Tales the Tags Tell
Today Tower uses a modified garment tagging gun for the job, and the tags still bear his address. He records the tag number, date, length, girth, weight, location, depth and angler in his notebook. “There really haven’t been any surprises in migration or growth rate in the past ten years. But, we’ve found out that big fish may actually be as much as 20 years older than people think they are.”
Another thing Tower has learned through tagging is that big cod frequent specific spots. “They’ll move from one big-fish spot to another big-fish spot, and we can track them by the tags,” he says.
How many fish has he tagged? He’s not sure, but says it’s “at least a few thousand.” “We try to tag some on every trip. A few people don’t want to tag and release at all, and a small number tag everything they catch. The vast majority of my customers, though, will tag a few, mostly the larger fish.”
As for tag returns, Tower says that he gets about 25 percent of his cod tags back, but feels that number could actually go higher. “Some commercial fishermen don’t believe in tagging because they think it will ultimately hurt them by triggering more restrictions. Others, though, really cooperate. One of my tags, from the largest cod ever tagged by anyone – 64 pounds – was returned by a very interested crew of a dragger. We also tagged the cod that was ‘at large’ longer than any other, almost 12 years, and that tag was also returned by a commercial fisherman.” Haddock, on the other hand, don’t seem to survive the catch-and-release process. “We’ve tagged a lot of haddock in the past, but I’ve only had one tag returned,” he admits, “so we generally keep the legal-size ones.”
Tower has made some other interesting observations about deep-water release. “If the fish’s gills are pink, it’s gone into shock and probably won’t survive,” he says, “but if the gills are red, chances are it’ll be okay. When asked about his practice of dropping the fish over the side tail-first instead of head-first (as you might think more prudent), Tower had a ready answer. “There’s less chance of trauma to the head this way,” he explained, “and we think that’s a key to survival. That short burst of water the wrong way through their gills doesn’t seem to hurt them. But the head, the center of the nervous system, needs to be protected.”
Record-keeping and documentation are central to Tower’s operation, and he’s meticulous about it. He takes digital photos of customers with their fish, and then writes up a comprehensive daily report, often on his laptop computer while at the helm on the way in. He enters in the weights of the larger fish and who caught them, and adds in weather and sea condition data, as well as any notable anecdotes. All this, plus info on any recent tag returns, is posted on his amazingly comprehensive web site the following day. And although not all the fish caught make it into the web site report, “Every single legal-size fish that comes aboard is recorded,” he says.
Fast Fishing, Great People
The fishing on our marathon would later be characterized in his report as “good to excellent” – and my 15-year-old son Mike and I definitely concurred. Several hundred cod to 26 pounds were brought to boatside, with all the shorts and about 75 percent of the legal-size ones released – including 32 fish from 7.5 to 21.5 pounds that were tagged. Some 30 keeper haddock were decked as well, along with a liberal sprinkling of pollock, including an 11-pounder taken by Carol Morse of Maine, a dozen or more cusk, and a 14-pound wolffish landed by Tim Williams of Connecticut, who also got the pool-winning cod. Mike ended up catching and tag-and-releasing the biggest cod of his life, a 14.5-pounder. I really wanted a haddock, and finally lucked into a legal but rather unremarkable three-pounder. But near the end of the trip, regular Regis Jauvin of Quebec nailed a 7.25-pound beauty, good for a Maine State Trophy citation, and he generously bestowed the fish upon Mike and me. Mate Ian, along with Kenton Geer, a Bunny Clark mate out on a busman’s holiday, converted a few totes of fish into bags of perfect boneless fillets for those who wanted them. Later that evening Mike and I broiled up the big haddock, and agreed it was by far the best fish we’d ever eaten!
What does Tower have to say about the future of the Gulf of Maine? “The fishing seems to be getting better, but with ever-increasing restrictions in order to rebuild cod and other species, it’s a constant battle to make sure that recreational fishermen continue to have reasonable access to the resource. There will always be a party-boat fishery, but I don’t think people will be taking buckets of fillets home, as they have in the past. The public should be able to have access to the fish, but should retain only those they can reasonably use. I’d love to see healthy and truly sustainable groundfish stocks so that all of us – recreational and commercial – can fish wherever and whenever we want.”
Tim Tower’s doing his part towards that goal. That’s for sure.