By: Caitlin McGarigal
Sure, fishing is not art in the way that a Picasso painting or the Statue of David is “art”, it is more like watching LeBron effortlessly dunk a basket, or Brady throw a perfect 50 yard spiral for a TD. However, all of these things require immense knowledge and skill and practice, and the art of fishing is no different. I have spent nearly every day for the last three years fishing for a research project – and like thousands of other recreational fishermen in southern California, I have fallen in love with this sport. Some people think fishing is an old guy snoring in a lawn chair on the dock with a 6 pack of beers at hand. And it can be, but it can also be a physically exhausting, mentally challenging, and extremely rewarding activity, just like any other sport. Footballs, however, generally don’t taste as good on the grill…
My Master’s Thesis research at CSULB looks at how certain sport fish (mainly kelp “calico” bass) are effected by the stresses they experience when caught and handled, and how quickly they can recover when released. Now, this is really two combined projects because I evaluate both physiology, via blood samples (photo 1), and behavior, by tracking their activity and movement (i.e. telemetry) (photo 2). And the real kicker is, I get to catch these fish in the marine reserve of Big Fisherman’s Cove so that I can be sure the fish haven’t been recently caught and stressed by anyone other than myself. When people find out that I get to fish in the reserve their first reaction is usually “isn’t that, like, the easiest fishing ever?!” and if you had asked me that last summer, or the summer before, I would have completely agreed. But, this year has been different. This year the fish are smart, which has forced me to be smarter.
The first two years of this project coincided with an El Nino event which resulted in the disappearance of giant kelp and much of the resident kelp bass population to concentrate under the dock and pier at USC Wrigley Marine Science Center. This was great for me because the best place to catch fish was also the easiest to access and provided a stable platform for blood sampling and tagging (photo 3). In those first years catching kelp bass was relatively easy because the fish were “naïve” to fishing pressure, having lived their entire lives in the protection of the reserve. They were also generally more active and hungry (thus more likely to attack a baited lure) because of the warm El Nino water temperatures. But, this year is different, the El Nino is over –and everything has changed. The giant kelp has returned in some areas of the reserve and the kelp bass have left the dock and dispersed, so now I have a much larger area to cover and access usually requires a boat. The drop in temperature also means the fish are less active, less hungry, and when they have been eating they gorge on the frequent influx of red crab, something we saw only in early summer of previous years. Nor are these fish “naïve” any longer; many of the kelp bass have been caught multiple times over the course of this study and are now what we call “hook shy”; a phenomenon where the fish have learned that attacking the juicy looking bait dangling in their face also means an alien abduction where they get poked and prodded and eventually sent home with a bit of jewelry hanging off their side (photo 3). For all these reasons, fishing this year has been tough, really tough.
These new challenges have meant that I have had to adapt and get smarter to fish smarter. To help me outwit these kelp bass I have recruited help from the savvy new generation of recreational anglers (typically in their 20’s to 30’s) who are very knowledgeable and are the fishing equivalent of “gear heads”. They love experimenting with tackle (many of them run their own tackle and sportfishing companies) and I have learned there are different baits and lures for every possible situation. Fishing a heavy kelp area? No worries, a weedless surface plastic will glide over kelp without getting stuck. Want to lure those big toads out from rocky areas like the breakwall? Try a leadhead with a Big Hammer jig bait to get hit on the drop. You see a surface boil happening? Toss out a stick bait in “Halloween” “Mackerel” or “Sardine” colors (photo 4). If fish have been feeding on schools of migratory anchovy try throwing a krocodile spoon which mimics the movement and silver flash of a small bait fish. When nothing else works live squid and small Spanish mackerels are usually enough to get the kelp bass riled up! Peeking into their tackle boxes is like looking at an artist’s palette, every imaginable color and pattern and shape is available, and the trick is knowing how and when to use each of them.
Not only do I benefit from the knowledge and experience of my fishing volunteers, but they are also the target audience that we would like to reach with the results of this research. With the kelp bass population in severe decline, there is a need to understand how catch and release fishing regulations might be contributing to that trend, and what ways recreational fishermen can reduce the negative effects of capture stress through proper handling techniques. By involving the recreational fishing community in the data collection they can see first hand how the science works and are more receptive and disposed to follow any “best practices” suggestions that result from this project. For example, holding a large fish by the lip can break or bend the jaw bone and inhibit feeding, so I educate my volunteers to support the weight of the fish with their free hand to prevent this type of damage (photo 5). Kelp bass are also voracious predators and will sometime swallow the bait whole, so instead of trying to remove the hook (thus tearing the throat and gills in the process) I would suggest cutting the line as close as possible and allowing the hook to rust and fall out on its own.
So far the results from this study have been very encouraging, these kelp bass are very hardy fish that can withstand the stress of capture and are quick to recover if gently handled. But if you want to learn the specifics you will have to stay tuned because this project isn’t over yet!