Best-Selling Author Randy Wayne White Crusades to Protect Tarpon

This article was originally published in the March 2014 issue of Sarasota Magazine.

Written by Sarasota Magazine contributing editor, Tony D’Souza.

Randy Wayne White

Best-selling Southwest Florida thriller writer Randy Wayne White crusades to protect the region’s tarpon.

To hear author, restaurateur and angling activist Randy Wayne White tell it, as he recently did at his Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille on Sanibel Island, all of us Southwest Floridians are here because of a fish. Because of its fight, the lightning-quick way it rolls and leaps when it strikes, and because of its strength and beauty. That fish is Megalops atlanticus, an archaic, cow-eyed, thick-jawed feeding machine that can reach eight feet in length and weigh 250 pounds. Tourists call it “tar-pon.” The rest of us say “tarp-in.” No matter how you pronounce the name, the tarpon with its silver-dollar scales has always meant money, and that’s at the heart of a recent controversy that embroiled White and the organizers of a high-stakes fishing tournament down in Boca Grande.

“When the first tarpon was landed on rod and reel in 1885 in Sanibel,” White, sitting before an opened laptop in his bar where I’ve caught him writing, tells me, “it made headlines. This was the only big game fish that one could land in a rowboat. Industrialists began to come to this pioneer mangrove coast. Thomas Edison wanted to catch a tarpon, he came here. The Charlotte Northern Railway extended its service to Boca Grande; that began hotels. The tarpon changed the destiny of this coast.”

White is an amicable guy, a youthful 63, a baseball-playing Midwest farmhand who came to Sanibel in 1972 with a high school degree and a yen to write. He earned his salt as fishing guide and adventure magazine columnist, raised two sons and wrote every day. After churning out 18 novels under pseudonyms, he finally found a character, a former NSA agent and marine biologist named Doc Ford, which led to a best-selling series of thrillers, the first of which was 1990′s Sanibel Flats. The series’ popularity has allowed White and his business partners to commercialize the Doc Ford name into three restaurants, a hot sauce line, T-shirts and golf visors. And last year, White used his literary muscle to weigh in on what many here see as the ugliest chapter in the tarpon’s history.

The “Boca Grande jig” masquerades as a traditional jig hook but is designed to sink steel into tarpon even when the fish aren’t biting. When a fish strikes a true jig, it’s hooked inside the mouth; with the belly-weighted Boca Grande jig, an angler drops the hook to the bottom, waits for a fish to bump the line, then reels as fast as he can. The line “flosses” beside the fish, often sliding through its gill plate, and the heavy jig streaks up like a fist and punches its hook into the fish’s face or body.

In a special commentary in the Tampa Tribune in April, White wrote, “In the early 1990s, when tarpon tournament purses in Boca Grande Pass climbed to $100,000 or more, two local anglers revived an old poaching technique that guaranteed they would boat tarpon and also fill their pockets…. Among guides, ‘jig fishing’ became the accepted euphemism for snag fishing, but always in a wink-wink sort of way because boating fish is key to making money…. The technique wasn’t illegal, but most of us knew it wasn’t ethical…How do I know this is true? Because, as a fishing guide, I did it.”

Prior to the new gear restrictions passed by FWC in 2013, most of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series anglers relied on the unethical "Boca Grande jig" to snag tarpon and earn valuable "face time" on TV for their sponsors.

Prior to the new gear restrictions passed by FWC in 2013, most of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series anglers relied on the unethical “Boca Grande jig” to snag tarpon and earn valuable television “face time” for their sponsors.

The “Boca Grande jig” masquerades as a traditional jig hook but is designed to sink steel into tarpon even when the fish aren’t biting. When a fish strikes a true jig, it’s hooked inside the mouth; with the belly-weighted Boca Grande jig, an angler drops the hook to the bottom, waits for a fish to bump the line, then reels as fast as he can. The line “flosses” beside the fish, often sliding through its gill plate, and the heavy jig streaks up like a fist and punches its hook into the fish’s face or body.

“Snagging is taboo in the world of sport fishing,” White tells me as he leads me around his restaurant. “It’s the equivalent of harpooning or using dynamite.” The island-themed Doc Ford’s is packed for dinner, the genteel patrons dressed in polos and khaki. White spends a few minutes chatting with two couples from Kansas City, Dee and Frank Mana and Kathie and Phil Ziegler, who tell me they’re here because of the Doc Ford series. White signs a book, “Dear Dee, Doc’s Pal!,” then urges the group to, “Try the hot sauce.”

Out in his truck, White riffs on the surreal success of his books and the restaurants, which has come later in life for a writer whose early days often did not include hot water or A/C. “I did many years with no safety net,” he tells me as we pause to let some beach tourists scamper across the road. “Every day now, it just feels dreamlike. Peter Matthiessen [the National Book Award-winning author of the Watson Trilogy] gives me a hard time about being commercial. He says, ‘So, Randolph, are you going into real estate?’ I say to him, ‘A Killing Mister Watson oyster bar. Think of the T-shirts.’”

Soon we’re at Doc Ford’s on Captiva Island, a cavernous 400-seater, and White winds his way to the back bar, greeting fans and staff alike. At the bar, I ask a red-haired lady sipping a cocktail if she reads the Doc Ford series. She takes a hard look at the man beside me and says, “Are you the Randy White?”

“If you knew me, you’d run like the wind,” he tells her. Soon, he’s posing for a picture, and then we’re talking tarpon again. White says, “When they first started using [the Boca Grande jig], I had a client who would book me every year during tarpon season. I told him about it and he said, ‘Let’s go out and try it.’ I wired a very heavy weight, probably three ounces, to the hook. He landed two fish; one was hooked under the lateral fin. They’re almost all hooked outside the mouth [using the Boca Grande jig].”

The practice might have continued if not for the 2003 entry of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series into Boca Grande Pass. Hosted by Sarasota’s Joe Mercurio, the PTTS and its sister series, the Women’s Professional Tarpon Tournament, have the richest tarpon purses in the world. This year, they’ll offer more than $500,000 in prizes.

From the beginning, the PTTS drew criticism. “The Pass’s characteristics are such that the tarpon are contained in an area and must stack up,” explains White. “To snag fish effectively, you need a very fast boat, and during the tournaments we’re talking a hundred or more. It’s day after day of these high-speed pursuits of these fish who are there to feed and fatten and do this little-understood ceremony that’s prelude to their mating. It’s just a circus.”

Like White, the PTTS and Joe Mercurio are commerce-savvy, though the tournament targets a different audience. Its marketing videos highlight the very things White and other PTTS critics abhor: teams of sponsorship-clad fishermen in sponsorship-wrapped boats, all in a frenzied pursuit of fish. The videos’ background music is high-octane synthesizer, the feel is NASCAR. “The PTTS pits 50 teams in a head-to-head gunnel-to-gunnel battle,” the announcer intones in the 2010 video. “The playing field can only be described as controlled chaos.” The PTTS TV series reaches 42 million viewers and is co-hosted by a Sarasota-based blond bombshell, Sheli Sanders. Prominent in the videos are bull and hammerhead sharks chomping through tarpon even as the anglers reel them in.

What White and groups like Save the Tarpon of Boca Grande Pass argue is that the tournament uses the doctored jig and harasses the fish at a critical time in its breeding cycle. Bowing to pressure from Boca Grande guides, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) conducted a $200,000 foul-hooking study from 2002-2004. Surprisingly, the FWC did not find that the Boca Grande jig was hooking tarpon outside the mouth.

White says: “In the study, 75 percent to 80 percent are hooked in the mouth. But people did not ask what constitutes ‘mouth.’ The study’s definition is essentially this: Any bone in the tarpon’s head connected to its mouth [is its mouth]. The study has done more to harm tarpon in the last 10 years than any number of tarpon fishermen.”

Read the rest of the story here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *