Even the former leader of the free world doesn't get a free ride fishing.
After catching and releasing a 135-pound tarpon off Islamorada, Fla., on Saturday, April 19, former President George H.W. Bush and his guide received some flak from a handful of conservation-minded anglers for a photograph of the trophy catch.
Fishing with Capt. George Wood on a trip set up by Bush's fishing buddy Andy Mill, a former Olympic skier, Bush landed one of the largest gamefish the 41st president of the United States has ever had on a line.
''It was a thrill of a lifetime,'' Bush e-mailed Andy Newman, who coordinates media relations for the Florida Keys. "A great fighting fish was finally baited.''
With a live crab as bait on the end of 25-pound test line on a Shimano Triton 15 reel, Bush needed 45 minutes to fight the behemoth silver king to the boat. Both Mill and Wood were impressed.
"It was remarkable to see a man of this age be so persistent in battle,'' Wood told Newman."This was an 84-year-old man pulling against 15 pounds of drag.
"After we released the tarpon, he was immediately ready to fish for another.''
A minor stir and short-lived battle ensued once the image and story were made public. Readers took Bush and Wood to task, implying the tarpon did not have a tag and that their handling of the trophy didn't follow Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission guidelines.
"Once we got the call, we're like 'Oh no,'" said Capt. Rob Beaton of the FWC's Field Operations. "We started making some calls."
A reader sent reporter Byron Stout of The News-Press in Fort Myers the picture, pointing out that the ex-president's fish didn't have a $50 tarpon tag, a rope was through the fish's easily-damaged gills and the fish was out of the water.
"The picture put on AP — the tag wasn't obvious," Beaton said. "We were able to zoom in, and we saw the tag."
Beaton also said the FWC received confirmation from one of its lieutenants and Secret Service personnel accompanying Bush that they believed no infractions were committed as the fish was out of water about one minute.
"We have said that if you're going to reduce a fish to possession, drag it onboard, pose with pictures, it darn well better have a tag in it," Beaton said. "If you decide to release fish, you simply cut the tag, revive the fish."
People on message boards were calling for Bush and Wood to receive fines, as having no tag is a second-degree misdemeanor with maximum penalties of up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
"There is a tag on the tarpon. Nothing was done wrong," Beaton said. "We've actually got better pictures on the boat from Andy Mill that clearly show the tag."
Sometimes referred to as a kill tag, it allows the angler do what he wants with the fish.
"Once that tag is on the fish, you can take it on board and have your kids ride it like a bull," Beaton said, adding that the FWC is on a mission to promote proper fish handling. "We realize that people want to take a trophy picture of these. But in the end, another big fish goes on to survive."
Onlookers said the fish did in fact swim away. Beaton said he would find it remarkable that someone guiding a former president would not go strictly by the book.
"The onus, or the burden, would be on the guide," he said. "He's the person who's a member of the Florida Guide Association. These are the people that we look to to do the right thing, help us spread the message.
"Especially if you're going to be fishing with the president, you certainly don't want to do anything wrong."
Beaton said the FWC sends out guidance documents on fish handling. Here's an excerpt:
The plain fact is that many of our most popular recreational fisheries are strictly regulated, and because of this, many fish caught must be returned to the water. Most anglers would agree that anything we can do to minimize the harm to those fish being released will benefit the resource in the long haul.
However, we also don't want to discourage the fun and excitement of catching fish and documenting the catch, whether for records or the personal satisfaction that comes with sharing this experience with friends and family. That's why we are attempting to inform the public about safe catch-and-release techniques, and the harm that can be caused to fish that are handled roughly or held out of the water too long. That is the approach our law enforcement officers are taking, and only egregious cases of mishandling or unequivocal "possession" of an illegal fish would be pursued.
Mill actually had about 10 tarpon tags on board at the time, as he was preparing for a tournament.
Several years ago, Bush approached Mill — "'Can you do an old man a favor?''' — to set up a tarpon trip. Mill wanted Bush to catch one on bait then try "the pinnacle of fishing" by landing one fly fishing. On Sunday, the group went out in an attempt to get the president a tarpon on a fly, but to no avail.
Bush, as well as his son, current President George W. Bush, are well-known for their fishing prowess. Besides fishing vacations to the Florida Keys, the ex-president lent his name and presided over a bonefish tournament there for years, and the Cheeca Lodge Presidential Sailfish Tournament continues to this day.
Bush left the Cheeca Lodge & Spa, where he stayed, with possibly his best fishing story and will have a fiberglass replica mount of the fish hung in his Presidential Library at Texas A&M University.
''When released and he swam away, I had great respect for the big fish,'' Bush wrote.
''Anyone who catches a 135-pound tarpon has bragging rights for a long time,'' Mill said. "Knowing President Bush and how competitive he is, he'll be back in the Florida Keys throwing that fly again.''