A Good Example of Why Catch-and-release Works


It was an overcast midmorning when Chuck White, his dad (Chuck), and his wife (Kathy) launched their 16-foot Alumacraft boat into the St. Joseph River downstream from the South Bend dam.

“Dad started taking me there when I was 14 years old,” said White, now 43. “We always do well and enjoy fishing that stretch because it’s so quiet and you don’t see too many other anglers.”

That Wednesday morning was no exception.

The trio from Walkerton, Ind. caught and released more than 30 smallmouth bass and four northern pike during a four-hour outing.

“We had 12 smallmouths that were 15½ to 18½ inches,” said White. “We kept a few of the big ones for a picture and then released them all. We never keep them, but we sure enjoy catching them.”

The nice catch is rather typical for the Whites, but that’s not what this story is about. When Chuck Jr. caught the biggest fish, he noticed something hanging from its side.

A fairly familiar fish
“It was covered with algae and I thought it was a hook attached to a piece of line,” he recalled. “But when I pulled it out, I saw it was a tag.”

He cleaned it off and saw a phone number and an ID number stamped on the tiny yellow tag. That’s when he recalled he had caught a fish on the river a few years ago and reported it to Dar Deegan, the St. Joseph River aquatic biologist.

Deegan and his staff have been tagging river fish for years to learn about their habits. It’s part of an ongoing study of the St. Joseph River water quality and its impact on the fish community.

A quick phone call to Deegan provided stunning information.

The big smallmouth he caught three weeks ago was the same one he caught and reported to Deegan nearly three years ago.

If you love ‘em, let ‘em go!
In 2015, White caught tagged fish number 4815 on August 6. It was Aug. 15 when he caught it this year.

The first time he caught it, it had only been tagged two weeks prior and measured 14.5 inches.

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It had gained 4 inches in three years.

“At the time we tagged that fish in 2015, we took a scale sample and aged it at 4 years old,” said Deegan. “That makes the fish 7 years old this year and shows normal growth rate for St. Joseph River smallmouth.”

White isn’t sure where he caught the fish the first time, but speculates it was within 500 yards of where he caught it three years ago.

“We have found that, for whatever reason, fish key on a certain area and will return to that location every summer following their wintering and spawning migrations,” Deegan explained.

The tactics that get big bass again and again
White says his family uses the same tactics every time they fish the river for smallmouth. He used to throw floating Rapalas (shad color), but switched to crankbaits a few years ago and believes that’s made a big difference in the numbers of bass they catch.

“We’ve found that the Model 5A Bomber in “real craw” color has been a big producer,” he said. “It’s got a green back and the crawfish the bass are feeding on are green.”

Location is equally critical. He targets areas where the main river channel swings close to the bank.

“The fish are tucked around trees and timber,” he said. “Wherever there is a log in the water, there is a fish there. Or maybe multiple fish.”

Kathy proved that point. She hooked two bass on one lure, only to have them both come off as she battled them back to the boat.

“She had dad and I beat with the most and biggest for the day until I caught that big tagged fish,” White said. “We had a great day and probably could have caught more except we had to leave to pick up our boys from school.”

Unfortunately, he won’t know if he catches that same fish again because he removed the tag before releasing it.

But then, after doing so twice, it’s entirely possible.