Gerald Almy: Virginia anglers haul in fewer big fish

Gerald Almy

If you took a trip to the Chesapeake Bay, Eastern Shore, or Virginia Beach last year, chances are you enjoyed some rewarding fishing, but maybe not quite as good as the previous year. That’s likely the case if you were looking for a trophy-sized catch, anyway.

Saltwater anglers in the Old Dominion caught 5,040 citation-winning fish last year, according to Lewis Gillingham, director of the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament. “This was slightly below the 10-year average of 5,219 citations and represents an 18 percent reduction from 2013.”

As they did in 2013, speckled trout accounted for the largest number of citation-sized fish, among the 35 eligible species. A total of 1,476 awards were given for these beautiful fish. Some 1,034 (70 percent) of the trout were released. Another 441 were kept for eating. Eleven fish topped the 10-pound mark, while 56 weighed 8 pounds or more. Speckled trout accounted for 30 percent of all citations awarded in 2014.

While this total was impressive, it was down from the previous year, when 1,874 trophy trout were landed, the best tally in tournament history. “One reason for the drop in citation numbers,” said Gilingham, “was the Virginia Marine Resources Commission closed the recreational speckled trout fishery from March 1 through July 31. That step was taken because of concerns raised by recreational anglers as a result of a winter ‘cold stun’ event that killed a number of large speckled trout in late January and early February of 2013. The 1,476 awards, however, show that no long-term damage to the trout fishery occurred. There are still plenty of big speckled trout waiting to be caught.”

White marlin anglers also had a good year in 2014. Some 928 of these beautiful fish were caught in the Atlantic off the Virginia coast. This was the fourth highest total in the tournament’s history.

Compared to the 1,339 white marlin caught in 2013, however, this was a 21 percent decline. But it still accounted for over 18 percent of all citations awarded for the year. That continues a trend that began in 2008 with above average numbers of marlin being caught. Both white and blue marlin are only eligible for “release” citations, to protect the fishery.

Red drum anglers racked up the third highest number of citation awards, almost 18 percent of the total, with 925 trophy fish registered. This is down slightly from 2013, when 995 awards were given for red drum, but it still represents the second most productive year for this species in the tournament’s history.

The fishing season for trophy red drum is a long one in Virginia. The first fish registered for a citation was taken off of Fishermen’s Island on May 2. The last trophy submitted came from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel area on Nov. 11.

Shark citation numbers topped 100 for the first time since 1989. All of these fish were released. Cobia citation numbers were also up in 2014, with 232 of the big, brown fish registered for awards. Anglers also reported that fish in the 30-45 pound class were very abundant, making this year’s prospects excellent.

Several species disappointed anglers during the 2014 season. Striped bass were surprisingly scarce in the lower bay and ocean waters during December, January and February. Flounder citations were also a letdown, with just 61 registered. A few years back hundreds of these tasty brown and white fish met the minimum weight requirement.

Only one spot and one gray trout met the minimum award level for those species. Fishing for both of these fish has been relatively poor for nearly a decade. Spadefish and croaker awards were also at low levels. On a brighter note, some 23 bluefish were registered for citations.

For more information on the awards program, contact Lewis Gillingham at 757-491-5160, or email vswft@mrc.virginia.gov.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.