Impasse in 'The Pass'

Things are heating up in the Boca Grande tarpon scene, and that's an odd statement — considering the summer season wrapped up nearly four months ago.

The current heat isn't over the tarpon action — not directly, at least. Rather, folks are in an uproar over a specific style of tarpon fishing — vertical jigging.

Boca Grande Pass is the storied portal connecting Charlotte Harbor to the Gulf of Mexico. For decades, April through June has seen massive schools of northbound tarpon packing into this major pass between Gasparilla Island to the north and Cayo Costa.

The deep, rocky pass funnels the tide, stacks up baitfish and crabs and offers several deep holes where 'poons can escape the current.

Traditional live baiters had for many years dominated the scene with long, controlled drifts. However, once jigging was introduced in the late 1980s, Boca Grande Pass would be forever transformed — both in action and attitude.

Essentially, jigging involves idling through the pass to locate schools of tarpon at the surface or with bottom machines and dropping heavy jigs into the schools. This technique profoundly contrasts traditional tactics and a cauldron of contempt has been brewing for nearly two decades.

The issue came to a head on July 27 when the Boca Grande Fishing Guides Association filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of the Second Judicial Circuit in Leon County against the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The suit claims that the FWC has failed to protect the tarpon fishery of Boca Grande Pass and seeks to force the agency to ban jigging in the pass.

The tarpon jig's original "break-away" construction drew upon a Louisiana creation (the "Coon Pop") designed to beat a tarpon at its own game. When hooked, tarpon leap, twist, flip and violently shake their heads in an effort to dislodge whatever has snared them.

Heavy jigs of singular construction are easily dislodged, but anglers soon learned that loosely attaching a lead head and plastic tail to the bend of a hook enabled them to stay connected to their tarpon when the lead broke free during the fight.

Environmental concerns over dropping thousands of lead objects into the Gulf, couched with local resentment over the very concept of jigging, brought about heated debates that lead to certain tournaments disallowing jigs.

In 2005, the FWC implemented a set of regulations specific to Boca Grande Pass for the months of April-June.

Foremost in these regulations is the ban on breakaway devices. Today, jiggers must connect their jig weights to their hooks with attachment devices (tie wraps, braided line, etc.) that exceed the breaking strength of their fishing line.

Notwithstanding the conversion to non-breakaway tackle, the BGFGA has persisted in its stance against jigs, contending that this style of fishing increases the likelihood of "snagging," or foul hooking tarpon.

The FWC defines a foul-hooked fish as one that is hooked somewhere other than in its mouth. Foul-hooking rarely causes any serious harm to a fish, however, the extended fight often associated with such connections may leave a tarpon in a weakened stated that increases the fish's vulnerability to sharks.

Foul-hooking can occur with natural baits, but the BGFGA's lawsuit claims that jiggers intentionally snag tarpon.

The FWC has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Moreover, on Oct. 8, the Tarpon Anglers Club, LLC (TAC), the organizer and producer of the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series (PTTS) events and television shows, filed a motion, asking that they be allowed to participate in the lawsuit.

As of this writing, no dates have been set to hear the motions filed by FWC or the Tarpon Anglers Club. The outcome of the FWC's motion will determine if and when the BGFGA's lawsuit will be heard in court.

During the 2002-2004 tarpon seasons, the FWC conducted a catch-and-release mortality study on fish caught in Boca Grande Pass. The study concluded that there was no significant difference in release mortality between fish caught on live bait and those caught on jigs. Details of the FWC study are available here.

Editor's note: David A. Brown has a B.A. in journalism from the University of South Florida and you can see his work in Florida Sportsman, FLWOutdoors.com, Cabela's Outfitter Journal, TIDE, In-Fisherman, Louisiana Sportsman, The St. Petersburg Times and Saltwater Angler. He also ghost-wrote and published "Fish Smart — Catch More!" for Tampa's cable TV host Capt. Bill Miller (www.billmiller.com) and a couple more publishing projects will be docking soon. He operates a professional writing/marketing agency, Tight Line Communications.