ST. PETERSBURG - Tarpon regulations for Boca Grande Pass are confusing, so much so that one official who helped draft new rules violated them last week.
"To tell you the truth, I thought we had repealed that law," said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission member David Meehan shortly after being photographed on a boat that had too many fishing lines in the water. "I've got no excuse other than I simply got confused."
To some Meehan's misstep may seem minor. But to a small group of guides who fish the tarpon hot spot, Meehan's actions have become a spark that may ignite a no-holds-barred public relations war.
"We are going for the jugular on this one," said Mark Futch, one of the traditional guides at the pass. "He should be out there setting an example. The whole thing is disgusting."
Futch and other homegrown charter captains, whose livebait tactics have not changed much in nearly 100 years, blame out-of-town guides, many from the Tampa Bay area, for destroying the once-heralded fishery.
The old-timers, who usually fish out of inboard cabin cruisers, say the newcomers, who fish with artificial lures on smaller boats with outboard motors, have scared away the fish. The traditionalist claim these "jiggers", as they are called because of their use of breakaway jigs, also snag fish, which the old-timers claim is unsportsmanlike.
The jiggers, on the other hand, say the locals are jealous because they have lost their monopoly on tournament wins and the lucrative spring/summer clientele.
Further complicating the ongoing drama is a marked increase in the number of shark attacks on hooked and released tarpon.
The locals, who typically fight fish on heavy rods with braided line, say it takes jiggers longer to land a fish with light rods and monofilament. After release, the fish are tired and more likely to be attacked.
The FWC stepped into this soap opera this year when it passed rules to address some of the concerns. One idea was to limit the number of fishing rods on a boat.
"But when we drafted the rule that limits the number of fishing lines in the water to three, we made the mistake of making it a tarpon rule instead of a gear rule," FWC spokesman Lee Schlesinger said. "So if an officer stopped somebody with four rods on the boat they could just say they weren't fishing for tarpon: "We were fishing for something else.' "
In April commissioners repealed the rule that prohibited tarpon fishermen from having more than three lines in the water, instead passing a rule that prohibits all anglers fishing the pass to have more than three lines in the water during the months of April, May and June.
Adding to the confusion was the effective date.
"Normally the change would have occurred a couple of weeks after the vote," Schlesinger said. "But we didn't want people to get confused during tarpon season, so we set an effective date of July 1."
FWC officials knew the change was confusing, so wildlife officers were told not to ticket any violators until 2005, Schlesinger said.
"We were going to try to use this season to educate people," Schlesinger said.
Futch, meanwhile, said he and other members of the Boca Grande Guides Association will press Gov. Jeb Bush to remove Meehan from office.
"I mean how stupid can you be," he said. "It is like showing up at a fire with a 5-gallon bucket of gasoline."
For more information on the tarpon rules in Boca Grande Pass, go to the FWC's Web site: myfwc.com.