Sweet Music

BOCA GRANDE, Fla. — Fishing guides in general have a reputation. Flaky, cantankerous, free spirits and for the most part, unemployable.

Few get rich at their craft, which requires insanely early hours, weekend duty and often painful stress on the traditional family unit. Captain Robert McCue of Team Sign Zoo leads the Jim Beam Tarpon Cup going into Monday's finale. He and his team also exhibit some in-your-face commentary that is broken out for the championship.

An Irishman, McCue responded enthusiastically when asked about Will Green, the man aboard playing the bagpipes while the team was hooked up on Sunday morning.

"That's something we break out just for the championship. It's a tradition with our team for the PTTS," said McCue. "It's a silent F-you to a certain group of people."

The story: Years ago, when jig fishing for tarpon in Boca Grande Pass was becoming popular, McCue said there was a concerted effort by the Boca Grande Fishing Guide Association (BGFGA) to have the practice outlawed.

These are the old-school tarpon guides who drift live bait to the schools of fish in bigger boats with bigger tackle. In sharp contrast, jig guides — many of whom are seasonal residents of Charlotte County — use a much more aggressive approach, positioning directly over fish marked by sonar in smaller boats.

"The two practices just don't mix. And it's created a lot of hard feelings. Basically, they tried to get jig fishing banned, saying we were stressing out fish with too light of tackle and snagging fish."

These charges were taken seriously by the state of Florida, which spent more than a quarter million dollars over three years riding along with guides of both philosophies. Jig fishermen were ultimately vindicated two years ago and old-time live baiters — many of whom were third- or fourth-generation guides — retreated to working the pass at night, when jiggers weren't present.

"A lot of this goes back to the net ban back in '97," said McCue. "Those live bait tarpon guides were also commercial netters when tarpon were not in season, so they were obviously upset when that took place. It got really ugly, death threats and everything."

"They were also losing a good bit of business to jig guides and that went a long way in creating a lot of hard feelings," McCue said.

There's also more than a little bit of irony in the live baiters' beef with those who drop hardware for silver kings. It seems that the very first tarpon fishing guides, long before anyone thought to drop heavy balls of lead to the fish, were those who waited for the outgoing tide to go slack and then row their skiffs to the pass. There they held the boat over the holes while clients dropped heavy spoons to the fish.

"It's the same philosophy with what we're doing today. The traditional outfit for those guides was white shirts, bowties and the old Greek fishing hats, which is what we wear during tournament," said McCue. "I'm a proud Irishman and playing the pipes is just another way of sticking it, or I should say paying homage, to the BGFGA in my own way."

McCue says Will's wife Jen will be aboard their boat in the morning, Will having to be at work.

"She's a good player, too. I think we're in good hands," he said.