The Fishing Line

Fishing and Boating | Fri, 10/17/2014 – 4:22 pm | Updated 4 days 9 hours ago | Read 727 | Commented 0 | Emailed 4

By Bill (Bucktail Willie) Shillingford


Willie and a nice striper

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Special thanks to Bill Shillingford for providing a guest column this week. Check out his web site

Today’s recreational fishing regulations find most of us throwing back a large percentage of what we catch. Have you ever wondered what happens to those fish or where these fish go?

One way of gathering that information and helping scientists understand what is going on with our fish populations is by tagging. I tag for American Littoral Society (ALS) and have tagged over 18,500 fish and 31 species. My main tagging efforts have been summer flounder (7,700), striped bass (6,100), bluefish (1,700), weakfish (900), and sea bass (1,500). My tag return rate is 7 percent which is little above average.

Tagging has been an amazing hobby and I have learned quite a bit about fish migration. Let me share some of the more interesting returns. I have had several striped bass out over five years before being re-caught and they have been re-caught in New York and Massachusetts. Just this year I had a bass I tagged in July 2011 at 22 inches and it was re-caught above Easton, Pa., in the Delaware River and had grown to 26 inches. I have had several re-caught in Delaware but none as far up river as Easton.

Over the years, I have re-caught several of my own tagged bass which had been out between 24 and 67 months. One interesting point is all 13 were re-caught within 500 yards of where they were originally being tagged and all but one the same month of the year originally tagged, regardless of how long they were out. I have return tags on striped bass from every coastal state, Maine to North Carolina and inland Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River.

Summer flounder is probably the most abundant and attracts the most recreational fishermen in South Jersey. I have return tags from every state from Rhode Island to North Carolina and 60 miles offshore in the canyons from observers on winter commercial boats. I recently reviewed my data for a more detail breakdown and found some interesting trends: 88 percent of the returned tags “that were out over 12 months” were re-caught 30 miles or more further north of originally being caught; 4 percent were re-caught on the continental shelf in winter; 3 percent were re-caught south of Delaware Bay; 5 percent in Cape May County waters. The longest a fluke was out before being re-caught was little over four years and it grew seven inches.

The other interesting piece of data I found was in the past 10 years the average size of fluke I caught only varied three quarters of an inch up or down; smallest yearly average was 14.34 inches in 2007 and largest 15.05 inches in 2013. April and early May always produced the largest fish with July producing the smallest. I think this demonstrates a good reason for splitting our state and giving South Jersey an earlier opening which in turn would also benefit the industry in South Jersey.

I have 33 returned tags from bluefish but cannot see any pattern as they have been returned from North Carolina to Connecticut and all at different times of the year. One thing is clear, they travel fast. I had one I tagged of 33 inches that was re-caught off Cape Cod 27 days later.

Several years ago ALS asked if I was interested in tagging black sea bass and I have been tagging about 100 per year. After three years and no returns, I began to wonder about effectiveness; then I got three returns off Nantuckett and Martha’s Vineyard. Three sea bass tagged behind Strathmere at eight to nine inches were re-caught in deep water off those islands and were between 14-16 inches when re-caught. Since then, every year there’s been at least one return from a state other than New Jersey.

Weakfish, as most know, have been down and tough to get in recent years. However, I have several returns from 90s of fish out over year in Delaware Bay. I tagged two 13-inch weakfish off Corson’s Inlet in September, 1995 and they were re-caught consecutively off Ocean City, Md., one month later. Based on 2014 weakfish tagging, it appears they may be rebounding.

You can see that tagging fish is rewarding and interesting and clearly the regulators need the data. If you are interested in learning more about tagging, contact Jeff DeMint at www.AmericanLittortalSociety.organd scroll down to Fish Tagging. Lots of good information there.

I would also encourage anyone interested in the future of recreational fishing in the Cape May County area to get involved, attend the meetings and voice your opinion. I’ve been told ‘they don’t listen’ but when enough of us offer opinions, I have seen the regulators opinion change. You have to be involved to make a difference.