By: Capt. Chris Frohlich
A line has been drawn in the sand. I believe that on one side is the moral high ground, a rich history, respect, and tradition. On the other side sits a group of opportunistic vultures, ready to poach when the time is right. They have long since abandoned any moral compass that they once used to guide their way. They are merely pawns, following the gospel of a few greedy individuals who will stop at nothing in the pursuit of fortune.
In the past year, our movement to protect and preserve the tarpon fishery has gained both membership and momentum. When we first started this movement, we were chastised repeatedly by advocates of the PTTS and those hoping to preserve “jig fishing.” They derided our efforts, ridiculed our members, and tried to break us down. But instead, we grew stronger. Our collective voice became louder. We used the greatest weapons we had in our arsenal; we used patience, and we used the truth. As we began exposing more of the truth, we were bombarded with accusations and labeled as “hippies,” “tree huggers,” and just about any name you can think of. Because in the end, personal assaults became their only method of counter attack. Those individuals who supported the PTTS and the use of the Boca Grande Jig resorted to childish tactics like name calling and cyber bullying. Simply put, their sole tactic centered around diverting the public’s attention from the issues. It became about distraction, interference, intimidation. For a while, this tactic worked. But it’s not working any more.
Last week I had the distinct pleasure of traveling to the FWC meeting with a group of very unique individuals. This was a diverse group from all walks of life. On the agenda that day were two issues of concern to our group. The first issue that was addressed was whether or not both bonefish and tarpon should become catch and release only species. This proposal saw very little opposition, if any.
The second issue discussed was the issue of gear restriction in Boca Grande Pass, and the issue of snagging tarpon. When all was said and done, the Commission directed staff to re-examine the definition of snagging and redefine what gear can be used in the Pass. This issue will be discussed further at the next FWC meeting. But the purpose of writing this article is to tell you how we got there. Because let’s be honest, the naysayers, and there have been many, told us that this issue was never going to be addressed again. Yet here we are.
The public commentary time allotment at FWC meetings is used to facilitate discussion about whatever issues are on the agenda. The Commissioners listen intently as members of the community present their case as to why something should, or should not happen. As we sat and waited to speak, I looked around the room to see who would be speaking for the continued use of the Boca Grande Jig. As it turns out, not too many people.
Those that did speak on behalf of the PTTS or the use of the jig presented their arguments to the Commission and the Commissioners listened. And I listened too. What I heard from pro- jig fishing advocates was truly laughable. Somehow, somewhere along the way, the pro-jig advocates became the voice of the “recreational angler.” According to these individuals, (you can count them on one hand) the recreational angler will be excluded from fishing if the Commission bans the use of the Boca Grande Jig. HUH? I certainly take issue with that argument. I must have missed something along the way. This isn’t about the continuation of the PTTS or the continued use of the jig for all those Captains? These guys travelled all the way to North Florida to ensure that the recreational angler can continue to use the Boca Grande Jig in the Pass? Oh, well that’s just downright swell of them.
Let’s break down that argument for a minute and see what’s really going on.
First of all, I believe the use of the Boca Grande Jig has spawned a culture of aggressive, thoughtless, and reckless fisherman. I think they make Boca Grande pass a nasty place to be while they are “fishing.” Fishing Captains and recreational fishermen that don’t use the jig (live baiters), that attempt to fish the pass have trouble getting anywhere near the fish. Anyone who does try to fish amongst the jig fleet quickly learns that your lines will get run over, boats cut each other off, you get yelled at, screamed at, cursed at, and will probably even have the honor of being the recipient of various hand gestures. So you can imagine how many recreational fishermen are anxious to go fishing in Boca Grande Pass amidst all that ridiculous behavior. I would say that based on the number of recreational fishermen that showed up to the meeting to argue for the continued use of the jig, the number is somewhere around zero.
Can’t you just picture it? Mom, Dad, the kids, and the family dog out on a Saturday or Sunday morning during a PTTS tournament. Everybody jig fishing in perfect harmony. Like I said, laughable. In my mind, the truth is that jig fishing is the most exclusionary fishing tactic of all. A mere 20 jig fishing boats can ruin tarpon fishing in the pass for EVERYONE else in a matter of minutes, and I think they do it every single morning. Except that it’s generally way more than 20 boats. Recreational fishermen don’t realize how good they could really have it. I grew up as a recreational fisherman before I became a guide. Boca Grande Pass was always an intimidating place to fish as a young kid. But I started fishing on my own when I was about 12, often running a boat from the Peace River to Boca Grande Pass, just for a shot at some tarpon. I can tell you from personal experience that it was a different place to fish back then. It was a place that any recreational fisherman could go and feel comfortable and could catch fish. But now, jig fishing has changed the fishery, and I believe it has adversely impacted the way people fish.
I concede that a few recreational guys might desire having the option of using the jig. I even understand why people want to use it. It’s very effective when the fish won’t bite. All you have to do is wait for the circle hook to bury itself into some part of the tarpon’s body, and fish on! Jig fishing tactics are overly aggressive and push the tarpon pods around all day long. In my observation, the fish don’t feed when they are being pushed. They won’t hit any live bait or fishing lure known to man when they get spooked by the jig boats, or any other boats for that matter. But since the jig is capable of snagging them, it’s the perfect choice if you have long ago sold your soul. It’s easy “fishing.” But the simple fact that a few recreational guys might want to use the jig does not hold sufficient weight to allow its continued use. Some people will do anything if you tell them it’s legal. However, the credo of ethical angling dictates that certain methods of fishing be banned. It’s why we have certain regulations in the first place.
Banning the Boca Grande Jig would not amount to exclusion or excessive regulation.
Think about it like this for a moment. The aforementioned catch and release proposal would regulate the way in which tarpon can be caught. Under the new proposal, only hook and line can be used to catch tarpon. Which means that under the current tarpon regulations, you can legally cast net them. And yet, nobody cried out “what about the recreational fisherman” when this proposal was introduced. Nobody from the PTTS showed up to make sure the recreational guys could continue to cast net tarpon. Because it is a ridiculous concept, and one that nobody bothered to defend, even if a few recreational guys actually do want to cast net them. Yet, in the big picture, it’s no more ridiculous than using a device capable of successfully snagging tarpon. And that’s exactly why few recreational anglers showed up to the FWC meeting of their own volition to defend the jig. Maybe the PTTS advocates had other motives when they showed up to speak after all.
You see, the use of jig has essentially created a paradox. The style of fishing is so disruptive to the fish that they constantly get pushed around and do not feed the way they normally would. So fishing with traditional baits or lures becomes way less effective during that time. So what’s the one tactic that’s most effective when the fish won’t bite? You got it, the Boca Grande Jig. It’s not uncommon to see the most “hook ups” when 50 jig boats push the fish into about 30 feet of water. Imagine a tightly packed school of tarpon, all trying to weave into the middle of the school for protection. 50 outboards hover above them, slamming in and out of gear. 3 lines go down per boat, or roughly 150 Boca Grande Jigs with the hook leading the way. Now imagine the ensuing chaos as the fish literally cannot avoid being impaled by these jigs. This is what jig fishermen call a “good bite.”
The beautiful and yet equally frustrating thing about traditional tarpon fishing is that it takes the cooperation of the fish. If the fish don’t bite, you have to be patient. You have to outsmart them. You have to induce them to strike. And sometimes you just plain fail. It’s what keeps anglers coming back for more. In that scenario, the tarpon is Queen, and you play by her rules. If she chooses to ignore you and focus on some biological response like mating or swimming around aimlessly, then it is her choice. But jig fishing takes that choice away. Tarpon cannot avoid the Boca Grande Pass Jig. This jig, and this style of fishing disrupt the tarpon’s long inherited, evolutionary, and innate patterns. It robs them of their ability to act on instinct and impulse. It has long been the right, sometimes seemingly the duty, of the silver king to embarrass, frustrate, and confuse the angler. Jig fishing snatches that right away. Instead of biology dictating when and how a tarpon will behave, a group of reckless fishermen now holds that power.
I think that it is important to note that nobody will be excluded from fishing if the jig goes away. In fact, I believe the opposite is true. More people will be able to fish the pass, and do so more successfully. Just like I used to be able to do, and just like I want my kids to be able to do. To clarify, this would not be some blanket ban on the use of artificial lures, or even regular “jigs.” This would only outlaw the Boca Grande Tarpon Jig. This is a unique jig designed for use in Boca Grande Pass, and is widely considered a snagging device. Not everyone believes this to be true, but it is certainly my belief. That is why so many people wish to see it banned. But it’s important to recognize that nobody is advocating for restrictions on the use of any other lure, or according to some, all artificial lures. So please don’t buy into the rhetoric being spewed by pro-jig advocates about the slippery slope of regulations or the exclusion of fishermen. This unfounded contention is a farce, a smoke show designed to undermine the efforts of those who want to see the Boca Grande Jig banned. That is the same tactic of distraction and diversion already mentioned.
Before the PTTS, and before the widespread use of the jig, fisherman actually had to learn how to catch fish. They had to learn the patterns of the fish, the behavior of the fish, the tides, and the right bait to use. They had to respect the fisherman who had been there before them, had to watch them fish and learn from their successes. You had to pay your dues if you wanted to learn how to catch tarpon in the pass. You respected seniority; you gave the right of way to boats with fish on. You kept a level head, and you respected the drift. You did all this, and you caught the hell out of the fish. I know, it’s hard to believe based on what has become commonplace in the Pass today. But I have seen it. And I have done it.
I think the real fear that most jig fishing Captains feel is the fear of the unknown. How will they ever survive without the jig? I suspect it keeps them awake at night. Jig fishing is a zero-skill game. It does not require the participation of the fish. I personally believe that many of the Captains that exclusively use the jig couldn’t catch a tarpon using another method to save their lives. I know this because I have witnessed some of them trying to do it. They appear to be clueless and talentless individuals whose entire skill set consists of the ability to play follow the leader, drive a boat (although this is debatable at times), and tie a good enough knot to attach a jig. That’s about what it takes to be a successful jig fishing Captain. Well, on second thought, that’s not an exhaustive list. It does take some creativity. In addition to that list, it is imperative that you possess the ability to make up new excuses to tell your clients each time they ask why their fish was hooked in the eye ball, tail, or anal fin. Or why a sea turtle “ate” a fancy tiger tail jig. It has to be hard to explain that after a few years and several “caught” fish.
There are some fantastic Captains that both jig fish and also fish traditional methods. These are Captains that I have watched and even learned from at times. They will be perfectly fine if the Boca Grande Pass Jig goes away. They are tarpon experts. They know who they are.
And then there is another group. It is the group of Captains who have never actually caught a tarpon. Indeed, they have probably snagged tarpon by the hundreds, even thousands. They cannot picture a world in which they would actually have to learn to catch a tarpon. Such a daunting task seems almost inconceivable to these Captains. They cannot reconcile in their minds the idea that day in and day out they would be forced to utilize skill rather than a snatch hook to keep clients on fish. What an injustice this style of fishing has done to tourism over the years. Literally thousands of clients pass through Boca Grande every year hoping to catch tarpon. What a dreadful reality and utterly despicable disservice it is to those clients to dupe them into thinking they truly caught a tarpon, when in reality they likely just snagged one with a jig. I think those Captains should be embarrassed to call themselves fishing guides, and should personally apologize to every client they ever took fishing with a jig. I think they have sullied the reputation of this storied fishery with their unrelenting deception and unethical fishing style, and have made this amazing fishery a place that some people now avoid.
This is all information that many of us hold to be true. So we presented this information to the Commissioners, and they listened. They asked questions. They wanted to know more about this issue. And they seemed to want to do something about it. I suspect the June meeting will be interesting to say the least. I personally believe that the PTTS is a sinking ship, and the Jig is its precious cargo. They are both sitting atop a boat that is weighed down by lies, and the lies keep piling on. It will be interesting to see who will speak on behalf of the Boca Grande Jig, and how far they are willing to go. How many individuals are really going to sacrifice their reputations, their ethics, and their time in order to bail a few buckets of water out of a boat that is inevitably going to sink. We shall see.