WINTER COLUMN: DNR rejuvenates tagging program
Back when we were first learning to catch redfish, my brother and I would paddle a canoe all over the Lowcountry, casting every which way for the elusive spot-tail bass.
We finally figured them out by paddling that canoe — and later by poling a john boat and then a center console — up into the flats. We’d get as shallow as we could, then lob Carolina rigs baited with hunks of mullet, menhaden and blue crab in the channels between oyster beds.
Worked like a charm on an incoming tide.
Bringing home a redfish to eat was always a treat, but we often had loftier goals in mind when we went redfishing in those early days. We really wanted to tag some of those fish. Better still would be to catch a tagged fish. Reporting a recapture to the state’s Department of Natural Resources earned you a cool T-shirt.
We got our tagging kits free from DNR. They included blank capture reports and thin, nylon tags with a barbed point on one end and a tiny series of numbers printed along their sides. The tagging stick, also provided free by DNR, was a short wooden dowel with a hollow needle jutting from one end.
After catching a fish, we’d dutifully pull out the kit and put on the caps of amateur marine biologists. We’d carefully measure the fish, keeping it out of the water as briefly as possible and handling it with extreme care. We’d note location, size and other data points on a tagging form, and then stash that piece of paper in a plastic bag so it would stay dry and we could send it to DNR.
We’d thread a tag into the top of the needle, then push the point under a scale and into the fish’s back. The barb would catch and we’d pull out the needle. We’d then revive and release the redfish, which at that point became very much “our” fish.
Any time someone else caught “our” tagged fish, they’d be able to record the number and send information on size and location back to DNR. One of us would then receive a DNR report detailing how much our fish had grown and where it had been caught. Fascinating stuff.
Whenever we’d catch and release someone else’s tagged fish, we’d report that catch data to DNR and claim our T-shirt prize. Those shirts( and sometimes hats), in my eyes at least, signalled that we had joined a rather exclusive club of angler-conservationists.
By 2005, the DNR’s tagging heydays had come to an end. The agency began requiring participants to attend a training workshop and limited participation to 225 anglers. The tightening was in response to budget cuts, along with the fact that so many well-intentioned anglers picked up tagging kits but rarely used them. I was guilty of that, myself, at times.
In 2008, the program entered a state of perpetual limbo, the victim of further budget cuts and staffing shortages. For those of us with fond memories of tagging redfish, it seemed a shame.
Just last week, I was happy to learn that DNR’s Volunteer Marine Gamefish Tagging Program was officially up and running again.
Robert Wiggers, public information director for the DNR’s Marine Resources Division, said the re-launch of the tagging program was made possible by staffing changes and funding from the Saltwater Recreational License program.
The agency hopes the program’s return introduces a new generation to the “catch and release ethic that is so prevalent among today’s saltwater anglers,” Wiggers said in press release.
When the program started in 1974, it was one of the first of its kind to use recreational anglers as a means for deploying research tags in marine game fish, Wiggers wrote. For about 30 years, the tagging program generated information that helped fishery biologists identify spawning aggregations and migratory patterns of recreationally important finfish.
Though most often associated with redfish, the tagging program also provided new insight into the populations and movement of dolphinfish, cobia, yellowfin tuna and other species. About 135,000 fish have been reported as tagged throughout the program’s history, about 46% of which were redfish. Even more fish have been tagged in the Dolphin Research Program, an independent, international effort led by Don Hammond, one of the state’s earliest proponents of tagging research.
The reinvigoration of the state’s official program includes a few caveats. First, anglers must have a state-issued saltwater recreational fishing license. Secondly, they must purchase and use an appropriate tag gun, used to properly insert tags into marine game fish 10-27 inches long. Biggber fish can be tagged using the old-fashioned, wooden tag sticks.
The guns cost $20-$30, Wiggers said. Requiring anglers to make this relatively small investment to participate in the program might weed out those not serious about following through with actual tagging efforts.
Tagging guns are available online, and representatives of both Haddrell’s Point Tackle and Supply and The Charleston Angler said last week that they planned to stock the devices as soon as possible.
Wiggers doesn’t think the the tagging gun requirement will temper participation.
“It was just too popular of a program,” Wiggers said. “I continually get requests from people to participate. Every week people call. The interest never goes away.”
Complete information on the program, including how-to videos and a nice Q-and-A, can be found at dnr.sc.gov.
Reach Matt Winter, Tideline magazine editor, at 843-937-5568 or email@example.com.