On Wednesday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will consider a draft rule amendment to protect tarpon that, if approved, will be the first step in addressing among the most brazen cons in our state’s fishing history — and a dirty little fishing secret that has, for a decade, caused one or more FWC biologists to appear naïve or, at best, as an unwilling dupe or dupes.
It is an ugly story, dark with irony, but brighter days are ahead — if the commission takes that first bold step on Wednesday and designates tarpon [but not bonefish] as a catch-and-release-only species. It is not considered eatable, yet it is an iconic game fish, so it sounds like a no-brainer, right?
Wrong. The sad fact is, this is the first incarnation of the FWC’s seven-member board to exhibit enough fishing savvy to acknowledge a problem exits. By my reckoning, though, the amendment could be a vote or two shy of passage, which is why I’ve decided to throw some sunlight on the dirty little fishing secret, expose the con and hope that Florida’s thinking anglers will make their voices heard.
Here’s the ugly back story:
In the early 1990s, when tarpon tournament purses in Boca Grande Pass climbed to $100,000 or more (not counting side-bet calcuttas), two local anglers revived an old poaching technique that guaranteed they would boat tarpon (even when tarpon were not feeding) and also fill their pockets with lots and lots of modern hundred dollar bills.
“Floss-fishing,” was the technique, a throwback to the days when European peasants fished for survival, not sport — a deliberate method of snagging trout and salmon in fast-flowing rivers. As the two innovators proved, floss-fishing worked equally well on tarpon that school in the fast tidal rips of Florida’s west coast.
“We thought we were being clever, but there’s nothing sporting about what we did,” Mark Futch, a third-generation Boca Grande fishing guide, remembers now. “A buddy and I grew-up fishing that pass. There were days when tarpon would stack by the thousands in the deepest holes, but they wouldn’t hit a bait, no matter what you threw at them. With so much tournament money on the line, I decided to try something different.”
For Futch and his boyhood friend, George Melissas, it meant designing a specialized rig consisting of a heavy lead weight wired to the bend, or “belly” of a hook that had already been canted off-center with pliers. To disguise the rig’s true intent, a colorful rubber adornment was added to make it look like a legitimate fishing lure.
“Mark still has the prototype,” Melissas (now one of the country’s foremost experts on sea mollusks) told me. “We named it ‘The Prom Dress’ as a joke because it came off in a hurry when we hooked tarpon. Personally, I didn’t go out there with the intent of snagging fish, but I’d guess about 90 percent of tarpon landed using that technique are snagged.”
Something else the men did was name their creation a “break-away jig,” which added to the illusion of legitimacy because actual jig lures (which are weighted at the eyelet, not the belly of a hook) are used world-wide, and considered among the most benign of artificial lures.
The ruse worked, and so did floss-fishing. Futch and Melissas won or placed in the next 50 consecutive tarpon tournaments using their homemade “lures.”
“We were landing tarpon when no one — I mean, no one — could even get a bite,” Futch told me, “and good fishing guides aren’t dumb. They saw what we were using, and saw that every tarpon we landed was hooked outside the mouth, not inside the mouth. Soon, there were a hundred boats in the pass using rigs similar to ours, and we were seeing more and more dead tarpon floating or on the beach. I know I’m partly to blame for this mess, and that’s why I’ve been working so hard to make it right.”
Because I was a Sanibel fishing guide during that era, I knew Capt. Futch only by reputation (although he is now a good friend), but I can tell you from personal experience what happened next, and how that dirty little secret was transformed into a purposeful con.
Among guides, “jig fishing” became the accepted euphemism for snag fishing, but always in a wink-wink sort of way because boating fish is key to making money in what is a very tough business. The technique wasn’t illegal, but most of us knew it wasn’t ethical, so a do-it-until-they-banned-it approach was embraced by some and rejected by others. How do I know this is true? Because, as a fishing guide, I did
In 1998, a half-million dollars in winnings and three years later, Futch and Melissas returned to traditional methods when the Boca Grande Guides Association did, indeed, ban “jig fishing” in tournaments.
Instead of following suit, however, the Florida Marine Fisheries Commission (which became the FWC in 1999) dismissed the growing animus between traditional tarpon anglers and those who used belly-weighted hooks as “a user conflict.” Worse, the FWC remained indifferent to the fact that Florida’s legal definition of a “snagged fish” (compared to states such as Washington, Oregon and Michigan) offered enough wiggle room to energize a whole boutique industry based on snagging tarpon — and that’s exactly what happened in Boca Grande Pass, in my opinion.
Enter Silver King Entertainment LLC which, in 2002, came to the area to video 13 TV episodes of its Professional Tarpon Tournament Series (PTTS). The show featured fast boats and “pro” anglers, in NASCAR-like garb, who used a run-and-gun, pack approach to chasing pods of tarpon around the pass — a water space where, for unknown millennia, Florida’s sport-fishing cash cow, Megalops atlanticus, has schooled to rest and fatten before migrating off-shore to spawn. For viewers (and sponsors) the dramatic payoff was video of sharks attacking tarpon that had been played to exhaustion, and “official weigh-ins” after tarpon had been gaffed, dragged to the scale, then hoisted in transparent body bags.
All this is perfectly legal by Florida law, but the Boca Grande Guide’s Association — never a warm and fuzzy group when it came to outsiders (myself included) — filed a lawsuit and appealed to the FWC to send biologists to do a hook placement study that local guides felt certain would confirm that “jigging” is actually snagging. Such a study also would return a boomerang of bad karma into the lap of the snag-rig’s creator — something no one, by now, wanted more than Capt. Mark Futch.
Finally, our Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission responded. The commission earmarked $250,000 in funding and assigned a biologist to lead what would result in a three-year, eight-page document entitled, “Summary Report on the Catch-and-Release Mortality Study on Tarpon in Boca Grande Pass, 2002–2004.”
Hello happy ending, right?
According to data from the FWC’s study, in 2004, 74 percent of tarpon landed using so-called “jigs” were hooked outside the “buccal cavity” or mouth — including a tarpon that was boated after being snagged in the tail — yet the study (after ignoring other statistical red flags) concluded, “While more tarpon [10 percent] were foul-hooked using artificial bait than live bait, percentages were not unusually high and did not contribute negatively to the survival of tarpon.”
That’s right. Our FWC biologists fell for the floss-fishing con – hook, line and sinker. The authors, in my opinion, accepted the fiction that a belly-weighted hook is a legitimate jig lure, then contorted other definitions (such as what constitutes a fairly-hooked fish) as needed to prop-up their own flawed premise. As a result, Florida is now stuck with a document that has, in my view, done more to damage our tarpon fishery than the 20 years of snag fishing the study, in fact, implicitly endorses.
Honest naivety is to blame, I hope. Before you can understand how badly flawed the FWC’s 2002-2004 study actually is, you must first understand how floss-fishing works:
Imagine a school of tarpon stacked 40 feet high, mouths pointed into the tide. This mass of fish is then transected by nearly-invisible fluorocarbon fishing lines, heavily leaded-hooks attached, a process repeated hundreds of times over a day. Hooks attached to these lines may be oscillating up and down but are actually more effective as snag hooks if they are held motionless, allowed to drift quietly near the bottom of the column of fish.
These tarpon aren’t feeding (in this scenario), nor are they unaware. Even so, the jaw structure of a tarpon is such that the side-flaps of its mouth (the maxilla or ‘clipper plates’) are exposed targets. These flaps are hinged and flair slightly outward, not unlike an overgrown thumbnail, or the backside of a human ear. When fluorocarbon line makes contact with this bony flap, the line is sometimes funneled (flossed) toward the inside hinge of the mouth (clipper plate.) The hinge, as it narrows, becomes an effective guide. Soon, as the boat moves, or the fish moves, the flow of line is halted by an abrupt collision: The hook (given additional mass by the heavy sinker) either loops and buries itself outside the tarpon’s mouth, or it bounces free. If the hook does stick, the startled tarpon panics, naturally, which causes other tarpon to panic, sometimes through a haze of multiple hooks and lines which can create the illusion of a sudden feeding frenzy. Shrewd, huh? Key elements to this technique:
1. A heavy (3-6 oz.) sinker must be attached directly to the belly of a hook.
2. Tarpon must be stacked in a contained area (which is why this technique is so effective in Boca Grande, but useless offshore, or in our back bays.)
3. The hook must be extremely sharp and is more effective if it is a circle hook canted slightly using pliers. (I’ve done this, keep in mind.)
4. Low-visibility fishing line — fluorocarbon — and a grey sinker are best because deception is imperative.
5. A high-speed reel (to rocket the hook upward through schooling tarpon) and a good boat handler all add to the likelihood of success.
The most devious thing about this technique is that, if you are being paid to produce fish, your clients (if inexperienced) will never question why the tarpon they landed is hooked outside the mouth after “bumping” or “nibbling” at the hook.
Obvious, once you understand how it works, right? Not if you’re an overworked, underpaid biologist, apparently — or if you’re a fishing guide who has wrestled with the ethics of flossing. Capt. Andy Boyette, a top money winner in PTTS tournaments, and an accomplished Charlotte County guide, is a vocal example of just how convincing the floss-fishing con can be.
“It took me awhile to figure out that jigging tarpon is the biggest hoax in the history of fishing,” Boyette told me recently. “I jig fished for eight years [2000-2008] and didn’t understand, at first, why almost every fish we landed was hooked outside the mouth. I remember trying to think up new stories to explain it to my clients. Finally, I got sick of lying to clients who I liked and respected, and that was the end of jig-fishing for me. I was good at it — my boat won the last PTTS tournament in 2008 — but I’d rather have a clear conscience.”
I asked Boyette if he believed that all accomplished tarpon “jiggers” knew the truth.
“All I’ll say about that is I think there are new fishermen out there who don’t want to believe it, or have been told the same lie for so long that nothing will convince them. But the best clients, actual sports-fishermen, don’t want to catch a foul-hooked tarpon. That’s what these new guides need to think about.” (For Boyette’s detailed assessment of “jigging,” visit http://gofishcharters.com/fishingreport/.)
Boyette nails a key point: Florida risks a negative economic backlash by tolerating (in fact, endorsing) floss-fishing, and failing to re-define our own vague snagging laws. In 1885, when New Yorker W. H. Wood, fishing in the backwaters of Sanibel, boated the first tarpon ever taken on rod and reel, the destiny (and economy) of Southwest Florida was forever changed by moneyed sportsmen who took the ethics of fishing seriously.
Guess what? Serious anglers still do.
But Florida has dropped the ball in comparison to destinations such as Oregon, Michigan, Washington and Alaska, which have set an example by honoring sporting ethics via articulate legislation. Our state is guilty of another oversight, too: We pay bargain-basement salaries to the biologists and law enforcement people mandated to maintain our multibillion-dollar fishing cash cow, when we should be luring the best and brightest. That doesn’t mean we don’t have good biologists and first-rate FWC law enforcement people. We do. But it’s bad business not to reinvest profits in order to maintain the source of those profits.
For now, though, the seven-member FWC can take a step in the right direction Wednesday by designating tarpon a catch-and-release-only species (but omit bonefish, which would unfairly burden ethical and responsible tournaments in the Florida Keys.)