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Making a Difference, One Fish at a Time

Empty Stringers Catch and Release Program is helping to preserve the Texas saltwater fishery.

Making a Difference, One Fish at a Time

As the saying goes, “Everything is bigger in Texas,” and that includes its saltwater fishery.

“We have the best fishing in the world, in my opinion. Texas is known for its abundance of speckled trout, redfish, snook and flounder,” said Mercury Pro Staff member Capt. Wayne Davis. He added, “It’s also known for anglers keeping an abundance of fish.”

Davis is a full-time fishing guide in Port Mansfield, Texas, where he wade-fishes the Lower Laguna Madre using only artificial lures. “At the early stages of my fishing career, I also kept everything that my clients and I caught. As my career evolved, however, I realized just because the law allows you to keep ‘X’ number of fish doesn’t mean you have to keep them.”

Davis said that he and all of his clients were catching their limit on many trips, filling their nylon-coated lines, called “stringers”, with fish, and taking home far more than they could eat. When there were 10 people in a two-boat charter party, for example, they might catch and kill as many as 150 pounds of fish in a single day.

“I saw so much waste of the resource and it bothered me,” he said.

So, in 2017, he and a friend started the Empty Stringers Catch and Release Program. Their concept was to offer anglers incentives to release their catch and return to shore with a stringer that was empty of fish.

“I openly offer to each group on charter that if they catch and release all their fish, I will not only offer them a $50 discount, I will also keep track of how many keeper fish they released and enter each of their names in a drawing. At the end of the year, I draw one name from the hat and the winner receives not only a free fishing trip for two, but also some swag.”

Davis began reaching out to various companies and inviting them to sponsor the Empty Stringers program by donating fishing gear and other products. The program was so successful that he decided to work with different sponsors every year, so the prizes would not be the same every time. Each year, the winner of the Empty Stringers drawing typically receives from $1,500 to $2,000 worth of gear.

“The prizes vary, but an example of some from previous years have included: Simms G3 waders, AFTCO rain jackets, KWigglers lures and apparel, Shimano North American fishing reels, Fishing Tackle Unlimited rods, Power-Pole swag, Costa sunglasses, Yeti Tumblers from Sportsman Boats, and items from Shallow Sport Boats, just to name a few.”

The program worked. Through 2021, Empty Stringers has helped release over 5,100 fish. (Davis has yet to calculate the tally for 2022.)

“Although some other local fishing guides resisted the program at first, they and their clients have, over the years, begun to change their attitude about taking home their catch. Now ‘catch and release’ isn’t so frowned upon,” he said.

“I've developed some great relationships because of my position on conservation and good stewardship, and was recognized as “Conservationist of the Year” by Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) at the 2020 Rio Grande Valley Chapter Banquet. I also developed an excellent relationship with the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi, and am spearheading a pilot fish-tagging study on Texas snook. It’s been incredibly rewarding to obtain data on a species that we have had very little information on, Davis offered.

Davis added, “Keep in mind, I’m not trying to imply that I don’t keep fish, because I do, and I love eating them,” he added. In fact, some of his clients who book a two-day fishing charter with him will keep their catch on one of the days and catch-and-release on the other.

“I just thought if we, as anglers, were mindful of the resource and only kept what we were truly going to eat, that alone would pay huge dividends in the future,” he said.

In February 2021, a rare freeze event in the Lower Laguna Madre and nearby waters along the Texas coast led to the death of more than 144,000 speckled trout, endangering the fishery. This terrible event certainly proved to Davis just how important the work the Empty Stringers is doing.

“With all the focus on the Texas saltwater fishery since the freeze of 2021, we might think about what #emptystringers means. It doesn’t mean releasing every fish; it doesn't mean we should stop fishing, and it doesn’t mean that the people who keep their respectable limit are bad. It simply means that it’s incredibly important to practice good stewardship of the resource. Remember this: Short-term gratification can lead to long-term consequences,” Davis said.

What the Empty Stringers organization has been able to accomplish in the five years since they began is truly impressive, and all of us at Mercury are grateful for the incredible work Capt. Davis and the entire Empty Stringers Catch and Release team has accomplished.

If you’re ever down in South Texas and want to spend a day on the water with Capt. Davis, be sure to visit where you can book a trip of your very own.

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