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Tagged fish program leads to impressive results for local angler

Catching a tagged fish is not something that you see every day. In fact, it is considered a rare feat within fishing circles.

Not a lot of fish are sporting this colorful jewelry. The tag could represent some kind of fisheries research project or it could be a prize for a fishing contest. It could also be a combination of both. Capt. Chris Cinelli of Grand Island wasn’t quite sure what was going on when he caught his first tagged smallmouth bass in the lower Niagara River in May 2017.

“I thought ‘What the heck is this?’” said Cinelli, going on his 21st year as a charter captain in the Great Lakes. “I’ve never seen a tagged bass before and I immediately thought it may have been a special prize for the St. Catharines Bassmasters (SCBM) that was named on the tag. I called the phone number and reported the tag information. That was when I found out about the bass program and how it was tied in with the Canadian Tire Lake Erie Open held out of the Chippewa River in the fall.”

Cinelli was fishing in the lower Niagara River, the tournament was held out of the Upper Niagara River. Keep that in mind.

The Canadian Tire Lake Erie Open is hosted by SCBM each fall. This year will be the fourth for the event, now at a maximum of 90 boats for a full field of competitors. Two years ago, the group implemented a tagging study of the bass caught in the tournament to determine survival rates of these fish after they are caught and released.

“Our goal is to tag 1,000 bass over a five-year span,” says Jason Clay of Niagara Falls, Ontario. “Along with my partner Eric Hill, we run the tournament. A team of six people work in the background at the tournament site with live release/holding tanks where we fizz, tag and care for the fish that are weighed at the tournament. When the fish are ready, they are released into the upper Niagara River.”

These fish holding tanks are functional during the Canadian Tire Lake Erie Open Tournament that's held every fall out of the Chippewa River.

“Fizzing” is a way of treating fish such as bass that have been pulled up from deeper waters, producing excessive gas in the swim bladder and causing barotrauma. Using a needle (that is available through fizzing kits), the gas is released, allowing the fish to return to the depths from which it came and continue to survive. Professional bass tournaments pride themselves in the successful release of fish at the end of the day. Tournament competitors must also bring live fish to the scales or points are lost, requiring additional care when traveling or fishing throughout the contest.

In 2016, a total of 100 bass were tagged with a green floy tag affixed to the dorsal fin. So far, five of those tags have been reeled in – two from the lower Niagara River and three from the upper Niagara River.

In 2017, 230 bass were tagged with a pink floy tag. To date, 11 of those tags have been caught – five from the lower Niagara, three from the upper Niagara and three from Lake Erie.

We told you about the unlikely occurrence of catching a tagged bass. So far, 330 bass have received a plastic tag, a small number when you consider the large number of fish available in the Niagara River, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Cinelli caught his first fish in spring 2017. Before the year was over, he caught four more tagged bass. In total for 2017, he ended up catching one from the upper river near Strawberry Island and four in the lower river, three from Artpark and one from “Bomber’s” back eddy.

His story didn’t end there. In May, Cinelli was fishing with customers along Artpark in the lower river when Mark Quinn of Seneca Falls reeled in a smallmouth bass adorning a pink tag. Then, just last week, Cinelli did it again, reeling in a pink tagged bass from the south gap of Buffalo Harbor in Lake Erie. In two years, Cinelli and his Lund boat has been responsible for seven of the 16 tagged fish that have been reported to Clay and his tournament officials.

Capt. Jim Rores of Grand Island was in shock when Cinelli told him about his most recent tagged fish catch. “I’ve caught probably 3,000 bass up there in those same waters (Buffalo Harbor) this spring and Cinelli catches a tagged fish on his first bass trip of the year,” said Rores. “Incredible.” The biggest tagged bass Cinelli has reeled in so far is around 5 1/2 pounds. All have been re-released.

“It’s gotten to be almost comical,” said Cinelli. “I am now looking closely at every bass I catch. When I saw the tagged fish last week, I just started laughing.”

Mark Quinn of Seneca Falls caught this tagged bass while fishing with Capt. Chris Cinelli in May of this year. They were drifting along Artpark.

As far as the tagging program itself, it shows that the weigh-in procedures of SCBM and the fish handling methods are working and that fish are surviving. Of the 16 tagged fish that have been caught, nine have come from the upper river or Lake Erie. It’s amazing that seven have come from the lower river, meaning below Niagara Falls to Lake Ontario. How did those lower river fish get there?

There are probably three options that are plausible. One is that they simply took the daredevil route and plunged over the falls … and survived. That’s what Cinelli believes. Other fish have made it over the falls and lived.

Another route would be for the bass to make it back out into Lake Erie and hang a right toward the Welland Canal. They could potentially swim the canal into Lake Ontario and find their way to the lower river. It’s a long trip through some swift currents, but Cinelli’s catch in the South Gap showed they can make it into the lake.

Capt. Joe Fonzi of Gasport caught a tagged SCBM fish in Lake Erie that was 17 miles from the release site last week. Make that number 16 (17 if you consider that one lower river fish has been caught twice). Fonzi fishes in the SCBM tournament each autumn, too, for an added twist.

A third option is that they could potentially make it through the water intakes and into the power reservoirs, before heading down through the generators and back into the river but there are numerous challenges there from screens to the generators themselves. You decide what would be the most likely scenario.

In the meantime, if you catch a tagged bass, please contact Clay and SCBM to help them with the group’s research at 905-401-3609 or email ctcerieopen@gmail.com. You could probably contact Cinelli, too, since he’s now on a first name basis with the group.

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