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Playing tag with bonefish on Grand Bahama

Wading knee-deep on a sparkling sandbar off East End, I am scanning the shallows for silver-gray bomblets. My hopes are high, since I haven't gone more than 10 minutes this day without spotting a bonefish.

Sure enough - here he comes, swimming nonchalantly and occasionally tipping down to dig his nose in the sand, revealing his flashing, diaphanous tail.

I cast one of captain Perry Demeritte's "Silent Killer" flies four feet in front of the bonefish's snout and strip it. I can tell he sees the garish pink-and-brown bearded Gotcha because he makes a sharp left, and I feel the bump as he inhales it. Suddenly realizing he is hooked, the fish begins racing east, peeling out all the fly line on my 9-weight reel.

He's not very big - tiny, in fact, by South Florida standards - at about 2 pounds. But he's feisty, managing a five-minute fight before I reel him up to where I'm standing.

TAG, YOU'RE IT

Demeritte, wading with Walt Hunter about 50 yards, has heard the screams of me and the fly reel and heads toward me. Carrying a plastic kit with a Boga Grip, tape measure, tagging gun and data sheet, he and I quickly weigh and measure the fish.

"I want to tag him," Demeritte says.

He carefully sticks the needle behind a scale just below the dorsal fin and pulls the trigger, injecting a small streamer tag with ID and telephone numbers for the University of Miami Rosenstiel School. Then he puts the fish back into the water, walking it forward to force water into its gills. He lets it go when it struggles to swim free.

Number 11 for the day, and Demeritte's first fish-tagging adventure.

"I would like to hear about the first tagged fish someone catches," he says.

So would I. Our group of seven anglers, led by UM graduate student Mike Larkin, spent a week on Grand Bahama Island last month fishing the flats every day with local guides and trying to insert tags into as many bonefish as possible. According to Larkin, we fared pretty well.

"Seventy-one bonefish tagged," Larkin said. "That's great. I'm very happy with that."

Why tag bonefish in the Bahamas when more than 4,000 already have been tagged in Biscayne Bay and the Keys?

The reason dates to December 2005, when Fort Myers dermatologist Brian Harris caught a 28 ½-inch long bone on Andros Island in the Bahamas that bore a University of Miami tag. Turns out the fish had originally been caught and tagged 10 months earlier off Key Biscayne by Miami flats guide Joe Gonzalez. In its sojourn of freedom, the fish had traveled 186 miles across the Gulf Stream, dodging sharks, marlin and who knows what else, and managed to grow an inch in the process. It's the longest bonefish movement ever recorded since the South Florida tagging program began in 1998.

This got Larkin and his boss, UM fisheries scientist Jerry Ault, wondering.

"That recapture really questions whether the Caribbean is one stock of bonefish or is it a number of different stocks," Larkin said. "Was it some anomaly or is there a lot of mixing between Florida and the Bahamas?"

The question is important because of the species' economic value. Based on four years of bonefish counts from Miami to the Lower Keys, and an economic breakdown of Florida's $5 billion sportfishing industry, Ault and Larkin figure each South Florida bonefish is worth about $3,500 - or $75,000 in its lifetime.

While bonefish are managed as gamefish in Florida, they are considered a food fish in some parts of the Bahamas, with a potential for overharvest. If the stocks are indeed mixing, then what goes around comes around - literally.

"If they're netting them out here," Larkin said of the Bahamas, "the Florida Keys fishery is going to struggle. We think we have our own bonefish, but fish don't respect international borders."

Greg Vincent, who runs the bonefish guide service out of Pelican Bay Resort in Lucaya, offered to help the UM scientists by holding last month's tagging program.

"Bonefish rock," Vincent said. "I think the Bahamas is complacent about bonefish. The habitat, you can take Jet Skis through."

EASY CATCH

Vincent says he will do whatever he can to improve recreational bonefishing in his country. He would like to see a limit on the number of bonefish guides operating on Grand Bahama and restrictions placed on personal watercraft in order to enhance the angling experience for tourists.

"In the Bahamas, we don't want you to have to be an expert angler to catch fish," he said.

Juan Balloveras of Miami wouldn't count himself as an expert. A member of our tagging party, Balloveras had taken eight fly casting classes with local great Chico Fernandez before the trip. On Grand Bahama, he managed to catch a 7-pounder on fly rod - large by local standards.

"I loved it," he said. "I'm coming back very soon and bringing the family."

The bonefish we tagged last month ranged in size from 1 to 9 pounds - the largest caught by Enrique Amador, Balloveras' fishing partner.

We are eagerly waiting to see if any of them turn up. Help us out. If you catch a tagged bonefish, write down the tag number and call the phone number on the tag. Do not rip out the tag. If you can, get the length and weight. We - and the bonefish - thank you.

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