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Tag and Release


Southern Califonia Marlin Online believes strongly in the concept of tag and release. But t & r done wrong is just tag and death. Releasing fish is good for the resource, but if the fish doesn't survive, then releasing a marlin is nothing more than a feeble gesture.

The following information is presented to help you increase the chances that the fish you release will survive, and is part of SCMO's ongoing commitment to billfish conservation.

** Y2K T&R Primer Update **


Go Easy On The Fish

How NOT To Tag And Release

The steps you can take to keep the fish alive start before you catch it. Different techniques can affect the survival rate:

  • Bait hooks are often swallowed and are more likely to cause serious injury than lures, which tend to be mouth-hooked.

  • Using single hooks will minimize lethal hooking and are easier and quicker to remove. Avoid using cadmium plated hooks, which are toxic when they decompose.

  • Catching the fish as quickly as possible will reduce exhaustion. Light tackle tends to prolong the fight.

  • Exhaustion comes much quicker to the fish in warmer water.

  • Handling should be kept to a minimum and be as gentle as possible.

Obviously, conditions determine techniques, and the desire for a sporting battle can conflict with some of these points. In fact the only way to meet most of them would be to jigfish with battery cable and back down like a big dog, and that's not very sporting. But keep these points in mind as you make your fishing decisions and you'll give the fish a fighting chance for survival.


Know How To Tag

Well Done

The first thing you should have is proper tagging gear. That means a tagging stick at least 4 feet long and NMFS or TBF tags. Tags are available through most fish weigh stations and fishing clubs, or contact the organizations below if you need supplies.

The preferred tagging zone is near the base of the dorsal fin, no closer than a foot to the head and gill plate. Insert the tag well above the lateral line running along the body. Placing the tag high on the body decreases the chance of causing serious injury to internal organs and reduces internal hemorrhaging, since the upper torso has fewer blood vessels than in the lateral line region.

>The act of tagging is similar to gaffing in that you want to get it right the first time. Never try to tag the fish until the crew has it fully under control. Push the tag into the fish with a single strong thrust - the metal rod holding the tag should fully enter the flesh of the fish. And have a second tag unshipped and standing by ... just in case.


Know How To Release

Grabbing the Bill

Never, never, NEVER release a marlin without first reviving it. Imagine you're found near death after a fight, and are brought home and left to die on your front porch by someone who leaves thinking they've done a good thing. That's what you do if you simply release a marlin without taking steps to insure its survival. It doesn't take that much time, and I swear to you it will be worth it ... more on that later.

Once the fish is controlled and tagged, you must remove the hook. Grab the bill with one hand (cotton gloves are good here ... the bill is just like a rasp) and use a pair of fishing pliers to remove the hook with your free hand. If the hook cannot be easily removed, or the removal itself may cause excessive injury, cut the leader as close to the hook as possible. Time is of the essence in this operation. Since both of your hands are on the fish, it's a good idea to have someone hold you by your rod belt as you work.

Now it's time to revive the fish. If you have a swimstep, you can do this while lying on it (although you'll get wet); if not lean over the side ... but you definately need that helping hand on the rod belt now. Hold the bill and push it down so the fish's entire mouth is underwater. At minimun throttle, put the engine in forward gear .... if you have two, use only the one opposite the side from where you are working. As the boats starts forward, water will run through the mouth and over the gills. Now here's the reward I mentioned above: you will feel the fish come back to life ... you will see the color come back into his body. It usually takes 30 seconds or less, and the bill will begin to twitch ... the fish is telling you it's time to go. Gently release the fish and watch it gracefully sink out and swim away. It is the most incredible fishing experience you can have ... and far better a memory than any picture of a trophy fish on a meathook.


Fill Out The Tag Card And Mail It In

'Nuff said.


If You Catch A Tagged Fish

Clip and save the old tag, and retag the fish before release. If you do intend to keep the fish, NMFS would like both the tag and a sample of the tissue around it, so they can study the healing process. Contact Suzy for information on shipping the samples to her.


I am still a young man, yet in my lifetime I have seen many local fisheries dwindle and die. I can remember catching bluefin at Ship Rock, rock cod at the West End and albacore in the Catalina Channel. Those days are long gone. But I also remember when you couldn't catch white sea bass on the back side of Catalina ... and now you can, because of the Hubbs White Sea Bass Project and the conservation efforts of many. The time to preserve the striped marlin fishery in Southern California is now. Do your part ... tag and release.

For More Information

Suzy Kohin
NMFS / Southwest Fisheries Science Center
8604 La Jolla Shores Dr.
La Jolla, CA 92038-1508
(858) 546-7104

The Billfish Foundation
2419 E. Commercial Blvd.
Suite 303
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33308
(800) 438-8247

Year 2000 Update

In the three years since I wrote this primer, much has been learned about tag and release fishing, and some important changes have been announced ...

Released Fish Do Live

A lot of research has been done in recent years to determine the mortality rate of released billfish. While the studies continue, it appears certain that a billfish that is released healthy has a very good chance for survival. Tag recoveries have shown that some fish do survive, of course, but new studies using pop-up tracking tags show that a properly handled marlin quickly regains its strength and resumes its normal activities. This is important, since a wounded or weakened fish is a target for predators.

New Tagging Methods

Another ongoing study is the effect of the actual tag on the fish. After all, the tag does create a wound, which can lead to infection. As a result of such studies, most tagging organizations are changing to the plastic style tag such as that used by the Billfish Foundation. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which runs the prevalent tagging program on the West Coast, has recently switched over to the plastic style tag as well.

Whether from research studies or just common sense, some modification has been made to the preferred tagging location. While it is still important to avoid the lateral line, scientists say it is also important to avoid placing the tag too close to the vertical fin as well. This fin folds down into a slot on the back, and close tag placement could interfere with that action. The example photo above shows a good placement between the two areas to avoid.

Circle Hooks

One of the most exciting recent changes in billfish angling has been the emergence of circle hooks for bait fishing. Long used by commercial longliners, circle hooks have gained popularity due to their well-publicized use by several very successful charter captains. The biggest advantage to the circle hook is that is almost always hooks the fish in the corner of the mouth, making hook removal easier and greatly decreasing the chance of gut hooking the fish. This is clearly one equipment change that can have a dramatic impact on the number of released marlin that survive to fight another day.

T & R vs. C & R

While tagging billfish is important for research, the angler should always keep in mind that it is more important to release the fish healthy than to release it tagged. All too often, improper tag placement or the extra time needed to install the tag causes damage to the fish. Never lose sight of the fact that the goal is to release a billfish that will survive, even if that means releasing it untagged.

This is NOT conservation ...

C-P-R Is A Sham

Releasing billfish has grown in popularity in the last few years, and that is a good thing. But there is still a segment of the angling community that feels a need for some kind of trophy to commemorate their achievement. Out of this need was born the concept of c-p-r - catch-photograph-release. This idea of this misguided procedure is to catch the fish, hoist it out of the water to get a good photograph, and then release it "unharmed". While admirable in its goal, it is dangerously unrealistic in practice. The skeleton of a billfish was not designed to support the weight of its body out of the buoyant protection of the water, and serious damage can be done to its internal organs. And, as any fisherman knows, handling a fish causes damage to its protective slime coat, greatly increasing the change of infection or infestation. Billfish are beautiful creatures that provide us with wonderful entertainment but which need our protection. If the memory of the battle is not sufficient reward for you, perhaps you should seek a different pastime.


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