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Underwater cleanup targets tangled mess

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 2002

BOCA GRANDE PASS -- The incoming tide showed no sign of slowing, but Jim Joseph had a job to do and he couldn't wait all day.

BOCA GRANDE PASS -- The incoming tide showed no sign of slowing, but Jim Joseph had a job to do and he couldn't wait all day.

"If we are going to go, we might as well go now," said Joseph as he prepared for an underwater cleanup of this popular fishing spot. "It is not going to get any better than this."

As Joseph checked his scuba equipment one last time, the captain of a boat anchored nearby joked that he spotted a 6-foot hammerhead shark nearby.

"And there was an 8-foot bull shark chasing it," somebody added.

But Joseph didn't care. He knew the real danger was 45 feet below, along the rocky rim of Lighthouse Hole. "You won't believe what you are going to see," he told this reporter. "Just try not to get tangled up."

Clutching the anchor line, we descended through the murky water until the ledge appeared 15 feet below. Then Joseph pointed to what looked like a large power cable and motioned with his hands to begin cutting.

"Is he crazy?" I thought to myself. But as I moved closer, I realized it wasn't a power line. It was a mass of discarded fishing line, twisted by the tide into a "cable" that ran the length of the ledge.

Nobody knows who was the first to wet a line in Boca Grande, but few would debate it is one of the most heavily fished bodies of water in the world, especially during the late spring and summer when the tarpon are running.

For nearly a century, this narrow pass that guards the mouth of Charlotte Harbor has been a popular destination for anglers seeking Megalops atlanticus, a thick-bodied monster with a mouth like a 5-gallon bucket.

For decades, "traditional" guides have worked the pass using the techniques their fathers and grandfathers used: live bait fished on heavy rods, braided line, wire leaders, from the stern of an inboard-powered cabin cruiser.

But the 1990s saw a drastic increase in angling pressure and the emergence of "nontraditional" guides using lighter, monofilament line (harder for the fish to see) and leaders in combination with artificial baits, known as jigs. These newcomers have done as well or better than their counterparts using live bait.

But these heavy jigs, fished close to the bottom, have a tendency to snag more often than live bait. And after 10 wasted minutes of trying to cut through the "fishing line/crab pot rope" cable, I decided to turn my attention to the hundreds of artificial lures littering the sea floor.

At first glance, the plastic jig tails sticking out of the sediment looked like a day-glow garden. They fluttered in the current, seeming strangely alive, like some yet-to-be classified form of mutant sea worm.

I tried to collect as many of the jig heads as I could. Like a child at an Easter egg hunt, I quickly filled the bottom quarter of a nylon orange sack with my booty. But when I tried to swim back to the anchor line, I discovered the bag was too heavy to move.

So I moved along the ledge, keeping an eye out for sharks, until I found Joseph, who had made great headway sawing through the "cable" of spent fishing line. The diving instructor would later return to the same spot on a second dive and attach an inflatable lift bag to the twisted mess and bring it to the surface.

"Even with that we barely made a dent," said Joseph, who runs the Fantasea Scuba shop in Port Charlotte. "We are going to have to make this a regular thing."

Biologists such as Bob Wasno, the Lee County Sea Grant agent who helped organize the event, are concerned about discarded fishing line because of the threat it poses to wildlife.

In the past 20 years, more than 25 manatees and 300 sea turtles have been found entangled in monofilament fishing line. Last year, more than 175 volunteers participated in 25 underwater cleanups and collected 2,500 pounds of line and trash.

"We had 27 divers on Tuesday and 13 on Wednesday collecting enough line (trash) to fill a 5-yard dumpster," Wasno said. "Most of the stuff that we picked up would have just snagged more line this tarpon season if it had been left on the bottom."

Nat Italiano, a "traditional" guide who has chartered the pass for 22 years, said he had trouble sleeping after seeing what the divers brought up on the first day. "It makes me sick," Italiano said. "I was hoping that (serving as a guide) was something that my son would be able to do someday. But now, I am not so sure."

Dave Markett, a Tampa-based guide who is more representative of the "light tackle" fishing method, said the cleanup was the first step in a long, difficult journey.

"There is a whole lot of stuff on the bottom of Boca Grande Pass and most of it starts with polypropylene rope coming off a stone-crab trap and then that accumulates dacron and monofilament line," Markett said. "We are going to get the majority of this stuff cleaned up, but it is going to take time, and then maintenance dives to keep it up. We are not going to eat this elephant in one sitting, but we are going to eat it."

-- To learn more about the Boca Grande Pass Enhancement Fund, write to P.O. Box 3343, Placida, FL 33946. Call Dave Markett at (813) 962-1435 or Lou Baggett at (941) 495-3677 to help with future cleanups.

Limiting the damage

If your line snags bottom when drift-fishing Boca Grande Pass, please turn your boat up-current and retrieve as much line as possible. Then, using a damp rag, wrap the line around the rag and motor farther up-current. The line usually will break close to the leader knot, leaving much less line on the bottom.

Treat all anglers fishing the pass the same way you would like to be treated. Watch your wake and never drive through a school of surfacing tarpon. Do not anchor in the pass.

If your line snags some debris, please retrieve it and dispose of it at the dock.

Do not drift directly in front of another boat. At the end of a drift, move back to the head of the boats passing on the outside, not through the middle of the fleet. Do not follow the fish.

When choosing line, experienced anglers should use a minimum of 40-pound test and novices should use 50-pound test. Use proper drag settings on reels that are in proper working order.

Use your boat to control the tarpon and take the fish out of the pack as quickly as possible to fight and release the fish.

If your line tangles with a line from another boat, remember that communication is the key. It will make the detangling process smoother.

If you are unsure how to fish the pass, hire a local charter boat captain to show you how it is done before you venture out on your own.

-- Source: Boca Grande Pass Enhancement Fund

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