It was the best of times and the worst of times for saltwater anglers casting and trolling for trophy fish along the coast of Virginia the past season.
Fishermen who targeted speckled trout, white marlin and red drum enjoyed record-breaking success, according to a recent tally of the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament. Bigeye tuna, tautog, black sea bass and cobia anglers also savored an exceptional year.
It was a different story for fishermen pursuing striped bass, flounder and spadefish, where results were disappointing. Gray trout, croaker and spot fishing was so sorry many anglers gave up on it.
Despite glaring exceptions, the 2013 saltwater season overall was better than average, according to Lewis Gillingham, tournament director. Anglers registered 6,167 fish that met minimum citation standards. That’s the highest since 2007 and only the ninth time in the 56-year history of the state-sponsored tournament that the count has been above 6,000.
Here’s a look at some of the contest results, provided by Gillingham, along with my predictions on what fishermen can expect this season:
It was a record year for speckled trout, a popular species that is fun to catch, pleasing to the eye and scrumptious on the table. The citation count was 1,874, the highest ever and only the third time the tally has topped 1,000 (also in 2008 and 2012). It might have been even more spectacular had not so many would-be trout fishermen turned their attention to the stellar puppy drum fishing.
Speckled trout accounted for 36 percent of all the citations. As tasty as this fish is, it is a surprise that 64 percent of the citations were for fish released. Of the keepers, 15 topped the prestigious 10-pound mark; 66 weighed 8 pounds or more.
Top catch: A 12-pound, 4-ounce Elizabeth River fish for Michael Whittaker of Chesapeake.
Cochran prediction: Look for a significant drop in the citation count this season, and perhaps for the next several. There has been a damaging winter kill that not only wiped out significant numbers of trout but also caused officials to close the recreational season at a time when many trophy fish normally are caught in the Elizabeth River.
Gillingham uses the word “spectacular” to describe Virginia’s offshore angling for white marlin. Fishermen last year registered a record-setting 1,339-release citations. The fishing was productive from mid-July to mid-October, with a minimal number of storms to disrupt the sport.
Top catch: Only release citations are given for white marlin, so no individual weight figures are available, meaning any catch is a top catch.
Cochran prediction: Marlin fishing has been booming since 2008; it is past time for a down cycle, so look for catches to fall off, but don’t be surprised if they stay well above average.
Anglers registered 995 red drum citations last year, the most in the tournament’s history. The season’s first citation catch was near the mouth of Smith Island on April 17 and within a few days a consistent fishery had blossomed that lasted well into October. Catches have been brisk since 2000, the year the tournament switched to release-only citations for red drum.
Top catch: Since only release citations are issued, weights aren’t recorded. Drum must measure 46 or more inches to qualify for citation status.
Cochran prediction: The red drum population remains on a roll, with plenty of juvenile fish heading toward adulthood, as evident by the superb fishing last year for puppy drum. Some winter kill has been reported, but not as significant as that of speckled trout. Look for a citation count matching last year’s.
Last season’s striped bass fishing was “perhaps the biggest disappointment for anglers in 2013,” according to Gillingham. The citation count was 441. That may sound like a bunch of fish, but it was the lowest number since 1997, and not even one-third of the previous season’s catch.
Striped bass citations come from oceanfront fishing in January and February and baiting with eels November and December in the Chesapeake Bay. Neither fishery took off last year, although some excellent catches were recorded. More than 40 of the citations were for fish 50-pounds or greater.
Top catch: Donald Manzione of Suffolk entered the largest striper, a 59-pound, 8-ounce catch he made while bait-fishing in the Cell area of the Chesapeake Bay.
Cochran prediction: Look for another down year. The January and February fishery has been a disaster. High winds made it impossible to fish a number of days, and when anglers could get out the fish weren’t there or in protected water. Only four citations have been registered thus far this year, so the 2014 count already is dismal.
Where are the stripers? Some anglers say they stayed offshore in protected water; others say they buzzed past Virginia without lingering, driven by cold-water temperatures. Probably it was a bit of both, but I’m thinking this popular species is in trouble. It’s not just the big fish that are scarce, but for several years my fishing reveals that young, school-size fish aren’t abundant like they once were.
Only 61 flounder citations were registered last year, the lowest total in 20 years. The fishery really never developed along the seaside of the Eastern Shore where miles of flounder habitat stretch from the mainland to the barrier islands. It was my sorriest flounder season in years. The fact that the minimum-size limit was lowered to 16 inches didn’t help that much.
Top catch: A 13-pound Chesapeake Bay flounder landed by David Ross of Virginia Beach.
Cochran prediction: Look for very little improvement over last year’s lackluster season. Fishing regulations remain the same.
Two spadefish citations were registered in the tournament last year, an improvement over the 2012 catch when the count was zero. But that’s hardly anything to get excited about, considering citations exceeded 900 in 2003. No doubt some of the decline can be credited to heavy fishing pressure applied in the early season when the big fish are vulnerable.
Top catch: Both of the spadefish registered in the tournament were for releases, so the weights were unknown.
Cochran prediction:: There appeared to be a greater number of small spadefish available last year, but don’t expect anything special when it comes to catching trophy-size fish this season. Our boat took more gray triggerfish than it did spadefish last season. Much like spadefish, they are hard fighting and good eating.