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Tarpon tumult keeps building

Published August 31, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - More fuel will be added to the fire this week when state officials attempt to quell the controversy surrounding tarpon fishing in Boca Grande.

Nobody disputes the narrow pass at the entrance to Charlotte Harbor is inundated with fishing guides. Nobody disputes fishing in this historic hot spot is not what it used to be.

But who is at fault?

The "traditionalists," charter-boat captains whose live-bait tactics have not changed much in close to 100 years, blame the newcomers, out-of-town guides who use artificial lures.

The old-timers, who usually fish out of inboard cabin cruisers, say the "jiggers," as they are known because of their affinity for "breakaway" artificial baits, scare tarpon with their small outboard motors.

The jiggers say the traditional guides are jealous because they have lost their monopoly on tournament wins and the lucrative spring/summer clientele.

Another issue is the increased number of shark attacks on hooked and released tarpon. Traditionalists, who typically fight fish on heavy rods with braided line, say it takes jiggers longer to land a fish with light rods and monofilament. When fish are released, traditionalists say, they are tired and more likely to be attacked.

The Florida Marine Research Institute has completed the second year of a three-year study that examines postrelease mortality of the two fishing methods. The study has been inconclusive.

There is no doubt, however, light line and jigs impact the environment. Two years ago the Times participated in the first underwater cleanup of the pass. This reporter saw hundreds of miles of monofilament line and thousands of jigs littering the bottom.

To their credit most of those in the cleanup were out-of-town guides.

And politicians have entered the fray. State Rep. Jerry Paul and Speaker of the House Johnny Byrd have met with live-baiters. Paul is considering drafting a bill introducing the problem to the 2004 Legislative session.

Such a bill would have to be filed by March, which gives the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission time to act. The commission will hear from its staff this week in Pensacola, and biologists have recommended a public hearing this fall in Boca Grande. The commission could draft a rule and present it at its November meeting and hold a final public hearing in February.

Meanwhile, another historic institution has found itself under attack. Suncoast Tarpon Roundup, which just finished its 79th year, has a dedicated following.

In the early 1990s the event came under fire after the Times reported more fish werekilled in a 10-week period by tournament anglers than state officials said were killed statewide the rest of the year. The stories illustrated flaws with the state's $50 tarpon tag and changing attitudes toward the killing of nonedible sportfish.

In 2003 the tournament put an emphasis on release. Records show that this spring and summer 328 anglers hooked and released 886 tarpon.

According to state officials the number of tarpon killed in Florida is rising slightly. In 2000-01 the state sold 421 tarpon kill tags, 49 of which were used. In 2001-02, 425 tags were sold, 55 used.

This year tournament anglers killed 66 fish. State biologists used the carcasses for research. The tournament contributed $1,500 from entry fees to Tampa BayWatch, a prominent local environmental group.

The tournament, which has made an effort to see the tag law enforced, has nonetheless found itself the subject of heated discussion on Florida Sportsman's Web site. Critics say tarpon-kill tournaments should be outlawed. But the law entitles anglers to buy a tag and kill a tarpon.

It doesn't matter if the angler is a mechanic in St. Petersburg hoping to win a boat or a fly-fishermen in Homosassa seeking a world record. The result is the same. At the end of the day, what you have is a dead fish.

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