A decade later, expert cited in FWC study speaks out: The jig snags tarpon

A decade ago, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission researcher and doctorial candidate Kathy Guindon was under the gun. She had just spent two years and more than $200,000 of taxpayer money on an abortive Boca Grande Pass tarpon mortality study that had been hurriedly reshuffled and morphed into a hook placement project that focused on live-baiting, jigging and, of course, snagging.

In a recent letter to FWC Chairman Kenneth Wright, Dr. Justin R. Grubich – one of the world’s leading authorities on tarpon feeding habits – implodes the myth Guindon’s hook placement “study” created when it was rushed into print a decade ago. A copy of Grubich’s letter has been obtained by Save The Tarpon Inc. In his letter, the associate director of biodiversity at Chicago’s respected Field Museum provides a revealing glimpse into how $200,000 worth of research was warped into $200,000 worth of junk science. And how the jig went from an obvious snagging device to a legitimate fishing lure as a result of a brief 30 minute phone call.

Dr. Justin GrubichIn 2004, Guidon  (her emails would later become public)  understood the numbers she had collected weren’t going the way the jig community wanted. The data showed a significant difference between the two methods of fishing. The data Guindon had gathered in the Pass clearly showed the live bait technique employed by Boca Grande’s traditional tarpon guides wasn’t foul-hooking fish. The same data made it equally clear the jig was. Guindon’s jig angler “friends,” who were leaked the study’s unpublished results in advance, weren’t very happy. And when the media went after Guindon’s raw data, they panicked.

Emails later obtained and published by a local newspaper showed the young doctorial candidate was being bombarded with pleas from jig guides begging her to find a way to “massage” the data to bring the foul-hooking numbers under the threshold the FWC commissioners had previously said would trigger a finding that the jig was a snagging device. Guindon couldn’t change the data. It had already been made public. But she could change the message the data was sending.

Enter Dr. Grubich. “I was contacted by the FWC (Guindon) sometime around 2003-4 because of my 2001 research publication regarding the strike kinematics and jaw functional morphology of juvenile tarpon,” he writes in his letter to the FWC chairman. Grubich was a recognized expert. He was the authority. He was the scientist anyone researching tarpon feeding habits would want to undertake a thoughtful and analytical “peer review” of  their findings. It’s a process that can take weeks, if not months, to do right. Guindon, under pressure to “publish or perish,” gave Dr. Grubich a half hour. Over the phone.

Even as recently as May 10, 2013, The PTTS has defended the use of "tarpon jigs" by citing the FWC 2002–2004: Tarpon Catch-and-Release Mortality Study, Boca Grande Pass

Even as recently as May 10, 2013, The PTTS has defended the use of “tarpon jigs” by citing the FWC 2002–2004: Tarpon Catch-and-Release Mortality Study, Boca Grande Pass as can be seen by this Facebook comment.

“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.”

Possible? To his credit, Dr. Grubich answered the question honestly. Possible, yes. Anything’s possible. That’s pretty much all Guindon needed, or wanted, to hear. It was “possible” the foul-hooking observed with the jig, but not with live bait methods, was the result of normal “feeding behavior.” The jig, her study concluded, wasn’t really snagging those snagged tarpon. Dr. Grubich said so.

Since its hasty publication, the study and Dr. Grubich’s phoned-in observations have  been repeatedly offered up as “proof” by jig anglers and the PTTS that the jig doesn’t, as its critics contend, snag tarpon. (The hits just keep on coming. The Friday, May 17 edition of the Boca Beacon reports that University of South Florida tarpon expert Dr. Phil Motta has said the information he gave to the FWC was also improperly and incorrectly used in the study.)

Fast forward to May, 2013. Dr. Grubich is contacted by author Randy White and noted tarpon angler and artist Bill Bishop. Dr. Grubich, who had never reviewed the data Guindon collected and whose opinion was cherry-picked from what he was told during a rushed phone call, was urged by White and Bishop to take a closer look at the study. He did.

And an entirely different story emerged.Dr. Justin Grubich letter to FWC 2013

First, about that quickie phone call that formed the basis for the study’s eventual conclusions: “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.”

But now he’s seen the data. He’s been given the time to study it. And a decade after the fact, he’s formed an opinion. A real opinion. One based on his training, his experience and his expertise. His conclusion leaves little room for debate. The jig, he says, is snagging tarpon.

“The evidence,” Dr. Grubich writes, “indicates break-away jigs result in higher foul hooking percentages.” And, “the results show that break-away jigs still have significantly greater foul hook placement in other parts of the tarpon compared to live bait.” What percentage of foul hooking did the study actually uncover? Was it 10 percent? Maybe 15 percent? Dr. Grubich’s examination of the data puts the number well above what the FWC once said was acceptable. “The percentage of foul hooking associated with break-away jigs would be 27 percent for the 2003 results.”

The jig anglers and the PTTS have spent the last 10 years demanding science. Read Dr. Grubich’s letter to the FWC chairman. It’s called science.

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


  1. says

    What is the goal? To protect tarpon or get jiggers out of the pass. Is it all jigs or just this particular style? If what is stated is true science, my opinion is below

    I have been following online the controversy regarding tarpon fishing in Boca Grande and the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series.
    Since I have often been referred to as the guy “who ruined the fishing in Boca Grande”, and then running off to Costa Rica, I feel I am qualified to weigh in on this matter. Wade Stephenson and I introduced the 12 Fathom Jig to Boca Grande back in 1986. Ownership of the company has changed hands several times as well as the design of the jig.
    I am not going to comment on handling of the fish or Florida State law, but I will say I was part of the group that lobbied here in Costa Rica for the law that sport fishermen cannot remove from the water, all billfish and the fine to do so is $4000. The problem here is regulations and enforcement are worlds apart and many sport fishing operators continue to advertise on the web with sailfish hoisted out of the water.
    When Wade and I introduced the jig, it was manufactured with a fixed Mustad extra strong 8/0, J-Hook. Later after we sold the company, the design was changed to a large circle hook with a break-away sinker. It wasn’t until the design change that I started hearing and reading complaints of fish hooked outside the mouth and large amounts of lead being left in on the bottom of Boca Grande.
    In the many years I fished the jig in Boca Grande and in Costa Rica, I have snagged two tarpon. Both instances were in Boca Grande when a giant school of fish picked up and headed west. I got in front of the school and when they got into 30 feet of water, they were so thick that my rod tip danced as fish bumped into my line. In one instance I snagged one tarpon in the dorsal fin and the other I snagged the fish in the tail. I have never gut hooked a tarpon using a jig with a J-Hook.
    I have never used a jig with a break-away circle hook design so I cannot judge how much more effective they are than a J-Hook. I do know I have caught hundreds of tarpon in my lifetime in Boca Grande and Costa Rica, and 99% of them were on jigs. As I said I won’t comment on handling of fish in Florida or the law, but I feel the PTTS events would be more sporting, less controversial, and more environmentally friendly if they returned to fixed J-Hooks.
    As far as the etiquette of people fishing Boca Grande Pass, I have learned over my many years on this planet that courtesy can be taught. Common sense can’t be.
    Todd Staley
    Fishing Director, Crocodile Bay Resort and Marina, Costa Rica

  2. anonymous says

    How about Tarpon fishing is banned all together in Boca Grande Pass, and while we are at that lets ban artificial bait/lure fishing for all fish. I mean isn’t that going to be safer for the fishery, and since it appears that it is more of a turf war over the fishing in the pass no one should fish for tarpon..

    • Save the TarponSave the Tarpon says

      How does moving the hook to prevent the device from functioning as a snatch hook escalate to banning all artificial lures or anglers from out of the area?

  3. Captain Van Hubbard says

    this is not about an issue with jigs; it is and always was about hooks with weights places in the bend to snag tarpon!

  4. Mike Rementer says

    Why have you misquoted the scientist you suggest was misquoted?

    The title to the article says “A decade later, expert cited in FWC study speaks out: The jig snags tarpon”.

    When, in fact, the letter from Dr. Grubich says no such thing. To the contrary, Dr. Grubrich was very careful to explain by saying: “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.”

    So, if we’re going to assert that the FWC study misrepresented Dr. Grubich’s words, shouldn’t we be sure not to do the same thing?

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