Florida’s winter season means sailfish—and lots of them. Prime location along their natural migration route is part of the reason for such a high density of spindlebeaks, although sound conservation practices have also greatly influenced the booming population of sailfish along Florida’s Atlantic coast. While catch & release is the name of the game, the practice of tagging has evolved into a means of integrating recreational anglers’ passion with useful scientific data. Fortunately, Florida anglers have the perfect opportunity to make their time on the water count for conservation. Anglers represent the first line in billfish conservation and by following a few simple steps you can make your tagging efforts as beneficial as possible.
1. What You Need
The Billfish Foundation’s Tagging Program operates the world’s largest private billfish database. Since its inception in 1990, the program has collected over 177,000 tag & release records. TBF streamer tags are made with hydroscopic nylon—the same biologically compatible material that’s used in artificial hearts and bone joints. The nylon head is attached to a numbered streamer via monofilament and comes with a matching tag card. It is the card that translates what happens on the water into fisheries science and management. Biological information on each card includes: fish species, catch location and date, weight and length, as well as the condition of fish upon release. While a pitching cockpit isn’t the ideal environment to fill out a tag card, given that each year thousands of tag cards are entered into the database legible handwriting is extremely important.
2. Tag Placement
For tagging to be successful both sailfish and angler must avoid undue harm. To minimize injury to fish tag placement is critical. TBF recommends placing the tag in an area that is above the fish’s lateral line and far removed from the head and gills. Sailfish lateral lines feature a cluster of nerves that run the length of their body—tags should not be placed in contact with this line. The target area is above the lateral line and between the back half of the fish’s pectoral fin and the beginning of its anal fin. This tag area is farther back on the fish in comparison to older tag placement objectives, lessening the risk of tagging the fish’s gills or internal organs.
3. Tagging Procedure
Sailfish encountered in Florida typically weigh around 45-pounds and are known the world over for their boatside acrobatics. Combine a small target area for tag placement and an agile fish that can turn on a dime and you have a difficult proposition. When you have a fish on the leader take your time. When it calms down insert the tag with a firm, controlled application. Never attempt to tag a jumping or thrashing fish, as improper placement can result in serious injury or death to the fish. You should also modify your tagging applicator by placing a cork or rubber stopper to decrease penetration depth.
Captain Ray Peterson of Glory Days, whose angler Betsy Crudele won TBF’s Top Tagging Angler for Atlantic sailfish in 2009, provides additional insight on the need for care and control. “A successful tagging effort requires extra patience and additional time that takes away from catching more fish. Sometimes it’s frustrating to have a hot fish on the leader and wait for that good tag shot while a pod of fish is swimming away. Ultimately though, we think the time is well spent. The information generated by the tag & release program is important to maintain a healthy fishery.”
Given the choice between an improperly tagged fish and a fish released healthy without a tag, TBF’s stance is clear. It is better to wait for a good shot at tagging a fish than to rush and misplace the tag. Glory Days fishing team reports that for this reason they tag approximately 60% of sailfish released.
4. Release Technique
While a fish that is tired after a long fight may present an easier shot, maximizing post release survivability is crucial. To revive a tired fish, often marked by a bronze coloration, grab the fish by the bill and hold its head underwater as the boat idles forward. Make sure to do this on the side of the boat, away from the props. Sailfish are what are known as ram breathers and in order for them to oxygenate their blood water must flow past their gills. While reviving a fish you may notice that it starts to regain its bright coloration. While this is a great sign, it is important to maintain a firm grip to avoid being injured by unexpected thrashing in addition to making sure not to prematurely release a stressed fish. Throughout the process, TBF emphasizes the importance of leaving fish in the water. Not only is removing a sailfish from the water dangerous for anglers, but it’s also extremely harmful to the fish as it puts enormous amounts of pressure on the fish’s internal organs.
5. Recaptured Tags
During the winter season when sailfish parade down the coast, it is not uncommon for TBF to receive multiple recapture reports of tagged sailfish on a daily basis. If you are fortunate enough to catch a tagged fish, clip the monofilament at the base of the tag and retain the streamer. If possible, implant another tag and release it as you would any other fish. Record the biological information—location of catch, date, length, and weight estimates, etc., and then report the recapture by calling or writing TBF.
Traditional tagging data reveals important details such as migration patterns and age and growth rates, which adds to a knowledge base that advances billfish science and management policies. Following these techniques can help make the most of your time on the water. It is only through the participation of anglers, captains and mates that TBF is able to gather this vital tag & release data. Visit billfish.org to purchase your tagging kit and get in on the action.