State attorney won’t prosecute local guides; Tampa area captain’s fate uncertain

Capt. Jim Huddleston

FWC officers pull aside Capt. James Huddleston’s boat on May 15 after observing the Tampa-area guide fishing two illegal “breakaway” bottom-weighted jigs.

While high-profile Professional Tarpon Tournament Series angler and charter captain James W. Huddleston continues to await his day in Lee County Circuit Court, prosecutors are moving ahead with plans to defer and ultimately dismiss all charges against two local fishing guides accused by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers of allegedly violating rules prohibiting the use of “breakaway” gear in Boca Grande Pass.

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The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight came through again. Great timing, guys. They chose yesterday to recycle an old Facebook post and plaster it across the top of their page. We saved it for you here because odds are it’s not going to last long over there.

The decision to halt prosecution came as Capt. Frank E. Davis, 53, of Placida and Capt. David C. Chatham, 35, of Port Charlotte entered not guilty pleas on Monday in connection with a May 28 FWC “boating safety and resource inspection” sweep that specifically targeted traditional live bait fishing guides operating charters in the Pass.

Assistant State Attorney Larry D. Justham, who spearheads the county court division, declined comment on the cases brought by the FWC against the two local guides. Justham referred all questions, including those concerning the as-yet unresolved Huddleston case, to the state attorney’s press office. Communications Director Samantha Syoen said she was unable to comment on an active prosecution, but noted the state attorney’s office is “working closely with the FWC” on the matter.

Huddleston’s next court date is June 27 when he is slated to appear before Judge H. Andrew Swett at 8 a.m. in Fort Myers. Charges against Huddleston stem from a May 15 incident when FWC officers say they spotted one of Huddleston’s clients fishing what they said was “an obvious illegal jig” in Boca Grande Pass. The bottom-weighted jig, popular among PTTS competitors, was outlawed by the FWC in September, 2013 when it was determined to be a foul-hooking or “snagging” device.

The FWC subsequently came under fire for opting to issue Huddleston a written warning rather than a formal second degree misdemeanor charge for violating the widely reported nine-month old jig prohibition.

FWC Capt. Guy Carpenter, who oversees the agency’s law enforcement efforts in Lee and Charlotte counties, has sought to defend the decisions his officers made in the Huddleston matter by noting the FWC’s “enforcement philosophy is to start out heavy on the education side” and that “we have to educate people.”

Critics have questioned the need for “education” in the Huddleston case, however, pointing to reports filed by both officers referencing Huddleston’s “knowledge and experience” and that the 44-year-old Palm Harbor man is and has been employed as a long-time professional fishing guide.

The same reports state Huddleston appeared to hurriedly instruct one of his clients to lower the illegal gear into the water when he saw the FWC officers approach to make their inspection.

The reports contain no indication Huddleston attempted to claim he was unaware of the regulation. Rather, the reports state, Huddleston sought to place blame for the presence of the banned devices being fished from his boat on his absent and unnamed “mate.” Huddleston did, however, receive a citation for using “breakaway” tackle in conjunction with the illegal jigs. Again, according to the reports, he offered no defense.

By contrast, reports show both Chatham and Davis vigorously defended the legality of their gear two weeks later when FWC officers selectively stopped and inspected more than a dozen traditional live-bait “Pass Boats.”

In Chatham’s case, an FWC officer was repeatedly unable to “break away” the gear the officer would later claim was designed to break away. Davis similarly objected, noting that the same gear that drew his break-away gear citation had, just moments earlier and in sight of the officers, successfully boated a tarpon without the weight breaking free. The reports state the officer who nevertheless issued the citation “took his objections into consideration.”

The FWC’s “boating safety and resource inspection” sweep of the local Pass Boat fleet came on the heels of an online uproar fueled by those in the Tampa area jig fishing community who contended Huddleston had been targeted by the FWC due to his notoriety as a PTTS jig angler.

The jig anglers’ complaints against the FWC ended abruptly when a Tampa-area newspaper reported the Davis and Chatham citations just hours after they were issued and days before the FWC was able to provide other media outlets with information concerning the two cases.