Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Round of applause for Tarpon Roundup's all-release format

For several years my 6-year-old son, Kai, has been bugging me to go out and catch "a big metal fish" like the one hanging on the wall at Mastry's Bar & Grill on Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg.

Now before you call the authorities and report me as an unfit parent, let me explain. I do not drag my son to saloons on a regular basis, although he does share his share his father's passion for a nice cold root beer now and then.

No, we were in Mastry's to talk fishing, tarpon in particular, with owner Jay Mastry, who has probably caught more of these chrome-bodied bruisers than any other bartender east of 16th Street.

Mastry and his family have been fishing the Suncoast Tarpon Roundup since the first shad was soaked in 1934. That's the great thing about this 10-week tournament. Three, maybe four, generations of anglers have shared good times and bad on the water in pursuit of a sport fish that has no equal.

In the tournament's heyday, fishermen from across the United States came to St. Petersburg each May to fish for "the Silver King" of game fish.

An advertisement in the June 1936 issue of National Sportsman magazine (Where Good-Fellows Get Together) urges anglers to head south.

"For the thrill of a lifetime, come to Florida's Gulf Coast," the ad reads, and fish for "… the gamest fish that swims … fast as greased lighting."

These were the days before Tampa Bay had professional baseball, football and hockey, when the two biggest sports in town were fishing and sailing. The Suncoast Tarpon Roundup was the social event of the season. Why they even crowned a "Tarpon Queen," who rode a parade float down Central Avenue.

But times changed. By the early 1990s, angler attitudes had evolved. "Catch-and-release" fishing caught on, and sponsors would no longer back a tournament in which fish were killed for sport.

The Roundup endured a steady barrage of criticism from the media (this writer included) and membership plummeted.

It was time for a change. If the tournament that started during the Great Depression was to survive in the New Millennium, organizers had to forget the past and look toward the future.

This year, that is exactly what they did. Jason Gell, a 29-year-old who started tarpon fishing when he was 5, was elected the Roundup's president and set out to return the tournament to its former grandeur.

Gell's first action was to adopt an "all-release" format, a move that had some of the old-timers crying foul.

But despite criticism from within the Roundup ranks, Gell has stuck to his plan, and the event even landed a major sponsor in MirrOLure. He hopes a new generation of anglers will sign up for the 74th Roundup and soon will be yelling "Fish on!"

Gell should be commended for his courage. But talk is cheap. The Roundup's critics, this writer included, have been doing plenty of that in recent years, especially in the vitriolic world of online fishing forums.

The time for talk is over. The Roundup has taken the first step, now it's time for conservation-minded anglers to rally around this tournament and show their support. I, for one, have already signed up Kai to fish in the junior division on opening day May 24.

He's looking forward to his day with Uncle Jay. Hopefully, he will still be fishing the Suncoast Tarpon Roundup in 74 more years.

To sign up, go to www.suncoast

Terry Tomalin can be reached at (727) 893-8808.


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