Big tarpon and bigger purses are draws for Boca Grande tournaments.
By TERRY TOMALIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 6, 2001
BOCA GRANDE -- Jack Harper remembers a time when this sleepy little waterfront town shut down after the Fourth of July.
"There was nothing going on back then," said Harper, a former professional football player who runs the marina closest to the famous tarpon fishing pass. "This place was dead. Now look at it."
On an average Saturday during the season, dozens of boats crowd the narrow pass hoping to land the "silver king" of game fish, Megalops atlanticus, and a fat paycheck for winning one of Harper's Tarpon Tides Tournaments.
"They are three hours long and pay out anywhere from $13,500 to $15,000," Harper said. "We get the same people fishing them week after week. They have got quite a following."
Harper hopes to up the ante by hosting the first Mega-Money Tarpon Tournament on Sunday and Monday. Based on a field of 40 boats and an entry fee of $35,000, the winning fish would pay out $400,000.
Harper hopes his Mega-Money Tournament, with its live and artificial bait format, will give the older, more established Chamber of Commerce tournament, billed as the World's Richest Tarpon Tournament, a run for its money. The chamber event is Wednesday and Thursday.
As of Thursday, the Mega-Money Tournament had 11 entries, which would drop the prize money below $150,000.
"We are going to pay out $174,000 for the first-place fish," said Debbie Ricci, tournament coordinator for the chamber event. "So that still makes us the richest tournament."
Last year 60 boats fishing the chamber's two-day tournament weighed in one fish, so the second-place money was rolled over to this year's tournament.
Harper said his Miller's Marina tournaments usually have about 50 fish hooked in three hours. Two weeks ago, at the last of Miller's Tide Tournaments, an angler hooked a fish 20 seconds after the start.
Why does the success rate vary so greatly between the tournaments?
"The Chamber of Commerce tournament doesn't allow some of the newer fishing techniques," Harper said. "And they seem to work."
For nearly 100 years, the narrow pass at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor has been a popular destination for anglers seeking tarpon. Most traditional guides who work the pass use the same techniques their fathers and grandfathers used. They fish with live bait on heavy rods, braided line and wire leaders from the stern of inboard-powered cabin cruisers.
But by the mid 1980s, anglers discovered lighter monofilament line (harder for the fish to see), and leaders used with artificial baits, such as jigs, worked as well or better than traditional methods.
By the mid '90s, the so-called jig anglers were winning tournaments, including the coveted Chamber of Commerce tournament. The organizers subsequently outlawed artificial bait. The young captains -- who fish with light tackle from the bow of small, maneuverable flats boats -- were virtually shut out of the tournament.
But their departure didn't hurt the chamber tournament's numbers. So far, 59 teams have paid $5,564 to fish for the top prize.
Ricci, the tournament coordinator, said she expects the field to be filled by Wednesday. "The first person who walks through the door with a check is in," she said.
Many guides who regularly fish the Miller's Tide Tournaments said they are avoiding the Harper's Mega-Money Tournament because of the $35,000 entry fee.
"That is a lot of money for an entry fee," said Ed Walker, a past winner of the summer Tide Tournament and the chamber tournament. "To gamble $35,000 in hopes of making $400,000 is a pretty big gamble."
Harper said he has corporations and individuals willing to pay the price. He envisions the Boca Grande tournaments continuing to grow.
"We will eventually have television coverage and professional teams that are out there week after week," he said. "It will be just like NASCAR. In time you will see."