Virginia's Largemouth Bass State Record - How Long Will The Record Stand?
Virginia Outdoors - A Resource for Virginia Anglers and Hunters
Where to Catch Virginia's Trophy Largemouth
by J. Burkholder
Remarkably, Virginia’s longest-standing freshwater game fish state
record belongs to its most sought-after game fish species – the
largemouth bass. On April 16, 1985, Richard Tate landed a 16 lb 4 oz
monster from tiny Lake Conner in Halifax County, Virginia. In the 20+
years since, the serious challengers to this hallowed record have been
few and far between. Let’s take a look back at the truly elite bass to
come from Virginia waters over the last two decades, and then look
ahead and consider the prospects of a new state record bucketmouth.
We’ll answer the questions: What are the right conditions to produce a
giant largemouth bass? What public waters are most likely to produce
a new state record? When is the right time to be on the water in pursuit
of Virginia’s mega-bass?
A look back at the official trophy fish citation records from the VA
Department of Game and Inland Fisheries revealed that over the last
two decades, the Commonwealth has produced only a few serious
challengers – but serious they have been. The record nearly fell on
the cusp of its 10th anniversary as Briery Creek Lake, a relative
newcomer to the trophy bass scene at that time, produced a 16 lb 3 oz
lunker on April 10, 1995. Briery Creek Lake nearly duplicated that feat
seven years to the day later with a 16 lb 2 oz fish. A mere 2 ounces
separates first through third place!
However, although it is close at the top, only eight bass over 15 lbs
were recorded from 1985-2005 (see Table 1 at right). Historically,
Virginia produces a 15+ lb largemouth around once every three years
and almost exactly two bass in the 13 – 15 lb range per year (see
Table 2). Considering the popularity of largemouth bass fishing across
the Commonwealth, and the number of hours of effort exerted by
recreational and professional anglers alike each year, a largemouth
bass over 13 pounds is a trophy indeed!
The heaviest bass per year has been remarkably consistent from 1985
– 2005 with no prolonged peaks or valleys. The annual blue ribbon
bass averages 14 lbs 4 oz and stays consistently within ±2 lbs of that
number. Over the three years 2003 – 2005, the heaviest bass has
been between 14.0 and 14.5 lbs each year – a trophy fish by any
standard, but not a serious threat to the state record.
For the inside scoop on the prospects for a new name at the top of the
largemouth bass record book, I turned to Mr. John Odenkirk, Senior
Fisheries Biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland
Fisheries. According to Mr. Odenkirk, “There is always a
chance…every single year, but that record has proven difficult to top”.
As far as the right conditions to produce the next record, look for good
habitat, ample forage, low mortality (due to fishing and natural causes),
and good genetics (e.g., > 50% Florida alleles). So what public body of
water best meets these criteria? “All of the serious candidates have
come from Briery Creek Lake, so smart money should go there –
especially with the new, big protected slot limit,” opined Mr. Odenkirk.
He also suggested a few darkhorses, so let’s look at the contenders.
Briery Creek Lake (Click Here to Visit Our Briery Creek Page!):
There is no argument that Briery Creek Lake has dominated the mega-
bass scene in Virginia over the last decade. Briery Creek Lake, a
relatively young 845-acre lake in Prince Edward County, was stocked
with Florida strain and northern strain largemouth bass in 1986 and
1987. It was first opened to fishing in 1989, and it literally burst on to
the big bass scene in 1992 when it produced six largemouth in excess
of 10 lbs – led by a 13 lb 4 oz monster – in only its fourth fishing
season. By comparison, no other public body of water produced more
than three fish over 10 lbs that year.
Since 1992, Briery Creek has entrenched its position as the crown
jewel of big bass fishing in Virginia. Not surprisingly, Briery Creek holds
down the #2 and #3 spots on the big bass rankings with a 16 lb 3 oz
bass in 1995 and a 16 lb 2 oz bass in 2002. These two fish clearly
demonstrate that Briery Creek has what it takes to produce the next
state record. In fact, Briery Creek produced the heaviest annual bass
in the Commonwealth every year from 1994-2002 and the heaviest
bass from a public water from 1994-2004. Perhaps most impressively,
consider April 1-14, 1995. During unquestionably the greatest two
weeks of trophy bass fishing in Virginia history, Briery Creek Lake
produced eight bass over 13 pounds!
Unfortunately, many of the trophy fish caught in the late 1990s were
harvested. With the gaining popularity of catch-and-release fishing
and the constant improvement in fiberglass replica mounts, the harvest
rate has dropped and should continue to do so. At least partly in
response to the high harvest rate of these trophy fish, the VDGIF
enacted the slot limit referenced earlier by Mr. Odenkirk. Effective
January 1, 2001, a protected slot limit of 14” – 24” went into effect, and
only one fish may be kept over 24”. This slot limit should guarantee
that Briery Creek continues to produce noteworthy fish for years to
come. So, although the lake has not produced a serious contender to
the record since 2002, it must clearly be considered the frontrunner.
The next logical place to look for a record-breaking largemouth bass is
at the source of the current state record since, presumably,
descendents of the 16 lb 4 oz behemoth still fin those same waters
today. Lake Conner, a scenic 100 acre lake, was the “Briery Creek” of
the 1980s. The state record was no fluke as Lake Conner produced
the largest bass in the state in 1985, 1986 (14 lb 15 oz), and 1988 (15
lb 4 oz) - an impressive showing for any lake regardless of size.
Throughout the 1990s Lake Conner continued to produce 10 lb bass
on at least an annual basis, but did not reach the teens again until
2005. In a bit of a surprise, Lake Conner produced the big bass of
2005 at 14 lb 3 oz – exceeding Briery Creek’s best bass of the season
by over a pound and a half – and reasserted itself as a premier trophy
bass destination. It is worth noting that she was landed on June 25 –
well after the spawn – and she was released alive! Might the next state
record already be in place?
Like Briery Creek, Lake Conner is managed specifically for trophy
bass. Since 1999, a protected trophy slot limit of 16” – 22” has been in
place to allow mature fish to grow to citation size. It seems to be
working - in the 2002 electrofishing survey, biologists sampled three
largemouth bass over nine pounds!
Now that we’ve covered the most obvious places, it’s important to note
a few darkhorses. Many private lakes and ponds exist that hold the
potential to produce a state record largemouth bass. These waters are
often intensely-managed and lightly-fished. From 1985 – 2005, 20% of
the bass registered in Virginia over 13 lbs were landed from private
waters. Of course, the art of gaining access to private fishing waters is
much the same as gaining access to private hunting land. Keep an eye
out for prime locations, take care in how you present yourself to the
landowner, and be willing to help out around the farm or homestead.
The historical data clearly point to small lakes and reservoirs as the
most likely source of a bass weighing in the teens. Of the state’s major
impoundments and river systems, only Lake Anna has produced a
largemouth bass in the teens – a 13 lb 0 oz bass caught way back in
March 1985. The most recent Lake Anna bass to exceed 12 lbs was
caught in 1994. Mr. Odenkirk noted that Lake Orange has all of the
elements needed to produce a record catch and could make a run at
the record in a few years with “intensive management and harvest
restrictions”. Lake Frederick, a 117-acre impoundment located just
north of Front Royal, has had an impressive run over the last two years
producing four bass over 10 lbs highlighted by an 11 lb 14 oz giant in
2004. Although the fishing can be tough due to the clear water, Lake
Frederick is the best trophy largemouth fishery in the Shenandoah
Under the category of darkhorse small lakes, on a trip to Douthat State
Park a few years ago my wife and I hiked out to the dam and spotted a
group of four largemouth bass relaxing in the sun along the shoreline.
These were four real trophy fish by any standard. Douthat is a fee
fishing lake that is stocked with trout twice a week during the fee
season. Of course, I immediately thought of the small trout-stocked
Southern California lakes that regularly produce world-class
largemouth (including the recent controversial 25 lb fish that would
have shattered the 80-year old world record). So, I posed the
questions to Mr. Odenkirk: Do you think that largemouth bass in small
trout-stocked Virginia lakes could reach sufficient size to feed on the
trout? If so, might there be some potential in these lakes for a bass to
achieve record size? He responded that there is consensus among the
state biologists that trout do indeed provide excellent forage for trophy
bass. He also admitted that the biologists have spoken lightheartedly
amongst themselves about the possibility of someday stocking trout as
bass forage, but the feasibility has not been seriously considered. He
did relay that a few years ago while conducting an electrofishing survey
on a small “Category A” trout-stocked lake, a smallmouth bass two
ounces shy of the current state record was sampled! He offered this
story as “proof positive” regarding the concept that a small trout-
stocked Virginia lake could indeed produce a record-book black bass.
When to Fish:
Regardless of where you fish, there is no question about when to target
trophy fish in the Commonwealth – March and April. The numbers do
not lie in this instance (see Figure 1 at right). Of course, these months
also likely have higher angler effort than, say, January and February,
but even normalizing these numbers by angler effort would almost
certainly not change the monthly rankings.
So what to take from all of this information? Spend some vacation time
in March and April, leave the high-powered bass boat in the garage,
throw the jon boat on the back of the truck, and head out to Virginia’s
small public waters and private ponds! Your name just might end up in
the record books!
|Figure 1: Bass Over 13 pounds by Month (1985 - 2005)
|Copyright © 2007 Virginia Outdoors, LLC
|Table 1: Virginia's Biggest Largemouth Bass 1985-2005
|Table 2: Number of Trophy Bass by Weight 1985-2005
|Click to order Neil Renouf's DVD on
fishing Briery Creek Lake!