Don't be surprised to see yellow, blue and pink ribbons hanging from the ears of anglers next summer. Those 12-inch tags are an essential component of a monumental study of the lifestyles of people who fish.
"We're in the midst of an information explosion, but no one has ever collected any hard data about where anglers go and what they do when they are not fishing," said Bugs Gurney, head of the Fishing Institute for Better Science (FIBS), which is spearheading the study.
"Almost everything we know about anglers we've learned from launch ramp litter barrel surveys," Gurney said. "Our researchers have determined what anglers eat and drink - Vienna sausages, Ding-Dongs and soft drinks - but we have huge gaps in our cultural and social information.
"What happens, for example, to trout anglers when the trout parks switch to catch-and-release in the fall?" Gurney wondered. "Do they revert to responsible citizens? Or do they simply turtle down into their waders and hibernate until spring?
"And where do crappie anglers disappear to during fall turnover? One day they're thick as wool and the next day you couldn't find one with a marabou detector."
Gurney said that the colorful ribbons will help FIBS researchers to precisely monitor how, where and why anglers move.
"The tags let us identify anglers even when they aren't yanking a boat onto a trailer or stringing fish," Gurney said. "We can spot them in swimming suits, jogging suits or leisure suits."
Counters posted at mini-malls, restaurants, taverns and key intersections in the suburbs will tally the number of specimens passing by.
"We'll keep track of where they go for dinner, how often they stop for refreshments and whether they accompany the family to church," Gurney said. "We'll even note the titles of the videos they rent."
Gurney assured me that the markers won't interfere with the day-to-day movements of anglers.
"That's why we chose ribbons," Gurney said. "They're visible yet unobtrusive - unless there's a strong wind - much better than traditional marking methods, such as paint swatches or fingerclipping."
Anglers will wear a ribbon color corresponding to the species of fish they typically pursue.
"The color-coding is important," Gurney said, "because we suspect vast differences in the day-to-day living patterns of walleye, catfish and panfish anglers."
Gurney theorizes that anglers come to behave exactly like the fish they pursue. "Is it just coincidence that bass anglers sulk when the weather changes, that those who fish for catfish gulp their food and that people who chase crappie tend to hang out together?"
He said he plans to use the data to create a Field Guide to Anglers, which people can use to immediately identify anglers by species, even from across the river or when driving past a pond at highway speed.
The anglers taking part in the study were selected at random from a pool of volunteers who were offered their choice of two dozen nightcrawlers or a new spinnerbait for their participation. Test subjects must keep the tags in place for three years.
Each bar-coded ear tag contains information about the angler, including age, sex, height, weight, marital state, number of children, occupation, size of boat and bait of choice.
Whenever researchers spot a tagged angler, they will scan the bar code, measure the specimen, take blood, hair and tooth samples and quickly return the angler to his or her environment.
Gurney expects fishery managers, tourist bureaus, travel agents and sporting goods mail order companies will pay top money to learn intimate details about anglers.
The spouses of anglers have also shown intense interest in the study and could constitute an additional source of funding.
"Just last weekend," Gurney said, "I overheard a woman named Emma say she'd give a million bucks to find out where her fishing nut husband, Ike, was until 2 a.m. Sunday morning. "Thanks to the study, we'll be able to tell her."
Gurney believes his study will correct many misconceptions about anglers. "Television skews our ideas about them." he said. "Saturday morning fishing programs portray anglers as flannel-clad philosophical types, who pause frequently to admire scenery and who spontaneously kiss their trophy fish.
"When they're not fishing, the TV would have us believe they are tying flies, wrapping guides on fishing poles or rhapsodizing over their last fishing trip while petting their trusted, long-haired sporting dogs.
"Frankly, our study shows that fewer than 50 percent of anglers own dogs," Gurney said, "and of that group, we've found that less than 20 percent of them actively pet."
The study has so far yielded few surprises about the behavior of anglers. Preliminary data reaffirms the fact that they lead rather predictable lives. They embark on major morning and evening feeding periods and will snack at midday.
Seasonal activity peaks in spring and summer. Dormancy is common in winter and is usually accompanied by pronounced weight gains.
Gurney says he has identified three subspecies of anglers that have evolved distinct language and customs. They include Generation X anglers, Baby Boomers and, of course, the notorious Old Anglers Fishing Society (OAFS), a sedentary, grumbling subset that comprises the principal predator species at community fishing lakes.
Researchers have determined that anglers of each group gather together in large, noisy schools that frequently locate near structure, especially structure that contains bar stools and a big-screen TV.
Gurney said he also hopes someday to complete a comprehensive study of the reproductive habits of anglers. He noted, however, that poor lighting conditions have frustrated his attempts to obtain accurate observations and measurements of mating patterns.
I asked Gurney if any of the data he has collected has produced any startling revelations about anglers.
"Two incontrovertible facts!" he exclaimed. "We have determined that 9.3 out of 10 anglers put their faith in a lucky hat. We've also found that close to 100 percent avoid yard work. In fact, we've yet to spot a tagged angler raking leaves or trimming a hedge."
The world eagerly awaits more results from this fascinating scientific study. In the meantime, Gurney asks anyone spotting a color-tagged angler to carefully note the time, the date, the location and, of course, his or her condition.
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