The Vermont Master Angler Program

The Vermont Master Angler Program is gaining quite a following throughout the state. From young to old, anglers are contributing some incredible catches to display the top notch quality fishery that Vermont has to offer! The program began in 2010 with 200 entries and has since grown to just shy of 800 from across the state! The diversity of species being entered has grown the curiosity for anglers of many species that are not usually targeted. Bowfin, freshwater drum, and several panfish species seem to be the most popular while bass, pike, and walleye have steady following.

The program is described by the VT Fish & Wildlife as: “Vermont’s wealth of waters and abundant fish populations provide the opportunity to experience outstanding fishing. An excellent way to enhance the Vermont angling experience is by challenging yourself to catch “exceptionally-sized” fish of various species. The Vermont Master Angler Program is designed to recognize the achievements of anglers who catch exceptionally-sized fish from Vermont waters. This program recognizes the accomplishment of the angler in catching a large fish and the fish’s accomplishment in surviving and growing to such an admirable size.”

There are two categories to the Master Angler Program. They are:

Trophy Angler – Anglers catching a fish exceeding the minimum qualifying length in any of the 33 species categories. Their names and catches will also be included in the new Vermont Trophy Fish Report, posted annually on the Vermont Fish & Wildlife website.

Master Angler – Anglers demonstrating the skill necessary to catch multiple species that all exceed the minimum qualifying length outlined in this program, in the same calendar year. To qualify for the annual Vermont Master Angler Pin, an individual angler must submit qualifying entries for 5 or more species categories within a calendar year.

We contacted VT F & W Fish Biologist Shawn Good through e-mail with some questions concerning the program.

-are there any plans to make separate categories for seasons? tackle? harvest vs release?

We’re still in the early years of the program, and we don’t want to make too many programmatic changes at this point.  There’s a lot of potential with the program and many ways to make it interesting and fun with extra categories.  We’re certainly open to changes in the future.  One thing I think is on the books, though I think it will be very difficult for someone to accomplish, is a special award category for an angler who completes the entire 33 species list – kind of a “life list”.  Obviously, this would be cumulative over the years, and not need to be accomplished in a single year!

-is there any use of this data biologically or just to promote quality fishing opportunities in vt?

This is definitely one of the benefits this program provides to the Department.  Through our regular sampling activities, we have a pretty good handle on the status of fish populations in most waters, but some of the entries that have come in have surprised even us.  Having angler submissions on trophy fish catches can give the Department information on things like what waters are producing more

-have you noticed an increase in enthusiasm towards the program?

Defintely. In 2010, we had 200 entries from 90 different anglers.  In 2011, we had 481 entries from 181 different anglers – a doubling of participation in just one year.  2012, the third year of the program, is shaping up to be another record.  To date (as of January 4, 2013), there have been 772 entries from 273 different anglers.  So, not only have the number of trophy fish entries increased every year, so have the number of individual anglers participating in the program.  What’s even more encouraging is that the number of youth anglers entering fish has increased as well.  In 2010, 19 of the 90 (21%) individual participating anglers were kids; in 2011, 47 of the 488 (10%) wre kids.  In 2012 so far, 34% of the participating anglers are kids (93 of the 273 anglers).

-most people go fishing to catch fish. Do you think this makes people go out and target bodies of water that hold fewer but larger specimens?

I definitely think they do.  While this sort of fishing is not widespread, there is definitely a core group of anglers in Vermont that seek out “trophy” fishing opportunities, and that’s one of the things this program is designed to showcase.  Despite its small size, Vermont has some fantastic waterbodies that hold some true trophy fish.  All you have to do is look through the Master Angler Program website at all the entries that have come in over the last 3 years.  There are some truly gigantic fish being caught out there.  For example, who knew Otter Creek could produce a 16-lb wild brown trout!

-what species are the most reported? fewest?

In the first year of the program the highest number of entries was for bowfin!  These are caught pretty regularly as incidental catches while fishing for other things in Lake Champlain like bass or pike.  We realized however when SO many bowfin were entered that we probably set the minimum length a little too low for that species.  Our minimum lengths for each species was based on biological data on length distribution collected for each species from waters all over the state.  The intent was to set the minimum length to represent the upper limits of size for each species – basically the largest 5% out there – to truly represent trophy sized fish for each species.  For some species, like bowfin, we didn’t have a lot of good biological data, because it’s not a species we typically collect while sampling.  The first year of the program showed us that we clearly didn’t have a handle on just how big bowfin can get in Lake Champlain (which gets back to your second question you asked earlier).  We’re learning from this program just as much as anglers are!    Aside from bowfin in the first year, the numbers of largemouth bass and smallmouth bass far outnumber any other species.  That’s just a pure reflection of how great bass fishing is in Vermont.  We have so many hidden gems – small ponds and lakes all over the state – not to mention Lake champlain – that offers phenomenal bass fishing.  I think Vermont has the best bass fishing in the northern US!  There are definitely a few species that could be entered more.  We’ve only had a few muskellunge entered, and small numbers of cisco, smelt, suckers, gar.  So far, of the 33 eligible species, only three don’t have entries – American eel, American shad, and lake whitefish.  I think eel and whitefish should be the easiest of the three for people to catch and enter, if they take the time to learn about the species first, and understand where to find them and how to catch them.  Another objective of the program!  Educate Vermont anglers on fish biology, behavior, feeding preferences!  It’s all about learning and having fun!

At the end of every year, we put together an annual report that lists every fish entered into the program, and summarizes the catches in table format, so you can see what species had the most entries, what waters produced the most entries etc.  These reports can be downloaded from the Department website here: http://www.vtfishandwildlife.com/MasterAngler.cfm

-has this program drawn attention to any species that were previously ignored?

Again, this was another BIG objective of the program – to profile many of these lesser known fish species that can offer fun, exciting fishing opportunities that no one thinks to target.  I’d really like people to start getting outside their comfort zone and fishing for species that aren’t traditionally thought of as “sport fish”.  Things like carp, freshwater drum, gar, suckers – they can be a ton of fun, very challenging.

The majority of fish on the list of eligible species is reasonably obtainable to those who are willing to put their time in. Both of us have been following the quality and quantity of fish that are coming in from around the state. We have also been able catch several specimens from across the state. We put together a collage for each of our entries. Bobby entered six species and Dylan entered nine.

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