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 >