Fishing is not something most people do for money. But anglers do love to tell others about their catches, and the Missouri Department of Conservation is willing to pay for your story if you catch one of a few very special catfish.
In its continuing effort to put catfish management on a firm scientific footing, the Missouri Department of Conservation has tagged thousands of blue and flathead catfish in lakes and streams throughout the state.
In years past, those tags carried rewards ranging from $25 to $50 for anglers who reported catching tagged catfish.
More recently, the agency upped the ante, offering as much as $150 per tagged catfish.
Fisheries biologists have long used tagging to learn how long fish live, how fast they grow, where they go and other information that is useful in setting fishing seasons and creel limits.
However, tagging alone accomplishes nothing unless anglers report catching tagged fish.
Each time an angler finds a tag on a catfish and calls the number printed on it, fisheries managers get a clearer picture of fish population dynamics.
The more data points, the clearer the picture of fish population dynamics.
The percentage of tagged fish caught and reported by anglers gives biologists a rough idea of what percentage of the overall fish population is caught by anglers each year.
Estimating harvest rates is very helpful when establishing fishing regulations.
Tag returns from anglers can underestimate the actual harvest, however.
Some anglers are glad to report tagged fish in return for information they receive about the fish they caught.
For others, however, even a $25 reward is not enough incentive to make a phone call and mail in a tag.
Determining non-returns is a key part of every fish tagging study.
So is estimating the number of non-returns accurately.
To get a better handle on the number of non-returns, the Conservation Department offers a $150 reward for some tags.
The assumption is that almost every angler will return a tag for that amount.
Comparing the rate of return on $25 and $150 tags will give researchers a good idea what percentage of fish with $25 tags are not reported when anglers catch them.
Conservation Department workers have tagged more than 7,000 flathead and blue catfish combined that are 12 inches and larger in recent years.
Most of those tags have rewards of $25.
The reward amount and the phone number to call are printed on the tags.
Anglers also need to report when, where and how they caught each fish, along with its length and whether they kept or released the fish.
The "dangler" tags are small plastic ovals attached just under the dorsal fin on top of fishes' backs.
Tagged catfish are swimming in parts of the Fabius, Gasconade, Grand, Lamine, Marmaton, Platte, South Grand rivers, the upper Mississippi River near Hannibal and the Missouri River around the mouths of the Platte, Grand, Lamine and Gasconade rivers.
"Anglers don't have to keep a fish to get the reward," said Resource Scientist Zach Ford, who oversees the catfish harvest evaluation project. "If they catch a tagged flathead catfish and choose to release it, all they have to do is clip off the tag and mail it in. They get the reward marked on the tag, along with a letter describing when and where the fish was tagged. They get the tag back, too. Some people like to have them for keepsakes."