BY CAPT. TOM McLAUGHLIN - There is some truth behind the talk that the Save the Tarpon movement is simply a turf war. Which side of the pro-jig/anti-jig movement you fall on has some correlation with where your turf is. 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.
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. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is 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.
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 they 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 and growing by an average of thirty per day. At last count, the Boca Grande Fishing Guides 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 BGFGA really “brainwash” that many folks on a regular basis? Some of the most experienced and well respected fishermen in Florida and Nationwide.
There are some facts in the arguments levied by the PTTS, Florida Guides Association, and its supporters that need some clarification. First and very importantly, the “authorities” on jig fishing are not 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. These two talented individuals accounted 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? They quit jig fishinglong ago. They both have spoken out against the jig fishery and the PTTS. 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 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 the jig fishery in general is damaging Boca Grande Pass both biologically and socially. What’s their motivation? Maybe Capt. Markett should ask them.
Why are so many speaking out against the PTTS and rallying for not only an end to the tournament but often to the jig fishery as awhole? The answer here is both extremely complex and exceedingly simple.
The only real supporters of the PTTS and the jig fishery is a fairly small group of participants, owners, sponsors, and the Florida Guides Association. Individuals with a common interest in that they benefit financially, either directly or indirectly, from the PTTS. The same cannot be said for the group rallying behind the Save The Tarpon movement. They are a 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 is causing irreparable harm both biologically and socially to the Boca Grande Tarpon Fishery. How exactly the PTTS and the jig fishermen are damaging the fishery, not all members or supporters of the movement seem to agree, but they do all agree that there is a problem and it is damaging the fishery.
The effect of culling out large females, handling them excessively, as the State and all conservation oriented groups describe as “inappropriately”during the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series, has been discussed at length. We should not lose sight of the other half of the problem at hand, though, 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 BGFGA, 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 the fish do not actually open their mouths and bite and/or eat the jig, means that the users 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 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. Why is the battle so heated? Could it be that there is more to the story than just a shift in charter business and overcrowding?
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. We know 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.”
Why are so many people, from so many walks of life, with so many diverse interests in the fishery and community of Boca Grande rallying together to fight the PTTS and the jig fishery as a whole? Proponents of the jig jump to no other conclusions than it is the traditional Pass fishermen looking to exclude everyone else from fishing in Boca Grande Pass. The description of this turf war has been a bit skewed by those looking to protect a significant stream of income they derive from the jig fishery in Boca Grande Pass. It is the PTTS, Florida Guides Association board members, and the jig fishery guides who are the ones 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. This is not a problem of simple overcrowding. The bigger problem is one of the culture of disrespect that has become synonymous with the PTTS 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 devasting effects 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. No place is safe from the invasion of the horde when the fish leave the Pass. The Pass and the surrounding fishery could support the increased number of boats currently fishing, but successful continuation of the fishery relies upon cooperation among participants in the fishery. The jig fishery as a whole represents the antithesis to this very need.
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.
The consensus among the Save The Tarpon movement calling for an end to the jig fishery as a whole is that this fishery means too 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 pockets. It absolutely is a turf war. The PTTS and the jig fishery are fighting to maintain the stranglehold 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? Will they cling to the historic slaughter of tarpon in 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? 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? Maybe it will.
The current FWC brochure gives information on tarpon biology and safe boating and pass etiquette, http://myfwc.com/media/2077379/Tarpon_brochure.pdf. The same FWC that owners of the PTTS falsely claim “support” their event, seems to realize there is a need for etiquette among fishermen in the Pass in order to avoid conflicts. Do these only apply to everyone who is not a “professional” in the Tarpon Tournament Series?
Capt. Tom is an area guide and works with savethetarpon.com.
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