By Alisa Boswell-Gore
STILLWATER, Okla. – Thanks to Oklahoma State University researchers, a long-standing annual Oklahoma tradition will live on this weekend. On Friday, northeast Oklahoma residents will head to Lake Eucha for the Green County Giggers Association’s annual fish gigging tournament.
Instead of catching fish with a hook and fishing line, fish gigging involves fishermen catching them with a multi-pronged pole called a gig. This annual tournament of gigging for sucker fish species sparked a question in the minds of Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation officials of whether Oklahoma’s sucker fish population can be sustained.
Officials turned to OSU ecologists for the answers.
“For a long time, sucker fish have not been considered fish of interest because a good chunk of the nation does not harvest them,” said Douglas Zentner, an OSU graduate student in ecology, who is researching the sucker fish populations with the help of Dan Shoup, professor in the OSU Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management.
“It was good to see people using this underused species, but as with any fishery, harvest needs to be done in moderation,” Zentner said. “There was concern that the size of the tournament might require some regulation to sustain the practice. We wanted to make sure the children and grandchildren of participants can continue the tradition in future.”
Zentner and Shoup said although the research stemmed from the idea of population management, the researchers approached the project from an ecological perspective. They wanted to find out more about the fish themselves – how they grow and where they live, along with their population size.
“Almost anything we looked at would be new information on this fish,” Shoup said. “Because they have been so poorly studied, there wasn’t much literature to work from.”
Shoup said he and Zentner even enlisted the help of local anglers.
“They would report tagged fish that they found so we could see where the fish had moved to,” Shoup said. “The tournament organizers were also helpful to us. They let us take all the carcasses after they had cleaned the meat off the fish so we could get age, weight and egg status. We got all kinds of data at that gigging tournament.”
After a year of tagging and studying sucker fish populations and their movements, Zentner has found that, for now, officials don’t need to be concerned about sucker fish populations declining.
“We found that not much needs to be done right now because the population is sustaining itself, and the harvest rate is smaller than what we expected,” Zentner said.
If sucker fish populations in northeast Oklahoma were not mobile, that might be a problem for sustainability, but it turns out, they are a well-traveled fish species.
“Understanding what’s going on with the fish is a big part of the research question because these fish are moving around a lot. We can look at the whole water system, and if we saw individual fish that were staying in one spot, that could be a concern. But that does not appear to be the case with Oklahoma sucker fish. There seems to be a lot of seasonal movement.”
So, grab your gigs because the long-time family tradition of sucker gigging can go on.
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