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.

What is the big hairy deal about moving the hook?

Waterline Magazine June 6, 2013This article, written by Josh Olive, Publisher of Waterline Magazine, was originally printed in the June 6, 2013 edition of the magazine.

Tired of tarpon yet?

We’ve been talking a lot about tarpon fishing in the past few editions of WaterLine. For those of you who have no interest in these fish, I apologize. However, we’re smack in the middle of tarpon season, and our silver king obsession will continue for a little while yet. Hey, that’s why we have 32 pages — even though there’s an abundance of tarpon talk, there’s still plenty of other information and entertainment for those of you who just don’t get all the fuss about an oversized sardine.

This coming Wednesday will be a big day for anyone with an interest in local tarpon fishing. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will be meeting in Lakeland to (among other things) hold a public hearing for draft and final rules that affect tarpon both statewide and locally. The final rule would make tarpon a catch-and-release-only species, with possession legal only in pursuit of an IGFA record, and then only with a $50 tarpon tag. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m in favor of no one keeping tarpon, but the record exemption is silly and unfair — why just tarpon? If you catch a record redfish or snook, law says it’s got to go free.

The draft rule is in two parts: First, it would change the definition of snagging only for tarpon. The gist is if the tarpon does not actively participate in being hooked, it’s snagged. I’m OK with that, and I would think any other sportsman would be as well.

Tarpon snagged with a circle hook in Boca Grande Pass.

This tarpon was snagged with a bottom-weighted circle hook under the pectoral fin during a PTTS tournament.

Second —and this is the part that’s got a whole bunch of people in a tizzy — the draft rule would ban the use of a weight attached to a hook and hanging lower than said hook when the rig is suspended vertically. It’s a big deal because that’s exactly how the Boca Grande Pass tarpon jig is commonly rigged, and the jig is fished by a fairly large number of people. I’ve always said that there’s no proof the jig is snagging tarpon. But I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how that device works, and talking with people on both sides of the debate about why it works. Absolute conclusive evidence that favors either camp is hard to come by, but I’ve got some questions that have yet to be satisfactorily answered.

See, I’m certainly no expert on tarpon or tarpon fishing. In fact, I still have yet to actually catch one (came close, though). So I have to ask those who do this day in, day out, all tarpon season long. And a lot of what I hear just isn’t adding up.

Why does the jig have to be fished so close to the bottom? In jig fishing, you drop your rig to the bottom and then reel up 2 to 4 feet of line. The schools of tarpon you see on the fishfinder while you’re doing this are stacked sometimes 20 or 30 feet from the bottom. What I’ve been told is that the fish at the bottom of the school are the ones that are feeding. Why, then, is the traditional presentation of a live bait above the school of fish, not below them? Many jig fishermen switch over to live bait in the afternoon. Why don’t they put those live baits right on the bottom, if that’s where the fish are feeding?

Why does it take so long to feel the fish after you get a bite? I’ve jigged the Pass on a handful of occasions. After you drop the jig down, you wait to feel tiny taps on the line. When you feel that, you reel like crazy. I’ve only hooked two fish doing this. One of them took about four reel cranks — let’s call that 20 feet — before I felt the weight of the fish. The other took about two cranks (still 10 feet). I’ve been told it’s either line stretch or the fish racing toward the surface with the jig. I know monofilament stretches, but 20 feet of stretch fishing straight down in 50 feet of water? It’s fishing line, not a gummy worm. And what possible reason does a not-yet-hooked tarpon have to race toward the surface, jig in mouth?

Jigs OK to use if FWC moves forward with gear restrictions.

All of these jigs would remain legal under proposed gear restrictions for Boca Grande Pass. In fact, there is not one commercially manufactured rig we would find which would be banned if the proposed rule is made law.

Why are jig fishing leaders so short? Most anglers use tiny leaders, maybe 18 inches long. Perhaps it’s because they don’t need long leaders, but in the tournament — where leader touches count for points — wouldn’t a longer leader be an advantage? The anti-jig guys say it’s because the knot spooks fish as it runs across their bodies, so they know they must be very close to the hook. I don’t know if that’s really true, but if it isn’t, why not use longer leaders and prove them wrong?

Why does the jig only seem to work on tightly packed schools of fish? Obviously, you’ll have a much better chance of hooking a fish of any kind if you present a bait to a bunch of
them, but I’ve watched jig anglers choose to not fish because the schools of tarpon weren’t thick enough. I would rather find a school of redfish to cast on, but if I can’t I’m still going
to fish. Why would you not fish at all — surely if the jig is mistaken for food, you have a reasonable chance of a tarpon spotting it and pouncing on it even when the fish are scattered very thinly.

I’d love to have verifiably truthful answers to these questions. But there’s one more, and it’s the one that matters the most:

What is the big hairy deal about moving the hook from above the weight to behind it? The guys who are saying the Pass jig snags fish say the only reason it can do that is because when the line is reeled past the fish, the hook is the first thing that makes contact. OK, that’s plausible. The guys who defend the jig say that the fish are biting it. OK, that’s plausible too.

The only gear which would be made illegal under the proposed rule is that which uses a weight attached to the belly or bend of the hook.  By definition, this is considered a snatch hook.

The only gear which would be made illegal under the proposed FWC rule is that which uses a weight attached to the belly or bend of the hook. By definition, this is considered a snatch hook.

So why not shut the anti-jiggers up for good by moving the hook? The anti-jig crowd’s entire argument falls completely apart if you can move the hook literally two inches and continue to catch fish. Several people have told me they’re working on just this type of rig, but I’ve not heard from anyone that they’re actually using it successfully. Of course, they might be doing just that and not talking to anyone about it. But I can tell you that if I were one of those guides whose livelihood depends largely on being able to jig fish for tarpon in Boca Grande Pass, and I had a rig that would catch tarpon as efficiently as the jig but couldn’t be accused of being a snagging device, I’d be on the 6 o’clock news that night crowing about it and telling them all to stuff it.

The fact that this hasn’t happened lends credence to the argument that jigs snag fish. It makes it harder to believe the anglers who say they’re not snagging but can’t explain why minor changes — changes that don’t affect the jig’s presentation in the water — render it ineffective. Many jig fishermen have told me they don’t believe that they’re snagging tarpon. And I believe that they’re being sincere. But it seems to me that not looking for real explanations is a problem. Saying, “I know I’m not doing anything wrong because I know I’m not doing anything wrong,” just doesn’t cut it.

When I first became involved with the jigging debate, it seemed very simple to me: It just couldn’t possibly be that all these fishermen were somehow snagging tarpon in the mouths. Anybody who said so must be carping about sour grapes. Besides, the state had done a study that didn’t find tarpon were being snagged. Anyone who said tarpon were being snagged would have to prove it.

Things have changed a little. The study has been cast into doubt, with two of the quoted experts now saying they didn’t say what the study says they said. One of them, Dr. Justin Grubich, has provided a plausible (that word again) explanation for how at least some of the tarpon might be snagged in their mouths. Other fisheries have turned up that snag fish in the mouths — admittedly, salmon fisheries.

But still, there are all these unanswered questions. I have little doubt the FWC is going to move forward with the draft rules — perhaps with minor changes, but probably to close loopholes rather than open more. If they do, a final vote will probably be held in September. The new regulations would likely go into effect Jan. 1, 2014. The burden of proof now lies on those who fish with the jig. If the commissioners look solely at the evidence they currently have — which, taken as a whole, says it’s more likely jigs are snagging tarpon than not — I don’t see how they would have any choice but to outlaw the Pass jig.

If anyone has that evidence, I’m sure it will surface at the meeting this Wednesday. And let me tell you, I would be very happy to see it. I don’t at all like the thought that jig fishermen, many of whom I know well and have formed close friendships with over the past few years, are knowingly or even unknowingly doing something as unsporting as snagging not just any gamefish but the ultimate Southwest Florida gamefish. Unfortunately, I have a heavy feeling in my gut that says that might be exactly what’s happening.

Read More from Waterline Magazine >

Read the Boca Grande Pass: Tarpon Gear Review and Discussion by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission >