8/3/2017 12:41:00 PM OUT IN THE OPEN- Cull the tags
If you want to see someone get fired up, show Josh McDermott a bass with a big, gaping hole in its jaw.
McDermott is a semi-professional FLW Series tournament angler who is one of the most well-known bass fishermen in central Indiana and has been called "The most outspoken angler in Indiana." After spending an evening in McDermott's boat, I'd certainly agree he's opinionated, but unlike most folks who pontificate, he actually knows what he's talking about.
What's he's talking about these days is how badly bass anglers treat their catch.
"The problem is the handling and fish care that I'm seeing on the lake," McDemott said between firing casts into Geist Reservoir, his 'home' water. "But I want to stress that it's not just this lake in Indiana, it's every lake I've been to; it's everywhere," he said.
Geist Reservoir is the tony lake owned by Citizens Energy that supplies about twenty percent of the drinking water to the Indianapolis area. The waterway is old by Indiana standards, having first been created in 1943. Largely untouched for years, it experienced massive development starting in the 1970's.
Since that time, nearly every usable foot of the lakefront property has developed and there are more multi-million-dollar homes here than perhaps any other place in Indiana. Along the way and contrary to the usual evolution, Geist has turned into a premiere bass fishery. The bass and proximity to the growing north suburbs of Indianapolis brought anglers, then tournaments. The bass in the lake now are paying the price, and it's become noticeable.
"I'm starting to see a lot of these cull tag rips and the damage that is being done to these fish, and it's affecting their overall health," McDermott says. "It's pretty bad. I'm getting pictures sent to me from numerous guys, and I've got hundreds of pictures of fish...just beat up" he declared.
The main problem is metal "cull tags" commonly used in tournaments to sort fish. The tags are essentially large numbered safety pins punched through the lower lip of the bass to keep track of their weights, allowing smaller fish to quickly be released as a larger fish is caught. As most tournaments weigh the five largest fish to determine the winner, this sorting process can mean the difference between a big payday and just an expensive weekend outing.
"It's leading to a lot of damage to the fish's mouths, their jaws, their fascia," McDermott points out. "It affects their ability to feed and it needs to come to close, it needs to come to a stop," he said definitively, as if waiting for an argument. He got none from me, but it's not the same story with all tournament anglers.
Bass tournaments are a big sport in Indiana, and that results in many fish being caught and released over and over. Coupled with the fact that many anglers don't handle the fish gently in the first place, the result is more bass that are surviving the cycle, but barely.
"When I start seeing cull tag holes through the jaw and I see guys picking them up by the cull tag, it just irks me," McDemott said ardently. "It's not smart, and it's not a way to be viewed as a steward of the resource. And a lot of people don't like tournaments."
He hit a sore point that is taboo among tournament circles, but continued. "We've got a bad name out there, we really do," McDermott said candidly. "Just the attitudes we've displayed over the years, it leaves a bad taste in people's mouths."
One problem is the belief that bass anglers as a group are doing less than other outdoor users to take care of the environment and their quarry.
Fortunately, the answer to the "hole in the jaw" problem is simple: "eco-friendly" cull tags that use a clothespin-like fastener. "The eco-friendly ones simply clip on and clip off," McDemott pointed out, "it just makes sense."
Why don't more anglers make the switch to such tags? Old habits, price and lack of education are the factors McDemott sees. "It's something I don't see as being talked about enough throughout the industry and by professionals," McDemott said, adding that angler attitudes also play a part. "It's something that's taken for granted: the bass are always going to be there, but it's not that way."
After schooling the visiting writer, McDermott looked around at the beautiful backwaters of the lake surrounding his boat and spoke with reverence for the pastime and quarry he loves.
"If you love the sport," he said with conviction, "and care for the fish and you want it to be here, it's a no-brainer. Take care of the resource."
With that, it's pretty clear that bass fishing would be better if there were more "outspoken" advocates like Josh McDemott.
Brent T. Wheat
Brent T. Wheat is an award-winning columnist, and publisher of WildIndiana.com. His column appears weekly in The Times.