Randy Wayne White: FISHING’S DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

Critics say tarpon actually are snagged with this popular style of Boca Grande Pass fishing.

By RANDY WAYNE WHITE

(The following was originally published in the Sunday, April 14, 2013 edition of the Tampa Tribune.) Randy Wayne White is a New York Times best-selling novelist and resident of Pine Island, Florida. To learn more about Randy, visit his website or Wikipedia page

On Wednesday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) will consider a draft rule amendment to protect tarpon that, if approved, will be the first step in addressing among the most brazen cons in our state’s fishing history, and a dirty little fishing secret that has, for a decade, caused one or more FWC biologist to appear naïve or, at best, as an unwilling dupe or dupes.

It is an ugly story, dark with irony, but brighter days are ahead — if the commission takes that first bold step on Wednesday and designates  tarpon [but not bonefish] as a catch-and-release-only species.  The tarpon isn’t considered eatable, yet it’s an iconic game fish, so this sounds like a no brainer, right?

Randy Wayne White

New York Times best selling author, Randy Wayne White.

Wrong.   The sad fact is, this is the first incarnation of the FWC’s seven member commission to exhibit enough fishing savvy to acknowledge a problem exists.  By my reckoning, though, the amendment could be a vote or two shy of passage which is why I’ve decided to throw some sunlight on the dirty little fishing secret, expose the con, and hope that Florida’s thinking anglers will make their voices heard.

Here’s the ugly back story:  In the early 1990s, when tarpon tournament purses in Boca Grande Pass climbed to $100,000 or more (not counting side-bet calcuttas) two local anglers revived an old poaching technique that guaranteed they would boat tarpon (even when tarpon were not feeding) and also fill their pockets with lots and lots of modern hundred dollar bills.

“Floss-fishing,” was the technique, a throwback to the days when European peasants fished for survival, not sport — a deliberate method of snagging trout and salmon in fast flowing rivers.  As the two innovators proved, floss-fishing worked equally well on tarpon that school in the fast tidal rips of Florida’s west coast.

“We thought we were being clever, but there’s nothing sporting about what we did,” Mark Futch, a third generation Boca Grande fishing guide, remembers now.  “A buddy and I grew-up fishing that pass.  There were days when tarpon would stack by the thousands in the deepest holes, but they wouldn’t hit a bait, no matter what you threw at them.  With so much tournament money on the line, I decided to try something different.”

For Futch and his boyhood friend, George Melissas,  it meant designing a specialized rig consisting of a heavy lead weight wired to the bend, or “belly” of a hook that had already been canted off-center with pliers.  To disguise the rig’s true intent, a colorful rubber adornment was added to make it look like a legitimate fishing lure.

“Mark still has the prototype, ” Melissas (now one of the country’s foremost experts on sea mollusks) told me.   “We named it ‘The Prom Dress’  as a joke because it came off in a hurry when we hooked tarpon.  Personally, I didn’t go out there with the intent of snagging fish, but I’d guess about ninety percent of tarpon landed using that technique are snagged.”

Seahunt Ptts Tarpon Jig

Something else the men did was name their creation a “break away jig,” which added to the illusion of legitimacy because actual jig lures (which are weighted at the eyelet, not the belly of a hook) are used world-wide, and considered among the most benign of artificial lures.

The ruse worked, and so did floss-fishing.  Futch and Melissas won or placed in the next fifty consecutive tarpon tournaments using their homemade “lures”, and piled up more than a quarter million dollars in prize money.

“We were landing tarpon when no one, I mean no one, could even get a bite,” Futch told me, “and good fishing guides aren’t dumb.  They saw what we were using, and saw that every tarpon we landed was hooked outside the mouth, not inside the mouth.  Soon, there were a hundred boats in the pass using rigs similar to ours, and we were seeing more and more dead tarpon floating or on the beach.  I know I’m partly to blame for this mess, and that’s why I’ve been working so hard to make it right.”

Because I was a Sanibel fishing guide during that era, I knew Capt. Futch only by reputation (although he is now a good friend) but I can tell you from personal experience what happened next, and how that dirty little secret was transformed into a purposeful con.  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 in what is a very tough business.  The technique wasn’t illegal but most of us knew it wasn’t ethical, so a do-it-until-they-banned-it approach was embraced by some, rejected by others.  How do I know this is true?  Because, as a fishing guide, I DID it.

In 1998, a half million dollars in winnings, and three years later, Futch and Melissas returned to traditional methods when the Boca Grande Guides association did, indeed, ban “jig fishing” in tournaments.   Instead of following suit, however, the Florida Marine Fisheries Commission (which became the FWC 1999) dismissed the growing animus between traditional tarpon anglers and those who used belly-weighted hooks as “a user conflict.”  Worse, the FWC remained indifferent to the fact that Florida’s legal definition of a “snagged fish” (compared to states such as Washington, Oregon and Michigan) offered enough wiggle room to energize a whole boutique industry based on snagging tarpon — and that’s exactly what happened in Boca Grande Pass, in my opinion.

Sea Hunt Boats Snagged Tarpon

This photo, captured by a guest to a local boat show earlier this year, features a Sea Hunt Boats advertising banner picturing a tarpon snagged just outside the eye.

Enter Silver King Entertainment LLC which, in 2002, came to the area to video thirteen TV episodes of its Professional Tarpon Tournament Series (PTTS).   The show featured fast boats and “pro” anglers, in NASCAR-like garb, who used a run-and-gun, pack approach to chasing pods of tarpon around the pass — a water space where, for unknown millennia, Florida’s sport-fishing cash cow, Megalops atlanticus, has schooled to rest and fatten before migrating off-shore to spawn.  For viewers (and sponsors) the dramatic payoff was video of sharks attacking tarpon that had been played to exhaustion, and “official weigh-ins” after tarpon had been gaffed, dragged to the scale, then  hoisted in transparent body bags.

All perfectly legal by Florida law, but the Boca Grande Guide’s Association — never a warm and fuzzy group when it came to outsiders (myself included) — filed a law suit, and appealed to the FWC to send biologists to do a hook placement study that, local guides felt certain, would confirm that “jigging” is actually snagging.  Such a study, of course, would also return a boomerang of bad karma into lap of the snag-rig’s creator — something no one, by now, wanted more than Capt. Mark Futch.

Finally, our Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission responded.  The commission earmarked $250,000 in funding, and assigned a biologist to lead what would result in a three year, eight page document entitled, Summary Report on the Catch-and-Release Mortality Study on Tarpon in Boca Grande Pass, 2002–2004.

Hello happy ending, right?

Wrong again.

According to data from the FWC’s study, in 2004, 74% of tarpon landed using so-called “jigs” were hooked outside the “buccal cavity” or mouth — including a tarpon that was boated after being snagged in the tail — yet the study (after ignoring other statistical red flags) concluded, “While more tarpon [10%] were foul-hooked using artificial bait than live bait, percentages were not unusually high and did not contribute negatively to the survival of tarpon.”

Huh?

That’s right, our FWC biologists fell for the floss-fishing con — hook, line and sinker.   The authors, in my opinion, accepted the fiction that a belly-weighted hook is a legitimate jig lure, then contorted other definitions (such as what constitutes a fairly-hooked fish) as needed to prop-up their own flawed premise.

An example:  Picture yourself holding a spoonful of cereal.  You swing it toward your mouth but, instead, stab yourself in the forehead, the throat, the cheek, the nose or the eye socket.  By the definition of the FWC study, you have successfully hit your target, and are now chewing your cereal compliments of your head, your cheek, your outside maxillary (in terms of tarpon physiology) but not your mouth as it is used by primates and fish alike.

Absurd!  Tarpon are an ancient species; a marvel of evolution that have outlasted dinosaurs, survived global cataclysms, all due to their ability to hunt, forage, ambush and feed successfully.  With its giant Megalops eyes, its sensitive lateral line, this is an apex predator — an animal that has NOT survived the eons by whacking its head, throat and cheeks against prey it intended to eat.

But that’s what the study claims to be true.  As a result, Florida is now stuck with a document that has, in my view, done more to endanger our tarpon fishery than the twenty years of snag fishing the study, in fact, implicitly endorses.

Honest naivety is to blame, I hope.  If not, all particulars and circumstances regarding the creation of that study should be examined under the sharpest lens of a journalistic microscope.

Ultimate Tarpon Book - Randy Wayne White

Before you can understand how badly flawed the FWC’s 2002-2004 study actually is, you must first understand how floss-fishing works:

Imagine a school of tarpon stacked 40 feet high, mouths pointed into the tide. This mass of fish is then transected by nearly-invisible fluorocarbon fishing lines, heavily leaded-hooks attached, a process repeated hundreds of times over a day. Hooks attached to these lines may be oscillating up and down, but are actually more effective as snag hooks if they are held motionless, allowed to drift quietly near the bottom of the column of fish.

These tarpon aren’t feeding (in this scenario) nor are they unaware. Even so, the jaw structure of a tarpon is such that the side-flaps of its mouth (the maxilla or ‘clipper plates’) are exposed targets, as are the fish’s gills. These flaps are hinged and flair slightly outward, not unlike an overgrown thumbnail, or the backside of a human ear. When fluorocarbon line makes contact with this bony flap, the line is sometimes funneled (flossed) toward the inside hinge of the mouth (clipper plate), or through the gill. The hinge, as it narrows, becomes an effective guide. Soon, as the boat or the fish moves, the flow of line is halted by an abrupt collision: The hook (given additional mass by the heavy sinker) either loops and buries itself outside the tarpon’s mouth or gill plate, or it bounces free. If the hook does stick, the startled tarpon then panics, which causes other tarpon to panic, often through a haze of multiple hooks and lines which can create the illusion of a sudden feeding frenzy.

Shrewd, huh? Key elements to this technique:

1. A heavy (3-6 oz.) sinker must be attached directly to the belly of a hook.

2. Tarpon must be stacked in a contained area (which is why this technique is so effective in Boca Grande, but useless off-shore, or in our back bays.)

3. The hook must be extremely sharp and is more effective if it is a circle hook canted slightly using pliers. (I’ve done this, keep in mind.)

4. Low visibility fishing line –fluorocarbon — and a gray sinker are best because deception is imperative.

5. A high speed reel (to rocket the hook upward through schooling tarpon) and a good boat handler all add to the likelihood of success.

The most devious thing about this technique is that, if you are being paid to produce fish, your clients (if inexperienced) will never question why the tarpon they landed is hooked outside the mouth after “bumping” or “nibbling” at the hook.

Obvious, once you understand how it works, right? Not if you’re an overworked, underpaid biologist, apparently – nor if you’re a fishing guide who has wrestled with the ethics of flossing. Capt. Andy Boyette, a top money winner in PTTS tournaments and an accomplished Charlotte County guide, is a vocal example of just how convincing the floss-fishing con can be.

“It took me awhile to figure out that jigging tarpon is the biggest hoax in the history of fishing,” Boyette told me recently. “I jig fished for eight years [2000 to 2008] and didn’t understand, at first, why almost every fish we landed was hooked outside the mouth. I remember trying to think up new stories to explain it to my clients. Finally, I got sick of lying to clients who I liked and respected, and that was the end of jig-fishing for me. I was good at it – my boat won the last PTTS tournament in 2008 – but I’d rather have a clear conscience.”

I asked Boyette if he believed that all accomplished tarpon “jiggers” knew the truth.

“All I’ll say about that is I think there are new fishermen out there who don’t want to believe it, or have been told the same lie for so long that nothing will convince them. But the best clients, actual sports-fishermen, don’t want to catch a foul-hooked tarpon. That’s what these new guides need to think about.” [Click here for Capt. Andy Boyette’s detailed assessment of “jigging”]

Boyette nails a key point: Florida risks a negative economic backlash by tolerating (in fact, endorsing) floss-fishing, and failing to re-define our own vague snagging laws. In1885, when New Yorker W. H. Wood, fishing in the backwaters of Sanibel, boated the first tarpon ever taken on rod and reel, the destiny (and economy) of Southwest Florida was forever changed by moneyed sportsmen who took the ethics of fishing seriously.

Guess what? Serious anglers still do. But Florida has dropped the ball in comparison to destinations such as Oregon, Michigan, Washington and Alaska which have set an example by honoring sporting ethics via articulate legislation. Our state is guilty of another oversight, too: We pay bargain basement salaries to the biologists and law enforcement people mandated to maintain our multi-billion dollar fishing cash cow, when we should be luring the best and brightest in the country. That doesn’t mean we don’t have good biologists and first rate FWC law enforcement people. We do. But it’s bad business not to reinvest profits in order to maintain the source of those profits.

For now, though, the seven member FWC commission can take a step in the right direction on Wednesday by designating tarpon a catch-and-release-only species (but omit bonefish, which would unfairly burden ethical and responsible tournaments in the Florida Keys.)

Let the FWC hear from you, thinking anglers.

Email the Commissioners at FWC.

Visit the website of Randy Wayne White.

The PTTS dead (err… we mean sleeping) tarpon cover-up

This video was filmed on June 17, 2012 during the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series (PTTS) Tarpon Cup Championship. Unlike all other PTTS events, no DNA samples were taken by the PTTS during this event. Here is a short explanation from a first-hand witness who was on the boat which captured this footage. For more of the story, read this.

“When I was asked to participate in the PTTS championship protest I didn’t know what to expect or what reaction I would receive from some of the PTTS participants as I had been a participant myself at one time. I expected to see some of the typical bumper boat type action the PTTS is well known for. Having not participated in the PTTS for some time now, I was completely unaware of what happens behind the scenes to the tarpon after they are weighed.

In years prior, the team that caught and weighed in a fish was responsible for reviving and releasing that fish. In my opinion, I feel the PTTS was under some pressure from the public for dead tarpon washing up on the beach the day after the tournament. The PTTS decided to use a “trained” release team to be in charge of all tarpon after they have been dragged to the scale and weighed in. I was fully aware of their new policy, what I was not aware of however was the blatant disregard for the tarpon once the release team took possession.

What we filmed that day was a total lack of respect for the the tarpon that were to be released. The PTTS crews were not happy about us filming their actions that day and they did their best to cover up the dead tarpon they were dumping by having other PTTS boats wake our boat. This is what happens at the PTTS behind the scenes.”

Florida Sport Fishing magazine takes a look at the PTTS

This article is featured in the recent issue of Florida Sport Fishing magazine.
By: Capt Mike Genoun, Founder/Editor-In-Chief of Florida Sport Fishing
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Pinocchio Tarpon Tournament Series

The following article was pulled from Beel den Stormer Presents the Only Fishery Blog You Need.  It was written by Beel den Stormer.  Check out his “Fish, Fisheries and Queryomics” blog at denstormerpresents.com.

Pinocchio Tarpon Tournament Series, According to Save the Tarpon

Picture of Pinocchio with a long nose

Beel loves big fish, fish festivals, and good times- like shindigs.  But Beel also loves a dog fight.

The Professional Tarpon Tournament Series (PTTS) has been caught up in a web of deceit of its own making, according to a report by Save the Tarpon.  Like Congress, Save the Tarpon made an impactful statement just before adjourning.  In this case, for a fundraising shindig on Sunday (3 March 2013).

Please friends, allow Beel to summarize several claims made by Save the Tarpon.

Save the Tarpon reports that in  September 2012 PTTS television show host Joe Mercurio told Florida Fish and Wildlife Commissioners that PTTS would “voluntarily” replace its gaff, drag, and release tournament format with an alternative format that would be less stressful to the fish.

Reportedly, Mercurio then requested that the commission disregard this this promise.

Save the Tarpon also reports that Mercurio later stated, “I ask that you accept these changes as part of all of our responsibility to ensure the conservation and preservation efforts we have made in the past continue to have a positive impact on the fish and fishery.”

Okay, like a hungry tarpon, Beel will bite.  Which “changes?”  The initial change of format, or the subsequent reversion to the status quo?

Finally, Save the Tarpon reports that Mercurio promised the commission that, “This year, we pledge to provide $15,000 to further support the FWRI’s [Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute] Tarpon Genetic Recapture Study.”

Evidently, the check was lost in the mail as FWRI has not received it as of this date, according to FWRI’s lead tarpon researcher Dr. Kathy Guindon.

Given the nature of the controversy, it is not at all in PTTS’s  favor to be so inconsistent on the record.

Last week Beel commented on this controversy and noted that the PTTS represented, “A Case History of Catastrophically Poor Public Relations.”

Since that report, Beel has learned that Mercurio has a degree in public relations.  Oh well, Beel guesses its all about grade inflation.

“Oh what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive.”
Sir Walter Scott (1808)

Disclaimer:  Beel actually looked into attending the shindig to speak with Save the Tarpon principles to learn more about this controversy.  However, the 18-hour flight + layover (each way) precluded such a trip.

Sponsors, anglers, FWC asking $15,000 question: What other ‘promises’ will PTTS break?

When a man repeats a promise again and again, he means to fail you.  ~Proverb

PTTS Host, Joe Mercurio

PTTS host Joe Mercurio performs one of his favorite Broadway show tunes for the cameras: “Promises, Promises.”

What’s a promise made by the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series worth? As the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Florida Wildlife Research Institute will tell you, not much. Actually, not anything.

But that hasn’t kept the PTTS from making lots of them as the tournament scrambles to promise everything and anything to its handful of remaining sponsors and participants. And the PTTS is good at making promises. Delivering on them is, apparently, another story. Like we said. Ask the FWC. Ask the FWRI. And if you’re a PTTS sponsor or angler, ask yourself. It’s the $15,000 question.

In September, 2012, PTTS television show host Joe Mercurio, who doubles as vice president and general manager of Silver King Entertainment LLC, the tournament’s parent company, stood before the FWC commissioners and made a lot of promises.

He promised, for instance, that the PTTS would “voluntarily” replace its sacrificial gaff, drag, hoist, weigh, drag and dump “live catch and release” format with some mystery gaff, drag, measure, drag and dump “live catch and release” sleight of hand. He then instantly rendered his promise meaningless by begging the commission to disregard everything he just promised and keep the rules that make gaff, drag, hoist, weigh, drag and dump legal. Confused? So were the commissioners. But Joe had promised. And a promise is, of course, a promise.

Mercurio was in a promising mood that day. “I ask that you accept these changes as part of all of our responsibility to ensure the conservation and preservation efforts we have made in the past continue to have a positive impact on the fish and fishery,” Mercurio said of his gaff and drag promise made to the seven FWC commissioners.

He wasn’t finished. “We will continue to promote conservation and to conduct our activities while exercising the utmost respect for the fishery.” Mercurio’s pile of promises was growing faster than his nose.

Then came the payoff. Literally.

Noting that “our organization and anglers understand that we have a duty to conserve and protect the resource we enjoy so much, and to give back to the community by supporting conservation and preservation efforts,” Mercurio promised to put his money – actually, Gary Ingman’s money and the tournament’s sponsors money – where his mouth was.

Mercurio paused. He looked each commissioner in the eye. There was one more promise to be made by the PTTS that day in Tampa. Mercurio had a big finish he was about to drop on the FWC commissioners, a honking big finish, a jaw dropping “this guy means business” honking big finish wrapped in yet one more promise that made all his other PTTS promises look puny by comparison. It was a Take It To The Bank, May God Strike Me Dead, Mother Of All Promises promise. Joe glanced to his left. Joe glanced to his right. The moment had come.

“This year,” Mercurio promised the seven FWC commissioners as the Florida Channel’s cameras beamed his words live and in color to every cable subscriber in the state, “we pledge to provide $15,000 to further support the FWRI’s Tarpon Genetic Recapture Study.”

No more gaff and drag. We promise. We will continue to promote conservation. We promise. We will conduct our activities while exercising the utmost respect for the fishery. We promise. And to back up all our other promises, we will give you $15,000. We promise. We promise. We promise. We promise.

Kathy Guindon, PhD, is the FWRI’s lead tarpon researcher. She runs the institute’s Tarpon Genetic Recapture Study. The same Tarpon Genetic Recapture Study Mercurio promised the FWC commissioners would soon be cashing a nice, fat $15,000 check courtesy of the generous folks at Ingman Marine, Miller/Coors, Yamaha Marine Group, Sea Hunt Boats, Reactor Watches, Continental Trailers, Miller’s Ale House, Johnson Outdoors, Humminbird and, or so the promise went, the PTTS. Joe promised.

So where’s Joe’s promised $15,000?

“To my knowledge, the tarpon genetic recapture study never received money from the PTTS in 2012, or prior,” says Dr. Guindon. There is, in fact, no $15,000. Just a promise. One of many promises Mercurio made that day to the FWC, its sponsors, its participants, the people of Florida and, through his own words posted on his own PTTS website, roughly three billion people worldwide.

“To my knowledge, the tarpon genetic recapture study never received money from the PTTS in 2012, or prior.”

If nothing else, at least we all know – including the FWC commissioners Joe stood before that day in Tampa – what a PTTS promise is really worth.

End catch and drag. We promise.

Promote conservation. We promise.

Utmost respect for the fishery. We promise.

Fifteen thousand dollars? The check’s in the mail. We promise.

(Want to do something that will actually help the tarpon genetic recapture study? Join us Sunday, March 3 at the Boca Grande Community Center/Community House from 2 to 6 p.m. Our captains will be on hand to explain how the program works. We promise.)

A Mostly True Account of What May Have Happened at the 2012 PTTS Tarpon Cup Championship

Actually, it’s completely true.

June 17, 2012 6:45 AM:  Today is not just the day of the PTTS Tarpon Cup, but it also marks the first time the community of Boca Grande has organized and come together to show their displeasure for this tournament and the actions of its participants in the form of a protest during filming of the season’s final event.

I’m dilly dallying just West of the Pass, trying to affix my “Stop the PTTS Tarpon Kill, SaveTheTarpon.com” banner to the t-top of a borrowed boat, wondering what today will bring.  The plan was to have a peaceful protest on the beach by community members, while a few guides attempted to interrupt some of the filming of the made-for-TV series by navigating our boats into a position where the banners could be seen on camera.  We hoped this would cause enough frustration for the show’s producers and owners that the pleas of the community, and sportsman from around the country, would stop falling on deaf ears.

The PTTS thought things would go smoothly for them today.  Scoffing at the idea that even a small group would actually show on the beach. Our newly formed rag tag not-for-profit thought things would go smoothly for us too.  Thinking the deep passion our community held for the cause would carry us far.  FWC apparently just thought we were all going to lose control and need to be arrested. I could already see their army of officers, complete with paddy wagon.  None of these things happened that day.  The truth is no one was arrested, no tickets were written, the paddy wagon left empty and things definitely did not go smoothly for the PTTS.  How would things turn out for us?  Well, lets just say that I couldn’t have pictured what would happen that day in my wildest imagination.

6:50 AM, still just West of the Pass: I glance up to see a twenty seven foot pink center console coming our way at high speed. Rusty Hooker approached, stereo blasting, belching smoke from its ancient twin outboards as they were pinned at full throttle in reverse, coming to just rest inches from my bow as I sat drifting and still fumbling with that silly banner.

“You ain’t fuckin’ goin’ no where,” said the captain as he took a swig from his beer…at 6:50AM.

Now, I know what your thinking, I should have expected things would not go quite as easily as I had imagined. But, I guess I just gave a little too much credit to the “P” in PTTS.

Rusty Hooker, belonging to PTTS participant Chris Molinaro, is seen here blocking the view of a tarpon being "revived and released" by the PTTS drag and dump boys.

Rusty Hooker, belonging to PTTS participant Chris Molinaro, is seen here blocking Capt. Tom’s  camera view of a tarpon being “revived and released” by the PTTS drag and dump boys.

Over about the next fifteen minutes a few more choice words were exchanged by both parties as the captain of the Rusty Hooker shifted frantically from forward to reverse, over and over, in a desperate attempt to keep us from interfering with the tournament that had now started.  I’m pretty sure the nearby FWC officer must have overheard my boisterous objections to this blatant disregard for Coast Guard navigational safety, as he made his way over to us and had a few words for the captain of the Rusty Hooker.   Who had, by the way, quickly stashed his now empty ‘breakfast of champions’ somewhere under his console where it appeared to have a few friends.  After a little more bantering he scurried towards the PTTS support crowd that was now gathering on the beach.

The tournament had started but the beach side protesters and other boats weren’t scheduled to show up for several more hours.  I hopped in the tower, cranked her up, and sped around the corner into the Pass.  Banner flapping in the wind, still not securely attached to the boat,  apparently upside down, and smoke billowing from my ears. But I didn’t care. I was absolutely fuming about the unprovoked little exchange that had just taken place.  If this was how we were going to play today, I was ready to blow off a little steam. To hell with the plan.

8:55 AM, Boca Grande Pass:  For nearly an hour, I had been expressing my extreme displeasure for the previous exchange, mainly in the form of heckling, complete with words only appropriate for a true sailor.  My four-letter word barrage was hap-haphazardly directed at anyone involved with the PTTS who was unfortunate enough to get within earshot, including a few participants of the tournament, PTTS owner Gary Ingman, host Joe Mercurio, the production crew for the show, and at one point, even the acting Captain for our region of the FWC (whoops).  It was starting to look like they might need that paddy wagon after all.  And then something brought me back. A grounding reminder of why we were here this day.

Up until now, I had jumped around, chasing the camera boat, getting in a few shots here and there, beaching next to the weigh boat for a short while, and generally just causing a little confusion.  On the outside it appeared to be a brilliantly orchestrated effort as we confused our newly adopted shadow boats with unpredictable and random movements.  But in reality, I was just really pissed off and had forgotten ‘the plan.’

We had been posting up a little West of the weigh boat, tight to the beach, and made a habit of following the Tires Plus “release boat” as they dragged once mighty fish slowly away from the crowd of proud PTTS family and friends.  As the Tires Plus “drag and dump” crew (as I had now dubbed them) came by, we quickly took position.

By this point, we had already followed more than a half dozen or so other fish as they had been towed away, watching as some of these fish would struggle momentarily, roll on to their sides, and quietly sink into the dark water and swift moving tide of Boca Grande Pass.  Others, not willing to show signs of life, were quickly stuffed underwater by the PTTS “trained professionals” in an effort to hurry back to the beach and pick up the next nearly-dead “live release” victim of television entertainment.

A few of these fish had briefly floated to the surface, and one was even deliberately run over by the drag and dump boys. I had managed to get a short series of still photos of that little gem, but after spending a few minutes to review them my heart sunk as I realized that I was holding a pretty poor excuse for a lens and lacked two vitally important things needed to accurately depict the gravity of what was unfolding before my eyes.  A polarizing filter and an even the slightest inkling of skill as a photographer.

If you ever had a bucket full of minnows as a kid you don’t need a PHD and a half-million dollar study to understand what happened to those fish as they swirled around.  I’m sure you would be able to recall what it looked like as the minnows spiraled out of control on the surface in ever tightening circles, rolled belly up, and sank to the bottom.  They were not napping.  They were dead.  Just think, giant minnows in a giant bucket.

But as this particular fish was pulled past my boat, something just felt different about it.  My interest was piqued.   It wasn’t the lifeless calm it exuded as the release team member held tight to its lower jaw. It wasn’t its size or who caught it. Quite honestly, there was really nothing notable about this fish, it wasn’t all that unusual. It was just a feeling I got.

Capt. Tom seen following the drag and dump boys as they are protected by the Rusty Hooker.

Capt. Tom seen following the drag and dump boys as they are protected by the Rusty Hooker.

Up to this point there had been nothing we could do except stare in abject horror and snap a few photos as fish after fish was hauled off and stuffed beneath the waves in what had become an obvious attempt to hide it from the view of the crowd.   But as the drag and dump boys pulled away and out into the deep waters of the Pass, the worn tarpon surfaced slowly in a feeble attempt to catch her breath.  It almost appeared like she had an expression on her ancient face.  I don’t know how to fully explain it.  I swear when I looked into her eye, she returned a fleeting look back as she sunk back beneath the surface. It was probably nothing, but I took it as a sign to pay close attention to this one.

As they eased by, bracing for the onslaught of insults I’m sure had now become nothing more than background noise for the PTTS drag and dump boys, I instantly transformed from a profanity wielding Tasmanian devil on the verge of being hauled off by the clam cops, to some type of big cat quietly stalking its prey. Or, something like that.

We trailed closely, jockeying for position with the BudgetHeating.com boat who was trying to keep us from taking pictures.  We finally got a solid position next to the donated Sea Hunt piloted by the Tires Plus drag and dump boys. We had to push in a little more closely than was probably comfortable for all of us, but if we gave an inch, tournament co-owner Rodney Taucher was sure to stick his BudgetHeating.com boat smack dab in between us to obscure the fish from the view of our prying eyes and cameras.  The feeling I had in the pit of my stomach about this fish made me press a little harder this time.  I was willing to take the risk as well as take full responsibility for anything bad that might have happened to any of us or our boats.

They dragged this one much farther down the beach in order to get a little bit more distance between themselves and their cheering section who seemed to have taken notice of the previous fish as it awkwardly thrashed about on the surface in obvious distress. What the crowd didn’t see from the beach was, after the gut wrenching display, the fish then rolled on its side and fell to the bottom like too many others had in just the past two hours.

I was well-aware ‘some’ of the fish in the PTTS did not fare so well after being released. I had stumbled onto enough evidence of that, bloated and rotting, on Monday mornings following the weekend events.  What I certainly did not know until this moment was that based on what I had already seen this day, and the calamity that was about to ensue, the carrion at the foot of the lighthouse after each event was just the tip of the iceberg.  Unless its normal for healthy tarpon to sink motionless, upside down, after being released, then fully half of the fish I had seen let go today today had perished.

My guess is that the wind, waves, current, and sharks take out most of the PTTS trash before it can become the all to familiar silver flotsam that turns the stomach of every true sportsmen or sportswomen unfortunate enough to run across it on Monday morning.

9:05 AM, still in Boca Grande Pass:  I continued to follow as closely as possible, without becoming a physical danger to the release team. I maintained my position despite the constant maneuvering and blocking by the Budgetheating.com boat, still captained by tournament co-owner Rodney Taucher, as well as our suds-guzzling friend from earlier in the morning aboard the Rusty Hooker, who was now accompanied by several friends as well as what appeared to be the vessel’s namesake.

The drag and dump boys in the Tires Plus shirts were taking us on a different route this time, running parallel to the beach and heading offshore instead of towards the middle of the pass.  It seemed that the spectators’ reactions to the prior struggling fish were not sitting well with whoever was calling the shots today.  Although we were surely headed for waters farther offshore, running along the beach allowed tournament detractors to follow us on foot and observe what was happening from the waters edge.  A fact that was visibly upsetting the drag and dump boys.

Despite efforts to make it out of sight of the growing crowd and much to the dismay of the drag and dump boys, we  had made very little headway due to the incoming tide. Only having moved a few hundred yards in about ten minutes.  The reality of the situation was sinking in with the two sorry bastards in the Sea Hunt.  The fish was looking worse by the minute, numbers on the beach were growing, and it had become painfully obvious that anyone with a Tires Plus t-shirt was going to bear the brunt of the crowds’, and our, growing frustration.

She made a feeble attempt at taking a breath, showing us that she was still alive at least. They seized their moment. Her head was quickly shoved downward while she was on her side, making her body into a plane and sending her head first towards the bottom.  It was over.  There was a quick and awkward high five aboard the Tires Plus sponsored Sea Hunt as the duo turned back towards the weigh boat.  Then we saw it.  A silver flash just off our starboard bow.  She materialized from the murky depths and laid on the surface, broad side to the sky.  She halfheartedly fluttered her tail and began to move towards the beach.  We knew what was about to happen, and I quickly jammed the throttle and headed straight for dry land.  As we approached, the cameraman for the day hopped off the bow and ran up a few yards up the beach.  The commotion had now drawn the attention of not only the Tires Plus Sea Hunt, but also of tournament co-owner Rodney Taucher.

Our cameraman stopped running and waded out into the water to about waist deep, putting the camera underwater facing the Pass.  I stared in bewilderment as she swam directly to him, floundering along the bottom on her side.  With a few weak kicks of her tail, she was belly up inches from the sand.  The crowd gathered, shouts such as “This is because of you!” and “Come get your fish! Take off your mask!” began to echo from what I’m sure will be described as an angry mob at some point by the PTTS.  Despite the rising anger, the drag and dump boys were making their way slowly towards the beach.  They were intercepted by Taucher, who had  a quick word with one of the masked fellows.  After the exchange, Taucher slowly idled towards the Pathfinder sponsored camera boat piloted by tournament owner Gary Ingman, as PTTS front man Mercurio slouched in the fighting chair on the bow with a cigarette hanging from his lip.

 

Click here to see the video shot of the dying fish during the PTTS protest.

 

After the chat, the drag and dump boys once again headed towards the fish.  They beached their boat, one of them hopped in the water, and then nonchalantly reattached their rope to the hole in the fish’s lower jaw. After a brief attempt at feigning concern they quickly dragged the fish off towards the relative safety of waters offshore.

Looking back at the video after being removed from the events for nearly seven months, I can honestly say that my feeling about that fish was right.  As I watched the events of that day rerun on the monitor in front of me, I couldn’t help but feel like she knew exactly what she was doing.

What happened to that fish next would further solidify in the minds of all those who came to show their concern for the fishery at  Boca Grande that there was a much bigger problem with what is going on in the Pass during May and June than a few dead fish.  The events of the next half hour would prove that the actions of the PTTS, its owners, and some of its participants were not just a minor annoyance to local fishing guides.  Rather, this was a direct assault on not only the history, culture, and community of Boca Grande but a threat to the continued survival of the worlds first recreational tarpon fishery and the literal birthplace of  big game sport fishing as we know it.

PTTS tarpon seen dying on the beach of Boca Grande

This video was shot on June 17, 2012 as the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series (PTTS) was filming their final episode of the 2012 season–the Tarpon Cup Championship.  The tarpon seen in this footage had just been “revived and released” by the official PTTS Tires Plus Release Team after being caught and weighed during the tournament.  Instead of quietly drifting down into the deep dark waters of Boca Grande Pass as the preceding four fish had, this one swam towards the beach.  The final fight for life ended with the tarpon drifting belly up under the gentle surf of Boca Grande’s famous lighthouse beach.  The lifeless tarpon was later retrieved by the Tires Plus Release Team and dragged off shore and out of view of the onlookers as it was stuffed into the prop wash of cooperating PTTS participant boats in an apparent effort to hide the evidence.

More video will be released in coming days illustrating the tragic cover-up performed by the PTTS management and its participants. Please stay posted.

See comments from Capt. Tom McLaughlin at the bottom of this page for more info on the filming of this video.

Introducing: PTTS Co-Owner, Rodney Taucher

As the adage goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  This one? Well, it makes us speechless.

Enter Rodney Taucher.

Rodney Taucher - Budget Heating & Air

PTTS Managing Member Rodney Taucher chuckles as he steps on a dead tarpon DNA connected to the PTTS.

For those of you who have not been properly introduced, Rodney Taucher is the newest partner of Silver King Entertainment, LLC, the company responsible for bringing us the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series (PTTS).

Here is a statement from Joe Mercurio, tournament VP and Manager, dated December 29, 2011:

“In order to properly manage the growth of our organization we needed to grow our staff. For the past 3 years Rodney Taucher has assisted us in organizing our registration process and developing our statistic tracking programs. Rodney’s extensive knowledge of online media, computer programming, and his business organization skills has helped us get better. It’s for these reasons that we have invited Rodney to become an equal partner with the Ingman family and Joe Mercurio. This new partnership should strengthen the corporation and allow for future expansion.”

Rodney Taucher, Owner, Budget Heating & Air

Owner of the PTTS and BudgetHeating.com (Budget Heating & Air Conditioning Inc.)

In addition to his co-ownership of the PTTS, Rodney also owns Budget Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. (BudgetAir.com), a PTTS team sponsor. You can find them on our boycott list.

So now that you’ve been introduced, lets get back to this heart-warming photo showing a jovial Rodney Taucher, co-owner of the PTTS, carelessly propping his foot upon a dead Silver King on the shore of Boca Grande. Oh yea, and sporting his official PTTS Tires Plus Release Team jersey no less.

At the time this photo was taken, Week #2 of the PTTS was underway. It was May 27, 2012 and the Women’s Professional Tarpon Tournament Series (WPTTS) had just taken place the previous day.  This tarpon was found floating in Boca Grande Pass by a FIT researcher who towed it to the beach to retrieve the eyes for her tarpon retinal research.  She submitted a scale to FWRI for the DNA sample.  Months later, the DNA results were released and linked this dead tarpon to Capt. Troy Sapp of Team Yamaha.  The tarpon had been caught during Week #2 of the WPTTS by Team Yamaha having been unnecessarily gaffed, dragged, hoisted from the water, dragged again and killed for the sake of TV face time for the high profile team sponsor.

As the researcher was taking her samples, a young boy walked up, drawn by the opportunity to see this magnificent fish close-up. He was distraught and actually wept at the sight of this 50 or 60 year old animal lost forever.  Yet, Rodney Taucher, PTTS co-owner, felt it was appropriate to use it as a foot stool.  This telling reaction further solidifies what those local to the Boca Grande area have known about PTTS owners and management  for a long while.

Capt Troy Sapp's Dead Tarpon

A young boy weeps at the sight of a dead tarpon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The jig’s up: Local captain reveals his PTTS tarpon snagging tricks of the trade

The following article, written by former Professional Tarpon Tournament Series (PTTS) participant (and winner), Capt. Andy Boyette, is being republished in its original form with permission.  Obviously, we are not posting this article to help instruct anglers on how to jig fish, rather, to help educate the general public on exactly what jig fishing for tarpon is.  We felt this was important follow-up to the new “Battle in Boca Grande” article published in the Winter 2013 issue of Guy Harvey Magazine and welcome your input in the comments section following his article.

Capt. Andy Boyette is an accomplished tarpon angler and full-time fishing guide in the Charlotte Harbor region.  He no longer participates in jig fishing or the PTTS.   When discussing why he left, Capt. Andy answered, “I want no part of a totally disruptive, rude and obnoxious tournament that blocks other anglers five weekends in a row during prime tarpon season.”

How To Jig Tarpon In Boca Grande Pass

Capt. Andy Boyetteby Capt. Andy Boyette/Go Fish Charters

Edit: It has come to my attention that some may think that I am teaching snagging here but YOU should be aware that this IS the method employed in Boca Grande Pass. Although it is known as jigging, my intent is to educate you so that you can decide for yourself what it is. It should also be noted that I NO LONGER DO THIS AND HAVE NOT FOR SOME TIME NOW.

How to catch tarpon using the Boca Grande jigging method:

In order to be successful you must first understand that this method is not really jigging. The term jigging is a EUPHEMISM that the guides and tournament anglers use. Although this term is used to describe it there is no resemblance to actual jigging.

First, I will go over how this method was developed and then evolved, and the controversy that surrounds it. I cannot say for sure that this was actually the beginning, but it is when the method caught on here. Some may have been experimenting with it long before. In the Nineties there were numerous Boca Grande Pass fishing tournaments with lots of money at stake. Some purses promised as much as $100,000, $200,000, and even up to $1,000,000 to a winning team.

These figures do not include any Calcutta money (cash bet on the side to pick the winner). With so much money at stake and the prestige of claiming the win and bragging rights as the best of the best, many of these tournaments were filled with fishing guides. These tournament anglers began searching for a way to win, which typically means a shortcut that manages to stay within the rules. A few of the successful participants later admitted to and confessed to using the jig method.

At this point the tournament scene split into two factions: live bait only and an open tournament that rarely sees any live bait used but is 99.9% jig fishing. There were law suits filed and FWC mortality studies and hook placement studies to determine if indeed a jig caught fish was snagged, since this was the issue that caused the split of the participants and the players of the Boca Grande Pass Tarpon scene that continues to this day.

I know. I have been in this scene as a guide since 1998. I have lived it and seen it and heard it, been there and done that, and still fish here to this day. I have fished for tarpon (to my own knowledge) in just about every way you can fish for them, including for an 8 year period exclusively with the jig fishing method. I choose now to fish with live bait and various artificial lures, plugs, swim baits, etc.; but I no longer use the method known as jig fishing.

Next, I will explain rigging, techniques, tips, and tricks that work and why they work. Keep in mind here that the FWC along with their own researcher determined this to be a legal means to catch tarpon so no one should contact me or bash me, or question my intentions.

When looking across the jig fishing arena in the Pass it becomes evident that there are a lot of anglers struggling to catch as many fish as some of the others. It’s not hard to look across the Pass and see that there are some boats that seem to be hooking up a lot more than others.

If you think that the few fish you caught were good enough, you should know that when I used this method I could achieve as many as 15-20 hookups a day and sometimes many more if I was fishing with clients that had been taught to use this method in previous seasons. I called them my ” I am going to look good today” clients.

With all that said, forget the term “jigging”. As I stated earlier, it is not jigging. Here is a better term and a better description: FLOSSING or LINING. Do some research if you do not recognize the terms. Google the words “FISH FLOSSING” and you’ll find a few forum discussions and videos on the first page. After some research you then need to think about the presentation of the Boca Grande jig.

Here is one FLOSSING video that has some good footage of the presentation. If you need to, turn your monitor sideways and you will see his hook looks similar to a Boca Grande jig.

When you FLOSS (aka Jig) in Boca Grande it is vertical and the only weight required is attached to the bottom of the hook. The angler is holding the other end of the line to keep the hook straight, and the current and the boat driver will present the bait to a dense school of tarpon balled together. I should interject here that when the fish are not in a dense school in deep water you should put away your jigging rods and get some live bait. It will increase the amount of fish you catch, and that is the objective, after all.

Equipment:

1) Rod should be a medium light to medium power 7 footer with extra fast action. The fast action allows you to be in constant contact with the weight and line and enables you to feel the subtle movements as the tarpon are under your boat.

2) Reel should be 6:1 retrieve. There are a few a bit faster but 6:1 works fine. This allows the line to be retrieved an average of about 4-5 feet for every 1 turn of the reel handle. It should have a long crank arm and speed ball that fits in the palm of the hand for speed, and be capable of holding about 250-300 yards of line. This type of reel with this amount of line gives you the capability of speed reeling your jig through the dense schools of fish.

3) Line should be 40# monofilament. If you can get it, use fluorocarbon. This is because the tarpon are capable of seeing the line, and smaller diameter and/ or fluorocarbon help in concealment. Absolutely do not use braid, not because it hums like many say, but because tarpon see it and move away from your line.

4) Leader should be 80# fluorocarbon no longer than 12 inches for concealment.

5) Octopus circle hooks (offset) 8/0. Not the original style circle hooks but the octopus circles (the ones that look like J hooks with a little bend in the point). This way you cannot be accused of snagging and you will land more tarpon.

5) A Boca Grande Tarpon Jig typically in 4oz weight. If you use non-painted jigs the tarpon cannot see them as well. The better your concealment, the more fish you hook.

How to rig and why:

I will only cover the business end of the rigging since everyone should know to put line on the reel. In order to FLOSS (aka jig) tarpon in Boca Grande Pass you should understand that seldom is a tarpon caught inside the mouth with a tarpon jig. They are mostly all caught on the outside of the mouth in the clipper or the soft tissue of the cheek. I know that many will say that is not true but I caught thousands of tarpon with a tarpon jig and out of the THOUSANDS not more than TEN had the hook inside the mouth.

If there are other guides achieving better results they should take pictures and/ or have their clients verify this. But it really does not matter that it’s hooked on the outside since, as I said earlier, the FWC and their lead researcher determined that this was all legal.

You need to tie a small Bimini twist in the main line. Use the least amount of wraps you can get by with so you have small knots. I used about 15 wraps. My knots were nice and compact, and concealment is important: tarpon see very well. Attach the leader to the Bimini with a uni-to-uni or some other line to line connection, again with as small a knot as possible. Now, and this is critical, the double line of your Bimini where it meets the first knot should only be about 3-4 inches long and the leader should be only 12 inches long. Yes, I said a 3-4 inch long Bimini and 12 inch long leader, and I also said critical.

When you are FLOSSING (aka jigging) tarpon it is about concealment at the hook and above. You need the smallest of knots and the shortest of leaders and 40# line is half the size of the Bimini you just tied and much smaller than the 80# leader. You are about to drop your line down ahead of a dense school of tarpon and drift over them as your line passes by and speed reel your hook a through a stack of tarpon and if you have a long leader the fish see it and separate and are no longer dense under your boat. The great density of fish directly under your boat is the primary requirement of this technique.

How to present the jig:

Presenting the jig is done in tandem by the boat driver and the angler holding the rod. First the boat must be positioned stern into the current so that you can constantly reverse into the current allowing the boat and fishing line to drift at the same speed through the dense schools of tarpon in 40-80 feet of water. In other words, your line must be straight below the tip of the rod, at a near perfect 90 degree angle with the water’s surface, and must be kept that way for the entire drift. There is no exception to this so count it as a rule.

The line cannot be paid out or angled at all. It must be straight down under the rod tip. The rod must be held perfectly still and the jig should be dropped to the very bottom and fished within inches of the bottom. This places the lead just above the bottom hook facing up ready to be retrieved. Once you feel subtle movement like the fish bumping into the line you reel your 6:1, speed handle equipped (4-5 feet retrieved per revolution of the handle) reel as fast as you can.

This is done to drag the line over the fish, and if everything lines up you will hook a tarpon in the side of the cheek or the clipper. If you miss the first one your jig passes, there will be another above, since you should now be hovering above a dense school of tarpon. After all, you are retrieving at 4-5 feet per handle turn as fast as you can. Most of the time it takes 3 to 5 (sometimes more) turns of the handle to hook the fish. If one had actually bit the jig at the bottom it would not have required much more than 1 turn with that much retrieve, since you’re directly above the fish with no slack in your line, and since the hook is heavily weighted, there is little stretch in the line.

There are those who say it is impossible to snag fish with a circle hook. Here is a little test you can do. Set up the jig just as described, on a 4 foot piece of line, said circle hook attached to a 4oz. jig, bend over and put the line across your neck. With the jig now hanging over your neck, take the end of the line that does not have the jig attached to it and pull the jig and hook over your neck. It WILL hook you so be careful.

You might also simulate how the pass works by hanging about 150 tarpon jigs (which would equal a slow day in the pass) from a tree in your yard and then walk through the jigs hanging from the tree. Be careful here too. If you do it fast you might even jump when you get hooked. Most people think circle hooks do not snag. That is incorrect. Circle hooks hook a fish and lessen the chance of gut hooking.

Circle hooks were designed for long line commercial fishermen who put out miles of unattended lines where a fish would bite the bait, swim away and become hooked by snagging themselves. That is how they work. Here is a video which shows how circle hooks can and do snag fish outside the mouth. Notice there is no bait on the hook; it is pulled into the side of the fish’s face. Colorado is the only state I know that made it legal. Google Moffitt Angling System (out of business and ruled to be snagging or foul hooking almost everywhere). Most states say hooking outside the mouth is foul hooking.

Circle hooks hang on the clipper of a Tarpon.

Here are a few tips and tricks that are used in the Pass. The circle hook can be offset more with your pliers making it much more successful. The lead should be unpainted for concealment. When it’s just gray it is more like a shadow. The tails should be narrow and skinny, not the shad style. I used the Cocahoe Minnow from H and H lures. If the water is clear and you are not hooking tarpon, they are seeing your line or your lure. Try biting your tails in half to make them smaller.

After dropping your jig to the bottom you must hold your rod tip pointed at the water and not move it or you will not feel the subtle movements on the line. If the fish are spread out in the pass and not balled up into schools they are difficult to hook because there are fewer chances to FLOSS (aka Jig) one under these conditions. You get fewer chances as you quickly retrieve your jig when there are only a few fish under your boat.

First thing in the morning is the best time because they can’t see the line. If you reel on the first bump you will hook the fish outside in on the clipper, but if you wait and do not reel until the second bump, the line will loop around the tarpon and hook on the opposite side and hook the clipper inside out. Fishing and FLOSSING/LINING (aka jigging) are two different things and if you understand this, you can be better at using the Boca Grande jig.

Remember, the FWC and their leading researcher made this legal, so if you have a problem with this you should contact them, not me. Here is link to the data.

They even call it foul-hooking on their website.

Capt. Andy Boyette
1-888-880-0006
www.gofishcharters.com

PTTS fires off Facebook attack on ‘extremist’ supporters of FWC tarpon conservation push

As the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is poised to adopt language endorsed by Save The Tarpon Inc. and other groups that would pave the way to make tarpon a catch-and-release species, a spokesman for the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series is leveling harsh words against those who support the measure as well as the FWC’s other efforts designed to grow the state’s tarpon fisheries.

Joe Mercurio, VP & Host of the PTTS

Joe Mercurio, VP, General Manager and Host of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series.

Joe Mercurio, host of the PTTS cable TV show, responded to a Facebook poster’s question on Monday by calling those supporting the FWC’s tarpon conservation efforts victims of “left wing, environmental extremist propaganda.” Mercurio added that those backing the FWC plan, which is expected to be approved by the seven-member commission on Wednesday, don’t have “the facts” and are “disgruntled and disenfranchised individuals.”

In September, Mercurio told the FWC commissioners that the PTTS is opposed to regulations that would force the tournament to stop gaffing, roping, dragging and weighing tarpon, a practice FWC researchers have labled “excessive handling” that leads to observed higher mortality rates.

Mercurio’s Facebook remarks are the tournament’s first in the wake of the FWC’s disclosure of preliminary results of its 2012 tarpon DNA sampling program. FWC researchers said last week that six fish weighed and DNA sampled during this past summer’s PTTS events had since been “recaptured.” Four of the recaptured PTTS tarpon were discovered dead within days of being caught and hoisted onto the tournament’s sling. A fifth PTTS sample was labeled “suspicious” by the FWC. Just one PTTS fish was recaptured alive.

Among the four dead tarpon that have been DNA-linked to the PTTS was a fish that was gutted in an apparent botched attempt to cause it to sink. The gutted fish was photographed and its DNA sampled by a passing boater. The fish was found floating in the Gulf of Mexico near Boca Grande Pass on June 4, a day after it was caught, weighed and originally DNA sampled during a PTTS event.

FWRI Assistant Research Scientist Kathy Guindon, PhD, who oversees the tarpon DNA program and had seen the photo, agreed the gutting was suspicious. “I don’t know why they would do that,” she said. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t give the fish a chance to survive.” The fish, a 124-pounder, was last seen after being turned over to the tournament’s Tires Plus “Release Team” to be “revived.” Guindon said the incision, which ran from the tarpon’s tip to tail, wasn’t the result of natural causes.

Later Monday, in a Facebook posting authored under the alias “Professional Tarpon Tournament Series,” the PTTS anonymously challenged the observations made by the FWC researchers as “baseless.” Mercurio had earlier discounted the FWC observations, suggesting instead that people “rely on credible news organizations and sources.”Joe Mercurio's Cash Cow

“EVERY weighed fish, over 80 were DNA sampled. More were sampled that were caught & released. We’ll present the full facts & figures in regards to the DNA sampled fish, and will address the baseless allegations & claims that have been made,” the PTTS said in its unsigned Facebook post.

The PTTS has otherwise remained mum concerning the gutted fish. FWC researchers have said that recapture rates in this type of study are, understandably, very low. Recaptures of less than one percent aren’t uncommon. So far this year, using the PTTS claim of 80 sampled fish, PTTS tarpon were recaptured at a rate of 7.5 percent – well above the numbers scientists say they would normally anticipate and need to conduct meaningful research.

Below is a screen shot of the PTTS Facebook page. It was made Monday, Dec. 3. Unlike that gutted tarpon, PTTS web content has a habit of vanishing. 

PTTSTV Facebook Dec 3 2012