The hugely popular pass - once an incomparable tarpon hot spot - has fallen on hard times. Overfishing and natural calamities appear to be the cause - with no solution on the horizon.
By TERRY TOMALIN
Published July 18, 2003
BOCA GRANDE - Nat Italiano used to look forward to July.
"That was often my best month," the fishing guide said. "But those days are gone. I think tarpon fishing here in Boca Grande as we know it is over unless something is done."
Italiano, 46, has worked "The Pass" the way his father and grandfather fished it - from the stern of an inboard-powered boat, with heavy line and live bait - which is generally considered the "traditional" method of tarpon fishing.
Guides here used to enjoy three months of the best tarpon fishing the world had to offer. The season would begin in May, run through June, then culminate with several big-money fishing tournaments in July.
But angling pressure, combined with the effects of a devastating red tide and an unusual number of large, hungry sharks, has taken its toll on what was once the state's premier tarpon fishery.
"I had to cancel all my fishing charters after June 13," said Italiano, who fortunately also has an insurance business to help pay his bills. "We had one stretch of nine or 10 days where there wasn't a single fish in the pass."
At last month's "World's Richest Tarpon Tournament" sponsored by the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce, anglers caught just three fish in 11 hours.
"When I won it back in 1994, we caught more than 40 fish the first day and just as many the next day," Italiano said. "And that was when the tournament was still held in July."
Local angler Todd Murrian, whose family-owned tire business on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg no longer sports a large jumping tarpon on one of its walls, used to plan his family vacations around tarpon season in Boca Grande.
"My family would go down for a month in June and we would fish the pass twice a day, one tide in the morning and one tide in the afternoon," Murrian said. "But there got to be so many boats during the day that I had to start fishing at night."
Murrian often found himself alone, except for a half-dozen "traditionals" who also sought the cover of darkness to escape the crowds.
"But this year, there were probably 40 boats out there at 3 a.m.," he said. "It seems like every year more and more people are fishing at night because that is the only time they can."
The traditional guides fish the pass in an orderly manner, each boat starting up-tide, then drifting with the current to the fish.
"But as soon as the sun comes up, there is chaos," Murrian said. "You have all these small outboard boats running around trying to get on top of the fish.
"It is not their technique (artificial lures) but their tactics," Murrian said. "They don't make eye contact with you because they know what they are doing is wrong."
The number of out-of-town guides in flats skiffs who fish Boca Grande Pass has grown exponentially in recent years. Tensions run high as the traditionalists struggle to get a piece of a shrinking pie they are forced to share with more and more mouths.
"It has really reached a breaking point," said Italiano, who would be considered a moderate among an increasingly vocal group of local guides. "If something isn't done, I am afraid somebody is going to get hurt."
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg recently completed the second year of a study that looks into the fishing mortality in Boca Grande.
Researchers went on 14 live bait trips, nine of which produced no fish. They also fished 14 times with guides who used artificials in outboard boats. Four of those trips produced no fish.
"We were hoping to catch and tag a fish on every trip," FMRI's Luiz Barbieri said. "But that just didn't happen."
Barbieri said researchers were alarmed at the number of sharks attacking hooked tarpon. "One day in June we documented 19 attacks," he said. "That is just incredible."
State officials aren't sure what to do with their data, but Boca Grande will be discussed when state fishery managers meet in September.
Meanwhile, Murrian is looking for a new place to vacation. "The way it stands now, I don't know if we will be going back to Boca Grande," he said.