Pictured: The late Captain Al Anderson began tagging fish for the American Littoral Society in 1967. Over more than 50 years he tagged more than 60,000 fish, providing valuable insights into the movements and growth rates of striped bass, bluefin tuna, and more.
I make it back to the little beach house just before 3 a.m. My wife is asleep upstairs, so I close the noisy screen door slowly, drop my two rods and backpack on the cement floor, and place the fish in the slop sink. I am exhausted, from a lack of sleep, from the half-mile trek from the little creek that empties into Saco Bay, and from the night, out on the beach, in the darkness.
A single light bulb hangs over a cluttered workbench. In the corner of the room is an assortment of beach stuff—beach chairs, umbrellas, boogie boards, all the things a family would need for a day at the shore. But most of the area is cluttered with the stuff of a fisherman.
The workbench is a mess, with tools, a big glass ashtray with a short, burnt-down stogy, a spool of wire, a small radio, plugged in and set to the Boston station that carries the Red Sox. You could almost see the man, in your mind; a good cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth, his Sox trailing by two, late in the eighth, against “the best team money can buy,” those damn Yankees, and yet a smile on his face as he slides the filet knife, carefully, yet firmly, along the fish.
My eyes take in the rest of this place. The owner of the beach house is clearly a surf-loving striper fisherman. He has two worn surf rods hanging from one wall; on the back wall is a long, foldable clothes hanger with an assortment of old striper plugs, faded plastic lures, monofilament, complete with blazing-red bobbers, and large, rusted hooks, all hanging in no particular order. There are bait buckets, a pitchfork for digging clams and sandworms, everything a man of the salted surf would need.
Perhaps the most telling feature of this angling cave, revealing a fisherman’s seriousness, is the slop sink. Here is where I clean and fillet the few striped bass I kill, every July and August while fishing from the surf in Maine.
What should I do if I catch a tagged striper?
Tagged striped bass are still subject to local regulations. If the fish falls outside the slot limit, it must be released.
Ideally, anglers planning on releasing a tagged striper would record the tag’s information and leave the tag in the fish to potentially be caught again and provide more information. In some cases, an external red tag is an indicator of an internal acoustic tag placed by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. The MA DMF advises anglers to leave the tag in place and record the information.
Other tagging programs, like the US Fish and Wildlife Striped Bass Cooperative Tagging Program, which also uses red tags, advises anglers to remove the tag before releasing the fish. Fishermen can remove a tag by clipping it close to the striper’s skin.
Before releasing the fish, record its length, if possible, the location, and set it free.
If the fish is of legal size, and you intend to keep it to eat, then leave the tag in the fish until you get home.
The tag will have the necessary information for contacting whichever organization tagged it. (Call the organization and provide the details of the catch. They will ask for the size, the date, and the location.) Don’t worry about revealing your secret fishing spot – a town name or general area will suffice. Scientists will use that information to determine how much the fish grew, where it had migrated and how long it was free.
In a few days to weeks, they’ll share that information with you. Some organizations even offer a reward for the information, which can range from a hat or a pin to cash.
I have a fish this morning, as well. I gently lay the 24-inch bass on the fish board, on its side and was about to reach for the filet knife when I see something that made me say, right out loud, “What the hell?”
There was a little tag, maybe three toothpicks thick, sticking out of the striper’s white underside. Never saw this before. I gripped the yellow tag and, with a good tug, out it came. This fish had been captured, tagged and released by someone, somewhere, some time ago.
The printing on the tag was barely readable: Reward. $5-$1,000. No. 506078. Mail to: H.R.F., Box 1731.G.C.S., N.Y., N.Y. 10163.
Return address, New York City? Is it possible that this fish could have been tagged and released from the Hudson River? The search was on. I went to the Internet and found a site for the American Littoral Society, a non-profit out of Sandy Hook, New Jersey., that I knew had an active tagging program for striped bass. The Littoral Society tags are also yellow, a voice over the telephone informed me, but this fish was not tagged by her organization. She kindly suggested that I contact the Hudson River Foundation, which also uses yellow tags.
Jessica Jones, who works for the Hudson River Foundation, gave me the raw data. No. 506078, my striper, was captured, tagged and released in the Hudson River five years earlier. At the time, the fish measured 16.7 inches. Its age was estimated at two years.
Anglers are asked to return any tags so that the foundation can use the information to learn more about the habits of striped bass.
“When you submit a tag to us, we send back a questionnaire: When did you catch the fish, was it healthy, how long was it and where did you catch the fish,” Jones said.
Every year, from November to April, approximately 10,000 to 25,000 striped bass are tagged in the Hudson River. Striped bass can travel up to 18 miles per day. The tagged striper I caught swam at least 275 nautical miles.
Jones suggested that I speak with Helena Andreyko, an administrator for the foundation. I asked her if it was unusual for a fish tagged in the Hudson River, in New York, to be caught as far north as Maine.
“It’s not unusual at all,” Andreyko said. “The fish travel as far north as Nova Scotia and as far south as Cape Hatteras.”
The tag is placed into a small incision made in the area of the fish’s belly. The wound is treated with a disinfectant and the fish is quickly placed back into the river.
The longest tagged fish ever reported to the foundation was a 48-inch striper caught near Sandy Hook, Andreyko said.
Andreyko suggested I get in touch with Dr. John Waldman, a professor at Queens College in New York, who for decades has managed a tagging program for the foundation.
I asked Dr. Waldman if he thought that the striper I caught was a little slow on the growth scale, considering the fact that the fish grew just 7.3 inches in 5½ years.
Who tagged my striper?
A number of organizations tag striped bass, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (which has tagged 600,000 stripers since 1985) to local fishing clubs, like the Berkeley Striper Club in New Jersey.
There are several “citizen science” groups, like the American Littoral Society and Gray Fishtag Research, that allow anglers to order tagging kits and begin tagging striped bass on their own.
“It seems a little slow,” he said. “But there are a lot of variations among individuals. Some are fast-growing and some are slow-growing. It could be a male. Males grow slower than females.”
Dr. Waldman is an avid striped bass fisherman who, like me, prefers to fish for his favorite fish during the hours of darkness. Striped bass, particularly big stripers, prefer to feed during the hours of darkness.
“The big fish are more comfortable coming to shore at night,” he said. “They just seem more comfortable being in the shallows under the cover of darkness.”
Striped bass fishing is a challenge and the most challenging approach, he said, is fishing from the surf.
“I think they are the premier, inshore game fish,” Dr. Waldman said. “What I like about stripers is you don’t have to charter an expensive boat and go offshore to fish.”
Dennis Jensen is the outdoor editor for the Rutland Herald and Barre Times Argus in Vermont and a freelance writer.