Anglers Catch Hundreds of Record-Setting Fish

Anglers throughout Texas established fishing records through the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s (TPWD) Angler Recognition Program (ARP) in 2023, highlighted by one of the most notable — six-year-old Ernst Toepfer V becoming the youngest Elite Angler in program history.

Toepfer earned his Saltwater Elite Angler Award certificate by accumulating Big Fish awards for five saltwater qualifying species. He landed a 21.75-inch sheepshead, 22.75-inch black drum, 21.25-inch ladyfish, 21-inch spotted seatrout and a 14.88-inch sand seatrout. He frequently fished with his Father, Ernst Toepfer IV, and Grandfather, Ernst Toepfer III.

An Elite Angler is a one-time achievement award for those who catch trophy-class fish of five different species in either freshwater or saltwater categories. To be eligible, an angler must earn five freshwater or five saltwater Big Fish Awards, given for fish meeting or exceeding the program minimum length for their species. Anglers can earn both Freshwater Elite Angler and Saltwater Elite Angler if they choose to pursue both awards.

“I always enjoy receiving applications from Ernst,” said Grace Simms, TPWD Angler Recognition Program coordinator. “You can tell he’s excited about fishing from the photos submitted. I love how he fishes with his dad and grandad.  Sometimes his grandad will call me to tell me about the latest fishing story from their family fishing adventures, and it always makes my day. For Ernst to earn his Elite Angler Award at such a young age is an incredible thing, and it’s wonderful to see the enjoyment of angling being passed down to the next generation.”

Participation in the program is growing, and in 2023, anglers received more than 1,032 official records or awards for their catch. Anglers set a combined 73 new state records and 666 waterbody records during the calendar year. State and waterbody records are awarded in overall and junior angler categories for public and private freshwater fisheries along with saltwater fisheries in the state. The program also officially recognized 444 Big Fish, 81 First Fish and 190 Outstanding Angler awards.

A few other notable catches entered into the program in 2023:

  • Cathy Johnson caught a short bigeye Sept. 12 in the Gulf of Mexico that weighed 3.3 pounds and measured 18.5 inches.  This interesting looking fish earned Cathy a state and water body record. 
  • Nine-year-old Maggy Sojourner caught a blue catfish that was almost as big as her on Jan. 22 at Lake Granbury. The fish weighed 26.37 pounds and earned Maggy a junior waterbody record and an Outstanding Angler Award.
  • Paul Hefner caught a 90-inch, 207-pound alligator gar April 13 at Lake Corpus Christi. He earned a Big Fish Award and a waterbody record for his incredible catch.
  • Thomas Valadez earned an array of awards and records for his striped mullet caught with rod and reel March 15 out of a private water body. The fish weighed 14.10 pounds and measured 30 inches. This catch earned Thomas a state record, waterbody record, First Fish Award and an Outstanding Angler Award. 
  • Erin French caught a remarkable red drum April 27 in the Freeport Bay Area. The fish was 38 inches and earned a Big Fish Award and a Water Body Catch and Release Record.

The Angler Recognition Program, housed at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center (TFFC) in Athens, features multiple award categories, including rod and reel, fly fishing, bow fishing and the new state record all-tackle category. The all-tackle category recognizes records for largest fish by species caught by any legal means. In June 2021, this category replaced the state record/other methods.

Records are registered based on weight or length at the state level as well as for individual waterbodies. The ARP accepts length-only record applications for the catch and live release of selected species in Texas public waters. This record provides an opportunity for conservation-minded anglers who don’t have a certifiable scale available to weigh a record fish before returning it to the water. A fish must meet or exceed the minimum qualifications of a Big Fish Award to be eligible for a catch and release record.

Anglers can also earn a First Fish Award and an Outstanding Angler Award. The First Fish Award acknowledges the first fish caught by an angler of any age. The Outstanding Angler Award is a catch that does not qualify for any other type of award but still deserves recognition and serves as a great way to commemorate a memorable time on the water.

“Unless a catch is found to have broken the rules, every catch will receive a record or an award, even if they do not set any records or qualify as a big fish,” said Simms. “Every catch that is submitted to us is special and represents fond memories and a joyful experience. It therefore deserves recognition.”

Anglers are encouraged to familiarize themselves with program rules and how to submit their catch prior to heading out to the water. Anglers are advised to pay close attention to the requirements for proper weighing and length measurements along with photos to accompany the application. Fish must be weighed on certified or legal-for-trade scales within three days of the catch date. However, anglers may also weigh their fish on their own personal scale and then get that scale certified within 30 days of the catch date.

Fish are sometimes measured incorrectly, so if you would like clarification on how to measure your fish before hitting the water or have any other questions regarding the Angler Recognition Program, please email

Once the Angler Recognition Program application is complete with all supporting documentation, it must be submitted within 60 days of the catch date. The application and documents can be emailed to or sent via mail to Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, 5550 FM-2495, Athens, TX 75752.  Applications are processed in the order in which they are received.

Each angler who submits an application to the program has a chance to be featured as the “Catch of the Month.” One interesting catch will be selected by TFFC staff, and the photograph and description of their fish will be showcased on the Angler Recognition Program website. Photos must be submitted in conjunction with an ARP application for any of the award categories. Photos may be mailed or emailed along with the application form but must be high quality and clear.