Have you ever heard of an angler that doesn't want to brag about a big catch? Okay, so fishermen (and women) have been known to exaggerate a bit.
The big one that got away has become synonymous with "a fish story," which is defined as an extravagant exaggeration.
Well, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation, and the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission before it, have sought since 1953 to help anglers document their big catches and give them bragging rights. The antecedent of the evolving "Big Catch Angler Recognition Program" was a "fishing citation" program run by Florida Wildlife Magazine from 1953-1976. The actual Big Catch Angler Recognition Program began in 1990. At the time, a fish's weight was required.
The program was revamped in 1996 with creation of categories for Specialists (five qualifying fish of the same species), Masters (five qualifying fish of different species) and Elite anglers (10 qualifying fish of different species). At that time, a few new species were added along with a youth category representing a size roughly 25 percent smaller than the adult qualification size.
In addition, rules were relaxed to allow anglers to report fish based on length or weight (with either a photo or witness to document the application). The objectives were to recognize anglers, so they feel good about their accomplishments, encourage appropriate catch-and-release, and collect informal data on where big fish were being caught in various locations around the state to share with other anglers. Since 1990, more than 7,500 Big Catch certificates have been issued - almost one per day.
Awards were and still are a full-color, frameable certificate with the Duane Raver image of the appropriate species, plus a window decal for adults and a 3-inch pin/button for youth. The Master and Elite certificates were based on the "Go Fishing" largemouth bass conservation tag.
This month, another upgrade to the program takes place. In addition to traditional paper submissions, a new mobile-friendly internet reporting system will be available to the public, so anglers can submit their catches and photos electronically as well as get reports on when and where freshwater fishing is at its best. New sponsors, such as FishPhotoReplicas.net and SportsmanOnCanvas.com, are offering 20 percent discounts to help certificate winners further memorialize their catch - and avoid the stigma of just another "fish story."
Several changes in sizes and species are described below, which will represent the new standards - based on actual FWC field data from over a quarter-million fish - beginning July 1. Among the changes are new sizes for Suwannee and shoal bass. Alligator gar, redfin pickerel and skipjack herring have been dropped. Yellow perch, Mayan cichlid and jaguar guapote are added.
In addition, a new series of freshwater grand slams is being added, including: Black Bass (for catching a largemouth, spotted, shoal and Suwannee bass in the same year); Bream (for catching any four of bluegill, redear sunfish, spotted sunfish, warmouth, redbreast sunfish or flier in one day); and Nonnative Fish (for catching a butterfly peacock, Mayan cichlid and oscar in one day) slams - see MyFWC.com/BigCatch for details.
The Big Catch Angler Recognition Program will be followed in October 2012 with a fantastic new TrophyCatch program for anglers who catch and release largemouth bass greater than 8 pounds. Three different tiers will be recognized: The Lunker Club (8.0-9.9 lbs), The Trophy Club (10.0-12.9 lbs) and the Hall-of-Fame Club (13 pounds and greater).
Anglers will be encouraged to follow catch-and-release guidelines for these big bass (8.0-12.9) and to document the catch with a length, weight and series of photos prior to release. A more thorough certification process will be in place for Hall-of-Fame bass.
As TrophyCatch is developed and executed, it will provide reward incentives to encourage anglers to report and live-release trophy bass (more than 8 pounds), create public/private partnerships to protect trophy bass and promote fishing, and support conservation programs.
By documenting verified catches of trophy bass and publicizing them Florida's bass fisheries will maintain worldwide prominence. By using the data on when and where trophy bass are produced, biologists can improve trophy bass management via habitat enhancement, regulation management, stocking or other means that are proven to increase catch of trophy largemouth bass while fostering a strong catch-and-release conservation ethic.
The excitement of these angler recognition programs also increases fishing participation of Florida's youth and families and attracts more anglers to Florida, while promoting strong conservation messaging. Among the most important outcomes is increased public awareness and commitment to protect our fisheries and their habitats.
TrophyCatch will rely heavily on private support, partnerships and sponsorships and is expected to evolve in the coming years. It is a hallmark of the long-term Black Bass Management Plan that was created through an interactive process with anglers, researchers, tourism and outdoor communications professionals and fishing-related business representatives. Ultimately the goal of the plan, including TrophyCatch as one component, is to ensure Florida is the undisputed Bass Fishing Capital of the World.
John Cimbaro contributed to this article.