When the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission decided last year to ban the use of a popular type of fishing tackle for pursuing tarpon in Southwest Florida’s Boca Grande Pass, many thought that would be the end of the zany reality show/fishing contest known as the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series.
The FWC decided that the “Boca Grande jig” — where the weighted part of the lure hangs below a circle hook — effectively snagged tarpon in the face and body instead of enticing them to strike, and outlawed its use in the Pass. The decision was hailed by a grassroots organization called Save the Tarpon, which had waged boisterous on-water protests and a tireless social-media campaign against the PTTS. Several South Florida guides got involved because many tarpon caught and released in Southwest Florida are recaptured later in Southeast Florida and the Keys.
The tournament reacted by filing suit in Charlotte County Circuit Court against Save the Tarpon, accusing the group of defamation and costing the televised contest some major sponsors. The suit is pending.
Meanwhile, the PTTS is embarking on its 11th year, albeit with fewer sponsors and participants, planning to conduct three men’s and three women’s tournaments beginning May 17 and culminating with the season-ending Tarpon Cup, where a boat, motor and trailer will be awarded to the top overall team. The series will be broadcast later on the World Fishing Network.
“Since the inception of the tournament, there has been a faction of folks against what we are doing,” PTTS founder Joe Mercurio said. “We’re not going to let the decision the FWC made daunt us at all. Our anglers are ready to go out and follow the letter of the law and compete.”
Two of the top competitors vowed to do just that, declaring they don’t need the Boca Grande jig to catch and release big tarpon.
Veteran Tampa fishing guide captain Dave Markett of Team Power Pole, which finished third last season, said he used a “slider” jig most of the time, which allows the weight to slide up and down the line above the hook. He said he also caught and released fish using live bait, such as squirrelfish and crabs, and had success with soft plastic jerkbaits.
“There are no shortcuts to success,” Markett said. “Every captain thinks he has an idea and he thinks it will work.”
Jill Sapp, who fishes on Fins & Tails with her guide/husband captain Troy Sapp, said their team has always fished a combination of lures and live bait.
“We’ve fished all of it,” she said. “The guys that have been doing this a long time, this isn’t their first rodeo. The newer people to it, maybe they won’t hook as many. It is what it is.”
Save the Tarpon members plan to monitor the pass on tournament days with video cameras to see if PTTS competitors are following the law, according to the group’s chairman, Boca Grande captain Tom McLaughlin.
“The part of the jig law that’s important is that the fish pursue the gear and not the gear pursue the fish,” McLaughlin said. “It’s all about preserving sport fishing in Boca Grande Pass. It’s a historical fishery and it should be protected.”
FWC officers will patrol the pass, as they have since before the tournament’s inception.
Controversy surrounding tarpon fishing in the pass is nothing new. Old-timers say factions have been quarreling since the turn of the century over things like rowboats versus outboard motors; catch-and-release versus kill tournaments; jigs versus live bait, etc. Some say the modern tarpon fishery pales in comparison to past years; others say it’s much more bountiful.
The PTTS has drawn criticism for towing large tarpon on lip gaffs to a scale where they were hoisted out of the water to be weighed. The tournament recently ended that practice, and instead assigned judges to measure length and girth to estimate weight without taking the fish out of the water. Fish have to be revived before release and teams are awarded extra points for swabbing the cheek to take DNA samples used in fisheries research.
Despite the changes, Mercurio says, PTTS opponents are never satisfied.
“This is a group of people that don’t want people there,” he said. “They don’t like the tournament because participants are fishing guides from outside the area and that has hurt local guides’ business. They can’t come out and say that, so they say, ‘they’re snagging fish; they’re killing fish.’ We’re gonna keep coming, period, because we have a right to go down there and fish.”
Still, some anglers and guides have had enough.
Veteran Southwest Florida light-tackle guide captain Ray Van Horn, who has fished the pass for a quarter of a century and competed in the PTTS since the start, said his Team Sunbrella has elected to stay away this season.
Van Horn said the tarpon are stressed out by all the fishing pressure and falling prey to big sharks. He also is fed up with the bad behavior of fishermen.
“There’s a lot of testosterone flying around,” Van Horn said. “There’s a callous disregard, a lack of respect and I’m just not going to put up with it anymore. My team and I sat down and it was unanimous: It’s not the way it should be.”