South Carolina has one of the nation’s best recreational fish tagging programs thanks to our Department of Natural Resources. To be a tagger, you simply need to ask, and in order to save money and make sure you’re committed, you need to purchase your own tagging gun for about $30. I’ve done it now for about 5 years, and although I don’t tag every fish I could, I usually average between 80 and 150 fish a year. The link above will take you to the tagging page.
One of the main purposes for having a recreational tagging program is to encourage catch and release, and for anglers to self-educate themselves on the fishery. In my case, I have learned a lot. In fact, I had a catch yesterday that reiterated some things, and thus caused me to write this post.
Yesterday, I caught a nice redfish with multiple spots, approximately 27.75″ long. It had an old rec tag covered in growth. I had an idea it might have been one of “my” fish based on where it was tagged. I always tag them on the left side and in a particular location. I also keep my own copy of the tagging reports that I send in, and when I got home I looked it up. It was, in fact, one of the fish I tagged. It was tagged almost two years ago to the day at just 15″ long (1 year old) and in the exact same place, or within 1/4 mile anyway.
So, what does this say about the impact we as anglers can have on a fishery? Well, obviously, redfish are creatures of habit. They return to the same place year after year. Often on the same piece of structure. This time of year, the fish tend to bunch up in tight groups of 50 to hundreds of fish. People who fly fish the flats can see the schools visually. In the areas we fish, we can’t see them because they are in deeper, more murky water. Its become clear to me that if a particular spot were heavily fished in winter time and most people kept their limit each day they fished there, it wouldn’t take very long to completely clean out a location of all the fish there. Now, I will occasionally keep a redfish or two for a meal, but certainly not a limit every time I fish. I’d much rather have a fish like this one to catch in the future than a meal in the short term.
Catch and release can even have monetary reward, as Ralph and I found out a couple years ago. We were fishing a local redfish tourney and Ralph caught a “line-painter”, which is a perfect tourney-fish. Right at 23″, our upper limit in SC. It was tagged, and come to find out I had tagged and released that fish 6 months before. We ended up winning $1000 big-fish money for that one!
Note that if you have never caught a tagged fish, that if you catch one, to take down the tag number and date and make a careful measurement of its length by pinching the tail. You can call the info in or submit online. When you report the info, you can opt to receive a gift in the form of a T shirt, visor, towel, buff, etc. You will also get a report of the tag and recapture history of “your” fish. Please release it to continue the research.
Next time you’re on a hot redfish bite in the winter time, please consider releasing them for the future. And, maybe start tagging them yourself!
If you follow my posts on social media you probably already know that I am a huge fan of our SC DNR, and I try to support them in any way I can. Something I have wanted to do for a long time was go along on one of their fish sampling days. So, I sent along a few messages and was able to get on their list of volunteers. I was interested in going on a trip to the upper Cooper river – Bushy Park as we know it – as the brackish water has an amazing variety of fish to offer and its one of my favorite places to fish.
As luck would have it I was able to go along with two people I admire very much. Brock Renkas is an incredibly smart and really cool fisheries biologist who I got to know about 5 years ago when I organized an event called the “Cobia Flotilla” for Summerville Saltwater Anglers fishing club. He joined us on one of our events and we have messaged back and forth occasionally since then when I have had questions about fish that only a scientist would know the answer. The other was John Archambault, who if you have ever caught a fish with an orange tag you probably know his name. I had never met John before, but he pretty much was exactly as I imagined him: a kind of patriarch figure, full of wisdom and knowledge of everything related to our fisheries. I knew John’s name very well, as we have traded tagged fish over the past several years. He is also the one who sends you a recapture report on fish that you tag. John was really patient and had lots of information to offer on everything from the smallest silverside minnow to red drum. Lastly, we had Helen, a college intern from Charlotte, NC along with us. This was also her first sampling trip.
I met them at Bushy Park landing and we loaded up the electro-fishing boat. This thing is the perfect tool for the job – there seems to be a place for everything – but they assured me it wasn’t so great when the water is rough! So, this boat has basically two long arms with cables hanging from them like chandeliers. These stick down in the water and create an electric field between the arms and the front of the boat. Any fish within the field gets temporarily stunned and floats up to the surface where they are netted. You net everything, from the smallest minnow to the largest fish. I want to ensure you that, although some of these images may look like dead fish, that ALL of the fish we sampled eventually recovered and swam away.
This is a working trip. Volunteers are crew members and part of the data collection process. The way it works is there are pre-determined spots located approximately every 1/4 mile, mostly along the main river, but a few located up the creeks. Six sites are chosen at random prior to each sampling day. At each site, the boat is idled along the shore for 15 minutes. After the time limit you pause and process what you captured. Whether or not you are able to hit all six sites depends on how many fish are collected at each site. Its a time-consuming process especially if you have a lot of baitfish or a lot of redfish, for example. Redfish are tedious as each one is carefully measured, inspected for lesions, fin-clipped, and an orange anchor-tag is inserted in the abdomen. This requires making a small incision in the abdomen. A couple of the stops we were pretty darn successful and it sometimes took an hour to process all the fish. We also took measurements of salinity and water clarity during the day. My job was managing the fin clips – I would take the piece of fin and place it in a small vial and make sure the number was recorded correctly. These fin clips are used to check the DNA of the fish.
Our first stop was along a random bank well upriver. We collected a few minnows, a small eel, a catfish, and several largemouth bass. The second stop was a lot more interesting, as it happened to be in a location that is one of my most productive fishing areas. We started the troll and a couple largemouth came up, one was pretty large. As we approached my usual spot I was waiting patiently to see what would happen, when suddenly a mushroom-cloud of redfish floated up! We netted as fast as we could and by the end of the run we probably had over 50 reds in the holding tank. Included in the catch was a couple yellow (recreational) tags which I think might have been mine.
Our third stop was nothing short of stunning. It was up a creek in another area I have fished many times. Really, I still can’t believe what we found there. We started the troll and approached an area that held a lot of fish in prior sampling runs. Nothing. We kept going and came to another piece of structure when all of the sudden carp estimated to be 20 to 35 lbs started floating up all around us. I have never seen a carp in these areas and they were absolutely huge. They were hard to lift into the boat. We were laughing because once they started to wake up they were really hard to handle. I think we all got a good soaking – that is a strong fish! In this same area we also had catfish, redfish, striper, largemouth, and big bream. By the time our sampling ended in this spot we had no more room in the holding tank! We estimated that we had over 300 lbs of common carp. We had to process these first so that the other fish had room to breathe. It was crazy! Needless to say this spot took a long time to process…
We had time for one more trial so we went up another creek and found an unusually large flounder (21″) for February in the creeks, and a couple decent trout.
This was a really memorable trip and I’m so glad I did it. We should all be very thankful for our SC DNR and the dedicated biologists that work there. I know I am!
Hope you enjoyed this description of our day of sampling fish in the Cooper river. As John pointed out, our day did not represent a typical day. It just so happened that our sampling spots that were chosen at random were productive ones. Brackish water is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get! That’s why I love fishing there so much.