Dirty Laundry

What’s the story behind fishing flags?

Charlie Strauch September 4, 2012

Nautical flags have been in use for thousands of years, with ancient maritime communications quite confusing thanks to various countries having their own signaling systems. It wasn’t until the 1900s when the International Code of Signals (ICS) was developed. Utilizing 40 flags, the ICS has flags designated for every letter in the alphabet, ten numerical pendants, one answering pendant and three repeaters. While these signaling flags were relied upon for communication between ships, it was around the same time when anglers began flying fish flags to indicate their recent success on the water.

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Photo: Endless Imagery

Initially developed by The Tuna Club of Santa Catalina, fish flags were an innovative way for captains to let nearby boats know of their good fortune. Before the advent of VHF radios, large fish flags could be seen from a distance. Particular species were given universal designs and colors to avoid confusion.

Original designs featured tuna and marlin, however by 1915 The Tuna Club had also introduced a flag for swordfish. There are now fish flags for almost every species of pelagic fish. While The Tuna Club’s ingenious fish flags came to fruition around the turn of the century, the idea quickly spread to big game anglers along the East Coast. In 1938 The West Palm Beach Fishing Club introduced another key element to fish flags—the red release pennant. One of the first fishing clubs to promote the catch and release of prized sailfish, the historic West Palm Beach Fishing Club developed the release pennant as a way to credit anglers for each of their successful releases while fishing The Silver Sailfish Derby.

With their incredible popularity, fish flags are now common everywhere anglers chase big game. Travel the world and you will see fish flags flying off the outriggers of both recreational and charter boats. However, the etiquette and usage of fish flags varies greatly depending on your port of call. Historically an upside down flag indicated the healthy release of a captured game fish. Many have forgone this tradition and instead choose to fly the red triangular pennant below a fish flag to designate a successful release of a particular species. Some choose to raise flags the moment a fish is caught or released, while other captains only raise flags once they are on their way back to port or inside the inlet. Some don’t raise the dirty laundry until they are in their slip at the marina.

Fishermen are a superstitious bunch and it really makes no difference when or where you choose to hoist your flags. The only common ground among industry professionals is that you shouldn’t fly your flags for more than 24 hours and never depart an inlet with a previous trip’s flags flying high. One thing we can all agree on is that fishing flags keep the fun in the sport by boosting crew morale and initiating conversation on the dock.

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