Against odds, tags help anglers recapture bonefish

Our seven-member Bahamas bonefish tagging group anxiously waits for news that someone in South Florida has recaptured one of the 71 fish we tagged in a weeklong expedition last June.

Some scoff that there's no way a little bonefish could make it all the way across the predator-infested Straits of Florida from Grand Bahama Island to the Keys or Biscayne Bay. But it happened once before in December 2005, when Brian Harris caught a bonefish near Andros Island that had been tagged 10 months earlier off Key Biscayne by captain Joe Gonzalez. So hope springs eternal.

Meanwhile, the South Florida tagging program, run by University of Miami scientists with financial support from Bonefish & Tarpon Unlimited, continues apace with more than 5,500 bonefish tagged and 200 recaptures since 1998.


Besides injecting small streamer tags behind the bonefish's dorsal fin, Miami researchers Jerry Ault and Mike Larkin also implant acoustic telemetry transmitters inside the body cavity so that the fish can be tracked like tiny submarines when they pass through an array of listening stations.

Captain Bob Branham is one of a host of local fishing guides who volunteers to tag bonefish that his customers catch. He tagged a 4-pound bone that I caught using one of his epoxy shrimp flies recently in Biscayne Bay. Branham also tagged a slightly smaller fish caught by Jupiter guide Cliff Budd, who was out with us on a busman's holiday.

"I like it because it's so interesting to see what the hell they do," Branham said of his bonefish tagging efforts. "My customers love doing it."


The captain told me a bonefish tagging story that should serve to silence the few critics of the program. The story is backed up by Larkin's records:

In March 2005, Branham was on a casual fishing/wake-boarding outing with his teenage daughters Jennifer and Stacey in Biscayne Bay. They encountered Larkin and a colleague angling for some bonefish in which to insert acoustic transmitters.

"We're not really bonefishing, but if we see one, we'll catch it," Branham told Larkin.

Sure enough, father and daughters managed to chum in some hungry bones at Sands Cut. Stacey used one of her own epoxy fly patterns to catch a 26-inch, 6-pound fish.

"Her bonefish flies are a little too out there, but this one was to my specs," Branham noted wryly.

He radioed Larkin, who arrived promptly and got ready to perform surgery on the fish. Jennifer, an aspiring veterinarian, wanted to observe the entire process.

"They gave it magic dust," Branham said of the powdery anesthetic used to immobilize the bonefish. `I thought to myself, `That's a dead bonefish.' Mike pulled some scales off its 1/8anal3/8 vent and sliced it open."

The scientist quickly implanted the tag, sewed up the incision and revived the fish. It swam off smartly.

The girls decided to name it Bertha. Larkin duly recorded the name in his records.

Fast-forward three months to the same waters. One of Branham's charter customers caught a tagged bonefish. The guide recorded the tag numbers and called them into Larkin.

`He said, `You should have recognized that fish; it's Bertha!' " Branham said. "But when I let Bertha go that second time, I'm not sure she made it because there were sharks everywhere."

He hasn't recaptured Bertha a second time, but says he has caught probably a half-dozen bonefish that were tagged by other South Florida guides.

Maybe we taggers will get lucky and Branham will run into a migrant from the Bahamas.