Have you ever wondered where the billfish or tuna that you catch have traveled or will travel after you release them? Participating in a tagging program will help to satiate that curiosity as well as aid in building a database of pertinent information on the migratory habits of the species. Agencies like NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Services and The Billfish Foundation (TBF) provide not only the tags, but they also work to collect and manage the database of information collected from tagged and recaptured fish. This data is useful to establish migratory patterns or fluctuations and is essential to the backbone of fishery management and planning as well as regulations.
According to TBF President Ellen Peel, (management and regulation statement)
Getting the tags is as simple as contacting The Billfish Foundation, (see sidebar) but let’s take a closer look at how to properly tag fish that are at times very fast moving targets in the water and with billfish−in an instant can be in the air. There are many things happening at this stage of the game and it can be quite confusing and happen so quick that it is possible to do more harm than good by attempting to tag−or even worse, someone could be hurt.
Although there are no percentage numbers to back it up, it is fair to say the majority of fish lost during an engagement are lost, or not tagged at the boat just prior to or during the wiring, tagging or gaffing sequence. Years ago in my early teens when I first started fishing tournaments it was made very clear to me that my job as tag/gaff man was more than critical, some skippers joked my life was on the line, although I’m not sure some were actually joking. The “end game” was as critical as getting the bite. Fortunately, I worked for some of the best skippers who were also great teachers and the end game became my second favorite part of the game, next to getting the bite.
Several seasons ago, after watching my deckhands miss several tags; I realized that I had wrongly assumed our finely tuned crew understood the end game sequence. I knew my deckhand at the time, Tim Mitchell and I had taken much of the end game for granted so we sat down and had a team meeting as we often do to review the day’s action. We discussed our miscues and set up a plan to be more efficient. After our meeting, my Mexican deckie Ricardo Cetina who is one of the finest deckhands we have worked with realized that he had never been taught what we had discussed. It all made so much sense he and Tim couldn’t wait to give our routine a try. Here’s what we discussed;
There are basic procedures for the proper tagging of game fish alongside a boat. First and foremost the boat must be uncluttered and the decks free of obstructions. The wireman must be able to lead a fish alongside the boat, keeping his eye on the fish to anticipate the next move; he cannot be worried about stepping around or over something like coolers or safety lines for heavy tackle that lay on the deck which are particularly dangerous when utilized in this fashion.
With a very large or agile and quick moving fish, the wireman’s ability to travel the length of the boat or cockpit fore and aft as well as across the transom in seconds is paramount. While working as a deckhand on the “Cats Meow” for Capt. John Sabonis I had the privilege to learn the art of wiring from renowned deckhand Charles Perry. Arguably the best wireman in the history of this sport, to watch Charles work a huge Tuna or Marlin around the cockpit to the gaff or tag stick is absolutely priceless. Like a great tailback, he sees and feels the whole field and focuses on using it to his advantage with tremendous patience and finesse—much more than strength−qualities every wireman should aspire to for success
As the wireman takes the leader or the angler brings the fish alongside the boat with a wind-on leader, the object is to “lead” the fish into position to be gaffed or tagged, therefore the term “leader”. The best position for a good tag shot is alongside the boat, where the fish is sideways and a broad target, not at the transom where the fish is facing you and a very slim target with no place to land a tag without possibly damaging the fish. If a wireman grabs the leader of a standing angler, the angler must back off the drag, step back out of the way of the wireman and assume a position behind him, always ready to fight the fish again if the wireman cannot hold the fish and must dump the leader. The angler must be paying close attention to the wireman.
A dead boat with a fish swimming about erratically trying to escape usually leads to a lost fish. To help lead the fish alongside, The captain must position the boat according to the fish and maintain momentum in the same direction as the fish, then as the wireman brings the fish closer to the surface and in range for a tag, begin a slight inside turn if possible to give the tagman a good clean shot. By moving the boat with the fish, the wireman is usually able to control the fish a bit better by pulling or leading the fish to the boat thus not having the fish swimming around and under the boat—in control of the wireman.
As the wireman works the fish closer to the boat, the tagman is at the ready, turning the chair when fishing heavy tackle, so the angler is in position to engage the fish if the wireman has to dump the leader. Once the fish is in position for a tag shot, the tagman comes in behind and alongside the wireman, not in front of him. This allows for the cleanest shot and if the fish surges ahead, the wireman can move with the fish and the tag stick is not in the way of the leader and in danger of breaking the leader.
For many years, the recommended tag placement area was near the head, in the upper shoulder of a tuna or billfish. That area is now considered too close to the gill plates, head and eyes under most tagging conditions. The latest data shows the best tag shot is slightly back, towards the middle of the fish well above the lateral line in the dorsal musculature, no closer than 12 inches from the head, gill plates, eyes and other vital organs. This placement helps to avoid damage to these areas if the fish makes a sudden move as the tag is brought in. The tag man should take care and pride in landing a clean and well placed tag making every effort to avoid the gills, head and stomach. Once the tag is placed in the fish, the tag man can utilize various cutting devices available, including several that are attached to the tag stick itself, to cut the leader as close to the hook as possible, reducing the amount of mono trailing from the fish after the release.
The morning after our meeting we immediately raised a double header of sailfish, as the first fish came alongside, Tim wired it up and Ricardo slipped in behind and alongside Tim to make a perfectly placed tag shot in the shoulder of the sail. The similar procedure was repeated with a pair of White Marlin and several other Sailfish later that day. On the run back to the dock, Tim, Ricardo and I knew that we had become more efficient at tagging and catching, by employing these basic “end game” skills.
Remember to talk about your end game with your crew before the fish is on the leader so you will all have a better understanding of what each person is doing. The next time you get the chance to tag a fish, remember to slow down, take your time and work through the procedure so the chances of a missed or misplaced tag or cutting off or breaking off the fish by getting tangled with the wireman are eliminated. Treat every fish as if it is a tournament winner; practice the moves on everything you catch, even if you don’t actually tag the fish. Get in the habit of moving about the cockpit comfortably and efficiently. Come in behind and alongside the wireman or angler, look where you are aiming and take your best possible shot.
The Billfish Foundation
2161 Commercial Blvd. 2nd. Floor
Ft. Lauderdale, FL. 3308
(800) 438-8247 www.billfish.org
National Marine Fisheries Service
Cooperative Tagging Program
Southeast Fisheries Science Center
75 Virginia Beach Dr.
Miami, FL. 33149
(800) 437-3936 www.sefsc.noaa.gov/
National Marine Fisheries Service
Southwest Fisheries Service Center
8604 La Jolla Shores Dr.
La Jolla, CA 92037-1508 www.swfsc.ucsd.edu/frd