Florida's fishery managers will meet this week in Lakeland to give special status to tarpon and present new gear rules that could jeopardize a televised tournament series held each spring in Boca Grande.
This deep-water pass, which lies at the entrance to the state's last great unspoiled estuary, has long been synonymous with big tarpon. Charter boat captains have been guiding the angling elite there for nearly a century.
But in recent years the number of people fishing for tarpon in the tightly packed pass has exploded, pitting local guides against out-of-town charter boat captains who flock to the area each May and June.
The seasonal guides' bait of choice is an artificial lure, or weighted jig, which the locals claim doesn't hook the fish in the mouth — fair and square — but instead snags it everywhere from the outside of the jaw to the tail.
Over the years, the state has tried to mediate this dispute but failed, leading fishery managers to the current option: banning any lure that has a weight attached to the bottom of a hook.
The state's population of tarpon, a thick-bodied sportfish that has no value as table fare, is not in jeopardy thanks primarily to a 1989 law that required a $50 permit for the right to kill a fish.
Before the tag law passed, Florida anglers killed thousands of tarpon each year. Today, state officials estimate the number can be counted on two hands. But they still want to make tarpon and bonefish, another prized species, catch-and-release only.
"They are just that important to the state's economy," said Nick Wiley, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "We think they deserve an additional level of protection."
The new rules would allow for the temporary possession of tarpon for "photography, measurement of length and girth, and taking a scientific sample," meaning an event such as the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series would not be affected.
The $500,000 pro tarpon series, which runs six events over five weeks each May and June, used to weigh and release fish on an in-water scale. Organizers recently changed the format to a length-and-girth measurement system, which did little to quiet the controversy.
At the heart of the matter is an ongoing dispute between the local and seasonal fishing guides. Until the 1990s, most Boca Grande fishermen used the same techniques that had been used for decades.
Anglers typically fished with live bait, heavy rods, braided line and wire leaders from the stern of inboard-powered cabin cruisers.
But in the early '90s, the newcomers using light line and artificial baits began doing as well as or better than their counterparts using the traditional method. The ongoing feud between the "jiggers" and "live baiters" reached a breaking point this year, prompting the FWC to intervene.
The locals blame the out-of-towners, saying the seasonal guides' aggressive fishing tactics have changed tarpon behavior. Another issue is tarpon mortality. A tarpon hooked on light line takes longer to land, which in theory could decrease its chance of survival after release.
But by far the controversial component of the ongoing Boca Grande saga is the "snagging" of tarpon. Anglers fishing the pro tarpon series have been accused of "snatch hooking" tarpon with heavy, bottom-weighted lures, a practice generally viewed as unsafe and unsportsmanlike.
The artificial bait enthusiasts counter that the locals' complaints are motivated by having lost business and tournaments to seasonal guides, many of whom come from the Tampa Bay area.
The FWC attempted to settle the live-bait/artificial lure controversy a decade ago by conducting a two-year study in Boca Grande Pass.
The study documented 83 tarpon trips, 42 of which were with captains using jigs and 41 using live bait. Of the 138 fish hooked with jigs, 30 percent were landed. Of the 92 tarpon that took live bait, 48 percent were landed.
The "catch-per-unit-effort," which is the tarpon landed per hour of fishing, was more than three times higher on live-bait trips. But the tarpon landed by jig were generally larger. The average fight time was 26 minutes for a jig-caught tarpon, 11 on live bait.
Of the 41 fish that were tagged and tracked, eight died after release. The jig-caught tarpon had a higher mortality rate, 22.7 percent to 15.8.
But the report added, "Based on the difference in the number of observed mortalities and the number of expected mortalities between fishing methods, statistical comparison showed no significant difference between jig- and live-bait fishing on tarpon catch-and-release mortality rates in Boca Grande Pass."
In regard to the "snagging" issue, of 47 jig-caught fish, 42 were hooked in the mouth, four were hooked in the head and one was hooked in the tail. All 32 tarpon caught with live bait were hooked in the mouth. Researchers determined that one out of 10 jig-hooked fish was foul-hooked, which is similar to foul-hooked snook (12 percent) on artificials.
Nearly a decade after the study's results were released, two noted scientists cited in the original work have come out against its findings.
"I've changed my mind," said Dr. Phil Motta of USF, who now believes a significant number of lure-caught tarpon are being snagged.
Justin R. Grubich, Ph. D., associate director of biodiversity informatics with the Field Museum in Chicago, said he was misrepresented on the FWC website in regards to the 2002-03 Boca Grande Tarpon Catch and Release Mortality study.
"My original testimony should not be taken to support either position," Grubich said.
The proposed gear ban is being watched closely by politicians in Tallahassee. On May 29, State Sen. Jack Latvala, a long-time fisherman in Charlotte Harbor, weighed in on the issue in a letter to FWC chairman Ken Wright.
"Unless credible, scientific evidence is presented to support a ban," Latvala wrote, "then I would recommend you vote down this proposal."
If commissioners adopt the draft rule, it would go to a final vote in September. But Joe Mercurio, one of the backers of the televised tournament series, said the show will go on regardless.
"They think that by banning a particular kind of jig they will get rid of all the fishermen from Tampa and Naples and have the pass all to themselves," he said. "But that is not going to happen. We are not going anywhere."