately, Eric's and my persistence was rewarded when I caught a 25-inch brown. This was my 16th different Virginia species with at least one citation. As an excellent bonus, I followed it up with a 24-inch citation rainbow and a 23-inch citation rainbow.
The excellent start to 2019 continued. Shortly after catching a trophy brown trout (my 16th Virginia species), I fished the Potomac River with Jason Kintner. Jason is a master at putting clients on trophy blue catfish, but I was looking for gar. I had never caught a longnose gar anywhere before, but Jason knew a few spots for them. After catching four citation blue catfish and a 31-pound citation carp, I caught my first gar. My next fish was an even bigger gar, right at the 40-inch citation minimum, giving me 17 species with at least one Virginia citation. We finished the day with four more citation blue catfish (the biggest being 44 pounds) for a total of 10 trophies. This was the first time in my life I caught trophies in three different species on the same trip.
While the biggest news from the start of 2020 was definitely my older son's first fish, my season started off fantastically as well. I fished a new section of the North River and caught a 21-inch, four-pound brown trout, a 14-inch brook trout, and a 16.5-inch, two-pound fallfish. Virginia had just added fallfish to its trophy-eligible species list, and my fish easily exceeded the 14-inch minimum. I was very happy because this meant I have now caught at least one citation in 18 different species, putting me only two species away from Master Angler Level IV.
Another change made by VDGIF was breaking out white and black crappie as distinct citation-eligible species, but you have to catch a trophy of each in order to get credit for a new species. Mission accomplished on Buggs Island with Butch Arthur of Arthur's Guide Service. I caught three citation black crappie and one citation white crappie. I now stand at 19 different species with at least one citation, one species short of a Master Angler Level IV.
I headed back to Buggs Island to try my luck at freshwater drum. Crappie master Butch Arthur catches several citation drum each year on his crappie trips. I did catch my first freshwater drum and white bass in Virginia, but they weren't quite big enough. The big news though was that I caught my personal best crappie, a massive 3.06-pound, 17.5-inch post spawn black crappie. On average, only one or two post-spawn 3+ pound crappie are caught in Virginia every year. I was ecstatic. I also caught two smaller citation black crappie and two citation white crappie, along with a huge trophy gar, dozens of blue catfish, some white perch, and over 100 smaller crappie. It was an absolutely amazing day on the water.
After nearly five years at Master Angler Level III, I finally got to Level IV with a 16-inch citation white bass from Buggs Island that I caught while crappie fishing with Butch Arthur. There are not many trophy white bass registered in Virginia each year [there were 5 in 2021], but a lot of research and a lot of luck put me in the right place at the right time. It was 11 years and 18 days between my first citation species in Virginia and my 20th citation species. I've caught over 100 citations during that time, but this one was extra special.
Fishing can be weird. I spent 769 days at 19 trophy species in Virginia before finally catching my 20th (white bass) and graduating to Master Angler IV. Then, only 29 days later, I caught a citation in my 21st species (freshwater drum). Like my white bass, this citation came out of Buggs Island and was caught while crappie fishing with Butch Arthur. This new personal best freshwater drum did not last long though. Three hours later, I caught another citation freshwater drum, and it was much bigger than my first one. It weighed 15.69 pounds and measured 31.5 inches long with a 25.25-inch girth. Both trophies were caught on 6-pound test too, which made for quite the battle.
I had never even seen a redear sunfish in real life before heading down to Western Branch Reservoir to fish with my friend Billy Nicar. Billy held a number of IGFA line-class records and is so good he makes fishing look easy. The water was about three feet higher than normal, but Billy and I found some good habitat and willing fish. I went from never having seen a redear to having three redear citations, with the biggest being 12 inches and 1.27 pounds. I caught a bonus 12-inch citation yellow perch, one of my favorite species to catch. Billy landed some citation redear as well and a near-citation bluegill. We each landed over 20 fish and had a big time. The citation redear put me at 22 species with at least one Virginia citation.