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.

Judge slaps PTTS owners with sanctions, legal fees over ‘baseless’ lawsuit claims

Mr. Lew Hastings & Capt. Tom McLaughlin

Lew Hastings, Executive Director of the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce (left), and Capt. Tom McLaughlin, Chairman of Save the Tarpon (right) at the 2013 Save the Tarpon Shindig on March 3. It is this photo which led the PTTS to name Lew Hastings personally in the suit against Save the Tarpon.

This article was originally published in the Boca Beacon on January 29, 2014.

The owners of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series and their Tampa attorney will be paying the legal bills of three Save The Tarpon Inc. directors after a Charlotte County Circuit Court judge slapped them with sanctions on Tuesday, Jan. 28 under a rarely-invoked state statute aimed at curbing so-called frivolous litigation.

Judge Joseph G. Foster ruled that Silver King Entertainment Inc., which owns and operates the PTTS, and their lawyer Dennis A. Creed of the Tampa firm Feldman Morgado must pay legal fees incurred by Save The Tarpon directors Chris Frohlich, Lew Hastings and Tommy Locke III.

The three were initially named in a lawsuit filed against the Boca Grande-based conservation group last year in which the tournament claimed Save the Tarpon had cost the PTTS more than $500,000 in sponsorship and other revenues. Frohlich, Hastings and Locke were subsequently dropped from the suit.

Read the rest of the story…

Save The Tarpon seeks to block ‘hoax’ PTTS bid to force forum to turn over names

Internet Forum TrollSave The Tarpon Inc. took action, Monday, Nov. 18, 2013, aimed at blocking attempts by Gary Ingman and the company that owns the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series that, if the PTTS gets its way, would  force the popular Florida Sportsman online forum to reveal the identities of its members.

In a two-page motion filed Monday with the Charlotte County Circuit Court clerk’s office, attorneys for the Southwest Florida-based conservation group argued that the subpoena sought by Ingman and the PTTS “is not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence” and that the forum’s more than 18,000 members “have an expectation of privacy and confidentiality.”

The motion is the latest exchange in the protracted legal battle Ingman and his company, Silver King Entertainment Inc., have been waging in the courts as part of an ongoing PTTS strategy to silence Save The Tarpon, its more than 22,000 supporters and those who have spoken out against the PTTS and its methods. Ingman claims the group’s efforts have cost his controversial Boca Grande Pass TV tarpon tournament more than $500,000 in sponsorship and other revenues since Save The Tarpon’s formation in May, 2012.

Save the Tarpon Objection

Click to read full documents.

In its written objection, Save The Tarpon’s attorneys formally entered a copy of Silver King’s contemplated Florida Sportsman Forum subpoena into the public court record as an exhibit in support of its motion.

Silver King’s lawyer, Tampa attorney Dennis A. Creed III, had omitted the actual subpoena on Monday, Nov. 12 when his “Notice of Non-Party Production,” a reference to the Florida Sportsman Forum, was initially filed.

PTTS supporters among the forum’s ranks have claimed a copy of the subpoena posted last week to Save The Tarpon’s website wasn’t real, that it was a hoax contrived by the group as a ruse to further sway opinion against the tournament.

As word of the PTTS attempt to ferret out the identities of Florida Sportsman Forum members began to circulate online last week, reaction from forum members ranged from approval of the PTTS move to harsh opposition and even claims Save The Tarpon had somehow invented or fabricated the court records the group published to its website.

Forum regular Gary S. Colecchio was among the deniers, repeatedly urging his fellow Florida Sportsman members to “never believe anything posted on STT,” as he argued that the subpoena was a Save The Tarpon ploy designed to “cause outrage at PTTS among forum members” while continuing to insist “again, you simply cannot believe anything posted on that site and forum.”

When a forum member, in a reference to Colecchio’s earlier hoax claims, asked “are you saying that the subpoena for the forum information is a fake made by STT?” Colecchio, who has tallied nearly 9,500 forum posts since June of 2011, did not respond.

The subpoena sought by PTTS lawyer Creed targets Wick Enterprises Inc. as the supposed owner of the fishing forum. While Blair Wickstrom, publisher of Florida Sportsman Magazine, is also vice-president of Wick Enterprises Inc., the Stuart, Fla. company does not own the publication or its related online forum.
Colecchio, in yet another post to the forum, noted the PTTS lawyer’s apparent error, then cryptically hinted that despite its attested filing with the courts, “the PTTS knows that the Wickstoms (sic) don’t own Florida Sportsman.”

Sorry, Joe – but the FWC vote really does change everything

By Bill Bishop

Anyone who says the vote didn’t change a thing is living in a dream world. The vote changed everything, including how the angling community and business owners will view violators in the future.

PTTS Host, Joe Mercurio, poses next to the Hooters sponsored team boat.

PTTS Host, Joe Mercurio, poses next to the Hooters sponsored team boat.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is the importance of a person’s reputation. Without that, success is virtually impossible.

The “success” of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series is no different. The way I see it, the unanimous vote sent a message throughout the state and beyond that the commissioners believed the evidence brought before them was credible and something needed to be done to stop snagging. They were and will remain dead serious about this.

Anyone who says the vote didn’t change a thing is living in a dream world. The vote changed everything, including how the angling community and business owners will view violators in the future.

I recall a quote, “we won’t stop until we are told to stop.” They were just ordered to stop by the FWC commissioners. They were previously told they must stop gaffing, roping, dragging and weighing fish. They have now been told they must stop using the jig designed to snag fish.

They must also stop bypassing the process of enticing a fish to strike the lure. Earlier this month, the unanimous vote in favor of the proposal – and the change of the definition – changed everything. Any attempt to re-invent a lure that meets the guidelines – but is still used to snag fish – will be dealt with swiftly. Any attempt to sidestep the law will be done under a microscope and in the light of day.

Left to right: Capt. Mark Futch, Dr. Aaron Adams, Capt. Tom McLaughlin, and Mr. Bill Bishop.

Bill Bishop, at right, with (from left) Capt. Mark Futch, Dr. Aaron Adams and Capt. Tom McLaughlin.

Yet, here we have PTTS host Joe Mercurio was quoted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune as saying: “We’re Americans, we’re anglers, we’re adapters, we’ll find a way, we’ve already found a way. If anything, this has united some of our fishermen in using the new baits that we can use.”

How about this, Mr. Mercurio? The WAY is to realize that at the very core of honest angling is the art of enticing a fish to strike. It takes a lifetime to master this art. Those who have bypassed this art by way of snagging fish have wasted time that could have been used to learn and become more proficient as anglers.

The WAY isn’t easy. It’s complicated and challenging, but it is also one of the most gratifying experiences a person can have.

Not one thing that lives inside an honest angler has anything to do with harming the fishery or offending other anglers. At the end of each day I know whether I fished well or not. I know if my conduct was becoming. I know if the decisions I made were fair and honest.

I also ask if a young budding angler looked at me – would I be a good example to follow or not? Adapting… to me means to continue to improve my skills as an angler while staying within the boundaries of good sportsmanship and fair play.

We have already found a “way” as well. It’s called angling. If you haven’t tried it, you should.

(Bill Bishop is a noted wildlife artist and an ardent tarpon angler. He is the author of “High Rollers: Fly Fishing for Giant Tarpon” published in 2008.)

Let these lawmakers know: Don’t play politics with conservation funding

Holder2

Rep. Doug Holder was among three state lawmakers a PTTS lobbyist suggested might withhold FWC funding if commissioners voted to approve a measure designed to curb foul hooking of tarpon in Boca Grande Pass.

A number of you have asked how to reach out to the three lawmakers who were mentioned by PTTS attorney and lobbyist Timothy P. Atkinson in his remarks to the seven Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission members in Lakeland. As you know, Atkinson threatened that Rep. Doug Holder, Sen. Bill Galvano and Sen. Jack Latvala could potentially use their powerful committee posts in Tallahassee to withhold vital funding for the FWC unless the commissioners did as the PTTS demanded.

Atkinson invoked the names of these legislators and their control of the FWC purse strings while threatening to sue the seven commissioners on behalf of the PTTS and others unless they voted down a proposed regulation designed to curb intentional foul hooking of tarpon in Boca Grande Pass.

As many of you have noted, playing politics with FWC funding is a slap in the face to conservation-minded sportsmen throughout Florida. The FWC plays a critical role in conserving and protecting our fisheries – including Boca Grande Pass. You have asked how to go about letting these three lawmakers know proposing further cuts to an already lean FWC budget is both irresponsible and potentially disastrous. Or, as one of you wrote, “don’t play politics with fish and wildlife conservation in Florida.”

We agree.

If you’d like to make your voice heard on this important matter, here’s how:

 

Rep. Doug Holder

Rep. Doug Holder, as the PTTS lawyer noted, is chairman of the House Regulatory Affairs Committee. His district is centered in Sarasota County, and includes the communities of Venice, North Port and parts of Englewood. You can send him a message using the provided contact form by clicking here.

 

Sen. Bill Galvano

Sen. Bill Galvano is a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. His district is comprised of DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, and parts of Charlotte, Highlands, Hillsborough, and Manatee counties. A link to his contact form can be found here.  On the left side of the page you will see “Email The Senator.” Clicking on this link will take you to a contact form. UPDATE: Sen. Galvano’s office has contacted a number of those who wrote to say he now supports the proposed gear restriction and will be writing a letter expressing his support to the FWC. A letter is also being sent to Mr. Atkinson. There has, to our knowledge, been no response from Rep. Holder or Sen. Latvala.

 

Sen. Jack Latvala

Sen. Jack Latvala serves with Sen. Galvano on the same Senate Appropriations Committee. His district is comprised of parts of Pinellas County. To write him, click here.  As with Sen. Galvano, you’ll find a link to “Email The Senator” on the left side of his page. Clicking on it will take you to a similar contact form.

It’s encouraging to know that you are willing to take the time to ask these lawmakers to clarify their positions on funding for the FWC, to disavow the PTTS lobbyist’s threats attached to their names and to remind them “don’t play politics with fish and wildlife conservation in Florida.”

PTTS hires lawyer to threaten the FWC with funding cuts, lawsuit

Joe Mercurio and Attorney

Joe Mercurio and PTTS lobbyist Tim K. Atkinson huddle at the June FWC Commission meeting in Lakeland, Florida.

UPDATED: Tell these three lawmakers you don’t want them playing politics with conservation funding.  Here’s how.

Did a lawyer hired by Gary Ingman, Joe Mercurio and the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series really invoke the names of three powerful politicians and threaten to use these politicians to cut funding to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission?

Did the PTTS lawyer actually suggest that’s what would happen unless the seven commissioners voted down the draft rule aimed at putting teeth in regulations aimed at curbing the intentional foul hooking of tarpon in Boca Grande Pass?

Did the same PTTS lawyer really threaten to sue these seven commissioners if they voted to prohibit the use of bottom weighted gear in this iconic tarpon fishery?

Yes, in fact, he did. But you be the judge.

Here is lawyer Timothy P. Atkinson in his own words speaking to those seven commissioners on behalf of the PTTS in Lakeland. Atkinson is a partner in the Tallahassee law firm of Oertel, Fernandez, Bryant & Atkinson. His biography notes that “his practice also includes challenges of existing and proposed agency rules, and agency and legislative lobbying.”

And remember. Tell these three lawmakers you don’t want them playing politics with conservation funding.  Here’s how.

These PTTS anglers demanded answers – so we decided to help them out

Craig Abbott is vice president of the Florida Tarpon Anglers Association, a group formed with the backing of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series and largely comprised of PTTS participants. Abbott is a vocal opponent of measures proposed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission aimed at helping to grow Boca Grande’s iconic tarpon fishery.

As you will see, Abbott posed a number of question’s on his PTTS-backed group’s Facebook page. He was joined by fellow PTTS angler Nathan Stewart. Abbott and Stewart both seem a bit confused. So we sent their questions off to Capt. Andy Boyette. If there’s anyone who can set them straight on the bottom-weighted jig, it’s Boyette.

Boyette is a full-time Southwest Florida guide who has spent the past 33 years fishing for tarpon in and around Boca Grande Pass.  Like Abbott and Stewart, he fished the PTTS.   In 2009 he quit the tournament and renounced the bottom-weighted jig method of fishing.  Boyette is not a member or supporter of Save the Tarpon.  He has been outspoken in his opposition to the bottom weighted jig, as evidenced by this interview  that appeared in WaterLine Magazine in April, 2012.

Here are Abbott and Stewart’s Facebook questions. They are accompanied by Boyette’s responses.

Q – Craig Abbott: I would like someone to explain why we drift for hours on end with no snags and when the bite turns on we get hook up.  When someone answers that question and says we are flossing the fish because they are active will then need to explain why we don’t floss them if we fish the bait 10 foot off the bottom of the middle of the school.

Craig Abbott Ptts Captain

A – Capt. Andy Boyette: When fish are being flossed it’s because the fish are turning circles and changing directions. When the fish are just holding in a straight line in the current and not changing directions they can’t be flossed. Those tarpon actually ball up on the bottom of the Pass and do a daisy chain.

You can see it on a side finder machine. Flossing was just a term that I used it is also called lining or lifting.  The reason they fish on the bottom is so they can lift that hook from underneath the tarpon.In Michigan in the lakes they floss the salmon suspended in deep water. They refer to it as lifting and the hook is positioned underneath the fish.Flossing, lining, lifting, snagging, and snatching are synonyms with Boca Grande Pass jigging.

Q – Nathan Stuart: Nobody has still answered my question that opposes jig fishing.  How can 200 of the best tarpon fishing guys in florida mark thousands of fish be on top of them and nobody jooks up for a hour? Then like a light switch, boom, 20 boats hook up? ITS CALLED A BIGHT. Nathan Stuart

A – Capt. Andy Boyette:  Although it was a typo, he is correct. From Wikipedia: In knot tying, a bight is a curved section or slack part between the two ends of a rope, string, or yarn.  “Any section of line that is bent into a U-shape is a bight.” An open loop is a curve in a rope narrower than a bight but with separated ends.

Very interesting misuse of words.  When the fish are turning on a slack tide the so called ‘bite’ gets on when the fish are moving and the current conditions are right, as everyone has witnessed. There are eddies in the Pass that can cause a bight in your line that loops around the tarpon and allows for the line to run over the sides. Only a theory, but it got me thinking.

Most people do not understand that the tide flips to out-going on the bottom before it does on the top.  It swings around the compass, which allows for your line and hook to make contact with the fish.

Jig fishing is basic geometry.  The best understand it, the others all follow.

The bite gets on when the fish change sides in the Pass from either North to South, or East to West. Watch some video of the fishing and you will notice the bite is on when the fleet is moving mostly Boca Grande to Cayo Costa, not harbor to Gulf.  This allows the line to slide against the side of the tarpon, which in turn catches on the clipper.

Sometimes the sharks move them from ledge to ledge and the bite gets on.

But for sure when they just hold in place, it is almost impossible to hook fish with the BGP jig.  Last season it was a very bad year for the jig.  The tarpon stayed for long periods of time in the deep hole at the demarcation line.  They spent hours drifting all spread out with few hook-ups.  When the fleet is tight, the tarpon are tight and move side to side.  The bite is on.

When I jig fished I always swung to the outside of the fleet ahead of their direction so the fish would push through my lines. The jig fishermen have learned to swing out in front of a hooked fish.  The best jig fishermen swing to the outside, or mark a daisy chain on the bottom.

The Culture of “Jig” Fishing in Boca Grande Pass from Save the Tarpon on Vimeo.

Former PTTS captain: How the jig really works … and why

The following is an email exchange between former PTTS participant  Capt. Andy Boyette and WaterLine publisher Josh Olive.

——– Original Message ——–
Subject: Tarpon questions for WaterLine
From: WaterLine Weekly Magazine
Date: Thu, April 05, 2012 4:40 pm
To: info@tarponcharters.com

Josh Olive: How long have you been fishing for tarpon in Southwest Florida?

Capt. Boyette: I am a 47 year old generational Florida native and fished the Southwest Coast, specifically Boca Grande and Charlotte Harbor, from Englewood south to Marco Island my entire life. I caught my first tarpon at the age of 15.

Josh Olive: In that time, what has changed about the tarpon fishery?

Capt. Boyette: A new aggressive behavior throughout the entire area not just in the pass where fisherman rush the fish to try and catch them.

Josh Olive: How long have you been a tarpon guide (if applicable)? How important are tarpon to your livelihood?

Capt. Boyette: I have been guiding since 1998. I fish year round, and tarpon are an important part of my business since I dedicate 4-5 months exclusively to tarpon and fish everyday day during April-June peak season day light to dark with doubles at near 100% booking capacity for the last 8-9 years. However I fish many other species and can not survive as a guide on the tarpon fishery alone so, I target many species and seasons to round out and balance my year and client base, about 90% of my clients are non resident anglers who I specifically market too bringing them in to the area, I have a very limited local client base

Josh Olive: No one disputes that tarpon are fantastic gamefish. What is single biggest factor that makes them such a highly regarded opponent?

Capt. Boyette: The shear stamina and will to escape once you have them on the hook

Josh Olive: Where do you fish for tarpon (the Pass, the Harbor, the beach, etc.)? Why?

Capt. Boyette:I fish for tarpon in the pass, the harbor, the beach, and offshore where ever I can find them because I like to hunt hunt big game, so just going to the same place every day doing the same thing requires less skill and I like to challenge myself by finding tarpon and figuring out how to catch them.

Josh Olive: Do you prefer to use live bait or artificial lures for tarpon? Why?

Capt. Boyette: In the early season the pre spawn tarpon are gorging on oily baits and protein filed crab so I use live bait like fresh thread-fin hearing, blue and calico crabs, after the spawn in late summer and early fall when the tarpon are post spawn I switch to various swim baits and hard plastic plugs. I no longer jig fish after 10 years of doing so and have dramatically increased my landing percentages and my repeat clientele

Josh Olive: We all want to have tarpon here in Southwest Florida forever. Do you think current regulations and angler attitudes will allow that to be the case? If not, what do you think needs to change?

Capt. Boyette: The current regulation of the use of a kill tag is now obsolete and is flawed since the FWC now uses a DNA sample for research a Kill tag is no longer needed. As to the current aggression and attitude all animals learn behavior and adjust their behavior based on surroundings and outside influence. As with all intelligence whether highly evolved or less evolved it will always seek out the path of least resistance, in other words when the fish get too pressured in one area they will move to another. Not sure you could ever correct that.

Josh Olive: Are you in favor of tarpon tournaments? Why or why not?

Capt. Boyette: I am not in favor of any tournaments at this time in my career because of the damage caused by the weigh-in and the mentality of many to prove at all cost that they are better than anyone else in or not in the tournament. As to tarpon tournaments in particular I participated in the now largest Tarpon tournament from its beginning until 2009 and witnessed first hand how that lead to aggression that use to be only on tournament day that now stretches well through the week.

Also the weighing of the tarpon and the handling by some is leading to a higher mortality rate for the tournament. Its very difficult to prove since the sharks clean up most of the mess. But I will tell you specifically that I complained to the tournament director that we where killing a lot of tarpon because I seen dead floating tarpon every Monday after the tournament and they were all 150+ pound tarpon, never smaller, with gaff holes in their mouths.

In 2008 I won the last tournament of the series with a fish that my team and I hooked, fought and caught in less than 20 minutes never more than 200 yards from the weigh boat, I found that fish dead on Monday morning, I knew it was my fish, because when we went to gaff the tarpon it jumped and the tip of the gaff scraped the side of the fish and made a very distinct mark on it its side.

That fish can be seen on my website tarponcharters.com and if you look at that fish I won that tournament by weighing a tarpon that was so full of row that she was about to pop. It made me think about finding that fish that way. I would add also that because the tournaments are held every weekend in Boca Grande Pass Only, both Saturday and Sunday, anyone looking to just go recreational fishing who works the regular 8-5 M-F work week has to contend with an aggressive tournament the entire season, and I don’t care what anyone says its not fun when you are not in that tournament to have to be fishing in the middle of it.

Put yourself in the shoes of the guy who wants drive down on Saturday from inland Florida to have a relaxing day hanging around Boca Pass with his kids. It might not be bad except that for the majority of the season he can’t. I know. I was once one of those aggressors and now I am just the guide who tries to fish in there without a jig and not in the tournament

Josh Olive: Do you have any other comments about tarpon fishing that you would like to make?

Capt. Boyette: If I had to make one comment about tarpon It would be simple I have a 3 children, 2 adult one 9 year old as well as 2 grand children, who refer to me as Cappy. All like to fish and know what I do for a living and when the take their children fishing and I am dead and gone I hope that they will be able to go and catch tarpon like I did, and if there are non to catch I hope its not anything I did wrong.

Josh Olive: Have you ever fished with tarpon jigs in Boca Grande Pass or elsewhere? (if elsewhere, please specify)

Capt. Boyette: I fished with a jig when I first became a guide in 1998 until 2009, it was easy and productive but mainly because everyone else did. But the real problem with jig fishing is not the snagging issue, the problem is it is the only form of fishing I know of that forces you to participate because its near impossible to fish successfully any other way when the jig boats are doing what they do.

That style requires you to participate for success. An interesting fact = hardly anyone fishes with live bait in Boca Grande Pass when the jig fishing fleet is in there, but in the afternoon when the tide is outgoing and the jig does not work well, there are plenty of (jig) guides and fishermen fishing with live bait on the drift and not jigging.

The Culture of “Jig” Fishing in Boca Grande Pass from Save the Tarpon on Vimeo.

Josh Olive: Do you currently fish with tarpon jigs?

Capt. Boyette: No, But I did. I also helped develop a fish head style jig as replacement to the round ball once I understood how it worked. The round ball would move in the current to much so the one I helped design was made aerodynamic so it would track straight. It is similar to an arrow head and its stays on target better than a round ball. In order to hook a tarpon with a jig everything has to line up correctly, its like trying to thread a needle you have to hit the exact spot to attach the line.

Josh Olive: If you are a current or former tarpon jig fisherman, do you believe that tarpon are snagged, or are they hooked while attempting to eat the jig? What experiences or evidence has led you to this conclusion?

Capt. Boyette: As to the snagging issue its not snagging its a form of foul hooking. The tarpon swim into the line and the line is retrieved quickly while hovering over the school and the hook catches on the outside of the mouth in a part referred to as the clipper. For anyone who is familiar with the Alaskan spawning salmon fishery or any other salmon fishery its the same principle.

When I was 24 years old I went Alaska and snagged salmon with a weighted hook cast up river ahead of the salmon swimming up the current when you feel the salmon bumping into the line you reeled back quickly and the hook would sang the fish.

At that time its was legal. Today its illegal to intentionally sang salmon in Alaska so the guides take the same weighted hook and add a salmon egg and use the same method as before. But now they are required to release any fish caught anywhere but in the face, does not have to be in the mouth but in and around the mouth is close enough. And since you put the salmon egg on for bait the fish must have went after it since the State of Alaska decided that anything in and around the mouth is legal and if you put the bait on you give the appearance that you are not intentionally snagging the salmon.

Sound familiar? In Boca Grande Pass you cast down (dropping your weighted hook past the school) and back troll your boat to keep the boat at the same speed as the current so the line is kept straight up in down perpendicular to the tarpon hovering over the school (in basic geometry perpendicular means meeting a given line or surface at right angles).

With the jig under the school and when you feel the fish bumping your line you reel up and if the angles are right your hook slides up and behind the clipper and gets hung. It appears that he must have went after the bait, since – like the salmon egg in the aforementioned salmon scenario – when tarpon fishing you have a lead head and a plastic body attached to a hook.

Couple of interesting points should be made here since tarpon jump. One that has the hook caught in the side of the body’s soft tissue will come off, making it all but impossible to land a snagged tarpon. But when it runs into the line and foul hooks itself in the clipper, it can be landed.

I should also point out that if you do not fish with the jig hovering over the school and retrieve the line when you feel them bumping into it, it does not work.  In other words you can’t go out and free drift a jig with the line played out behind the boat.  If you could then a former jig fisherman like myself would have never bought a blue crab to fish on hill tide, I would have just drifted by with my jig hanging out the back and caught fish like I do with a crab.

And if that’s not true its easy enough to prove. You take the tarpon tournament and require them to distance themselves and to fish in free drift and see how many fish they catch. Another interesting fact anyone disputing should look at: The jig they are using – and if its the one I helped design and still have one of the molds collecting dust in my shop – they should re-read my statement on how it works.

I helped design this jig to track straight in the water to help hit the target better than the original round lead ball. One more quick note: Use a jig head with no plastic tail attached or better yet zip tie a spark plug to the bottom of a hook and paint it camouflage or by its more common name fire tiger or paint it black for concealment and see if you can catch a tarpon in the clipper using the jigging method, or any other way you can think to weight the hook from the bottom.

I would also add that this method does not work anywhere else. I have tried many times to catch a tarpon with a jig outside of the Pass. It does not work. If it did, the harbor and the beach would be full of jig fisherman when the fish leave the Pass and there would be no need to throw that heavy 12 foot extra weighted cast net to catch a tarpon’s favorite food or spend time dipping up all the crabs on the crab flush.

Josh Olive: Do you think jig fishing is an ethical practice, and do you think it should remain legal?

Capt. Boyette: I can say this to the ethics of jig fishing. If I paid to fish at the Barrier Reef and caught a Grander Marlin and it was foul hooked, I would have a hard time enjoying my trophy. As far as the legality, it is a rude form of fishing that requires everyone to participate so if you want to grouper fish the ledge in Boca Pass or catch snapper on the ledge or on the Pan and its jig fishing season you can’t. The boats will swarm you if the tarpon come near your boat so for that fact alone the FWC should look to some form of control. Not everyone coming to the Pass in May and June are looking to catch a tarpon and if it can’t be controlled to allow others the freedom to fish in peace, then its no different than disorderly conduct and that is already illegal.

Josh Olive: Do you have any other comments about tarpon jigs that you would like to make?

Capt. Boyette: If you use the jig, you should really study how it works, and why.

Is the PTTS reality show Boca Grande’s version of ‘Jersey Shore?’

PTTS Team Jersey Shore

By: Mary Anne Hastings, Boca Grande

Just when things start to quiet down a bit in Boca Grande, the circus known as the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series (PTTS) rolls into town. When I pick up a paper or turn on the television and see this tournament being glorified and promoted, I get very angry. When I see some of the local media touting the ongoing struggle in Boca Grande to rid ourselves of this scourge as nothing more than locals not wanting to share, I become livid.

Imagine being a resident of the  Jersey Shore when THAT reality show started airing and promoting your neighborhood like they did, then harassing you if you spoke out against it. Gasparilla Island is no different from any other community.

The residents here created this beautiful community and are responsible to maintain it. Visitors here are just that – visitors, and while all are welcome, they are expected to respect the values and traditions that have made this island what it is. Absent of residents who care deeply about their neighborhood, any developer, retail operation or reality show circus would have the ability to come in and destroy this beauty for their own profit.

Ask anyone who lived on Fort Myers Beach a few years back before the resorts and bars moved in.

PTTS General Manager and Host, Joe Mercurio

PTTS General Manager and Host, Joe Mercurio.

The Boca Grande Comprehensive Plan Amendment, Lee County  states: “The State of Florida recognized that the conservation of the natural beauty, plant, marine, animal and bird life of the islands was in the best interest of the residents and property owners of the islands, the citizens of Lee and Charlotte Counties and the State of Florida, and consequently created the Gasparilla Island Conservation District by enacting the Gasparilla Island Conservation District Act of 1980 (Ch 80-473).”

Lee County and the state of Florida authorized us to preserve and maintain Boca Grande and its surrounding resources to reflect the values and appearance of our community. The PTTS and its affiliates have taken it upon themselves to show the world their version of what Boca Grande is all about and their depiction is dead wrong.

On top of that, they are essentially strip mining a resource for profit and will move on when the fishery is irreparably damaged or completely collapses leaving the island economy in shambles and a natural resource destroyed. We are stewards of the natural resources of our community and we are responsible for how our community is portrayed to the world.

“DJ” Gary Ingman and Joe “The Situation” Mercurio created a “tournament” reality show and have lined their pockets with advertising dollars from it. We have proven their “tournament” rules are bogus. Foul-hooked and dead tarpon are counted as catches, against their own “rules.”

PTTS Tarpon TournamentOther anglers in the area are forced out so they can film the NASCAR-style circus they call fishing without anyone else in their camera shots. Millions of people then watch  this sham reality show and think that is what fishing looks like in Boca Grande and we, the community, are left to re-educate the world on ethical techniques and behavior, not to mention clean the beaches up when the dead tarpon wash ashore. Ingman and Mercurio saw a way to make a lot of money off a reality TV show and they jumped on it, without regard for the neighborhood or the fish they were making that money off of. Even their website is pttstv.com. That says a lot to me. It’s all about the TV show.

The PTTS is our “Jersey Shore” reality show and like the actual residents of the Jersey Shore, we want them gone and I make no apologies for it. We sincerely hope the Boca Grande jig will be banned at the June 12th FWC meeting but, given the money made off this tournament, my guess is that Ingman and Mercurio are coming up with a plan B snagging device to circumvent any new rules and keep their cash cow mooing. We will be watching.

The Culture of “Jig” Fishing in Boca Grande Pass from Save the Tarpon on Vimeo.

Project Tarpon’s Scott Alford: ‘Coon Pop’ vs. the bottom weighted ‘Pass Jig’

Lance “Coon” Schouest

Lance “Coon” Schouest, inventor of the “Coon Pop” lure.

The following question concerning the “Coon Pop” lure and any possible similarity to the bottom weighted Boca Grande tarpon jig was presented to Project Tarpon’s Scott Alford on Saturday, June 1 by M, Lane Stephens, a partner in the Tallahassee lobbying firm of SCG Governmental Affairs. Stephens has confirmed he has been retained to lobby on behalf of the  Florida Tarpon Anglers Association.  The organization’s board is comprised entirely of Professional Tarpon Tournament Series participants.

Mr. Stephens’ former and current clients include the Florida Airboat Association and Professional Tarpon Tournament Series sponsor Miller Brewing Company. PTTS team leader Capt. Dave Markett serves on the Airboat Association board.

Markett is an outspoken opponent of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation’s Commission’s proposed rule banning the use of bottom weighted lures in Boca Grande Pass. In a press release announcing Mr. Stephens’ affiliation with the Florida Airboat Association, the organization noted Mr. Stephens’ experience providing “governmental consulting services” on issues before the FWC. (UPDATE: A spokesman for the Airboat Association says Stephens is no longer employed to lobby for the group.)

Alford’s Project Tarpon is based in Texas where the Coon Pop lure is commonly used.

Tarpon snatch hook

Unlike the Coon Pop, the “Boca Grande Tarpon Jig” (above) is fished vertically and is rigged with a weight below the hook making the hook point the first point of contact with the fish.  Historically, any lure weighted at the belly or bend of the hook has been defined as a “snatch hook” or “snag hook.”

Here is the text of Mr. Stephens’ email to Project Tarpon’s Scott Alford:

I was reading some of your posts on Youtube regarding the different use of the Coon Pop in Boca Grande Pass vs Texas and Louisiana. I understand it is generally slow trolled or cast in Tx and LA. However, I’ve read some articles about fishing for tarpon (in) Texas that talks about presenting the lure in a vertical jigging fashion in deeper water in Texas. You seem to be very knowledgeable on this subject and I’d appreciate information you have on the vertical technique used in Texas.

Thanks
Lane Stephens
SCG Governmental Affairs

Here is the text of Scott Alford’s reply:

There really isn’t much “vertical” usage of the jig in Texas in deep water or in Louisiana for that matter. The coon-pop is not really jigged. There are a number of ways it is used over here. I’ll go through each of them with you and explain how it is very different than the Boca Grande Pass.

"Coon Pop" Hook Placement

In this photo you can see the most common hook placement when a tarpon eats a “Coon Pop” fishing lure.

(1) Trolled – we troll up to seven baits with gas inboard boats or with electric trolling motors. The baits are staggered by letting them out for 30 seconds down to 5 seconds (i.e. 30, 25, 20, 15, 10 and 5 seconds – then a three second line sometimes – they are staggered with odd counts on one side and even counts on the other.) The five second line is only about four feet under the water and we are fishing in 35-45 feet of water usually in the open Gulf. The fish are in schools but the fish come to the baits. Most fish get hooked from the inside out, not on the outside of the face – the majority are hooked in the button. The speed these baits are trolled is between 1.5 to 2.5 knots. The rods don’t get picked up until after a bite.

(2) Drifted – this is really just drift trolling. Set up the same except the baits are set on the side of the boat and drifted and we don’t use as many baits. This is just a slow troll. Rods are in rod holders, not held. Same is true for hook sets etc.

(3) Casting – the bait is thrown and then reeled in. Again, this is in the open Gulf and the baits are usually retreived in the upper half of the water column.

Coon Pop Hook Placement

Another example of the most common hook placement found when using the “Coon Pop.”

(4) Use in Pass Cavallo – there is only one natural pass along the Texas coast that frequently has tarpon in the pass where you can fish for them consistently. The pass is relatively narrow and only about twenty feet deep. One guy fishes the pass using coon-pops. He does not hold the rods. The baits are suspended from a few feet off the bottom almost to the surface in rod holders the entire time. Tarpon do not get in the pass in schools as they do in Boca Grande and these fish are usually all post spawn, late summer fish that move into the pass in late afternoon early evening to feed. The fish move in in usually as singles. The fish are eating the jigs from below and the rod is not picked up until the fish is hooked. The boat drifts with the tide, is not maneuvered on top of the fish and the boat drifts over a fish as it goes in or out with the tide. No tide and you have no fish.

The reason a coon-pop works is because a tarpon comes from below and behind the bait to eat it. It can’t see the hook. On trolled baits, I use 150 lb piano wire leader. Casting baits, we usually (use) 120+ lb. mono leaders.

This is not to say that a tarpon won’t eat a jig in Boca Grande Pass. Likely they will.  But as I’ve seen the jig fished, I am skeptical that it is regularly eaten. I’ve seen the hook-up numbers on jigs versus using live bait. A tarpon is more likely to eat a live bait presented than a jig (coon-pop or otherwise). If the jigs are working more consistently than bait, that should be a red flag.

I have advocated that there is a simple way to solve the issue. Get a number of tarpon photographs showing hook placement in tarpon caught with coon-pops in Texas and Louisiana and take a similar, unbiased representation of tarpon caught in Boca Grande Pass using the jig. If there is a difference, you’ll have your answer. Personally, I think they’ll be an obvious one.

Bottom line, our fish are not as concentrated and not vertically concentrated as they are in Boca Grande Pass.

Scott Alford
Project Tarpon