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How a tagged fish led to mystery, confusion and a presidential bond


In my mind there are two reasons to fish – for fresh air and fresh stories. Like the fact I now share an angler’s bond – obscure but existing -- with President George H. Bush.

This fish story begins on the morning on April 25, when I caught a tagged striped bass (rockfish) during an outing on the Roanoke River near Weldon, N.C. I’d never caught a tagged fish. I had no idea what that even meant until our captain, Steve Parrish, said that if I supplied the tag ID to the North Carolina Division of Maritime Fisheries I would be rewarded with a hat and a certificate detailing the particulars of my catch.

That’s all I needed fish tagto hear. For the next 15 minutes I unmercifully razzed my nephew and longtime fishing buddy, Lackawanna native Michael Barnack of Raleigh, N.C. It didn’t matter who caught the most fish, I declared (since I was already losing. Again). I had caught a tagged fish and that trumps all.

Soon I learned there is more than one tagged fish in the Roanoke. Michael reeled in one of his own – “First time ever had two on a trip,” Parrish drawled -- and my bragging rights vanished when I couldn’t locate a tool to cut Michael’s line.IMG_2912

But, again, fishing is about fresh air and fresh stories. And my story was just beginning to unfold, my shared experience with a former president as of yet uncovered.

We reported our tag IDs and in a blink hats and certificates were in our mailboxes. Michael’s fish was tagged a mere seven days before recapture. Mine was tagged in 2011 and was caught 91 miles away. Once again I had the upper hand. Anyone can catch a rookie fish. It took five years for someone to fool mine! (The NCDMF record is 17 years at liberty for a tagged fish).


I called the NCDMF to ask a few questions about the tagging program. How many fish are tagged? What’s the most interesting migration story? During my conversation with biologist Ami Flowers I expressed surprise that my fish measured 20 inches when it was tagged and when it was caught. She said that was unusual, perhaps the result of human error. She asked if I would take a picture of the tag and send it to her.
That night I scrubbed away the tag's surface  gunk. Lo and behold, it wasn’t the property of the NCDMF. It was issued by the Littoral Society in Highlands, N.J. Two

thoughts came to mind:

-- This fish traveled hundreds of miles and Michael’s never going to hear the end of it.

--  The Littoral Society is some church group that tagged the fish for a fundraiser, has no clue as to its history and I'm about to be skunked.

Neither proved accurate.

An internet search revealed the American Littoral Society “promotes the study and conservation of marine life and habitat, protects the coast from harm, and empowers others to do the same.” It administers a tagging program through its membership, and the “reason for doing this is to tell one creature from another so its daily movements or seasonal migrations can be studied and rates of growth can be learned.”

Maybe this fish did travel hundreds of miles before meeting my hook.

I emailed Ami at the NCDMF to inform her of my discovery. “Wow,” she responded, “this tag is on an adventure for sure!”

Then I called the Littoral Society in Highlands, N.J. Assistant Director Pim Van Hemmen gave me some background: the society dates to 1965. It has tagged some 660,000 fish. The recaptured-and-reported rate is 5.4 percent. There was once a tuna tagged off Nantucket recaptured off the coast of France.

Then Van Hemmen tur


ned me over to Jeff Dement, the society’s fish tagging director, who began to unravel the mystery. He said my fish probably had been tagged in the Roanoke RiIMG_2930ver because he knew of a member who ventured there. He looked up the ID. Sure enough, my striper was tagged on March 12, 2015 in Jamesville, N.C., a 68-mile drive from where it was caught. It grew 2 inches in the interim.

The tagger is Dennis Kelly of Sag Harbor, Long Island. Kelly said via email that he joined the ALS in 1986 because he’s a “striper fishing nut. I just wanted to know more about the stripers I was catching. It’s striper fishing with a purpose.”

He said he has tagged more than 16,000 stripers in seven states with 800 recaptures, which is right on the society average. He tags most of the stripers in Eastern Long Island and has recaptures from Maine to South Carolina. His most interesting story? He steers me back to Dement:

“On April 14, 2015, American Littoral Society member/tagger, Dennis Kelly, caught and tagged a 17-iinch (fork-length) striped bass, in the Roanoke River, Weldon, N.C.

“On April 19, 2016, Paul Doshkov, with The Cape Hatteras National Seashore/ Outer Banks Marine Mammal Stranding CeGettyImages-2663499nter, encountered a dead Bottlenose Dolphin on the beach at Frisco, N.C, in the Pamlico Sound, behind Hatteras Island.

After performing a necropsy on the Dolphin, Paul discovered Dennis’s striper tag in the stomach of the Dolphin.”

As one might expect, the North Carolina Department of Marine Fisheries takes exception when fish within state boundaries are tagged by others.

“For reasons you have just found out during your sleuthing, we discourage anglers going to other states and tagging fish without contacting that state’s fisheries agency,” emailed Charlton Godwin, a biologist with the NCDMF. “I only found out this gentleman tagged a few hundred striped bass in the Roanoke last year AFTER he had already tagged them all. Makes it very confusing when we have an extensive striped bass tagging program as well.”

I can attest to that. And I can understand both sides. For Kelly, tagging stripers is a passion and the equivalent of a message in a bottle. And for the NCDMF, confusion can skew the results, as would have been the case with my fish had Ami not requested a picture of the tag, which led the discovering the error.

As it turned out, the joys of my experience were twofold. Although we obviously voided the NCDMF certificate, Ami said I could keep the hat. And Dement said they’ll be mailing me a certificate and a Littoral Society jacket patch. He also shared the story of the Littoral Society’s most famous striped bass recapture:

“On April 11, 1999, American Littoral Society member/tagger, Charlie Kennedy, caught and tagged a 24 inch (FL), striped bass, while fishing at Prissywick Shoal, Cape May, N.J.

"On June 30, 1999, President Bush (the elder), recaptured Charlie’s striper while fishing off Kennebunkport, Maine.

“A Secret Service agent called in the tag recapture.”

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