Anglers targeting tarpon in Boca Grande Pass have new rules to follow this spring and summer.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has approved regulations that fishery managers hope alleviate tension between traditional guides who use live bait and light-tackle anglers who use breakaway jigs.
"We had a lot of public input on this issue," FWC spokesman Lee Schlesinger said.
The ongoing battle between the "livebaiters" and "jiggers" in the tarpon hot spot has reached a crisis point, Schlesinger said.
"We had to do something before somebody got hurt," he said. "Things were getting out of hand."
The traditionalists, charter boat captains whose live-bait tactics have not changed in nearly 100 years, maintain the light-tackle guides, many of whom come from out of town for the three-month tarpon season, catch fish by snagging them. The light-tackle enthusiasts say the traditional guides are jealous because they have lost too many tournaments and clients.
"So what we have done is made it illegal to catch or snag tarpon, not just in the pass but across the board," Schlesinger said.
The FWC also limited the number of active fishing lines on each boat in the pass to three in April, May and June.
"We know that this is going to be difficult to enforce, so anglers will be seeing additional law enforcement on the water, both in uniform and in plain clothes," Schlesinger said.
Few anglers disagree the narrow entrance to Charlotte Harbor is inundated with guides in peak tarpon months. And few would disagree the world famous tarpon hole is not what it used to be.
"The basic problem is the same as in so many other fisheries," said commission member David Meehan of St. Petersburg. "You have too many people competing for a limited resource."
The commission also instructed its staff to draft a rule that would ban the use of any breakaway fishing gear, including the jigs favored by the light-tackle guides and the sinkers used by the traditional guides. Breakaway gear utilizes lead sinkers or jig heads that detach from the line after the tarpon strikes, which helps prevent fish from breaking off, but the lead sinks to the bottom and is lost.
"We have heard reports from divers that the bottom of the pass is just littered with jig heads and lead weights," Schlesinger said. "That can't be good for the environment."
The commission also instructed its staff to expand the three-rod restrictions to all species caught in the pass in April, May and June.
"That is strictly an enforcement issue," Schlesinger said. "If a law enforcement officer stops somebody now fishing with more than three lines, they could say that they are targeting other species."
Meehan, who has studied the situation for several years, said there are no easy answers.
"Like the manatee issue, I think we can accomplish a lot through education," he said. "So we are going to move ahead with a brochure to help people understand the situation."
But Meehan said the problems in Boca Grande Pass will not be solved overnight.
"We are trying to put some measure in place that will eliminate the conflict," he said. "But nothing is going to help until the people who are using the resource start showing each other a little courtesy and respect."