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Stephen Kellner enjoys tagging fish around Long Island

Stephen Kellner holds a fish that has a

Stephen Kellner holds a fish that has a yellow tag near the tail. You can see the tag both in the release shot and the glory shot. McCabes Beach, Southold, 2015. Credit: Tom Schlichter

“That fish looks about 15 inches,” said Stephen Kellner as he knelt beside a short fluke at the edge of a North Fork beach on Thursday morning. “I’ll tag it before letting it go.”

Kellner, 66, a retired Grumman Aerospace worker from Mattituck, stretched his measuring tape and smiled as the summer flattie aligned precisely with his guesstimate. “I’m good at judging the size of these fish since I’ve tagged so many over the years,” he chuckled.

To say Kellner is a fan of fish tagging is an understatement. A member of both the North Brookhaven Sport Fishermen Club and North Fork Anglers, he’s tagged over 800 fluke to date, including 150 last year and 250 in 2015. He doesn’t tag every one he catches, but he does tag across all sizes. Typically, his tagged specimens range between 14 and 18 inches but he has released some fluke weighing upwards of 6 pounds.

Kellner began tagging with fellow North Brookhaven Sport Fishermen Club member Tom Rinaldi after they read an article about a volunteer program with the American Littoral Society in the early 1980s. Thinking it would be a fun and productive endeavor, they initially targeted stripers. The Littoral Society, he noted, made it easy to get started — a task that’s even easier today since you can join the society ($40) and order the inexpensive tags on-line (

“Back then, you could catch bass from any Long Island Sound beach from May through the fall,” said Kellner. “But as that action faded over the years, we switched to fluke. I like that the information is compiled and sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). It’s also made available to any researchers that need it, so I feel I’m making a contribution to the future of fishing.”

“That he is,” assures Jeff Dement, Director of Fish Tagging at the American Littoral Society. “Our tagging program helps fisheries managers monitor stock populations and see change as it is actually occurs. Citizen Science of this type is very valuable because anglers on the water see change first-hand, often well before fisheries decision makers cull it from government data.”

With a history spanning more than 50 years, the American Littoral Society tagging program is the longest running volunteer data gathering system in existence. According to Dement, participants have tagged several hundred thousand stripers and over 100,000 fluke. About 5 percent of all tags are eventually returned. Currently the program has over 1,000 active participants who collectively tag more than 15,000 fish per year. Bluefish, blackfish and sea bass are among other species tagged.

“I’m sure the research helps,” says Kellner. “I know from my own returns that many fluke I catch here get scooped up by commercial boats in 60- to 70-fathoms of water off the North Carolina coast during the winter.”

On a more local level, Kellner reveals his tag returns indicate fluke return to the same general areas year after year. He had one 17-inch fish tagged off Southold, in fact, that was recaptured four years later off nearby Mattituck. By then it measured 25 inches.

“It takes me 30 seconds to tag a fish, and another minute to record the data,” says Kellner. “That seems worth the effort – especially since I’m always excited when a tag gets returned.”

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