Remember how much fun it used to be to find the prize in a box of Cracker Jacks? Catching a fish with a fish tag may be even more fun—some of these tags, when reported to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, are returned with cash rewards, a report on the fish tagged, and even temporary fish tattoos.
A fish tag may be a simple "Floy", or spaghetti tag, that looks like a plastic piece of spaghetti near the top fin of a fish. Radio tagged fish have a radio transmitter inserted in their abdomen with a thin wire antennae protruding. The tags are easily noticed and removed when cleaning and preparing fish.
"Returning fish tags or reporting the tag’s information to FWP is what we want anglers to do," said Adam Strainer, FWP fisheries technician in Helena. "When tags are lost in the bottom of a tackle box, we also lose information that would help FWP better manage the fishery."
"About 10 percent of the tags from fish in Helena area reservoirs are returned, unless they are reward tags like the $75 reward tags FWP used for Canyon Ferry walleye in 2007 and 2008," Strainer said. "Anglers tend to return the heck out of incentive-based tags." Reward tags are reserved for research where a high rate of return is essential.
Most metal or plastic fish tags range from 17- 25 cents each depending on the type of tag. Microchip tags cost about $4 each, and radio fish tags run between $200 and $500, depending on their features.
"We learned from the reward tag study on Canyon Ferry that we underestimated the walleye harvest and its impact. The study results suggested ways to adjust the limit on walleye to allow some walleye to reach more desirable size, while still using harvest to control the overall population," said Eric Roberts, FWP Region 4 fisheries biologist in Helena.
To report a fish tag, anglers can contact their regional fish biologists or report online.
What is the point of fish tagging studies? Whether it’s sauger in the Lower Missouri, bull trout in the Clark’s Fork or walleye in Canyon Ferry, some of the main research questions involve fish movement, habitat use, growth and harvest rates. Every angler who returns a tagged fish helps FWP better understand the fish population and waterbody being studied.
FWP has tagged paddlefish in the Missouri River above Fort Peck for 33 years now, said Cody Nagel FWP fisheries biologist in Havre."During the paddlefish spawn in April and May we tag an average of 200 paddlefish," he said.
Recently FWP used paddlefish tagging data to support the quota of 500 fish in place today above Fort Peck Dam and to reduce the length of the paddlefish snagging season from year round to May 1-June 15.
"In most cases anglers are welcome to keep a fish tag after they’ve contacted FWP with the information on the tag," Strainer said. "I return the tag as a souvenir with a letter about the fish being studied—and even include a temporary fish tattoo."
Sometimes a fish tag becomes more of a learning experience than usual.
Chris Clancy, FWP Fisheries Biologist
"Back in the late 1970's we were studying smallmouth bass in the Tongue River and tagged a lot of fish between Ashland and Birney," said Chris Clancy, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks fisheries biologist in Hamilton.
"During late fall we started getting quite few tag returns from a single angler who lived near Ashland. After I received several I realized he must be catching a lot of fish because we had probably tagged less than five percent of the larger bass," Clancy said. "As more and more tags came in, I decided to call this guy and find out where he was catching all these fish.
"That was how I met a wonderful man who worked with kids from the St. Labre Indian School near Ashland," Clancy said. "He was happy to take me to the 'pool' where he had captured all of these fish," he said.
"Due to his efforts, we identified an important overwintering area for smallmouth bass in the Tongue River, and as a bonus I developed a friendship with a man who could not only catch fish, but had a heart of gold," Clancy said.