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Chasing Master Anglers

Digging into Master Angler Data
by: Field Editor, Colorado
Published on
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Master angler, it has a nice ring, doesn’t it? What fisher doesn’t want to be considered a master at their sport? So, just what is a “master angler”? A check of the Merriam-Webster online dictionary ( finds master, as an adjective, to mean skilled or proficient. Angler is defined as one who angles. Following that thread the definition of angle, according to the dictionary, is one who fishes with a hook and line. Put it all together and the definition for master angler is “one who is skilled or proficient at fishing with a hook and line”.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) recognizes a master angler as one who catches a trophy sized fish. While a trophy fish may be a matter of luck for many, there is no doubt it is also a measure of skill. Information on the master angler program can be found at The master angler brochure located at provides the list of species and their required lengths for recognition. To become a master angler in Colorado one first must catch a fish equal to or exceeding the specified length for that species. To obtain the certificate of recognition you simply fill out the application in the master angler brochure, including witness information, a picture and send it in to CDOW within 60 day of your catch. Once your application is processed and accepted you will receive a patch (limit one per year) and a certificate of recognition (unlimited number per year and species). At the end of the year, CDOW reviews the released master angler awards for new records. Weight records are treated differently and require a separate application,

The master angler program was started in 1995 and has been popular with Colorado anglers ever since. Through 2007 over 3700 master angler awards have been issued. Those receiving awards for kept fish represent a little over half, 52%, the rest being released to fight another day. Table 1 shows that not only has the program’s popularity increased, but today’s fishers have a greater tendency to release their trophy catches.
Table 1 - Master Angler Awards Issued
Year Awards Kept Released
1995 209 126 83
1996 287 182 105
1997 276 127 149
1998 294 165 129
1999 305 166 139
2000 267 146 121
2001 305 159 143
2002 240 142 98
2003 295 * *
2004 244 125 119
2005 279 123 156
2006 349 169 180
2007 415 177 238
Totals 3765 1807 1660
* Data after 2004 archived and values shown are from published articles. No kept/released figures published for 2003
The list of past master angler awards can provide useful information, such as the most common awards, the more productive reservoirs/waters, species preferences, catch/release tendencies, places to fish, and more. This information is beneficial to those pursuing awards by indicating not only those waters that have been consistent producers, but those waters where most fish are released. Thus armed, one may increase their chances by concentrating on more productive waters, or maybe avoiding heavily fished waters with high harvest. The best time to catch trophies can sometimes be deduced based on when the awards were issued. Data for the individual awards since 2004 is readily available on CDOW’s website. Prior data has been archived and CDOW is unwilling to make it available. Hopefully that will change in the future as these data contain a wealth of information.

Since the inception of the Master Angler program, awards have been issued for at least 38 species and, as time has past, the species list has grown from the original 26 to 42, which is essentially the state record list for kept fish. Aside from the addition of more species, there has been a tendency for submissions to be more exact. For example, white or black crappie versus crappie, and native, greenback, cut-bow, or Snake River rather than cutthroat. With the increasing interest in the program, it is likely the list will continue to expand as fishers continue to pursue different species. The most popular species by number of awards given are summarized in table 2.
Table 2 - Top Ten Species by Master Angler Awards
Rank Since 1995 Since 2004
1 Rainbow Trout Largemouth Bass
2 Largemouth Bass Rainbow Trout
3 Brown Trout Brown Trout
4 Walleye Walleye
5 Northern Pike Northern Pike
6 Lake Trout Smallmouth Bass
7 Cutthroat Trout Channel Catfish
8 Channel Catfish Yellow Perch
9 Smallmouth Bass Cutthroat Trout
10 Yellow Perch Brook Trout
Largemouth Bass is currently the most common master angler award, unseating the historically popular rainbow trout. This change may be the result of changes in fishing preferences, the result of CDOW successful urban fisheries program, and/or a reflection of the national popularity of largemouth bass fishing. Other changes include the increased popularity of smallmouth bass and brook trout have displaced lake trout on the “average” top ten list.

The all-round top 10 from 1995 and 2004 were determined by the number of years a species made the top ten lists and its average rank. The data was first sorted by the number of years a species made the list and then by the average rank. Table 3 is a truncated version of the working table used to develop the top ten most popular species. It only shows the top 10 awarded species for each year. Its interesting how variable the top ten species and their rankings are from year to year.
Table 3- Top Ten Species Receiving Master Angler Awards by Year*
  1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2004 2005 2006 2007
Rainbow Trout 1 1 1 3 3 3 1 1 2 1 2 2
Largemouth Bass 2 3 2 2 2 1 2 3 1 3 1 1
Brown Trout 4 4 4 7 5 4 3 2 4 2 3 4
Walleye 3 2 3 1 4 5 6 7 7 4 4 7
Northern Pike 7 9 5 4 1 2 4 5 6 6 9 6
Lake Trout 6 8 7 8 10 8 7 4 9   10  
Cutthroat Trout 10 8 9 6 7 8 6 5 8   10  
Channel Catfish 8 7 6 5   6     8 5 6 9
Smallmouth Bass   10   7   10 9 10 9 5 3  
Yellow Perch   9   9 9 5     10 7 5  
Brook Trout 10 6       10   10 3 7    
Crappie   5         9 8        
Wiper 5                     8
Yellow Perch 9     6                
Common Carp       8                
Bluegill                     8  
Saugeye       10                
*No data available for 2003, the inclusion of which could change the overall long term rankings
While the trend in recent years has been to release more trophy fish, whether or not a fish will be released is very dependent on the species as table 4 illustrates. Carp are almost always released, likely due to their perceived low food value. While largemouth bass are well known to be topnotch table fare, their high release rate is likely a reflection of current tournament practices that promote the view that black bass are too valuable to catch just once. Channel catfish, yellow perch, and wiper are seldom released, possibly due to a perception of abundance, being excellent table fare, and lower respect for their “sporting” value.
Table 4 - Release Percentages for Master Anglers species
1 Common Carp 81.80%
2 Largemouth Bass 70.90%
3 Cutthroat Trout 68.40%
4 Brown Trout 65.00%
5 Smallmouth Bass 64.60%
6 Bluegill 61.10%
7 Kokanee Salmon 60.60%
8 Rainbow Trout 59.90%
9 Cut-Bow Trout 57.70%
10 Crappie 50.00%
11 Snake River Cutthroat Trout 50.00%
12 Lake Trout 45.80%
13 Walleye 42.40%
14 Grayling 41.20%
15 Brook Trout 38.50%
16 Northern Pike 35.80%
17 Channel Catfish 34.80%
18 Yellow Perch 20.00%
19 Wiper 14.00%
One interesting tidbit from the master angler’s data is that relatively few waters in Colorado produce the majority of the awards, see table 5. Looking at only the top ten species since 2004 and waters that produced ten or more awards we find that a mere 26 waters account for 520 out of 1007 awards given, a little over half. Very impressive, as master angler fish were caught from over 290 waters, excluding private waters. This even holds true when you consider all species for which awards were issued. In that case, 31 waters had ten or more master angler fish and those waters accounted for 53% of the awards.

Of course, for some species, such as largemouth bass and brook trout, the majority of trophy fish come from waters other than these select few. In fact, if you exclude private waters, 69 different waters produced 165 largemouth master angler awards. Whereas, 72% of all master angler yellow perch came from a mere eight reservoirs, with the top producers being Harvey Gap Reservoir, Rifle Gap Reservoir, Lake Loveland, and Aurora Reservoir. While other waters may very well have master angler yellow perch potential, fishing this handful of waters is probably your best bet for a trophy yellow perch. A similar situation exists for northern pike, where Elevenmile, Spinney, Stagecoach, and Williams Fork produced the majority of the state’s trophy fish. We see that there are a lot more options for big largemouth bass than yellow perch or northern pike.
Table 5 – Top 26 Most Productive Master Angler Award Producers
  Largemouth Bass Rainbow Trout Brown Trout Walleye Northern Pike Smallmouth Bass Channel Catfish Yellow Perch Cutthroat Trout Brook Trout Total
Antero Res.   15                 15
Arvada Res. 2         3 4 1     10
Aurora Res.   5 1 2   9 1 9 1   28
Blue River   16 3           1   20
Bonny Res. 11     10     2       23
Chatfield Res. 1 5 1 12   8 7 1 1   36
Cherry Creek Res.       15             15
Eleven Mile Res.   21 21   6       4   52
Flat Tops Wilderness                   10 10
Frying Pan River   6 8             5 19
Gunnison River   7 3             1 11
Harvey Gap Res.               13     13
Lake Loveland           4 3 6     13
North Delaney Buttes   6 4           1   11
Pueblo Res. 2     10   13 9 2     36
Quincy Res. 25 2           4     31
Rifle Gap Res.           1   9     10
Rocky Mtn Arsenal 9       1   2       12
South Platte River   14 31           12   57
Spinney Mtn Ranch   2 4           4   10
Spinney Mtn Res.   8 2   7       5   22
Stagecoach Res.   1     17           18
Standley Lake 2   1 4 1 3 1       12
Taylor River   7 3           2   12
Williams Fork Res.   1     10           11
Yampa River   3 6   2 1       1 13
Total Awards 52 119 88 53 44 42 29 45 31 17 520
State Awards 203 174 143 85 67 82 66 64 57 66 1007
  27% 67% 66% 67% 69% 60% 47% 72% 54% 30% 52%
I encourage the reader to download and work with the master angler data. It will take a bit of time and effort to get the data into a spreadsheet or data base. However, once you do, you’ll find that it’s worth the effort as you start analyzing the data for yourself. As an example, when I wanted to catch a master angler northern pike, I studied the data and discovered that over half of all master angler awards for pike in the last four years came from Stagecoach and most of those fish were caught in the fall. So I planned a weekend trip in November based on that information and some experience fly fishing for northern pike in Canada. I was able to land a 37 inch fish for my master angler in a single weekend trip. Granted, Stagecoach was on the short list of places to fish for big pike, but common wisdom is you should fish in the spring for monster pike. Fishing just before ice-up was not what I would have figured on doing, but it paid off handsomely.

The species list for master angler awards appears to have been developed from original state records and as such is based on kept fish. Consequently, anytime a new species was submitted for a record, that species ultimately joined the master angler program, which accounts for the oddities such as American Eel, Tench, and Sacramento perch. The result is there are species listed that it’s questionable as to whether there are viable populations in Colorado or if they even currently exist at all. The catch and release records are part of the master angler program with new records being taken from the previous master angler awards.

Nearly every state has some form of angler recognition program. Some are simply state records for selected species. Others are extensive record keeping systems for different waters, tackle, fishing methods, species, regions, as well as overall record fish. Arkansas’s master angler program has eight categories. If you catch a trophy you receive a pin depicting that fish species. To become a master angler you have to catch a trophy class fish from four categories. Alabama has two levels of certificates, master and trophy. Connecticut’s program provides a certificate of merit and with one certificate you receive a bronze pin, five a silver pin and ten a gold pin. This is just a sampling. There are as many ways to honor fishing success as there are states.

Reviewing what other states do to recognize anglers got me thinking about what an ideal angler recognition program for Colorado could look like. First, it should be two-fold, with a record side and a master angler side. All record breaking fish would automatically qualify as master angler fish, but not the other way around. On the record side I would have a “kept” category, much the same as the current record program, and a “released” side which would be more restrictive than the current program, such as requiring all submitted fish to be photographed with a “measure.” Further, I would consider having regional as well as state records and within those categories I’d have three tackle classes, lure, fly, and open tackle. Also, all species legally caught from public waters with a hook and line within Colorado would be eligible for the record book. Records should be established by applications specific to record fish and the rules should be stringent and strictly enforced, including submission of fish pictures with the lure/fly in mouth in order to qualify for that class and the lure/fly must be presented to CDOW with the application for that class along with the picture.

My view is also that state records should not be awarded for fish caught from private waters. This is different than fish caught on private property where the rivers/lake have public access and are managed by CDOW rather than the land owner. The reasoning is we do not allow records for “farmed” game, so why allow fish from waters where “farming,” such as special breeds, genetic line, feeding, etc is possible? Thus, if the water is wholly within the private landowner’s purview (no open public access) and CDOW does not manage it (license isn’t required to fish), then records or master angler awards should not be allowed.

The master angler half of the recognition program would be limited to those species that CDOW actively manages as “sport” fish. Only species with viable populations on public waters would qualify for trophy fish certificates. This would reduce the current list of species to two or three dozen and would remove such oddities as Chinook salmon, tench, Sacramento perch, drum, American Eel, Arctic Char, Golden Trout, Tiger Trout, and sauger from the list. For species to be part of this program, everyone should have a reasonable chance at catching a trophy. The program should have two facets. One facet being a trophy certificate, much the same as the current master angler program. However, to qualify as master angler you would need to have trophy fish awards for more than one species and there could be several levels of achievement, such as bronze (3 species), silver (6 species), gold (50% of species), platinum (75% of species), and grand master (all species). This could also have multiple classes, such as released, kept, and by tackle. So in my case I could go for Grand Master release flies only, whereas someone else might go for open tackle (bait/lure/fly). A second facet would be for those specializing in one species. There could be a specialist category. For example a largemouth master specialist could be awarded for catching five trophy bass. Simply master angler should be an expression of skill, especially the upper levels and according special honors to those who demonstrate skill beyond catching a single trophy fish.

Enough dreaming, while those are thoughts on what a “Master Angler” program should be the reality is the current program is the one we have to work with and likely won’t get a major overhaul anytime soon. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t make up and self impose a set of rules to follow as I chase master angler fish. Over the years I’ve caught numerous species on a fly, including such oddities as gizzard shad, golden shiner, chubs, a variety of suckers, and even a pike minnow. This got me wondering how many fish species exist in Colorado and which ones could be caught on a fly, regardless of the difficulty in doing so. As a result of my studies, I read about the master angler program, state records, and much more. All of this made think that it might be fun to catch every species on the master angler list with a fly, released category, and along the way maybe even a few that aren’t on the list. So my self imposed goal became to catch a master angler sized fish for every species on the list, on a fly, and release it.

As of this writing, and two years into the chase, I hold 13 master angler certificates for 11 species. Nine of the species came last year, the first year of serious effort. In 2008, I’m hopeful that I can double those numbers and be over half way to the goal of all forty-two species. Although, by my reckoning there are potentially another two dozen species that could be on the list, sucker, chubs, shiners and whatnot. That doesn’t include exotics or endangered species. Of course, if caught incidentally are to be released immediately without being photographed. One more note, once I get a master angler for a species, I don’t resubmit for another of that species unless I manage to catch a larger one, or it’s a fish that has special merit, unusual color, maybe a hybrid, exceptionally fat for example. My two Kokanee, a 22.5 inch female and a 22.5 inch male are such an example, the two fish are dramatically different in appearance. The other duplicate is white fish, a 16 inch fish, the 2007 state released record, and the other, a 20 inch fish which likely will be the 2008 state record.

Colorado’s master angler program offers fishers a chance to record their fishing success and receive recognition for their achievement. A bonus for fishers is the data generated on Colorado fisheries from the master angler program. A little analysis allows the astute fisher an opportunity to improve their chances of trophy fish. The program, while very successful, probably could be greatly improved with some relatively minor tweaking. A program along the lines I suggest would give “Master Angler” a meaning more in line with the term’s definition, not simply an “I caught a big fish,” as it currently stands. Whether or not that ever occurs, there is still enough flexibility and challenge to test the mettal of most any angler, particularly if they chose to further restrict themselves to time lines, lure and/or tackle type, waters or other such game for personal pride.
18 inch Largemouth Bass
18 inch Largemouth Bass caught May 30, 2007 at Wellington #4 on a #2 black woolly bugger.
13 inch Yellow Perch
13 inch Yellow Perch caught August 5, 2006 at Rifle Gap Reservoir on a 3 inch gray/white Clouser minnow.
20 inch Whitefish
20 inch Whitefish caught February 16, 2008 on Roaring Fork River above Glenwood on a #6 nutria stonefly nymph.
24 inch Cutbow
24 inch Cutbow caught October 27, 2007 on South Platte River (Dream Stream) above Elevenmile Reservoir on a #14 pheasant tail nymph.
30.5 inch Walleye
30.5 inch Walleye caught May 26, 2007 at Cherry Creek Reservoir on a 3 inch olive/white Clouser minnow.
37 inch Northern Pike
37 inch Northern Pike caught November 11, 2007 at Stagecoach Reservoir on a red/white whistler.
22.5 inch female Kokanee
22.5 inch female Kokanee caught November 4, 2007 on South Platte River (Dream Stream) above Elevenmile Reservoir on a #14 pheasant tail nymph.
22.5 inch male Kokanee
22.5 inch male Kokanee caught October 27, 2007 on South Platte River (Dream Stream) above Elevenmile Reservoir on a #14 pheasant tail nymph.
10.5 inch Bluegill
10.5 inch Bluegill caught June 11, 2007 at Dixon Reservoir on a 2 inch pink/white Clouser minnow.
32 inch Channel Catfish
32 inch Channel Catfish caught August 9, 2007 at Boyd Reservoir on a grizzly hackle worm fly.
31 inch Common Carp
31 inch Common Carp caught June 30, 2006 at Douglas Reservoir on a 2 inch pink/white Clouser minnow.
17.25 inch Smallmouth Bass
17.25 inch Smallmouth Bass caught June 3, 2007 at Horsetooth Reservoir on 2 inch brown/white Clouser minnow.


© 2024 David Coulson
About the author, David Coulson:
To say fly fishing is a passion for Dave is an understatement, he lives by the adage, ďfly fishing isnít a matter of life or death, itís much more important than that.Ē Simply, if itís a fish, then Daveís willing to chase it on a fly. This includes making two or three trips a year out of state to places like Alaska, Canada, East and West Coasts to fly fish for salmon, northern pike and salt water species, such as redfish. The rest of the time Dave spends his time plying Colorado waters with a fly rod for everything the state has to offer such as bass, perch, crappie, bluegill, walleye, catfish, pike and yes even trout with a fly.
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