If news is defined as something that doesn’t happen every day, then what happened this past Sunday at the entrance to Charlotte Harbor qualifies as news. It’s likely a few of the military veterans, Wounded Warriors invited to gather on the beach in front of the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse, recognized the aircraft flying overhead as a Piper L-4C. Perhaps, considering their day began with four skydivers, a color guard and the national anthem, they likely figured the flyover by the L-4C was part of the Memorial Day observance.
It wasn’t. Not officially. But maybe it should have been. Trailing behind the plane, more commonly known as a Piper Cub, was a large banner. You know the kind. They’re usually found being towed into the wind just beyond the breakers wherever people gather to go blanket-to-blanket and shoulder-to-shoulder on a stretch of hot sand. But this one wasn’t touting Coppertone or salt water taffy or some boardwalk saloon.
The message on the banner read “Save Boca Grande Tarpon. No Jigs. No Killing.” Down below, their buzz boats churning the waters of Boca Grande Pass, were 31 teams of “anglers” playing dress up in their NASCAR-style costumes covered in NASCAR style logos of NASCAR-style sponsors, both real and imagined. They were part of a cable TV infomercial posing as a sporting event known as the “Professional Tarpon Tournament Series.” Or, as the locals have tortured the acronym, the “Profitable Televised Tarpon Slaughter.” The banner was meant for them.
It’s a debate that’s been raging in the Tarpon Fishing Capital of the World ever since someone came up with the notion of attaching a green latex tail and a brightly painted lead weight to a miniature grappling hook way back when. It worked. The thing caught tarpon. Literally. While traditional live bait methods of fishing tarpon tended to involve some participation on the tarpon’s part — like actually eating the bait — the device all but eliminated the need for the fish to get involved. The jig, as it’s known, doesn’t so much attract fish. It attacks them. Through what can charitably be called a “design flaw,” the jig grabs whatever part of the tarpon’s anatomy it happens to find. The tail, the gills, the outside of the jaw. Even, sometimes, the mouth. Doesn’t really matter.
The thing is even more effective when the jig angler, sensing a fish has bumped his line, begins wildly reeling up. Drag a weighted barbed hook towards the surface through a stack of a few thousand tarpon and, like the carnival game with the metal tub and little plastic fishies, you’re bound to wind up with something. That something, more often than not, is shark food. Jiggers discovered the device worked best when combined with lightweight monofilament line rather than the heavy stuff favored by the traditionalists. As a result, it takes nearly twice as long to bring your tarpon to the boat — if, that is, the hook embedded in its tail doesn’t fall out after the first 30 seconds or so. The fish, of course, is exhausted and — when sharks are in the water — easy pickings. Chomp. They even proudly post video of these attacks on Youtube. ROFLMAO!
The jig, ultimately, begat the PTTS. Which begat a cable TV show modeled after all those popular professional bass fishing things. To make good TV, the PTTS needed good TV. And this came in the form of tarpon being gaffed, roped, dragged across Boca Grande Pass, hoisted out of the water and, as the anxious NASCAR-style team looked on, weighed. Then there were the photos of the happy anglers posing with their fish. This naturally begat people who reckoned that when tarpon are gaffed, roped, dragged across Boca Grande Pass, hoisted out of the water, weighed and asked to smile for the camera, they would likely wind up dead. The tarpon, that is. The anglers would go out drinking.
Bill Bishop is a Tampa wildlife artist and author. He is also an avid tarpon fisherman. “I have a love affair with the sport,” he says. “It’s been a love affair of mine for a very long time. I probably fish 150 days of the year.” Bishop paid to have the 65 hp L-4C tow “Save Boca Grande Tarpon. No Jigs. No Killing” above the heads of those 31 NASCAR-style teams on Sunday. “I kept watching in horror this spectacle, this BS that they’ve been doing for the past seven years and said enough is enough. This mishandling of fish is something I want to stop. The tarpon fishery doesn’t belong to the PTTS, it belongs to all of us. I wanted to make a statement and raise awareness about what’s going on.”
A 100-foot-long banner usually does the trick. In fact, one tournament participant lamented over the radio that it was too bad nobody had a rocket propelled grenade, or RPG, handy to shoot the little Piper out of the sky. He was promptly told to shut up. People might be listening. They were.
Bishop catches most of his tarpon on a fly. He’s not a big fan of the jig. But his real issue is the idea that tarpon, which translate into a $100 million industry for Charlotte County each year, are being killed for profit. For the amusement of a cable TV audience that is repeatedly told the PTTS is a “live release” affair. Yes, the fish are alive when the PTTS and the TV cameras and the photographers are done with them. They don’t stay that way very long.
The PTTS has been taking its hits lately. Author Randy Wayne White recently and publicly pulled his sponsorship of the tournament through his Doc Ford’s restaurants in Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach. White cited the event’s use of “snag fishing” for his decision. “Snag-fishing is contrary to every historic ethic associated with sport fishing — a fact I hope to communicate unequivocally to other sponsors,” White said. “We urge all sponsors to join us by withdrawing from future tournaments … that promote snag-fishing by turning a blind eye, by using silly euphemisms (‘jig-fishing’), by failing to ban this most ‘unprofessional’ of techniques.”
Bishop says there are lots of L-4Cs in the world. There are lots of banners. He intends to keep using both until the PTTS or the state gets the message. Tournament organizer Joe Mercurio obviously hasn’t. When asked about Sunday’s fly-over, Mercurio sarcastically asked if this meant the skydivers, the flags, the color guard, the national anthem and the veterans. He apparently didn’t see the L-4C and the big banner. The PTTS and its sponsors are good at not seeing. Maybe it will take a few more Bill Bishops and Randy Wayne Whites to open their eyes.
Gary Dutery is a Sun columnist. A veteran journalist, he resides in Port Charlotte. Readers may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GaryDutery.