Nestled along Florida’s Gulf Coast rests the historic seaside community known simply as Boca Grande. Situated on Gasparilla Island, a barrier between the Gulf of Mexico and Charlotte Harbor, Boca Grande is rich in fishing history. With only one road in and out, not much happens here. The destination is perhaps most famous for the world-class tarpon fishery found in Boca Grande Pass—a troubled fishery that has recently been the topic of great controversy and heated debate.
Every spring a miracle takes place in Boca Grande Pass, just like it has since the Calusa Indians lived off these rich waters. In May and June, an incredible abundance of mature tarpon gather in the deep holes and trenches leading in and out of Charlotte Harbor, where they provide anxious anglers the greatest opportunity in the state to tangle with silvery monsters of epic proportions. For generations, local captains have been guiding clients to trophy tarpon catches using traditional live bait fishing methods, just like their fathers and grandfathers have done for decades. While Boca Grande Pass has always been a low-key, conservation-minded catch and release fishery attracting sportsmen from all over the world, everything changed a decade ago.
Of greater concern is the angling technique tournament participants are utilizing.
Realizing the area’s rich potential, a high-energy made for television tournament series was created to coincide with the massive tarpon migration. Now the most televised tarpon tournament in the world, The Professional Tarpon Tournament Series includes five individual three-hour events leading to a championship five-hour event, all held on consecutive Sundays during peak tarpon season. Ambitious teams compete for a chance to win a 21 foot bay boat with thousands of dollars in cash prizes for 2nd, 3rd & 4th finishes. The high-intensity tournament is televised to a global audience over a 13-week series and is sponsored by Miller, Skeeter Performance Fishing Boats, Yamaha Outboards and many other big names.
Energetic crews comprised of up to four anglers, mostly from Tampa who pay $1,000 per event to participate, pile into the pass each Sunday morning for their chance to hook, battle and tow a single fish to the weigh station along the beach. Points are accumulated based on weight and number of releases, with a highly competitive Team of The Year race and top 25 boats competing for the prestigious Tarpon Cup and a tricked out 24 foot Skeeter. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Well, not so much. It seems that local fishermen and at least one conservation-minded organization are up in arms over what they consider blatant disrespect by the PTTS for the community and for the natural resource…and they’ve had enough!
“The PTTS is not just a tournament series, but also a charter booking agency that earns a healthy percentage for booking visiting anglers on tournament participating boats,” said Captain Tom McLaughlin from Save The Tarpon Inc., a grassroots campaign focused on bringing to light the negative impacts of the event.
“For the most part, tournament teams are from out of town, which means revenue amongst the community is being lost and the local economy suffers. Money that used to be spent with local guides is now going into the hands of outsiders. Additionally, these booked charter boats are fishing the same pressured waters seven days a week, all but completely shutting out the locals,” commented a frustrated McLaughlin.
Of greater concern is the angling technique tournament participants are utilizing. Once a thriving live bait fishery, tarpon fishing in Boca Grande Pass during PTTS events is almost exclusively reserved for jig fishing, a method in which a large circle-hook is firmly affixed above a weighted jighead/grub combo. The artificial rig is deployed into the deep holes of the pass and suspended just inches off the seafloor. The angler and captain work in unison to maintain a vertical presentation with the offset circle-hook fully exposed. The jig is held motionless and when the angler detects movement, an indication that a tarpon has rubbed against the line, the jig is retrieved at a high rate of speed with the intention of ‘catching’ the fish in the mouth. Of the tens of thousands of tarpon hooked in Boca Grande Pass over the years by jig fishing, everyone I spoke with familiar with this fishery confirmed an extremely small percentage are actually hooked inside the mouth. The vast majority are snagged.
Evidently, the FWC doesn’t object to this fishery and tournament officials say studies prove it’s nearly impossible to snag fish with a circle-hook and that competitors are hooking tarpon as they attempt to eat the jig. Protesters say this is certainly not the case, including at least one well-respected angler who has won this event.
The jig fishing issue is of huge concern to a growing number of conservation minded anglers worldwide, but far from the only topic of concern. Because schools of tarpon literally stack up like cordwood in small stretches of the pass, team boats practically pile on top of one another to achieve an optimal presentation. Watching it on TV, it’s hard to say the controlled chaos doesn’t appear questionable.
Next is what happens after a fish has been hooked, fought and successfully brought to the leader. A quick determination must be made by the team to either release the fish, or gaff it in the lower jaw and slowly tow it by means of a short rope to the waiting weigh station situated on the beach overlooking the action. I was told that marine biologists believe towing an exhausted tarpon may harm the fish even further and may contribute to an exhausted tarpon’s demise.
Once near shore where a film crew is waiting, the beaten warrior is hoisted, weighed, photographed and handed off to a professionally trained release team whose sole responsibility is to invest the necessary time to properly revive the fish so the tarpon swims away strong and healthy. It’s important to remember that release practices aren’t always perfect, as evident by dead tarpon washing up on local beaches or found floating belly up immediately following each PTTS event. While publicized numbers are likely blown out of proportion, thanks to DNA sampling there is no denying a direct correlation between dead tarpon and the PTTS.
Joe Mercurio, PTTS television host, said a 5% loss is normal with up to 13% mortality expected when sharks are present. Boca Grande Pass is notorious for its population of monster sharks just waiting to snatch an easy meal. Truthfully, no one really knows how many tarpon have perished as a direct result of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series.
As of press date, the PTTS has officially changed its policy and tarpon will no longer be towed to the beach, hoisted and weighed. Points will now be based on a precise length/girth formula and the fish will be released at boatside as quickly as possible. It’s also important to point out that the PTTS continues to work closely with the FWC with an extensive tarpon DNA study program.
Still, the opposition wants The Professional Tarpon Tournament Series abolished altogether. Tournament officials claim the local community is jealous because charter bookings aren’t coming their way. According to the PTTS, the show will go on!