Letter to FWC chairman from Dr. Justin Grubich regarding 2002-2004 Foul Hooking Tarpon study

Dr. Justin Grubich letter to FWC 2013Letter from Dr. Justin Grubich as PDF.

This letter, dated May 8, 2013, was sent to FWC Chairman, Kenneth Wright by Dr. Justin Grubich regarding the 2002-2004 Foul Hooking Tarpon study.

To read the entire article accompanying this letter, please see Expert named in FWC study speaks out: The jig snags tarpon.



Justin R. Grubich Ph.D.
Associate Director of Biodiversity Informatics

May, 8th, 2013

Ken Wright, Chair
Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission

Dear Mr. Wright,

Recently, I was contacted by Randy White and Bill Bishop in regards to my involvement with the 2002-2004 Foul Hooking Tarpon study in Boca Grande Pass. Their contention, as you are well aware, is that the unique jigging technique known as break-away jigs used in Boca Grande Pass to catch tarpon is an illegitimate method used to foul-hook or ‘snag’ these fish when they are not exhibiting feeding behaviors. They contacted me to ask if I would review the outcomes of the study and whether my involvement has been accurately represented in the FWC’s 2003 summary report.

I have to admit I have not followed this issue since I was first contacted by the FWC to provide expert testimony on the feeding behavior of tarpon. As you are probably aware, I was contacted by the FWC sometime around 2003-4 because of my 2001 research publication regarding the strike kinematics and jaw functional morphology of juvenile tarpon. My recollection of that phone call was approximately a 30 minute discussion where I was briefly informed of the Boca Grande jigging issue and asked a series of questions of how tarpon jaws work during the strike and whether it’s possible these jig’s hook placement in the clipper could be the result of feeding behavior.

Prior to being contacted by the FWC, I had no experience or background knowledge of the Boca Grande tarpon fishery or the techniques used, including what and how a break-away jig works which truth be told was not effectively communicated to me by the FWC representative during the interview. My lack of familiarity with the issue and jigging technique was correctly pointed out by Mr. White on his web page regarding my original testimony.

However, I would like to point out to the Commission and all parties involved that I am not just a scientist in a lab dissecting fish. I am also an avid angler and an IGFA International Committee Representative. I have been fishing for tarpon since the early 80’s in the Florida Keys and Everglades. As a teenager, I worked as a first mate on a Key West charter boat and after college spent two years as a NMFS observer on commercial longline vessels. So, beyond being a scientific expert in fish functional morphology, I think I am also uniquely qualified to review and comment on the ‘fishing’ side of this issue.

That said, I would first like to clarify some misrepresentations of my testimony that is now part of the public record on the FWC website regarding the 2002-2003 Boca Grande Tarpon Catch and Release Mortality Study results. I am quoted as saying that tarpon “can miss during the strike’ and ‘invariably turn their heads after the strike which is how they ARE getting snagged in their clipper plates”.

First of all, missing prey during the strike is a characteristic of all predators and is a quite common occurrence as any angler will frustratingly acknowledge. If predatory fish never missed, there would be no prey left and eventually no predators either. So that statement really is not unique to the discussion of tarpon feeding. I’ll elaborate more on this topic later in the letter. Second, my point about tarpon turning away after the strike and getting ‘snagged’ in the clipper plates should not be taken as a definitive statement to explain all hook placements in the clipper plate.

I was simply providing a plausible scenario from my knowledge of tarpon feeding behavior for why hook placement in the clipper plates MAY occur after a strike. That’s not to say there are not other plausible or more probable ways for hook placement to occur in the clipper plates depending on the specific fishing scenario and techniques being used. My statement was simply referring to the fact that the maxilla (clipper plate) is the largest bone of the upper jaw mechanism in tarpon with a broadly lateral orientation that consequently provides a large surface area for the hook point to snag, penetrate, or wrap around (in the case of large gap hooks).

Lastly, my use of ‘snag’ or ‘snagging’ at that point in time was meant to indicate a purely mechanical definition of the hook gaining purchase in the fish’s mouth region, head, or even body regardless of whether it was coincident with an intentional feeding strike or not. To be clear, it was not based on any previous knowledge of fishing definitions or FWC regulations regarding foulhooking or snagging. I was admittedly ignorant of such semantic issues then.

This brings up my last point regarding my testimony and its portrayal in the FWC report and website. Let me reiterate my whole involvement with this issue revolves around a single discussion. At no point in time was any background material of the break-away jig issue, the tarpon fishery at Boca Grande Pass, or the initial 2002-2003 results of the catch and release mortality study ever provided to me before or after my interview.

So, my original testimony should not be taken to support either position, as it was not based on a thorough review of the issue or any experimental evidence regarding fishing techniques and catch and release mortality in which I participated.

I have since tried to educate myself on the techniques of break-away jig fishing and the environmental conditions of the Boca Grande Pass tarpon fishery. I have also reviewed the summary report that includes more data from 2004 than the original FWC website 2002-2003 results where I am quoted. After reviewing both reports, I have to concur with Dr. Motta’s testimony reversal that the evidence indicates break-away jigs result in higher foul hooking percentages.

The current FWC definition identifies any hook placement in or around the mouth regardless of orientation as a non-foul hooked fish. Even with this more conservative definition, the results show that break-away jigs still have significantly greater foul hook placement in other parts of the tarpon compared to live bait, although the report suggests the percentage is not unusual compared to other foul hook estimates in other fisheries. However, IF hook orientation is taken into account to include foul hooking as when the hook is driven from the outside into the mouth cavity in either the upper or lower jaws, then the percentage of foul hooking associated with break-away jigs would be 7/26 (27%) for the 2003 results on the FWC website. This foul hooking percentage defined by hook orientation is substantially higher (> 10%
difference) than foul hook estimates in other popular recreational fisheries including salmon fisheries.

The reason hook orientation may important to the discussion of foul hooking is because it is indicative of the behavioral intent of the tarpon. Did the tarpon attempt to capture the lure or bait via a feeding strike? You see, in addition to
using swimming speed to overtake elusive prey, tarpon employ a suction feeding strategy whereby they rapidly expand their jaws and buccal cavity to literally suck the prey backwards into their mouths. Now, the thing about suction generation in fishes is that due to hydrodynamic constraints and the viscosity of water, it is only really effective in a small area just in front of the mouth aperture.

The amount of drag induced on a prey item (i.e. suction force) during a strike rapidly decreases as the distance to the prey becomes greater than 50% of the mouth’s maximum gape. So for even the largest tarpon that means their effective suction strike distance would be less than 6 inches. What does this have to do with hook orientation?

Well, if a tarpon is actively feeding, it will be employing these suction strikes in focused efforts directly in front of their opening jaws to maximize the suction force on the bait or lure in order to draw it into their mouth cavity. And, that means upon closing the jaws around the prey and then turning away, the hook set will most likely be oriented from inside the mouth cavity to the outside of the jaws as indicated by 100% of the live bait results from 2003.

In contrast, less than 50% of the break-away jigs’hook orientation indicate an active suction feeding strike may have been employed by the tarpon. But, in my original testimony, I was quoted as saying tarpon can miss the target during the strike and potentially still get hooked. Indeed they can and often do miss elusive prey, but that probability is greatly diminished with dead drifting tethered baits or lures that are not employing or mimicking escape behaviors.

Even with live baits that have some restricted escape mobility, the 2003 results show tarpon successfully engulfed the prey into the mouth cavity every time indicating an intentional feeding strike. So, with a non-moving or slowly drifting target, tarpon are even less likely to miss and be foul hooked in an outside/in manner during an intentional suction feeding strike.

Whether or not the flossing tactic commonly referred to in salmon fishing circles is also applicable to the break-away jigging technique used in Boca Grande Pass remains to be scientifically verified. Underwater video footage of the break-away jigging technique would be a good start to ascertain the validity of that claim.

However, I will note that the morphology and mechanics of the tarpon clipper plate have features that make ‘flossing’ a plausible scenario. For example, the maxilla of a tarpon includes a continuous ridge of small villiform teeth that line the entire ventro-lateral margin of this enlarged bone.

These tiny velcro-like teeth are very good at grasping slippery objects (usually fleeing fish prey) but are equally good with monofilament as any good tarpon angler can attest to their abrasive abilities on leader material. Even when the maxilla is in its resting (non-suction feeding) position these tiny teeth are exposed from the tip of the jaws to its posterior margin and could provide a roughened snag point for monofilament drifting past even when the fish is not exhibiting feeding behavior. Fish will often shake their head and/or quickly snap their jaws (not to the extent of a full suction strike) when something irritates their head.

Tarpon stacked up like cordwood facing into the current in Boca Grande Pass may be exhibiting such a snapping behavior of the head and jaws in response to the irritation of hundreds of lines of monofilament sliding past them and snagging on the villiform teeth of their maxillae. The angler might perceive this nonfeeding behavior as the tell-tale tap when using the break-away jig. In addition, keep in mind whenever the lower jaw of a tarpon is opened beyond a 10 degree rotation, it causes the maxilla to swing forward and flare laterally (the extent of which is directly linked to the amount of lower jaw rotation).

This lateral expansion and the gripping action of the villiform teeth can cause the monofilament to be threaded between the inside surface of the clipper plate and the cheek (aka suspensorium) facilitating a snagging hook set with an outside/in orientation. So, you can see how non-feeding motions and the morphology of the tarpon’s jaws could result in foul-hooking or snagging tarpon in the mouth when they are not actually intending to feed. This specific flossing scenario of how break-away jigs may work in the Boca Grande Pass tarpon fishery is of course a hypothesis that would need to be tested.

In closing, I appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight regarding my original testimony and hope these additional insights into tarpon feeding behavior and functional morphology are informative. If I can be of any further
assistance regarding this issue, please feel free to contact me.

Kindest Regards,

Justin Grubich


Useful links:

FWC Summary Report on the Catch-and-Release Mortality Study on Tarpon 
in Boca Grande Pass, 2002–2004

2002-2003: Incidence of Foul-hooking in FMRI* Boca Grande Pass Tarpon Catch and Release Mortality Study

Tell the FWC to stop running and hiding: Hold a ‘workshop’ in Boca Grande – where it matters!

NOTE: At the end of this post you’ll find a link that will put you in touch with the nice folks at the FWC. Take a moment – and that’s all it takes – to reach out to the commissioners and ask them to hold a workshop on their proposed tarpon rule changes where those rule changes will mean the most – in Boca Grande, the “Tarpon Fishing Capital of the World.” They love hearing from you – their “customers.” So, let’s make them a bunch of really happy people.

When you think bonefish, you naturally think the Florida Keys. That’s why it makes perfect sense for the Florida Fish and Wildlife and Conservation Commission to hold a “workshop” on proposed changes to bonefish rules in the “Bonefish Capital of the World.” The Keys.

That’s why it also makes perfect sense for the FWC to hold a “workshop” on proposed changes to tarpon rules in the “Tarpon Fishing Capital of the World.” You know – St. Petersburg. Or maybe it’s Dania Beach. Wait. What?

Tarpon Fishing Postcard

For the past century, word on the street has been, go to Boca Grande for tarpon fishing.

In April, the FWC will take its little “public input” show on the road for three one-night stands to get up close and personal with the common folk who will be most affected by the rule changes it’s proposing. On April 2, the FWC will be headlining at the International Game Fishing Association Hall of Fame and Museum in that Broward County tarpon hot spot Dania Beach.

The FWC tour then moves south to Key Colony Beach at Mile Marker 53.5 the following day. But the kickoff comes on April 1 when the FWC rolls into St. Petersburg – we think it’s the one in Florida, not the city in Russia – to spend two hours talking tarpon at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute on Eighth Avenue.

Dania Beach and St. Petersburg. Because when people think tarpon fishing, they naturally think Broward County and St. Petersburg. And if you’re the FWC and you want to talk tarpon with the locals, you need to go straight to the source.

Dear FWC,  Please click here for directions to Boca Grande. Thank you, Save the Tarpon

Dear FWC,
Please click here for directions to Boca Grande.
Thank you,
Save the Tarpon

You want to go where tarpon fishing is a tradition that’s been carried on for more than a century. You want to go to a place where tarpon fishing pumps more than $300 million annually into the regional economy. You want to go where generations of tarpon anglers have gone before you to fish for the mighty Silver King. You want to go where the whole notion of sport fishing for tarpon on rod and reel was born.

Which means, if you’re the FWC, you naturally want to go to Dania Beach. That’s right. Dania Beach. Can somebody please buy these people a map?

Boca Grande – 89 miles south of St. Petersburg (the one in Florida) and 194 miles to the west of Dania Beach – is known throughout the planet as “The Tarpon Fishing Capital of the World.” Tarpon migrate by the tens of thousands to historic Boca Grande Pass every spring. Nobody is entirely sure how this prehistoric species finds the place. Which is, apparently, a whole helluva lot more than the equally prehistoric FWC can do. Or, more likely, wants to do.

There’s a problem with asking people what they think. They might just tell you. And the odds are, if you’re the FWC, it won’t be what you want to hear. Not if you come to Boca Grande. What’s potentially worse, if you’re the FWC, is that the people doing the telling might actually know what they’re talking about. And when those people doing the telling can draw on generations of knowledge focused on the state’s largest and most important tarpon fishery, you can pretty much eliminate the “might.” They will know what they’re talking about. Scary stuff.

So you go to Dania Beach instead. Home to the nation’s largest Jai-Alai fronton. And then you go to the tarpon trophy hunters Hall of Fame. To rub shoulders and other body parts with your BFFs, your pals, your chums, the folks who asked for – and, of course, got – an exception to the rules. A nice little loophole in the catch-and-release regulations that will allow the record chasers to kill the very species the FWC wants us to believe it’s trying to protect. And don’t forget to stick around afterwards for the refreshments, the 50-50 drawing and the thank you gifts.

Perception is everything. By giving Boca Grande a wide berth, by taking a convenient detour over to Florida’s east coast where a friendly, grateful and potentially rewarding reception awaits, the FWC is sending a pretty clear message to those who have invested their time, their energies, their resources and their hearts into the serious work of preserving, protecting and growing the state’s most important tarpon fishery.

By ducking Boca Grande, the FWC is telling us – and, in this case, more than 17,000 of us here in Florida and throughout the world – that it really doesn’t care. Or maybe, just maybe, the FWC simply forgot to put Boca Grande on its 2013 tarpon “public input” tour. Maybe, just maybe, the FWC would be grateful for a little reminder.

So maybe it’s up to us – all 17,000 of us – to do the reminding. Fortunately, the public input-conscious folks at the FWC have made it easy. All you have to do is COPY, CLICK and PASTE.

Here’s the COPY part:

I’m writing to ask the FWC to hold a public workshop in Boca Grande on proposed changes to the state’s tarpon rules. Tens of thousands of tarpon find their way to Boca Grande each year. The FWC can and should do the same. To learn more, please visit http://savethetarpon.com/?p=2823

Here’s the CLICK part:

You will eventually click here. That was easy. But first, take a second to read the rest.  After clicking, you will find yourself on the FWC website. You will be asked to provide your name and email address. Under “Subject” you might wish to consider “Boca Grande Tarpon Workshop.”

For the PASTE part, click on the box provided for “Comments.” Then PASTE. Then click SUBMIT. You’re done. And the FWC will thank you for your interest.

OK. Now you can go ahead and CLICK! You can always drop a copy of the same message on the FWC’s Facebook page.

Sapp, PTTS crank up the noise machine – let the damage control follies begin!

Seems Capt. Troy Sapp just might have some explaining to do. And this time, it likely won’t be on some obscure Internet fishing forum.

As we all know, dead tarpon are commonly found floating, beached, bloated and sometimes gutted in or around Boca Grande Pass in the wake of Professional Tarpon Tournament Series weekend events in May and June.

The televised tarpon tournament’s viewers are “treated” to shots of the self-described “organized chaos” of the fight, the catch, the gaff and the drag across the Pass to the scales. What those basic cable subscribers aren’t seeing, however, is what takes place the following day – when the cameras have stopped rolling and the tournament’s touted “Tires Plus Release Team” is nowhere to be found.

After the  PTTS packs up and moves on, the rest of us are, of course, left to deal with the tournament’s morning-after, dead tarpon hangover.  With the creation of the Save the Tarpon this past May, the group joined with state researchers to  focus on DNA sampling what was left of these fish in an effort to learn how – and perhaps why – so many were turning up dead in the tournament’s aftermath. This week the answers began to emerge.

Capt Troy Sapp, Team Yamaha

Capt. Troy Sapp, high-profile PTTS participant and VP of the Florida Guides Association, drags a tarpon to the weigh scale for Team Yamaha.

As most of us have already learned, on June 4  a gutted and dead tarpon was found floating in the Gulf of Mexico not far from Boca Grande Pass less than 24 hours after the PTTS, its cameras and NASCAR-clone wrap boats had left town. A DNA sample was taken and sent, along with several others that day, to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.  Months later, this gutted  fish was positively identified by its DNA as a ‘recapture’ that had been caught, weighed and DNA sampled by Capt. TJ Stewart of Team Castaway Charters and Edgewater Boats during the previous day’s PTTS event.

When last seen, this fish was being hauled to the deepest waters of the Pass to be “revived” by the Tires Plus Release Team. When next seen, it was dead. Slit open from tip to tail in an apparent and botched attempt to send the fish – telltale DNA and all – to the bottom.

Enter Sapp. He’s a Tampa-area fishing guide. He’s a  high-profile participant in the PTTS where he and his Team Yamaha Skeeter boat enjoy plenty of cable TV face time. He’s also senior vice president of the Florida Guides Association.  And in recent days, as the FWRI’s initial DNA study results were being released,  Sapp has taken the point as the damage control guy for the PTTS, his sponsorship deal with Yamaha and, of course, himself.

Here’s what Sapp scrawled on the Maverick Boat Company’s Internet forum on December 4, 2012. Let’s call this one Exhibit A:

“The STT campaign who’s (sic) sole purpose is to run out of town guides off are the ones that gutted that fish after they found it floating to promote their cause. Yes it died after release, but no one needs to hide anything.”

It died after release. A perplexing admission from someone who, just days earlier, was still beating the PTTS drum, repeatedly insisting the tournament can’t possibly be blamed for those schools of dead fish routinely found floating in the Pass or washed up on Boca Grande’s beaches in the immediate aftermath of PTTS events. Seems Sapp forgot all about those FWRI scientists in St. Pete who are still sitting on a small mountain of tarpon DNA samples.

And what Sapp also didn’t know as he flogged away on the fish forums, is that among those imaginary dead PTTS tarpon was a very real dead PTTS tarpon. And it was easily and positively traced back to Sapp’s Team Yamaha Skeeter boat. Sapp’s Team Yamaha, the DNA revealed, had scored its own PTTS tarpon kill.

He likely didn’t know that researchers had scooped the now-dead fish from the Pass less than 45 minutes after Sapp’s Team Yamaha Skeeter boat had towed the tarpon to the scales during Week 2 of the Women’s PTTS competition. That’s where the initial DNA sample was taken and recorded. And DNA doesn’t lie.

Dead Tarpon on Beach of Boca Grande Pass

This tarpon was found the day following a PTTS tournament.

Chalk one up to science.

But let’s get back to Sapp’s tin foil helmet claim that “the STT campaign … are the ones that gutted that fish after they found it floating.” It doesn’t merit a response. And it’s not getting one. Not here, that is. But let’s take a moment to revisit the facts:

1) The fish in question was DNA sampled during week 4 of the PTTS as having been weighed in at 124 lbs by Capt. TJ Stewart on June 3.

2) The fish in question was found dead and sampled again the next day,  June 4.

Sapp, however, is recklessly alleging the fish was gutted by some unknown but disgruntled local tarpon fishing captain trying to stop out-of-town guides, like Sapp,  from running carpetbagger charters on a part-time seasonal basis. It’s a dangerous stretch.

3) The fish in question was found floating on June 4 by a boater who seasonally fishes the Pass and surrounding water.

No, it wasn’t discovered, photographed and DNA sampled by some disgruntled “disenfranchised” local Save the Tarpon stooge, as Sapp wants you to believe. Kathy Guindon, PhD, who heads up the FWRI’s Tarpon Genetic Recapture Study, said the boater who found the fish – someone with no strong local ties or any affiliation with Save the Tarpon – decided to document the recapture with a photograph and DNA sample. Guindon said the boater – an experienced tarpon angler – knew immediately that the fish had been intentionally gutted.  And why.

But over in Sapp World, here’s what supposedly happened. A card-carrying member of Save the Tarpon found the bloated tarpon and gutted it. He’s not real clear how this Save the Tarpon type would know the fish had been caught the previous day by the PTTS. But we can let this one slide for the moment. Back to Sapp World, where Troy’s Save the Tarpon evil genius had cleverly calculated that, despite the hundreds of boats and boaters that were on the water that day, the one to stumble across the sabotaged tarpon would, miraculously, be armed with a DNA sample kit.

Makes sense to us. But strap on the tin foil hats. There’s more.

4) Chances of finding a dead intact tarpon floating near Boca Grande Pass in May and June are exceptionally remote.  The strong tides, high levels of shark activity, and many other variables mean an overwhelming majority of dead tarpon will, in fact, go unnoticed.  The odds of finding the same dead tarpon two times in less than 24 hours rival your chances of carting home the Powerball jackpot.

So once again, how did Sapp’s imaginary left-wing Save The Tarpon environmental extremist know this fish, among tens of thousands of other fish, came from the PTTS? Was it wearing a Team Yamaha tee shirt?  Unless, of course, the boater who discovered the fish already suspected  a majority of the dead fish found floating in or near the Pass are part of the collateral PTTS damage  Sapp and the PTTS noise machine say the tournament’s critics have invented.

Sapp repeatedly claims fish weighed in the PTTS are subject to the same mortality rate as all other catch and release fishing.  Unfortunately for Sapp, there’s the FWRI’s Dr. Guindon, the same Dr. Guindon whose seven-year-old study on tarpon mortality rates has, in the past, been repeatedly referenced by Sapp and friends. But that was then. Along came 2010, when the same Dr. Guindon did some additional research. Her newest findings?

“Preliminary results from research conducted in 2010 shows that the tournament weigh in procedures of the PTTS physiologically stress the Tarpon more so than catch-and-release recreational fishery that does not have a weigh in procedure that involves towing the fish.” Also, from the same source, “one can presume that mortality rates are higher in these weighed-in, longer handled fish.” For the record, Dr. Guindon was talking about the PTTS.

Two years later, after her newest study was published, Sapp and the gaff and drag gang at the PTTS  had suddenly put the now-inconvenient Guindon on Ignore. They continued to boast that they were, incredibly, doing what was “best for the fish.”  In fact, Joe Mercurio, general manager and host of the PTTS, looked into the camera on June 17 and told his audience that gaff and drag had “absolutely zero impact on the survival of the fish.” Kathy? Kathy who?

The PTTS noise machine, of course, doesn’t stop here. June 4, 2012 is a date Mercurio, Sapp and the PTTS would like to pretend never happened. And for good reason. In Part II, we’ll explain why. Stay tuned.

(NOTE: The moderators over at the Maverick Boat Company’s Internet forum apparently agree. Sapp’s post has been removed.)

NOTE: One week after publication of the original story, the PTTS broke its official silence and issued a statement denying any involvement or responsibility. The statement is contained within the comments that follow, or it can be found here




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


A local Captain speaks out regarding Tarpon DNA research

Captain Mark BennettThis article was contributed by Captain Mark Bennett, a local full-time fishing guide in the Charlotte Harbor and Boca Grande region.  For more information on his Snook, Redfish, and Tarpon fishing charters, please visit tarponsnook.com.

In the three years that I was tagging (DNA sampling) tarpon I dominated the competition.  Tagging and releasing more adult tarpon than anyone, anywhere in the world.  I set a record in 2009 for tagging 147 tarpon in one season.  Since the program started in 2005, previously no one had ever even come close to this number in one season.  Previously only one person ever broke 100.  In 2010, I tagged 148.  April through July 2011, I tagged 165 at which point I ceased to tag tarpon for the remainder of the season.

Even stopping early, in July, I still tagged more tarpon than anyone on the West Coast of Florida and more adult tarpon than anyone anywhere.

Unfortunately, because of several unethical actions of the FWRI and it’s employees that were recently (some not so recently) brought to my attention, such as advertising, promoting and endorsing a tournament series that undeniably is the number one greatest threat to the health of the Florida tarpon fishery,  I can not in good conscience continue to help in their agenda.

I honestly thought the research they were doing was meant to help tarpon, not kill them.

2011 was my last year DNA sampling tarpon.

What did they do?

Funny, I have been asked that question many times this season.  The answer is not what did they do, but what they are doing every weekend in May and June.  The tournament series they promote kills just about every tarpon weighed.  They drag the tarpon all of the way to the beach to be weighed and photographed.  The FWRI and FWC are there DNA sampling the fish that come in to the scale.  They see this happening and do nothing.  They also stand around while the tournament officials slit the bellies and pop the eyes of the tarpon that are already dead or are too exhausted to make it.  This is done so there are less dead fish floating on the surface the next day.  The majority of the fish weighed are the largest females that the FWRI says can be 40-50 years old.  The damage to the tarpon fishery can not be undone in many lifetimes.  This affects tarpon populations all over the state, not just Boca Grande.

Tarpon from all over the state come here to spawn.

I first heard of the Tarpon Genetic DNA tagging program in March ’09.  I was browsing the Florida Wildlife Research Institute’s website.  I was interested in the findings of the past and thought I could help out by tagging a lot of tarpon that upcoming season.

What really got my attention was they were keeping track of how many samples each guide/fisherman obtained.  This was a way to FINALLY show who caught the most tarpon over an entire season.  Some of the best tarpon guides from all over the state are already involved.  Any and all naysayers are invited to participate.

Put up or shut up…What a concept!

How do you get a DNA Sample from a tarpon?

Essentially, when a tarpon is boat side, I grab the leader in one hand and the fish by the lower jaw.  Then I rub a piece of scotch-brite pad on the side of his upper jaw.  Then the pad is placed into a small vial that is index numbered by the FWRI.  Lastly, I record all of the pertinent information about the fish size, weight, capture location etc.

That is a little easier said than done.  First and foremost a photo for my client with his or her fish is my number one priority.  Secondly, holding onto a less than happy fish with your hands that weighs over 100 pounds is not that easy to begin with.  Then adding scrubbing his face with a scotch-brite pad.  It tends to make them a bit perturbed to say the least.  During the course of the season if I got samples off of 50% of the tarpon we landed I felt good about it.

This program gives the recreational anglers a chance to see how their numbers stack up against the pros and it gives the pros a chance to put their money where their mouth is.

Actual numbers from the 2011 season were withheld by the FWRI for some unknown reason. One of the many mysteries we have become used to from the FWRI.

Below are the numbers from 2009 and 2010:

May and June Tarpon Challenge Results

Hello Tarpon DNA Anglers,

We are also pleased to announce that Capt. Mark Bennett is the winner of the 2nd annual Markett Tarpon Challenge for 2010.

Capt. Mark Bennett has claimed this honor for the second consecutive year-by collecting 95 samples during the months of May and June.

We have included the May-June Top Ten list for your review:

  1. 1.       Capt. Mark Bennett – 95
  2. 2.       Tie — Capt. Gary Maconi and Capt. Paul D’Antonio – 77 each
  3. 3.       Capt. Jeff Hagaman – 39
  4. 4.       Tie — Jeff Owens and Capt. Tom Stephens – 37 each
  5. 5.       Capt. Skip Neilson – 36
  6. 6.       Capt. Jay Withers – 34
  7. 7.       Capt. Jeff Malone – 32
  8. 8.       Tie — Capt. Carl Ball and Capt. Dave Markett – 30 each


     The Tarpon Genetics Team

2010 Overall Results

  1.    157                     Jon Mallory – East Central, FL
  2.    148                     Capt. Mark Bennett – Boca Grande/Charlotte Harbor, FL
  3.    101                     Capt. Paul D’Antoni – Key West, FL
  4.    100                     Capt. Carl Ball – Ft. Lauderdale, FL
  5.    94                       Capt. Ed Walker – Boca Grande, FL
  6.    93                       Capt. Gary Maconi – Key West, FL
  7.    91                       Capt. Skip Nielsen – Islamorada, FL
  8.    78                       Capt. Jeff Malone – Duck Key, FL
  9.    76                       Capt. Francisco Rosario – Puerto Rico
  10.    73                       Capt. Robert McCue – Tampa Bay/Boca Grande, FL

The Tarpon Genetics Team


2015 Boca Grande Pass Tarpon Fishing Regulations


Florida Regulations:

Tarpon is a catch-and-release only fishery.One tarpon tag per person per year may be purchased when in pursuit of an International Game Fish Association (IGFA) record. Vessel, transport and shipment limited to one fish.

Fishing with gear that has a weight attached to a hook, artificial fly or lure in such a way that the weight hangs lower than the hook when the line or leader is suspended vertically from the rod is prohibited. This change will apply to fishing for all species year-round within Boca Grande Pass. If this gear is on board a fishing vessel while inside the boundaries of the Pass, it cannot be attached to any rod, line or leader and must be stowed. Natural bait is not considered to be a weight. If the jig fishes in an illegal manner it is prohibited. Any jig that allows the attached weight to slip down the shank so that it hangs lower than the hook while the line or leader is suspended vertically from the rod is prohibited, and must be stowed so it is not readily accessible.

Boca Grande Pass Regulations:

  • During the months of April, May and June, no more than three fishing lines may be deployed from a vessel at any one time.
  • During the months of April, May and June, no person shall use, fish with, or place in the water any breakaway gear.

FWC law enforcement is patrolling the waters in Boca Grande Pass, assessing what types of gear are being used and educating anglers about the recent changes. Without properly inspecting it, it is impossible to know with 100 percent certainty if the gear in question is legal or not.

Unsure if the gear is prohibited? Call the FWC regional office at 863-648-3200.

Map of Boca Grande Pass

Boca Grande Pass Map


Gear Requirements:

  • Legal Gear: hook and line only.
  • Snagging, snatch hooking, spearing and the use of a multiple hook in conjunction with live or dead natural bait is prohibited

Which rigs are prohibited?

When fishing for tarpon, gear is limited to hook and line only and you cannot use multiple hooks in conjunction with live or dead natural bait. When fishing in Boca Grande Pass (for any species, year-round), gear that has a weight attached to a hook, artificial fly or lure in such a way that the weight hangs lower than the hook when the line or leader is suspended vertically from the rod is prohibited. For the purposes of this rule, live or dead natural bait is not considered to be a weight. If this gear is on board a fishing vessel while inside the boundaries of the Pass, it cannot be attached to any rod, line or leader and must be stowed.

This is an example of prohibited gear:

bottom weighted jig

What rigs are legal?

Here are some examples of gear that are considered legal.

Jig tied to weightJig with bead

These jigs would be allowed so long as the weight cannot slip down the shank to the bottom of the hook while being fished.

But if the weight can slip down the shank to the bottom of the hook, as demonstrated in this video, it is prohibited.


Examples of other gear that are allowed:


Jigs, such as the ones pictured, are still an allowed gear.

Hi-Lo Rig

Hi-Lo or Chicken Rig used with live or dead bait to target bottom fish and reef species.


Bottom rig used to target a variety of fish species with live or dead bait.


Butterfly jigs and spoons used to target a wide variety of fish species.

These regulations were pulled directly from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee website on 5-4-15. Here is a link: http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/tarpon/.
Please check for updates.