With all the talk about the Save The Tarpon movement being simply a turf war, you can’t help but acknowledge that there must be some validity in the argument. There is some truth behind the accusations, but that truth may not be as clear as has been described. There is no denying that which side of the pro-jig/anti-jig movement you fall on often has some correlation with where you live. A vast majority of the jig guides and PTTS participants come to town for the months of May and June, and once the Tarpon head offshore to spawn, that same majority return home to either continue fishing in their home waters or pursue other occupations. They have very little tie to the local community during the rest of the year. I don’t think there is any denying this fact by either side of the argument.
The notion that the fight over Boca Grande Pass Tarpon fishing is about a group of traditional pass fishing guides wanting to stop all others from fishing in their “private fishing hole” is the battle cry of most who oppose the Save The Tarpon movement. However, nothing could be further from the truth. This is absolutely a turf war, but not in the way so frequently described by participants of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series and board members of the Florida Guides Association.
The fact is that the jig fishing “pack” is supported primarily by the PTTS and the Florida Guides Association. These two groups often point fingers at the Boca Grande Fishing Guides Association as being behind the Save The Tarpon movement, and proclaim that they are looking to exclude jig fishermen from the Pass because the jig fishermen are “stealing their charter business.” How can this be the case when you have a grassroots movement, not yet sixty days old, that has more than seventeen hundred supporters? A number that grows by an average of thirty per day. At last count the Boca Grande Fishing Guide Association had less than fifty paying members, could they be the sole purveyors of such compelling “propaganda” as the Florida Guides Association representatives love to call it? Could the Boca Grande Fishing Guides Association really “brainwash” that many folks on a regular basis? Even if they could pull off that feat, could they do so with some of the most experienced and well respected fishermen in Florida, and nation wide?
There are some facts in the arguments levied by the PTTS, Florida Guides Association, and its supporters that need some clarification. First off, the “authorities” on jig fishing related information that they love to reference are not in fact the first generation of jig fishermen, they are the second. There was a time when Capt. Dave Markett, one of the most outspoken supporters of the jig fishery, Florida Guides Association West Florida Representative, and self proclaimed jig fishery expert, was struggling to keep up with the likes of Captains Ed Walker and Chris Klingel. These two were not only catching a LOT more fish on charters, but they were also sweeping nearly every tarpon tournament throughout the year. That’s sweeping, not just winning. As a matter of fact, those two talented individuals account for more total dollars of winnings between them then every single first place prize from the PTTS to date combined! Where are the two ‘kings’ of the jig fishery now? Well they quit jig fishing long ago of course. They both have also spoken out against the jig fishery and the PTTS. But wait, weren’t those people who were against the jig fishery and the PTTS only holding firm to that position because the “experts” in the jig fishery were more successful? Why then would the two most successful jig captains in history, financially speaking, choose to hang up their beloved tiger shad? They both seem to think that the jig is nothing more than a snagging device, and that the jig fishery in general is damaging Boca Grande pass both biologically and socially. Whats their motivation? If I answered it would only be conjecture, maybe Capt. Markett should ask them.
So if people are not coming out against the PTTS because of money lost, then why are so many speaking out against it and rallying for not only an end to the tournament but often to the jig fishery as a whole? The answer here is both extremely complex and exceedingly simple.
The only real supporters of the PTTS and the jig fishery are its participants, owners, sponsors, and the Florida Guides Association. This is a fairly small group of individuals with a common interest in that they all benefit financially, either directly or indirectly, from the PTTS. The same cannot be said for the group rallying behind the Save The Tarpon movement, as they are much more diverse group of individuals, with even more diverse interests both financially and socially. Although some are fishing guides or make their living upon the waters of Florida, very few have a financial stake in the game. This group claims that the PTTS, and correspondingly the jig fishery as it has evolved to date, is causing irreparable harm both biologically and socially to the Boca Grande Tarpon Fishery. How exactly they are causing these problems is where we start to get into the complexity as not all members or supporters of the movement seem to agree. They all agree that there is a problem and the PTTS and the jig fishermen are damaging the fishery, but they do not agree on exactly how or why.
The effects of culling out large females, handling them excessively and, as the state and all conservation oriented groups describe as “inappropriately” during the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series has been discussed at length. For now we will leave that argument to rest as we should not lose sight of the other half of the problem at hand and the crux of the argument against the jig fishery as a whole.
Some say that the jig does nothing more than snag fish. This is an argument supported not solely by the traditional pass fishermen of the Boca Grande Fishing Guides Association, but also by many of the most winning captains ever to fish with a jig in Boca Grande History. As a matter of fact, you will not find ANY of the original guides or participants who were instrumental in bringing the jig to Boca Grande Pass and perfecting its use still using the jig today.
The assertion that the jig snags fish, that they are not actually choosing to eat the jig, means that users of said jig are able to aggressively pursue tarpon to a point at which they are more attacking the fish than they are coaxing them to bite. If they had to rely on the fish to actually open its mouth and bite the jig, this hyper aggressive pursuit would prove fruitless. Case in point, during nearly all times when the jig is yielding a nearly instant hookup, it will prove virtually impossible to catch a Tarpon on anything else regardless of the skill of the captain, the type of bait or lure, or the way in which it is rigged. If the fish are feeding so aggressively, how can this be so? Anglers supporting the use of the jig have come up with a myriad of explanations, but none has yet proven to take hold as the official position of the PTTS or the Florida Guides Association.
A 2002-2004 hook placement study, conducted by the significant other of one of the most high profile participants of the PTTS at the time, proved “inconclusive”. The findings did not vindicate the jig as a snagging device, but did not find sufficient evidence to ban the jig in its entirety. Remember the FWC is a reactive agency, not proactive. Mote Marine Laboratory holds a similar position as their official statement is that “more research is required.”
So at this point we are stuck. We have anecdotal evidence presented by the most experienced among the jig fishermen, as well as the most winning captains ever to use a jig stating it is nothing more than a snagging device. On the other hand we have the current participants of the PTTS, Florida Guides Association representatives, and jig fishing guides saying it does not. The data to this point has proved “inconclusive” and there is even question as to what exactly constitutes a “foul hooked” Tarpon. So we are at a bit an impasse. But is this the whole argument?
If it were simply about snagging or foul hooking a fish in the corner of the jaw, the reactions of participants on both sides would not be so visceral. Afterall, if one hooks a fish’s mouth from the outside in, or the inside out does it really make such a large difference in the fish’s survival that guides on both sides of the fence will literally come to blows over it? Absolutely not! So why is the battle so heated? Could it be that there is a little more to the story than just a shift in charter business and overcrowding?
Here we are, back at the complexity of why so many people, from so many walks of life, with so many diverse interests in the fishery and community of Boca Grande are rallying together to fight the PTTS and some say, the jig fishery as a whole. We often get lost in the complexity of this argument, and at times it seems so complex that proponents of the jig jump to no other conclusion than it is all a farce played out by traditional pass fishermen looking to exclude everyone else from fishing in Boca Grande Pass. While this may or may not be their agenda (I am not, nor have I ever been a member), it is becoming increasingly clear that this is absolutely a turf war where one user group is excluding all others. However, the description of this turf war has been a bit skewed by those looking to protect a significant stream of income they derive both directly and indirectly from the jig fishery at Boca Grande Pass. It is the PTTS, Florida Guides Association board members, and the jig fishery guides who are effectively excluding all other fishers from pursuing Tarpon in and around Boca Grande Pass during daylight hours in May and June.
Boca Grande Pass is a very congested place during May and June, and rightfully so. It offers Tarpon fishing opportunities that are not found elsewhere in North America. Unfortunately this is not a problem of simple overcrowding, as that would be a much less heated and easier solved debate. Rather, it is a problem of a culture of disrespect that has become synonymous with the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series and the jig fishery as a whole. Disrespect not only for the fish and fellow fishermen, but also for the community, its inhabitants, and its heritage. That is not to say that everyone who jig fishes or participates in the PTTS is guilty, but rather refers to the actions of the group as a whole.
No other fishery specifically excludes others from their pursuit of Tarpon in Boca Grande Pass. The relentless, hyper-aggressive pursuit of tarpon while jig fishing is having obvious and devastating affects on other sectors of the fishery. Further, once these fish leave the pass, these same aggressive and exclusionary tactics carry over to other areas of the fishery, compounding the issue dramatically. For lack of a better term, no place is safe from the invasion of the horde when the fish leave the pass. Could the pass and the surrounding fishery support the number of boats currently fishing? Absolutely. But as the numbers of fishermen and boats increase, and correspondingly pressure increases on the fish, successful continuation of the fishery relies upon increased cooperation among participants in the fishery. The jig fishery as a whole represents the antithesis to this very need.
So why do we have such a large and diverse group calling for an end to the PTTS? To put it simply, the PTTS has created and fostered the disrespect for the fishery, its history, and culture. It can be seen publicly from the lowest level participant to the top rungs of management and ownership. Just as the scraps of what once were magnificent fish wash away upon the outgoing tide after each PTTS event, so too will the Boca Grande tarpon fishery as a whole disappear once the respect for the fishery, the community, and the fish are lost, only to be replaced by a relentless pursuit of increased revenue.
Why are many among the Save the Tarpon movement also calling for an end to the jig fishery as a whole? I cannot speak for all of them, but the consensus among them is that this fishery means to much to us as a community and as the fishing public to be denied access to the fishery by a small group of individuals who are out simply to pad their pocketbook. Is it a turf war? Absolutely. The PTTS and the jig fishery are fighting to maintain the strangle hold they have had on Boca Grande Pass for the last decade, and they can feel it slipping away. The charade is coming to an end, and too many questions and accusations are being levied by too many people for it to continue to simply be ignored. How large will our numbers have to grow before they stop claiming our actions are those of a small group of local traditional guides seeking to secure a financial interest in Boca Grande Pass? How long will they cling to the historic slaughter of Tarpon at Boca Grande Pass at the hands of the traditional guides years ago as justification for their own slaughter they commit each and every weekend in May and June to this very day? How long will they continue to ignore the pleas of conservation minded anglers and organizations to stop what they are doing? Will it take closing Boca Grande Pass to all tournaments or even all fishing in May and June as so many among their ranks have claimed? Maybe it will, I don’t claim to be an expert, only to have my own informed opinion.
I leave with a parting gift. The following excerpt was taken from the current FWC brochure published on Tarpon Fishing at Boca Grande Pass. Keep in mind the arguments of those against the jig fishery when you read the following. The next time you watch the PTTS on TV or happen to be driving through the pass in May or June ask yourself “are these the actions of the jig fishery participants?” Maybe you will begin to see why the PTTS, Florida Guides Association, and the jig fishery as a whole have all other user groups of the Tarpon fishery so upset.
The majority of tarpon caught in Boca Grande Pass are of reproductive age; therefore, extra care should be taken when handling these ﬁsh so they remain healthy to spawn and produce the next generation of tarpon. Practicing good conservation and ﬁshing ethics when tarpon ﬁshing will help ensure a sustainable tarpon population.
Safe Boating and Pass Etiquette
• Operate your boat at a rate of speed that does not create a wake.
• When approaching the ﬂeet make note of the direction of drift, and begin your drift at the head of the pack (up-current side).
• When ﬁnishing a drift, move to the head of the ﬂeet by going around, not through the ﬂeet.
• Boat operators should always avoid interfering with another boat’s drift.
• Do not rush over or chase a school of tarpon you see rolling at the surface.
• Do not run through a school of tarpon. Go around them and start your ﬁshing in front of the school.
The same FWC that owners of the PTTS falsely claimed “support” their event seems to realize there is a need for etiquette among fishermen in the pass in order to avoid conflicts. I guess these only apply to everyone who is a not a “professional” in the Tarpon Tournament Series.