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October 12, 2017 GMT

If Ron Smith or anyone else harbored doubts of the value many participants in Texas’ Angler Recognition Program place in the state-run project recognizing and recording outstanding catches, those doubts were washed away in the wake of the unprecedented damage triggered by Hurricane Harvey.

It wasn’t that Smith, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries biologist who manages the Angler Recognition Program, didn’t already know how popular the program is with the state’s two-million-plus recreational anglers. He averages certifying and mailing out 100 or so certificates a month - 1,200 or so a year - to anglers who have set a fishing-related benchmark in one of the 44 categories of recreational fishing awards and records maintained by the state fisheries agency.

“I understand how important those certificates are to anglers. They represent something particularly memorable in their fishing career – something they want to always remember,” Smith said. “And all fishermen want to have proof of catching a big fish; that’s just the way we are.”

But Smith admits what happened in Harvey’s wake surprised even him.

“The week after the storm hit, I started getting requests – emails, phone calls - from people whose houses had been destroyed or flooded, asking if I could issue a replacement fish-record certificate to them because the storm had destroyed the original,” he said.

And it wasn’t just one or two people.

“I’ve had at least 30 (requests for replacement certificates), so far,” Smith said two weeks into September. “I know there will be more coming in as people begin putting their lives back together. It just shows you how much those certificates mean to people.”

Texas has developed one of the most comprehensive fishing record programs of any state. Its more than three-dozen categories cover both freshwater and saltwater species and range from recognizing young anglers who catch their first fish to documenting and certifying the capture of state-record fish, the heaviest individual of species ever taken from Texas water.

“Every fisherman gets excited when they catch a special fish,” Smith said. “They want to celebrate it. The Angler Recognition Program give them a way to do that.”

The extensive range of Texas’ fishing record program gives them plenty of opportunity to do just that. The “First Fish” award and certification of state-record fish are the bookends of the program. But there are dozens of other categories, including records for the heaviest fish of a particular species taken from individual lakes, rivers and bay systems - so-called “water body” records. Those records are divided into categories for fish taken on rod-and-reel; fly-fishing tackle bow-fishing gear; other legal fishing gear such as trotlines; fish measured, caught and released; fish meeting a minimum length considered to be “trophy class” for the species, with further parsing into listings for junior anglers (younger than 17) and adults.

Checking to see if a special catch qualifies for recognition - if it challenges a current state or water body record or meets the minimum for “Big Fish” award - is easy with TPWD’s online fish records listing. Those listings as well as the information on applying for an award is accessible on the Angler Recognition Program’s website, tpwd.texas.gov/fishboat/fish/programs/fishrecords/

The application for the “First Fish” award, issued to any angler catching their first fish, is fairly simple and straightforward. But most of the other applications, especially for record fish, are more complicated.

Two things tend to gum up the works for anglers wanting to gain recognition of their catches and for Smith and TPWD to verify and certify the catch.

One is getting a certified weight of a fish. The Angler Recognition Program requires any fish offered for record certification be weighed on scales certified as accurate by Texas Department of Agriculture licensed certifiers or by the International Game Fish Association. Locating such scales can be a challenge for many anglers. To assist with this, the Angler Recognition Program maintains on its web page a list of “Official Weigh Stations,” businesses that voluntarily agree to be on the list. Also, some commercial shipping businesses that use certified scales will agree to let an angler weigh their fish.

That weighing must be done within three days of the fish’s capture, witnessed by a “disinterested” third party whose name and contact information must be on the application, the application must be notarized and submitted within 60 days of the fish being caught.

Applications for a state weight record, water body record, catch-and-release or Big Fish award are required to include photographs of the fish. Those photograph must include several side-on shots of the fish and have shots where the fish is on its side with a ruler or other measuring device next to it to show the fish’s length.

Those photos are crucial, Smith said. They allow TPWD staff to verify the fish species as well as its length.

“Not having good, clear photos is one of the most common problems we have with applications,” Smith said, adding that not properly measuring the fish ranks up there, too. (Fish must be measured with mouth closed and tail fin pinched to make the fish as long as possible.

Despite the challenges created by the necessarily precise requirements for the fish record program, Texas anglers seem more than willing to meet them to have their fish certified as a special catch.

“The number of applications we get just keep increasing every year,” Smith said. “Fishermen really see it as a benefit to them.”

The state’s fisheries managers also see benefits from the Angler Recognition Program. The information provided by anglers give fisheries managers insights into fish populations, effectiveness of fishing regulations, changes in angler behavior and other trends.

“Our fisheries managers definitely are interested in and use the data from the program,” Smith said. “They are as interested in it as the fishermen.”

Insights gained from the Angler Recognition Program have been used in decisions to adjust fishing regulations such as minimum size limits for trophy species such as tarpon, and helped managers track increases in catch-and-release fishing for such species as alligator gar and trophy-size blue catfish.

This year has seen several big-fish highlights in the Angler Recognition Program, Smith said.

“We’ve had one of the biggest fish ever caught in Texas come in this year, the new state-record great hammerhead,” he said. That fish, weighing 1,033 pounds, was taken during July offshore of Galveston.

The Gulf off Galveston also produced one of the most sought-after state-record among Texas saltwater anglers when, in late August, a 229-pound tarpon was caught.

Not all the record fish taken this year were so physically large, but were,. arguably, just as impressive as the hammerhead and tarpon. One of the most impressive was a 1.75-pound redear sunfish taken from the San Marcos River. That fish set a state fly-fishing record for the sunfish.

“Every application we get is for a fish that’s special to the fisherman, whether it’s for a ‘First Fish’ or a state weight record,” Smith said. “Having those fish recognized is important to them. And having that certificate to put on the wall and look at and remember a great day of fishing means a lot, too.”

That anglers who lost so many precious, important, valuable belongings to Harvey would seek to replace what others might see as a simple certificate about a fish proves that.