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Tag and release – the way to go
  |  First Published: November 2004



It’s hard to believe that just over 12 months ago I released my first tagged fish – a 34cm estuary perch. I thought I’d have to tag many hundreds of fish before a recapture. In fact, as the months rolled by it looked as if none of the fish I’d tagged would ever turn up again.

There are always those niggling doubts. Will the fish survive release? Will the tag hold? If the fish is caught again, will the angler ring the tag number through? Tags become covered in weed or algae and could be overlooked, or mistaken as a hook stuck in the back. I’m sure most of these thoughts go through the mind of any impatient first time tagger.

WHERE IT BEGAN

What got me involved with tagging was an estuary perch I recaptured in Lake Wellington, back in July 2002. I was having a red-hot session one evening and had caught and released about 25 perch off one big snag using hard-bodied lures and soft plastics. I was fishing out of my kayak. They were good fish around 42-45cm.

Then in came a smaller EP, which I thought had a slime-covered hook stuck in its back. I tried to remove it, but found a yellow tag with numbers all over it. I cursed the fact I didn’t have a pen on me to record the tag number and phone number to call. So I cut the tag off, quickly measured and weighed the fish – 38cm and 1kg – as I knew these were the most important details in reporting the recapture, and let the fish go. I went on to catch seven more perch off that snag, for a total of 33, in about two hours. All the time I was looking for another tagged fish! Dark set in, and the fish went off. I couldn’t get home quick enough to ring the number.

I soon discovered Andrew Franks, another avid EP angler, had tagged that perch three months earlier. It was caught on a lure and hadn’t grown in length or weight. It was tagged in the same area, too.

At first, I was a little disappointed with the result! I mean, I thought the fish might have travelled from the Tambo River or something, and doubled in size and caught about two years ago! Or had even been tagged in a far flung estuary like Mallacoota 5-6 years before. I now realise that a lot of info was gleaned from this one recapture. I learned that some perch don’t travel far in a short period of time and maybe they are territorial; they are very slow growing; they survive handling and tagging; and, best of all, when it comes to being tricked by lures they are slow learners! As a bonus, I’ve gotten to know Andrew really well and have fished with him several times. We share stories and swap notes all the time.

Tagging addiction

Soon after catching that tagged fish, I joined VICTAG and received my tag gun with 150 tags. I quickly got rid of them and was sent more.

I tagged every fish I landed and within four months had tagged 430 fish (bream, estuary perch, bass and flathead before I finally had one recaptured. An angler I know only as A. Ormond recaptured a 29cm bream on 17 July 2003 – which I’d released four weeks prior. It was still 29cm and had only moved about 200m. It certainly encouraged me to keep on tagging.

I’ve now been with the program for over a year and have tagged and released over 1200 fish right along the Victorian coast, from Mallacoota in the far east to Western Port not far from Melbourne. I have tagged fish swimming around in the Tarwin River, Port Albert, Lake Wellington, Lakes Entrance, Lake Tyers, Tambo River, Bemm River, Snowy River, Genoa River and a heap of other rivers, creeks and inlets in between. So far, 24 of my fish have been recaptured – 17 flathead, five perch and two bream.

There are some really amazing facts that have been discovered about fish behaviour, movements and growth rates by most of these recaptures. For instance, while fishing for a week around East Gippsland in places like Bemm River and Mallacoota, in early June 2003, I tagged a 72cm flathead that took a small soft plastic. I’d cast my Squidgy underneath a sunken log that looked like perfect bream or perch structure, so you can imagine my shock when this shovel-headed croc emerged in about a foot of water! Four months later, along came keen angler Nicholas Guy, from Melbourne, to the same snag. He too thought it looked like a good snag for bream or perch. When he sent his soft plastic in, the same flathead came out to eat it! Nicholas saw this fish had a tag, wrote down the numbers, then the measured fish’s length. It had grown to 74cm and obviously called this snag home.

Only tagging can reveal this sort of territorial behaviour. Who could ever imagine a flathead to be caught twice, in exactly the same spot, months later? The next day Nicholas recaptured another flatty I’d tagged on that same trip. Sure enough, it hadn’t moved from where I’d released it four months before. More hard evidence of flathead ‘owning’ a stretch of water. I was able to ring and talk to Nicholas, and to his credit, both flatties were released to catch yet again.

Probably my most significant recapture was made by Simon Gathercole, from Traralgon, in early December 2003. He was catching a nice run of estuary perch at McLoughlins Beach and one of them was a 44cm fish I’d tagged. The perch had been at liberty for 57 days and had grown 2cm. Amazingly, this perch had travelled at least 50km across open ocean from the creek where I tagged it to the huge estuary system of Port Albert. This is a proven, documented case of EP moving between estuaries and really justifies the value of the tagging program.

Bream definitely move from one system to another, again proved by tagging, but perch were only suspected of doing the big swim. I was able to pass on this information to Fisheries and the Department of Sustainability and Environment. The more we know of these fish, the better we can evaluate bag and size limits, and protect the species for the future. It’s too late to try and save something already lost.

I also informed an interested research student, Mike Truong, about my sea-going EP. He’s studying the DNA and distribution of estuary perch in Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales. I’ve also supplied fin clips to Mike and he has used them to compare the DNA of perch from all over Victoria. The discoveries he is making will further enhance our understanding of estuary perch, and the tagging of these great sportfish assists in supporting his observations. As it turned out, my estuary-hopping EP was also fin-clipped for the DNA study. (More information on the estuary perch and Mike Truong’s research, is available in Fishing New South Wales Volume 3, also published by FM Group.)

OTHER EXPERIENCES

I’ve also just recaptured one of my own fish – a flathead that was at liberty for just over a year. It had grown 3.5cm to 38.5cm in that time. Amazingly, I recaptured it in exactly the same spot I tagged it! Incredible to think we had met 13 months ago! Surely I won’t catch it again? Or will I? I’d fished that same bend of the river, dozens of times in the last year, for a handful of other flathead and how this fish with tag number A72284 turned up on this particular day, is anyone’s guess.

If you’ve ever had doubts about fish surviving release after being tagged, fear not. Good fishing buddies of mine of mine, and prolific taggers, Peter and Paul Spehr, tagged and released a flathead that was caught again only hours later! Paul has also caught bream tagged by his dad only six days prior. But here’s the best one… Paul tagged a flathead that his Peter recaptured only two casts later! The fish was ‘at liberty’ for a whole 10 minutes, maybe less! Again, only tagging reveals this incredible behaviour and tells us fish are more than capable of surviving the rigours of catch and release. It also shows that flathead are mighty predators, yet at the same time are vulnerable to exploitation. Like all estuary species they need protecting from over-fishing.

As another example of how tough fish are, during winter 2003 while camping at Lakes Entrance, my son Jack and his cousins Midi and Tom, all around six years-old, were each thrilled to catch their first ever flathead. After much looking at and handling, taking pictures and giggling, not to mention tagging and measuring, the flatty were all put back. The kids didn’t even think about keeping the five fish they had caught and insisted we let them go. After all the handling, those flathead swam off pretty much worse for wear, yet I need not have worries about their survival prospects.

Six months later, Jack and Tom both had their fish caught again. In fact, the two flatties I helped Jack tag, have both been recaptured, after eight months of freedom. When Jack received a letter with his name on it, and the ‘certificates of recapture’, from VICTAG co-ordinator Adrian Arkinstall, it was like a kid’s version of winning lotto! I did, however, have a hard time explaining why the guys who recaptured his flathead decided to eat them! There’s no doubt these kids will grow up with a love of fishing and maybe this generation of anglers might respect our waterways a little more than most have done before.

A good mate of mine I met through tagging, Chris Burbidge, has also had some very interesting recaptures. He’s been catching and tagging EP, since March 1999, mainly in South Gippsland. On 9 May 1999, Chris tagged and released a 342mm EP. That fish was recaptured on 16 January 2003, nearly four years later, and it had grown to 360mm – less than 2cm in four years!

Interestingly, a 300mm EP he tagged on that same day in 1999 was recaptured on 25 January 2003. This fish was faster growing, reaching 350 mm – a gain of 5cm in nearly four years. Such recaptures highlight the slow growth of estuary perch. Again, the tagging program has opened our eyes to just how old some of these fish could be.

I was actually fishing with Chris when he recaptured a 45cm EP he had tagged nearly five years earlier, in the same river and in the same area of that stream. It was an amazing recapture! The fish had grown barely 2cm in that whole time. The tag was heavily encrusted with algae and weed, so we pulled it out and re-tagged the fish. It swam off no worse for wear, and maybe Chris will catch it again some day!

Last year I received news of three estuary perch I had tagged in May of 2003. Anthony Havers and I caught them in the top end of Lake Wellington in early May. They were recaptured by professional netters in late September/early October 2003, in Lake Victoria, not far from Lakes Entrance. Total distance travelled would be 35-50km. One fish grew from 38cm to 40cm in about 20 weeks, which is an exceptional spurt of growth. EP were thought to spawn in September, and through tagging, it’s now certain that they migrate downstream at this time.

SATISFACTION GUaRaNTEED

One of the main reasons I got into tagging was to see if estuary fish moved between different coastal drainages. Within eight months of tagging, my question was answered with Simon’s recapture. All the species I tag have a very long lifespan and, in years to come, some fish may prove to travel enormous distances across open ocean. Time will tell.

I’ve been able to tag some fantastic fish over the past year. I’ve caught quite a few good flathead, many into the mid-70cm with an 82cm 4kg whopper my best. Bream can be more of a challenge on lures, still I’ve tagged dozens of stud fish ranging 42-46cm.

I recently caught my biggest estuary perch to date. I tagged a 55cm, 2.7kg thumper, which nailed my Galaxia Minnow lure! On that day, I also returned nine other fish (45-48cm) in a frantic one-hour session. When trying to land these sorts of fish in my kayak, sometimes I wonder, who has who! It was a joy to see my biggest perch yet, more than likely over 35 years old, swim again. This is definitely one fish I want to recapture!

The rewards of my recaptures far out-weigh the efforts of actually tagging and releasing. It is a process that does slow you down a little while on the water, but it’s one way of putting something back into the all-consuming passion of fishing. If I can encourage just a handful of anglers to let more of their fish go (and maybe tag them), then my job is done. The days of stacking freezers are long gone.

Facts

Tagging is a great incentive to return your catch, to not only be caught again, but to breed. We also learn so much with each and every recapture.

Releasing fish has never been easier! You don’t have to be a member of a fishing club to join the growing number of tagging anglers. The easiest way to get involved is to contact VICTAG co-ordinator Adrian Arkinstall, email: --e-mail address hidden--

You can also ring the VICTAG hotline, freecall 1800 677 620. This is also the number to report the capture of a tagged fish. Be sure to measure the fish and always think about releasing it again. Who knows, you might catch it again!

CAPS

1.The author with a 3kg estuary perch at Bemm River, prior to release.

2.Me with a 2 lb EP.

3.Dave Morris with a 52cm estuary perch that was tagged and released.

4.Paul Spehr with a 68cm flathead caught on fly – tagged and released.

5.A 41cm bream with the tag gun cocked! Caught on fly by Paul Spehr.

6.Anthony Havers with two tagged, Gippsland Lakes’ estuary perch – 47cm and 45cm.

7.Chris Burbidge with a fat estuary perch, tagged and about to head back to the snags.

8.Brett Geddes with a 57cm flathead. Note the tag half way down the body, away from the fish’s vital organs.

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