'Tarpon Madness' has once again swept the entire Southwest Florida region from Boca Grande to the 10,000 islands. The fever rises with the mere image of the Silver Kings tail walking on television newsreels or on at the terminal end of your line. Once Southwest Floridian transplants learn that these magnificent fish started big game fishing, they are determined to have one!
"I caught mine in Redfish Pass," said Bokeelia Bill as we sat at the Fish Monger's bar one Wednesday. "I had four on but he was the only one to come all the way to the boat."
"I thought they only were in Boca Grande Pass," said Toledo Harry.
"They're moving along the beaches right now heading for the spawning areas near Boca Grande," said Cap'n Roger. "They will hit light tackle away from the passes. Let me tell you, they are a real hoot on a fly rod!"
"I got mine many years ago in the big pass when we did our boating television show. Denise, 'the Fishing Female' Oyler wanted to film a segment on tarpon and Cap'n Roger, myself and she went to Miller's Marina to try and interview some guides. No luck, not very friendly so we jumped into the fray and started fishing."
"They're real hard to keep on the hook. The current is real strong, the bottom is rough and uneven so you think you have a fish on a long time before you do. Then you do and you can't mistake the weight and feel as you hear yourself shout 'fish on!' I tired out quickly and two of my boat mates relieved me before we got it to the boat," said Bokeelia Bill. "I was real worried a shark would get him before I could let him loose!"
"There are ten maybe 20,000 tarpons in that pass in May and June," said Cap'n Crunch. "My son took me fishin' there four or five years ago, and I got a picture of us holding that beauty! Must have weighed a 120 pounds." I got a chill up my spine when Crunchie endorsed the activity. It had been at least 10 years since I'd stalked the Silver King, so I thought I'd see what's new.
I came across a group called the Boca Grande Guides Association and a video about the methods of catching Tarpon on their website. I was prepared for the usual 'come on down' pitch and was surprised by the conservation theme of the video titled, "Let's Save The Boca Grande Tarpon Habitat."
The guides that appeared in the video weren't the working guides I remembered who were screaming at every other boater in the pass last time I was there. Sure, they were working but when they got over a 'stack' of fish, they moved in and chased everyone else off.
These conservationist guides expressed deep concern for the health of the habitat because Silver Kings are dying from the use the break-away jig that hooks the fish not on the inside of the mouth but the outside of the mouth. Even worse is the practice of lifting the 120- to 150-pound fish out of the water thereby damaging their internal organs. I learned that the 'big' fish were mostly all fertile females who might not spawn, even if they live through these fishing practices.
"I have a copy of a letter from Eva Johnson from the Lighthouse," said one of the guides, "telling me that she counted 18 dead tarpon on the Lighthouse beach after a tournament that sanctioned the breakaway jig and weighing the fish by hand."
I have fished both methods, and I must admit that the one and only fish that I 'nearly' boated was with the break-way jig. I feel completely confident that my fish lived because I didn't gaff it or handle it but, after watching that video, I now have doubts.
Boca Grande Pass and Tarpon fishing are the reason big game fishing exists. The development of stout reels and line and hooks made offshore fishing possible. Live bait fishing was the method that grew the sport from hand lining to fishing from motorized skiffs with famous industrialists aboard to modern day fishing in 'the pass'!
The Boca Grande Guides Association wants the breakaway jig banned from tournaments and a return to live bait fishing in 'the pass.' They would like to see all anglers return to full time days of live bait fishing. Most tournaments have already changed over but the television filmed ones still insist on using the jigs and displaying tarpon out of the water for the cameras.
In all fairness, I am sure there are guides who fervently disagree with the Boca Grande Guides Association and believe that the handling of huge fish and the face hooking of these fish have no adverse affect. There are 1,000s and tens of 1,000s of Tarpon in Boca Grande pass feeding before going offshore to spawn in May and June. The most spectacular sight is the Tarpon run on the 'hill tide' when the crabs come out of Charlotte Harbor, and there is a frenzy of Tarpon eating crab. Silver Kings are hooked up three at a time by the swarm of boats. Surely the species is healthy if there are so many.
"So who is fishing in the Ding Darling & Doc Ford's Tarpon Tournament on Saturday, May 5," I asked our happy hour gathering of the "Dead End Canal Yacht Club?" Cleveland Jack was enthusiastic but not another attendee spoke up. I guess we aren't that excited about racing to Boca Grande and catching the winning tarpon. Besides, we don't have a go-fast offshore, three-engine outboard boat that can make the trip.
I am sure it will be a great time and big female fish will be caught but none can be boated or gaffed or handled. Hurray for Ding Darling/Doc Fords! Hopefully next year they will limit it to live bait only!
Boatguy Ed is a retired marine manufacturer and avid boater and past Commander of the "Dead End Canal Yacht Club." Visit their Facebook page and www.boaterstreasures.com! Send comments to boatguiEd@aol.com.