fish tag

WaterLine photo by Capt. Ralph Allen

A spaghetti tag in a Georgia black drum.

“And what did you do today?” This question was posed to me at a group dinner last week. Mrs. Capt. Ralph and I were on vacation and were staying at a lovely property in Georgia.

Various activities were available for the guests, and part of the ritual each evening at dinner was for everyone to take turns describing the fun things they’d experienced earlier that day. Tales of hiking, beachcombing, birdwatching, wildlife sightings, bicycling, going on guided tours and other resort-ish type stuff filled the conversations.

On that particular day, I’d had a really great and exciting experience that I couldn’t wait to share with our co-diners. When my turn arrived, I joyfully burst forth: “I caught a tagged fish.”

My big proclamation was met with dead silence and blank stares. Not one person at that table had a clue what I was talking about (except for Mrs. Capt. Ralph, who was not quite completely silent as she stifled a snicker at my predicament).

A bit of backstory: This was not a fishing resort, even though it was on a barrier island and all the guests came and went by ferry. In fact, during our stay, I was the only person there who did any fishing at all.

I’d brought a rod and a bit of tackle because, well, you just never know when you might get a chance to wet a line. I discovered that there were a few fish hanging around the ferry dock on the bay side of the island, and I caught trout, sheepshead, croaker, some huge pinfish and a few juvenile black drum. It was one of the black drum that was adorned with a bright yellow spaghetti tag which had been affixed by the Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources.

But back to my dinner predicament: One of the guests politely asked me if it was a really big fish, like maybe of record size. I am sure that I made things worse when I confessed that it wasn’t a very large specimen — I wasn’t even sure that it was more than a foot in length.

I was now the center of attention and had so far managed to spend my moment in the spotlight by making everyone wonder if I had a screw loose. I needed to salvage the situation, and the only way I could do so was by explaining to a roomful of non-fishermen what I’d meant when I boasted about catching a tagged fish.

I started by passing around my phone, which contained a photo of the back of a fish with a GA DNR tag sticking out of it. Someone asked if that made the fish swim in a circle. OK, clearly I needed to explain all about tags from the beginning. So I took a drink and launched into a discussion of fish tagging.


I started by explaining the difficulty faced by all fishery managers as they try to figure out how many unseen fish are in the water, and how many fish of what size can be harvested without harming the population, and how those managers scramble to get clues about the populations of fish using many different methods.

One such method is the placement of serial-numbered dart tags in selected specimens, in the hope that the tagged fish will be captured again at a later time and that the recapture information will find its way back to the folks who first placed the tag. I spoke of how placing a tag in a fish and releasing it is akin to placing a message in a bottle and tossing it into the ocean. Most likely you will never hear anything about it again, but if you do the information can be really interesting.

I explained how the recapture of a tagged fish can provide information about the growth rate of that fish, if it has grown measurably since the initial capture. And how migration clues can be gleaned by comparing the locations of the initial tagging and the point of recapture. And how the data from one recapture of a tagged fish may not be a game changer in the management of that fish species, but that if enough tag returns are reported it’s possible to establish trends for that species.

And how it’s sometimes possible to get an idea of how much of an effect anglers are having on the population of a fish by looking at the number of tag returns. For example, if 1,000 fish are tagged and only a few are ever caught again by anglers, you might assume that anglers aren’t having much impact on that population of fish. But if you tag 1,000 fish and get 500 tag returns, it’s evident that fishing might have a significant effect.

Then, as the climax of my speech about fish tagging, I pointed out that the whole system only works if anglers who capture tagged fish take the trouble to report those recaptures by following the instructions on the tag, which explains why I was so excited at having caught that little black drum. Reporting it allowed me as an angler to participate in advancing our knowledge of the species, which in turn will help all of us have better fishing.

It was a really cool speech, and I’d managed to gush it all out in only a few minutes. I caught my breath and looked expectantly around the room to see if any members of my audience wanted to ask questions or if the group was about to spontaneously break into a standing ovation.

But there were no questions, no outburst of applause. As a matter of fact, half of them had left for the evening, and the remainder were deciding which dessert wine would best pair with our cake. Oh, well — I tried.

Let’s go fishing!

Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.

Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.

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