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Volume 15, Issue 25 ~ June 21 - June 27, 2007

Tall Tales of Tagged Fish

Bill Burton, the godfather of fish tales, just may have his hands on Diamond Jim, the $25,000 rockfish.

Catch one if you can, for fun and profit

story and photos by Tom Lyons

On my fly-tying bench, one cubbyhole holds an old cedar cigar box full of an assortment of odd things too valuable to throw away but too useless to reside anywhere else. I reached into it the other day, and among some old flies, my fingers grasped a postage-size patch embroidered with the visage of a smiling fish.

The patch came to me from The American Littoral Society when a rockfish I tagged was caught six months later about 100 miles away. “Wow,” I said, “that was a long swim.” There was more to the story.

Tagged fish have tales to tell and I was caught in a whopper.

Another Fish, Another Tale

Bill Burton, the godfather of fish tales, may also have a whopper going after releasing his tagged striper last week at the opening of the 2007 Maryland Fishing Challenge. He just may have held Diamond Jim, the $25,000 rockfish.

Seven rockfish were caught, tagged and released off Chesapeake Beach, opening The 2007 Fishing Challenge: the Search for Diamond Jim. Another 14 fish were released with tags, seven in the upper Bay and seven in the lower.

“Geo-fairness,” said Martin Gary, Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ man on fish. One of them is worth $10,000 — if it’s caught before midnight, June 30. All the tagged fish make the lucky anglers who catch them eligible for $500 in prizes (donated by Boater’s World) and entry into the big September drawing.

Gary expects about 400 prizes to be awarded during the Challenge, including the September drawing, when the keys to a 2007 Toyota (donated by Midwest Toyota) and a 591 Nitro Boat and trailer (donated by Bass Pro Shops) will be raffled off to test the luck of those anglers eluded by Diamond Jim.

In 2006, Diamond Jim did not elude Frank J. Hendricks of Monkton, who was guided by Capt. Chris Rosendale to the 36-inch lunker near Kent Island. Lo and behold, there it was — the yellowish green tag — with the verification phone number and Diamond Jim emblazoned on it. Gary arrived at Rosedale’s dock about five hours later to verify the catch.

Checking the serial number against his list, Gary turned to the breathless charter captain. “Sorry, Chris, you caught Diamond Jim six days too late.”

Said the hapless Rosedale, who just saw $25,000 go through the scuppers, “I knew I wouldn’t win it. The odds are just too great against you.”

Under last year’s format, five tagged fish were released for 13 consecutive weeks. Only one each week was Diamond Jim, who had to be caught during that one-week period.

The 2007 format keeps the money — $10,000 — on Diamond Jim’s head until June 30. If he’s not caught, two Diamond Jims are on the loose in July. The June fish is worth $500 now, but July’s Jim brings $20,000. August’s Diamond Jim is worth $25,000. (See www.dnr.maryland.gov/fishingchallenge for full details.)

Playing the Odds

So what are the odds of catching Diamond Jim?

Last year, an insurance company charged a $20,000 insurance premium to cover the entire possible payout of $325,000 if Diamond Jim were caught each and every week.

What is the likelihood that you’ll catch Diamond Jim? It’s hard to say, but one thing is certain: If you don’t wet your line, your chances are zero.

Hendricks entered into the September drawing, and he won a tagged fish story that he’ll retell for some years to come. Hendricks picked out a tackle box that contained the keys to a brand-new Toyota Tacoma that was worth far more than Diamond Jim.

In 1957, Bill Simmons also beat the odds. As Bill Burton tells the tale, Diamond Jim was swimming around with a $10,000 coded diamond in his mouth. That was a bundle of dough in those days. Simmons, who had been laid off from Bethlehem Steel, was supposed to be job hunting. Instead, he and his uncle decided that drifting live eels around the Bay Bridge was a better idea.

Indeed, it was a better idea. A larger than average rock ate the eel at the end of Simmons’ line. When the fish came to the net — voila — the telltale coded diamond mouth shined back at the errant fisherman. That code matched a slip of paper in a Baltimore jeweler’s safe. Simmons had caught Diamond Jim. The catch was worth more than a ’57-salary would have been. He bought a new Plymouth with his jackpot and had lots of money left over.

Speaking of diamonds, Smyth Jewelers of Baltimore is offering a $5,000 diamond to the angler who first catches Diamond Jim this year.

Two tales, two great prizes and lots of fun. That’s why DNR brought Diamond Jim out of retirement: to “showcase” our greatest natural resource — Chesapeake Bay — as well as the fishing opportunities in other parts of the state.

“This is all about a fun, affordable sport in which the whole family can participate,” Gary said. “We want to get the message out. We have a great fishery and we want to protect it so everyone can enjoy it. The more the public participates, the better their appreciation of Maryland’s natural resources.”

My Fish Tale

My own small yellow patch from the American Littoral Society tells another tale of tagged fish and the organization’s efforts to gather a better understanding of our fish population.

“One of your tags was returned last weekend,” Pam Carlsen, who coordinates the tagging program, told me, calling out of the blue. “We have a small problem that I’d like to clear up.”

I had tagged and released the medium-sized striper in Long Island Sound four months before her call. It was caught again about 75 miles away, and its current size and weight were reported to Carlson.

“We’ve just never seen one of these fish shrink before,” she remarked. “It’s been reported to have lost three inches in length and to have shed about four pounds.”

The American Littoral Society logs thousands of returned tags every year, providing information that goes a long way toward documenting many species’ migratory patterns. At Diamond Jim’s release, Eric Schwaab, deputy secretary of Maryland DNR, underscored that point.

“We think very highly of Pam’s database,” he said. “It spans quite a few years, and the records are well kept.”

“Maybe I just mixed up the tags,” I told her back then. “Or maybe I just got caught in the bane of every fisherman: hyperbole.” We both laughed, and I asked her to keep the record intact so that the next angler who reads the entry could enjoy it.

The Lures

The search for Diamond Jim will yield its share of tagging tales this year. Tell us yours at editor@bayweekly.com.

There are many ways to win prizes both in saltwater and freshwater. You won’t have to find Diamond Jim to win. You’ve won already by spending time on one of the world’s greatest waterways.

Tom Lyons retired to Edgewater after careers in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and on Wall Street buying and selling bonds. This is his first story for Bay Weekly.

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