By Ken Schultz –
Sportfishing on the Eastern Shore is a popular activity. It’s one of the many draws to living in the area, appealing to longtime residents, tourists, and emigrating retirees. None have enjoyed this recreation more than Onancock’s George Phillips.
“I think I’ve caught every saltwater species here,” the 83-year-old retired baker said. “Except pompano and some offshore stuff. I hooked a couple of tarpon years ago but never landed them. And in freshwater the only thing I haven’t caught here is snakehead, which just showed up recently.”
A lifetime resident of Onancock, Phillips fished as a teenager in several local ponds. “We had a wooden boat at one pond where we went bullfroggin’,” said Phillips. “We sold ‘em for 50 cents apiece. At another pond, we built little bridges out of logs to get to the edge so we could cast.”
Later, when he returned from military service, those bridges were gone, so he got a little aluminum boat to fish in and was able to launch it by the pond’s dam until someone built a house there.
Phillips is the longest tenured and most honored member of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Anglers Club. He joined the group two years after it was formed by a few surf fishermen in 1961, yet he is not a surf fisherman, preferring angling from a boat on both bayside and seaside for drum, striped bass, speckled trout, and flounder. He has a special affinity, however, for freshwater fishing for bass, crappies, and bluegills.
The Eastern Shore is not known widely for its freshwater fishing, since the scattered manmade irrigation ponds that exist are almost all privately owned and many have no formal access. Nevertheless, Phillips managed to fish most of the ponds in Accomack and many in Northampton over the years.
“Back in the seventies I had 25 or so ponds I could fish,” said Phillips. “And some had big bass in them.” He had most of the ponds to himself then, as few local anglers bothered with freshwater fishing. Today, due to ownership and land-use changes, liability concerns, and trespass issues, few of these ponds are available to him.
Nevertheless, in 59 years of Anglers Club membership, Phillips received the Freshwater Angler of the Year Award most of the years that it was conferred, the overall Angler of the Year Award numerous times, and the annual award for catching the biggest largemouth bass 19 of the first 20 years that he was a club member and overall more than 30 times.
Three times he won the club’s biggest largemouth bass award for fish that exceeded 10 pounds, the largest being an 11-pounder in 2008. In 2021 he won it again for a bass that measured 24¼ inches (the club changed from awarding by weight to overall length to encourage conservation). He released that fish, which weighed 9 pounds, 3 ounces as he does all of the bass and most of the other fish he catches.
There have been few years in which Phillips did not win an Anglers Club award, one of them being 1965, the third year of his membership. That year, one of the club’s youth awards went to a youngster destined to be Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, who grew up on the Shore and was once a charter boat mate.
In 2009, Phillips didn’t win a single award because he was working 65 hours a week at two jobs and had little time to fish. But in other years he had more time. In 1976 he won eight of the 23 species awards in the adult division. In 1979 he won nine of 25 awards.
Since some of the club’s historical records have been lost or undocumented, it’s hard to precisely ascertain the full totals of Phillips’ achievements, but from the records that do exist, it’s known he also received 139 club awards for the largest catch of other species, both freshwater and saltwater. One of those was for an 11-pound, 11-ounce gray trout, stupendous by today’s standards. Another was for a black drum weighing 94 pounds, 8-ounces, caught in 2003, which still stands as an Anglers Club record.
Phillips currently holds five of the club’s all-time records. “I had the speckled trout record one year too,” he said. “It was an 11-pound, 7-ounce fish and the only thing I caught that day. But Joe Sparrow caught a record 11-pound, 9-ounce speck the next year.”
The late Sparrow was a perennial winner in the club’s early years and still holds the Virginia false albacore record.
While Phillips often says that he’s going to stop entering fish in the club’s award program, and gets chided by his wife Judy and kidded by his friends for not doing so, Phillips has no jealousy when someone outdoes him, and he is generous about letting others receive awards he could get.
One year, a friend caught the biggest bass of his life and won the club award. Phillips caught a larger bass later in the year but never submitted it to the club so that his friend could have the honor. “I never told him,” he said. “I’ve done that more than once, when someone who doesn’t have awards can get one.”
Although Judy doesn’t fish much, often getting seasick, she has accompanied her husband from time to time. In 1977 she won the Anglers Club award for the largest croaker, a 4-pound, 1-ounce giant that was third largest in the state that year. “There were only three citation croaker caught that year,” Phillips remembered, “and that day we also caught a citation-size spot.”
Phillips’ award recognitions go well beyond the Eastern Shore of Virginia Anglers Club. He has in the neighborhood of 130 citations from the Virginia Saltwater Fishing Tournament and hasn’t entered many of the eligible fish that he’s caught over the years. “I don’t enter citation fish anymore,” he said. “I threw about 30 of the citations in the trash can. You used to be allowed to submit one a year per species, but now you can submit more. I try to take a picture of every big fish I catch, but I don’t need citations.”
He also received several awards from major outdoor magazines, which had national and state fishing contests in their heyday. Phillips had 19 such awards from Field & Stream and 12 from Sports Afield in the 1960s and ‘70s. He also received honors from tackle companies Mepps and Garcia, and the International Game Fish Association awarded him line-class world records for black drum, red drum, and sunfish (they have since been superceded).
The record red drum weighed 38½ pounds and was caught on 6-pound-test line. The record black drum weighed 90 pounds and was a 20-pound line class record. “Judy was with me when I caught the black drum,” Phillips recalled. “I thought it was a big skate. It was so big that it wasn’t fighting like a typical drum.”
Blessed with a terrific memory, Phillips amazes with his ability to recall fish sizes and catch dates, and even what tackle was used. That ability extends to remembering so much about the Eastern Shore of Virginia Anglers Club that he is now the 200-plus-member club’s de facto historian.
Phillips has been very devoted to the Anglers Club. He’s been a director for 57 continuous years and is its former two-time president. He ran the club’s monthly outings for decades until a few years ago and participated in the club’s two annual youth day outings on every occasion until this June, when illness caused him to miss his first one.
He also ran the club-sponsored Onancock Bay Challenge fishing tournament for many years. Now in its 30th year, this popular fall event began as an alternative to the then-state-sponsored Virginia Cup multiple-species fishing contest. It has raised funds for the club, and for charitable and conservation causes, and has been broadly supported by Eastern Shore businesses.
As the event chairman, he didn’t fish in the Bay Challenge for many years, but after turning management reins over to friend Don McGavock in 2014, the following fall he participated and won two awards, one being a major award for the largest club-member-caught fish.
Phillips worked in food service, cooking and baking, while in the Army from 1957 to 1960. He was stationed in Germany for two years and spent his last eight months in Texas, where he met Judy, whom he married in 1961. They had five children together, and now have three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
After the service, Phillips returned to baking in Onancock, opening The Pastry Shop for several years, then closed it because he was in competition with his uncle’s bakery. He worked a variety of jobs in the area, including cooking and baking for the Navy at Wallops, eventually becoming the head baker at Walmart in Pocomoke City, Md., when it opened in 1997, where he was the third person hired for the new store. When the Onley Walmart opened in 2012, he transferred there as head baker for several years before retiring.
For 12 years, Phillips did part-time contract work for NOAA Fisheries, conducting in-person weekly angler surveys at docks and launch ramps. He interviewed anglers, measured their catch, and reported on angling efforts. Some people were friendly and cooperative, some were nasty, many lied.
When anglers declared catching nothing he would report that but eventually quit because he didn’t see eye to eye with the government’s approach or requirements.
“I told them some of these people saying that no fish were being caught were lying,” he recalled. “It was affecting survey results. A supervisor told me ‘if no fish are being caught, go write in some fish.’ I wouldn’t do it. It makes you look good, like you’re doing a good job. Other surveyors were showing more fish than I did, but it was a flawed system, and I think it’s as bad or worse today.”
Honesty is one of George Phillips’ admirable traits. Some may find it hard to believe that he accomplished as much as he did as a recreational angler, but if Phillips says he did it, or saw it, you can take it to the bank. He was able to put in a lot of time fishing thanks to a supportive family and working early hours for decades. He’d go home after work, rest a little, then go fishing in the afternoon and evening. Retirement opened up more opportunity, and an early-rising habit sees him freshwater fishing now near the crack of dawn.
With all of his accomplishments, you might think that Phillips is only centered on awards or on catching big fish, but he still gets as excited as he ever did when fishing, whether for large or small fish. You can hear him yell, “gall dang it!” when he misses a strike or see him get in a fever pitch when the action is fast. And if the fishing’s poor, he doesn’t get overly disappointed but remains level-minded, figuring that things will be better on the next trip.
Phillips is disappointed, however, by the state of saltwater fish populations today, since he’s experienced it near its best in the past. He remembers when you couldn’t hardly catch a striped bass in the bay in the late ‘80s and then the population rebounded marvelously. He remembers when hordes of 16-pound bluefish marauded Chesapeake Bay (they average a few pounds now), when gray trout averaged 7 to 8 pounds (they’re now less than a pound), and when Onancock called itself the “Cobia Capital of the World” because of the short-lived period when they were especially abundant in that area.
“Striped bass are declining again,” notes Phillips. “Fishing in the bay has not been up to par the last few years, especially in the fall. Things overall have changed a lot, and I hope they turn around. They’ve been up and down before.”
Phillips has been up and down a bit too. He was sidelined briefly a decade ago with heart bypass surgery, and a current health issue has temporarily halted his astounding level of fishing success. But to those who know George Phillips, he’s unquestionably the fishing master of the Eastern Shore.