FLIPPIN – A walleye that could top 9 pounds was all that was keeping Roger Pyzocha from claiming catches in all eight of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Master Angler Program categories, but it was proving elusive these past couple of years. Finally, after a few near misses on the weight scale with 8-pounders, Pyzocha recently landed a 9.2-pound walleye on Bull Shoals Lake to reach a goal he’d set out to achieve seven years ago.
“I didn’t bring my cooler, I had to wait for my wife to come home, it was late and dark out when we finally got it home and we didn’t take the picture that night, but I weighed it the next day,” Pyzocha said, noting in the photographs that by the following day the fish had discolored. He forwarded the necessary paperwork and photos on the walleye, as well as a crappie that qualified for a Master Angler pin, to the AGFC late last week.
And, though he had not seen the paperwork, Ben Batten, chief of the AGFC’s Fisheries Division, said Pyzocha’s achievement was impressive. The AGFC’s Sarah Baxter, Master Angler Program coordinator, said that, according to her records, Pyzocha is the first person to catch a qualifying fish in all eight categories. She said one other person has caught fish in seven categories and a few others have placed in six categories. Also, her records show that, before these last two qualifiers, Pyzocha had 37 total qualifying fish, far and away the most in Arkansas.
In an Arkansas Wildlife Magazine feature story two years ago, Pyzocha had reached a state-leading 23-pin mark in the Master Angler Program, which started in 1985. To be deemed a certified “Master Angler,” a resident or nonresident must catch a fish on rod-and-reel that meets a minimum weight requirement in four of eight categories (black bass, temperate bass, bream, crappie, perch, catfish, trout and a miscellaneous category). Each catch, though, entitles an angler to a cloisonné pin signifying the catch in one of the categories. There is no time limit on qualifying for certified Master Angler.
“Since that story, in 2018, I’ve caught a Master Angler-level brown trout and a catfish, so I believe that’s all eight categories. I don’t know if anybody has ever caught all eight categories in this state,” said Pyzocha, who is a member of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame. “I pretty much fish every day now, being retired. That’s why I moved here, for that reason, because of the great fishing.”
He’s caught walleye as large as 8 pounds throughout Massachusetts, where he lived before retiring and relocating to north Arkansas 10 years ago, and he’s “caught a few here, too, but they weren’t good for the Master Angler pin.”
Pyzocha says he wasn’t even sure this was a walleye at the end of his line on the day of his big catch. “I can usually guess what I have when I’m bringing it in, and at first I thought this might be a white bass. For walleye on the lake I primarily troll with downriggers or flat-lining, but when I got a hook on the fish I couldn’t tell what it was. I had caught a nice drum that was 7-8 pounds recently. I also thought maybe it was a smallmouth, as they will fight pretty good. I know how each fish fights.”
With walleye, typically the battle isn’t as raging as one experiences with other species, he noted. “But this one was a little bit different. He was fighting more than all the rest of them fight. With the size, every time he moved his tail you’d get a good tug. The 8-pounders I had caught, that was in the summer when the water is a little warmer than it is now and they were kind of lunky.
“Stripers will stay down, drum will stay down. He stayed down. He fought not as much as a drum, but was like a largemouth or smallmouth but without jumping. It was a fairly sunny day that day, and as I got him closer and closer to the boat, I saw his glowing eyes and his white fin and knew. As I got him closer to the boat, he struggled a little more. That was a good day.”
Weights and fish have been a major part of Pyzocha’s life. In Massachusetts he maintained an official weigh station for the Massachusetts Fish and Game Department, and he also did fish taxidermy. It was the chance encounter mounting a massive brown trout caught in Arkansas’s White River by a Massachusetts customer that led Pyzocha to Arkansas in the first place. “I’d never heard about it, but I did some research and learned the hunting and fishing was fantastic,” he said. Those weighing scales followed him to Arkansas, and when weighing this latest walleye, he took them to the local post office for verification and accuracy of the scales.
He estimates that 90 percent of his Master Angler pin catches come out of Bull Shoals Lake, but he caught the brown trout in the White River “right here in Flippin. I’m only 10 minutes to one of the ramps on the White River. I’m 45 minutes to Norfork Lake. I’ve got the best setup to go fishing. That’s the way I planned it, anyway, with the move here.”
Pyzocha, who will turn 68 years old in June, bought 100 acres in Rea Valley, a “suburb” of Flippin, as he calls it. “I do some hunting, too. I hunt the big game: deer, bear and turkey. I’ve seen bear here, but I don’t see them when the season comes around. I have some nice deer on my property, but my wife doesn’t like to eat venison. I don’t want to kill anything I don’t eat. I only kill one deer every other year. I haven’t gotten a turkey in years. My wife doesn’t even like turkey. She’s a city girl, she likes store-bought stuff.”
His wife, Christine, maintains a garden on the property with spices, tomatoes and vegetables such as potatoes. She also gets in on the fishing. Last weekend, in fact, she caught a 7-pound brown trout on the White, Roger said. “It wasn’t a pin total weight, but it was a nice one.”
He says his usual Master Angler pins come from landing white bass, crappie and smallmouth.
Pyzocha says he caught fish in 16 different categories of Massachusetts’ version of the Master Angler Program – only by the time he’d achieved that total the overall list had grown to 22 categories. Now that he’s scored in every Arkansas Master Angler category, Pyzocha says he’d like to focus on landing state-record-size fish.
“That’s what I’m always trying for anyway. I have two state records in Massachusetts, for carp and for northern pike,” he said. “I guess I’ll try a lot harder for state records now. They’re probably attainable in the White River with the size of browns and rainbows they catch there. But I really like fishing the lake. I just love fishing, though, and it really doesn’t matter if I catch one or not.
“The wife said the same thing to me about ‘What now? You have your eight. Tell the Game and Fish Commission you’re going to start over’,” he said laughing.
In the meantime, Pyzocha wonders what officials might call his Master Angler achievement of catching qualifying fish in all eight categories. “Grand Slam” would seem to indicate four titles, not eight, the way grand slam is applied to golf or tennis championships. “Clean sweep” doesn’t quite do it. Maybe “Master of Masters”?
Whatever it someday might be termed, certainly Pyzocha is now in a class by himself among the Master Anglers. “The water in (Bull Shoals Lake) has been very unstable this spring with the temperature and how high it’s been, and fishing has been tough, but I’m not giving up, because I know warm weather is supposed to be coming soon and the fishing is going to explode,” he said. “I expect to catch a lot of Master Angler fish.”
Visit www.agfc.com/masterangler to learn more about the Master Angler Program and how you can enter your big catch.