Tag and release ... and catch again!

Even when we’re not competing, professional anglers are often on the water working with sponsors and media on things like catalog shoots and media junkets. It’s a big part of what we do, and sometimes these efforts bring unexpected results.

During a recent photo session for Hildebrandt, I caught a bass weighing approximately 7 pounds. Although the fish was impressive, what really grabbed our attention was the small yellow tag protruding from its back.

At first, I couldn't read it. But once the slimy coating was removed, I noticed the word "reward." I could also see that it was a Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation (FWC) tag with an 800 number and web address for reporting the catch.

Boating trophy-size fish during a photo shoot is always rewarding, but to catch one with a tag gave added meaning to the term. This fish was worth $200!

More Than Money

I immediately contacted my friend, Mike Allen, a fisheries biologist for the University of Florida. I told him about the fish and where I caught it, then asked if he could provide some general info ... like when it was tagged and its approximate size at the time. I also wanted to know if the fish had been stocked or shocked at the time of its tagging.

After a little digging, Mike informed me that my fish was tagged on October 22, 2011, and that it was 20 inches in length. He also said the fish was collected during sampling from Lake Santa Fe, the same lake I caught her on. What he shared next really intrigued me.

He said my fish was among 80 they tagged that year, and that all were fitted with transmitters for telemetry studies (a method of tracking fish movements via high frequency radio transmissions). He told me the transmitter on my fish lasted about a year and in that time it recorded minimal movement.

This diagram charts the movement of five different bass. The one I caught is shown in black.

The diagram to the right shows the movements of several fish in the study. My fish (Fish 1) and the area it used is represented in black, and, remarkably, that is precisely the area of the lake where I caught her … three years after the study had concluded!

As the diagram also reveals, other fish in the study roamed much larger areas of the lake, which suggests their feeding habits were considerably different.

Lake Breakdown

At 5,850 surface acres, Santa Fe is a fairly good size lake. It's deep too, at least by Florida standards (approximately 25 feet at its deepest point). The bass population utilizes most of the lake and water column throughout the year: During the spring, there's an obvious migration to the shoreline, but when summer arrives, much of the population moves offshore to brushpiles and uneven bottom, particularly where shrimp grass thrives. In late summer and fall, you’re likely to find them schooling on the surface, predominantly in the lake’s narrow passes.

Santa Fe’s shoreline is lined with century old cypress trees and lush fields of vegetation, including maidencane, arrowheads, lotus and lily pads. In addition to these various forms of natural cover, there are hundreds of docks for the bass to relate to … and many do. So in all, the habitat is healthy and diverse — not only for bass, but other species of gamefish and the forage they feed on.

Considering all of these factors, plus the lake’s close proximity to the University of Florida, it’s an ideal setting for research purposes. And that’s precisely why Mike Allen and his colleagues conduct some of their studies there.

"My" bass was first tagged in October 2011 and has enjoyed a healthy growth rate since then.

My fish measured approximately 23 inches in length when I caught her, so she had obviously grown since Mike’s team tagged and released her. And Mike felt that was a normal, healthy growth rate, considering the fish was already a mature specimen.

For a biologist, receiving feedback on research fish is important — especially several years later. But for me, perhaps more significant is the fact that it proves catch and release does work, and that our fisheries directly benefit by such practices.

I believe big fish breed other big fish, and that their genetics are crucial to establishing healthy populations of trophy-size bass … no matter the body of water. So I would encourage any of you reading this to at least consider releasing your bigger fish. The tagged fish I caught is still swimming in Lake Santa Fe today, and hopefully in the future, another angler will catch and release her, just as I did.

Follow Bernie Schultz on Facebook or though his website.

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