REDINGTON SHORES — St. Petersburg once had the dubious distinction of being home to the last tarpon kill tournament in Florida. That ended in May, when the 74-year-old Suncoast Tarpon Roundup changed course and adopted an all-release format.
Now, thanks to a new kill tournament, the beach town of Redington Shores is the last place hosting an event where the silver king of game fish is caught and killed for sport.
At least one city official isn't thrilled with the distinction.
"I am speechless," Mayor Jody Armstrong said. "That goes against everything that I stand for."
Earlier this year, after the Suncoast Tarpon Roundup's membership voted to end the decades-old practice of weighing in dead tarpon, a small group of anglers broke off and started their own tournament.
"We kill tarpon," said Paul Herrington, a member of the West Coast Anglers, the group hosting the Redington Shores tournament. "That is what we do."
According to the club's Web site (www.westcoastanglers landlubbers.com), as of last week, six fish ranging in weight from 130 to 172 pounds have been officially weighed in for the tournament, which runs through July 19. There have been more than 75 releases.
The St. Petersburg Times learned of the tournament after reader and longtime pier fisherman James Ratz went to the Redington Long Pier to fish and was chased off by several members of the club.
"They gathered around me like some gang deal and said we can't let you fish," said Ratz, a 43-year-old Largo resident. "They were acting like it was some secret society. I said you have got to be kidding. I've been fishing out there for 25 years."
Tony Antonious, the pier's owner, said anyone is welcome to fish his pier but added that the West Coast Anglers have exclusive rights to the "T" area at the far western end, where the best fishing is.
"It costs $150 for members to enter the tournament, and we give (Antonious) 15 percent of all the entry fees," Herrington said.
After Ratz complained about the tournament anglers' behavior, I visited the pier to see for myself.
"Hi," I said to two anglers fishing off the end of the pier. "Are you guys in the tarpon tournament?"
"What does it look like?" one of them responded.
After a moment of awkward silence, a second angler, who also refused to give his name, asked, "Do you feel welcome?"
"Not really," I responded.
"Good …" he said. "Time for you to leave."
With only a notebook and pen in hand, I clearly wasn't there to fish. Instead, I began interviewing 14-year-old tournament angler Dustin Gable of St. Petersburg about a 98-pounder that he released.
That's when another tournament angler called the pier manager. "Get the (expletive) off the pier," the angler told me.
Antonious later apologized for the anglers' behavior. "I won't tolerate that," he said. "I go down there when I get a complaint, but the troublemakers are always gone. Nobody will tell me anything. It is like a mafia line."
Herrington, meanwhile, said if he and his fellow anglers don't kill tarpon, state scientists would have nothing to study.
"If the fish is already dead, we don't want it to go to waste," said Luiz Barbieri, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.
Barbieri added that the institute was approached by the tournament organizers but told them dead fish haven't been needed for years. "We are finished with that aspect of our study," he said.
In fact, state biologists are currently working with the Suncoast Tarpon Roundup in an ongoing DNA study with live fish. The Redington anglers have supplied skin scrapings for DNA study as well, but it is not necessary to kill a fish to do that.
Meanwhile, Armstrong of Redington Shores said she respects Antonious' right to make a living, but on a personal level, the mayor was disappointed to hear that a tarpon kill tournament was being held on the Redington Long Pier.
"In my day job, I am the chief operating officer of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium," she said. "We are all about rescue, rehab and release. Need I say more?"
Terry Tomalin can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8808.