ORLANDO, Fla. — Anglers may be guilty sometimes of telling fish tales, so displaying a mount of a trophy fish can offer proof of a big catch.
But as part of Florida’s latest bass-conservation project, state wildlife officials hope those big fish won’t be keepers. Instead, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is offering incentives through the new TrophyCatch program to those who catch and release those prized largemouth bass.
Proud fishermen can still point to proof of a memorable catch — a fiberglass replica of their whopper.
“It’s a great program,” said Capt. A.J. Jackson, an Orlando fishing guide since 1970. “It will promote Florida bass fishing throughout the nation. And it’s going to be good for the sport, for encouraging catch and release.”
Through TrophyCatch, anglers can register their prized fish, 8 pounds and up, by sending photos showing the fish being weighed, measured and then released. In the first month since the program launched in October, some 370 people have registered at the state website, agency spokesman Bob Wattendorf said.
Prizes are available to participants, including a free replica for fish larger than 13 pounds, gift cards to retail stores that specialize in fishing equipment, a rod and reel, and a $10,000 cash prize sponsored by the Kissimmee Convention and Visitors Bureau for the largest bass caught in Osceola County during the first year of the program.
In the Kissimmee chain, there are plenty of fish that could take that prize, said Jackson, who registered two fish in the state program: an 8-pound, 6-ounce largemouth bass and the other 9 pounds, 7 ounces. Caught in the Buenaventura Lakes area, the fish are the first registered out of Osceola County.
The best season to catch them is now through March.
“This is the beginning of our peak season, when the big female bass are binge-feeding for the spawning season,” he said. “A lot of people come from all over the world to catch these big fish.”
Releasing the trophy-sized fish is important for the fish population, said Jason Dotson, a fisheries biologist with the state’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, headquartered in St. Petersburg.
The larger the fish, the more eggs it produces. Larger fish also tend to produce larger offspring. Yet it takes a decade to grow a 10-pound fish, Dotson said.
“In Florida, these bass can live to 14, 15 years old, so if a 10-year-old fish is caught and released, and not harvested, it has potentially more years to live and spawn and pass on their genes,” he said.
Catch and release also means those prized fish get “recycled,” so another angler can catch it another day, he said. That’s an added bonus for the freshwater-fishing industry, which generates $1.25 billion in economic impact annually in Florida, according to a federal wildlife study.
A.J. Willequer, who organizes fishing tournaments for the Harris Chain Bassmasters, a Eustis, Fla.,-based fishing club, has seen such “recycling” firsthand, when a fish tagged by a state biologist was caught later as a top fish in a tournament.
“Even in our tournaments, we do not advocate killing the fish,” said Willequer, conservation director for the Florida Bass Federation. “We store them in live catch-and-release tanks of 400 gallons of water.”
And even a local taxidermist agrees it may be better — though more expensive — to get a replica of a trophy fish, instead of a mount of the actual fish.
Bill Burns, owner of Back to Life Taxidermy in Orlando, said about half of his fish orders are mounts of fish, while half are replicas. In the 30 years since fish replicas were first created, the quality has improved dramatically, he said.
“The older fiberglass replicas looked very plastic, but the detail on the replica is so precise now, if you look at it up close it looks like the real fish,” he said. “The nice thing about the replicas is that you’re allowing the fish to continue living.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services