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.
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.
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.