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Fishing Notes: Big Jake a one in a million fish for a lucky angler

Sunday, April 27, 2003

By Deborah Weisberg

Some lucky angler might catch a millionaire in May.

He's Big Jake, and he could be cruising in water near you.

Big Jake is a bass and he's part of a promotion by Busch Brands, the folks who sponsor the Bassmasters Classic.

"Beer sales are flat in some markets," said Busch Brands director Tom Wilson, from St. Louis -- although parent company Anheuser-Busch reported a record year last year. "We want to increase volume."

Among the 50 lakes and rivers Busch is stocking across America are Raystown Lake, Lake Redman in York County, Lake Erie and the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. But don't get too excited. Just two fish will be tagged in each body of water. They will be worth $1,000 between May 3 and June 3.

The $1 million jackpot is Big Jake.

If you happen to catch him, all you need is the tag. Bass can't be creeled until June 14 since they're in a spawning mode. Catch and release is allowed, but there's no targeting of spawning beds.

Three years ago, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission clarified regulations around bass fishing by designating the period from mid-April to mid-June as "catch-and-release season," rather than making it a closed season. Nests are off limits.

Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission biologists, such as Rick Lorson, concluded, "Bass fisheries are not measurably damaged by immediate release of fish in the spring," and that lower harvest limits in the fall compensate for incidental losses caused by spring-time fishing. Even so, many anglers will not fish for bass when they are most vulnerable.

Southern states, where the growing season is longer, have no seasonal restrictions on bass and allow tournaments during the spawn. Tournaments are banned here in the spring.

"The spawn is when fish are easier to catch ... they're heavier, they have more weight," said Robert Montgomery, senior writer and conservation columnist for "Bassmaster" magazine. "But I wouldn't take a fish off a nest. I've seen recent studies by Canadian biologists showing just how quickly predators move into an unguarded nest. But tournaments held in hot weather are even more likely to hurt fisheries. And that's legal, too.

"It's all about our desire for bigger and better. Sometimes without ethical considerations."

Where Big Jake is concerned, it's the tag, not the size, that matters.

This is the third year for the contest. Last year, six anglers beat 6 million-to-1 odds and caught $1,000 fish in Hillsdale Lake in Kansas, the Arkansas River, Taylorsville Lake in Kentucky, Lincoln Lake in Minnesota, Buckeye Lake in Ohio and Delaware Bay. The year before, three were caught at Rend Lake in Illinois, Elephant Butte in New Mexico and the Sailorville Reservoir in Iowa.

"Does that amaze me?" asked University of Pittsburgh professor of statistics Allan Sampson. "It absolutely amazes me. Your chances of getting a marked fish are one in about 5.5 million."

Sampson did some calculations based on the number of licensed fishermen in the United States, which is 36 million although not all will be fishing in the waters Busch has stocked. Those same computations suggest that, because Big Jake hasn't taken the bait in two years, it probably will be another 14 years before he winds up on the end of a hook.

The fish caught in previous years were landed "right out of the gate, for whatever that's worth," Wilson said. "It's a mystery."

The Wizard of Odds, a Las Vegas based actuary, had a simple statement for fishermen going after Big Jake or the other money fish ... don't expect to catch them. Don't rely on hunches. There is no system that can beat a game of pure chance. It pays to shop around for the best possible playing conditions. Avoid gimmicks. Have fun ...

And if you don't catch Big Jake, don't feel bad. The only thing worse would be catching last year's Big Jake. He's still sporting his tag, but isn't worth a dime. "Prizes don't carry over from year to year," Wilson explained.

You've got to be at least 21 to cash in the tag. For details, including where to redeem a winning tag, visit www.busch.com beginning Thursday.

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