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.

Ftafbphoto

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.

PTTS captain facing FWC criminal charges for fishing ‘new jig’

Capt. Jim Huddleston

FWC officers are shown detaining Huddleston and his charter clients May 15 in Boca Grande Pass. Huddleston is facing criminal charges as a result of the stop that allegedly turned up two modified bottom weighted jigs.

Just days after the so-called “new jig” made its debut in Boca Grande Pass, a Tampa Bay area fishing guide and prominent Professional Tarpon Tournament Series team captain quickly found himself – and his “new jig” – on the wrong side of the law.

James W. Huddleston, 44, of Palm Harbor is scheduled to make a June 3 court appearance in Fort Myers where he’s facing second degree misdemeanor charges, up to six months in jail and a $500 fine if convicted of using illegal gear, according to records provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. His arraignment is set for 8 a.m.

According to the FWC, officers approached Huddleston’s charter boat around 8:50 a.m. in Boca Grande Pass on Thursday, May 15. The officers said an observer in a nearby boat had tipped them off that Huddleston and his clients were using a form of bottom weighted “jig” outlawed as a foul-hooking device last year by the commission.

Officers said they saw “an obvious illegal jig” on a rod being held by one of Huddleston’s three charter clients. “The weight was clearly below the hook,” the officers said.

As they drew near Huddleston’s boat, officers said the client dropped his line and its bottom-weighted hook into the water. Officers said they immediately instructed the client to reel up, secured the jig aboard their patrol vessel and observed a weight attached to the bottom of the hook.

Capt Jim Huddleston

Huddleston is also a Tampa Bay Times fishing writer.

A second Huddleston client was then told to reel up, according to the report.  The FWC officers said it was discovered this line was also illegally rigged.

Police said Huddleston attempted to place the blame on his absent and unnamed mate who, he claimed, “rigged those poles for me this morning.”

He also told the officers the hooks his clients were using had pulled out of the jig’s soft plastic tails. Officers said they told Huddleston the rig was still unlawful as it “allows the weight to slide down the hook with a simple manipulation from the angler.”

Critics of the “new jig” agree, noting the hook was designed, as Huddleston told the FWC, to be pulled from the jig’s tail to allow the weight to break free and slip under the hook.

Huddleston’s clients were not cited. According to the FWC report, “Huddleston is a guide and at the time on a paying charter fishing trip. His clients hire him for his knowledge and experience.”

Capt Jim Huddleston

Huddleston, aka ‘Captain Hud.’

The officers noted that Huddleston’s use “of a lighter monofilament to attach the weight … shows clear intent to violate the rule.”

Huddleston is a veteran PTTS captain who has been sponsored in the past by World of Beer and Safeco Insurance. His 2014 PTTS sponsor, according to the TV show’s website, is Hendrick Roofing Inc. His website notes Mercury Marine Outboards, G Loomis Rods, Optima Batteries, Shearwater Boats Mirrolure and the Big Fish Tackle Company as additional sponsors.

Huddleston’s 2014 PTTS team includes anglers Randy Hendrick, Brad Bond and Jayson Brandgard, according to the PTTS website. In 2012, Huddleston took sixth place in the PTTS “Team of the Year” competition. He also posted a Week 5 win that year with a tarpon that tipped the PTTS scales at 174 pounds. His 2013 fortunes sagged as he and his Safeco Insurance team finished 32nd on the season, well out of the money.

Officers said Huddleston was not taken into custody and was allowed to complete his charter – with whatever legally rigged gear he had on board. Huddleston is also a Tampa Bay Times correspondent who writes a regular fishing column for the newspaper entitled “Captain’s Corner.”

(How does the “new jig” become the “old jig?” All it takes is a jerk. And a quick tug on the line. Check out the video below.)

Incident Summary Report Salem Perry 1 6

Florida FIsh and Wildlife Conservation Commission