Today, as in 1997, ‘it has gotten way out of hand’

Tarpon Fishing Tournament in Boca Grande PassThe story below was published in 1997. It focuses on boat operation in Boca Grande Pass rather than the “yes it does, no it doesn’t” debate over the jig. It also tells us that the flats and bay boat drag races that are part of today’s PTTS viewer experience are nothing new.

For the benefit of anglers who only recently began to make the weekend commute to the Pass to fish the PTTS, Jack Harper once ran a series of popular tournaments from Miller’s Marina (now the Boca Grande Marina) that were, along with the chamber’s World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament and the Ladies Day event, an important part of tarpon season in Boca Grande.

By the time this article appeared, things were beginning to change. It was becoming obvious that what the author describes as the “run-and-gun method” of boat handling jig anglers brought to Boca Grande was, both literally and figuratively, colliding with the traditional method of drifting the Pass.

It was a matter of logistics. And it had little or nothing to do with bait, lures, circle hooks and snagging. It had everything to do with boat operation. It was something Harper clearly understood. The mechanics of drift and “run and gun” didn’t work well together. The laws of physics as applied to tarpon fishing. Two bodies can’t occupy the same space at the same time. As the story explains, his solution was to hold separate tournaments. Most tournaments would be a “drift” events. He would then hold a limited number of “non-drift,” or “run and gun” affairs. Unfortunately, that’s not how they were labeled.

As the article notes, anglers were segregated by what they were dropping into the water rather than how they ran their boats. Harper’s tournaments were either “live bait only” (drift) or they were “open.” The latter meant that those choosing to fish the breakaway jig (“run and gun”) could participate. So could those who used traditional methods (drift). It didn’t work. Ultimately, “open” became synonymous with “jig.”

Arguably, “run and gun” boat operation was initially confined to the tournament environment. Those who fished run and gun for money on the weekends could generally be found drifting when a trophy and a check weren’t on the line. There was, again arguably, relative peace in the Pass. It didn’t last.

There is no doubt the jig was a convenience. Just about anyone could spend a few bucks for a handful of these things and go tarpon fishing. And they did. As the device grew in popularity, so did demand for more tournaments tailored to “run and gun.” If nothing else, Harper was a good businessman. He began adding more “open” tournaments to the Miller’s schedule to cater to what he saw as an expanding market. The Miller’s drift tournaments slowly drifted away. Other “live bait only” events took their place.

It isn’t surprising that the boat handling methods once pretty much limited to the Miller’s tournaments would ultimately seep into non-competitive Pass fishing. And, as Harper had earlier discovered, drift and “run and gun” still didn’t and couldn’t co-exist. And just as Harper had also learned, the table – or the Pass – was stacked in favor of the runners and the gunners. They could run and gun amid the drifters with relative ease. But the drifters couldn’t really drift amid the run and gun.

One “user group,” as the FWC likes to say, by virtue of its choice of boat handling had effectively excluded another. And while, as Harper notes, these user groups were once identified by this choice of boat handling methods, the dispute eventually evolved into one involving choice of lure versus bait.

Today, the PTTS has taken “run and gun” to an extreme not even Harper could have imagined. And it’s being broadcast to a national cable TV audience. The world perceives Boca Grande Pass as the “controlled chaos” created by the PTTS and touted by host Joe Mercurio. The PTTS has become Boca Grande Pass. And Boca Grande Pass, sadly, has become the PTTS.

Harper, who would eventually go on to become the Timothy Leary of “run and gun” jig fishing, makes an unlikely prophet. But his words, spoken in 1997, were truly prophetic. Yes, Jack, you were and are right. “It has gotten way out of hand.”

Published Sunday, April 27, 1997 Jiggers-baiters quarrel raging

By Joe Julavits
Times-Union outdoors editor

All is not well in the kingdom of the tarpon.

Boca Grande, the upscale village in Southwest Florida where life is good and the tarpon fishing even better, is locked into a debate over conflicting methods of catching the giant silver kings.

It’s the jiggers vs. the live-baiters, and the struggle has reached Biblical proportions.

“It has gotten way out of hand,” said Jack Harper of Miller’s Marina, which holds seven tarpon tournaments each year.” We’re trying to get together a list of 10 Commandments for etiquette in the pass.”

The pass is Boca Grande Pass, and each spring and summer the tarpon congregate there in numbers that must be seen to be believed. For generations, the accepted method of catching them has been to drift the pass with heavy tackle and live bait, usually small crabs or pinfish.

Boats like the venerable Morgan were specifically designed for tarpon fishing in the pass. When the fish are thick, so are the boats, and the captains queue up, make their drift and pull out of line when a hook-up ensues. All very orderly.

In the late ’60s, former Tampa Tribune outdoors writer Herb Allen is believed to have introduced deep-jigging to the Boca Grande area. In recent years, the practice has become increasingly popular and effective as companies such as Cotee and 12 Fathom have developed break-away jigs aimed primarily at pass tarpon.

And here’s where the rub comes in. Not only have the jigs proven themselves as tarpon catchers, the run-and-gun method of fishing them from small flats skiffs clashes with the classic style of drifting practiced by the old-line Boca boats.

Something had to give here, and in recent months it has. The World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament, put on annually by the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce, has banned jigs. The $165,000 affair – $3,500 entry fee – will be fished July 9-10 with live bait only. Miller’s Marina has also disallowed jigs in its seven 1997 tournaments, although a jigs-only tournament has been added to the schedule.

The jig-makers cried foul, then seized the marketing opportunity, saying their lures were too effective and resented by traditionalists. Tournament organizers countered, saying the situation had become potentially dangerous, with hooked tarpon possibly leaping into nearby boats, causing injury.

“We wanted to even the playing field, and we chose to go with live bait mostly for safety’s sake,” said Debbie Ricci of the Boca Chamber. “We have 60 boats competing in a very confined area, and the two methods [of fishing] are conflicting.”

Harper said most of the opposition to jigs comes from a core of about 25 live-bait boats.

“Those jig boats start running around like crazy when the fish pod up,” he said. “It’s kind of dangerous and funny at the same time to watch. The jig boats are cutting the other boats off. They’re using light line, and you can’t control a big tarpon on 20- or 30-pound test.”

Nick Stubbs of Cotee Industries in Port Richey said the issue is complex, but at the heart of it is the efficiency of the jigs.

“The two fishing styles don’t meld very well,” he said. “The bait guys do a drift through a stretch, while the jiggers tend to dash here and there. All the bait boats traditionally have taken charters out for those tournaments.

“The guys on small boats with jigs have dominated those events in the last few years. The bottom line is, jigs outperform live bait in the daylight.”

The tarpon have already arrived in Boca this year. Some of the jiggers say they’ll switch to live bait for this season’s tournaments, but they’ll still use the run-and-gun technique.

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