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Reaching an age of discontent

Boca Grande tarpon event is entangled in old ways vs. young methods.

Editor's note: This is Part 1 of a three-part series.

When Ed Walker looks at tarpon, he sees dollar signs.

"It is my biggest moneymaker," the Palm Harbor guide confessed. "I can't not fish the tarpon tournaments."

Last year, Walker walked away with $146,500 for two days work after his team captured first, second and a portion of third place in the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce's Tarpon Tournament.

So this year it was only natural that the 32-year-old charter boat captain was a little upset when he learned he would not be able to fish in what is heralded as "The World's Richest Tarpon Tournament."

A series of controversial new rules prohibited Walker and other predominantly young captains _ who fish with light tackle from the bow of small, maneuverable "flats" boats _ from participating last month in what was once considered the crown jewel of tarpon tournaments.

"We were catching all the fish," he said. "So instead of adopting the new, improved methods, the old-timers outlawed them."

At the heart of the controversy was a decision by the tournament's board of directors to prohibit boats smaller than 22 feet and ban monofilament line and leaders that are standard fare for the young guides who have been winning most of the money in recent years.

"It is ridiculous," Walker said. "In no other sport would you have somebody say, "It works too good. You can't do it anymore.' "

For nearly 100 years, the narrow pass that guards the mouth of Charlotte Harbor has been a popular destination for anglers seeking the "silver king" of game fish, Megalops atlanticus. Tarpon, a thick-bodied monster with the mouth like a 5-gallon bucket, are known for their fighting prowess and jumping ability. But for their large size (up to 8 feet and 280 pounds) and voracious appetite, tarpon are relatively light feeders and prey upon small fish and tiny crabs.

Most of the "traditional" guides who work the pass use the same techniques that 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-'80s, anglers discovered that lighter monofilament line (harder for the fish to see) and leaders used in connection with artificial baits, known as jigs, worked as well or better than the traditional methods.

By the mid-'90s, the so-called jig anglers were winning their share of tournaments, including the coveted Chamber of Commerce Tournament. The organizers subsequently outlawed artificial bait.

"The whole thing was silly," said Mark Futch, who won the 1995 tournament fishing with live bait from a flats boat. "They did it to accommodate the traditional fisherman. They have a better mousetrap. Why not let us use it?"

Futch, whose great uncle help pioneer pass-fishing for tarpon in 1910, said the rule change is a hot topic among him and his cousins who are also guides. "It is a touchy subject," Futch said. "We don't see eye to eye."

Jeff Totten, the 1997 tournament winner, said the change hurt his business because his clients catch fewer fish. "They are trying to eliminate our style of fishing," Totten said. "My clients don't mind losing tournaments, but they at least want to catch some fish."

Walker, Futch and Totten cite the results of last month's tournament, which, according to the Chamber of Commerce, saw 60 boats using traditional methods hook 21 fish in two days. The weekend before, however, nearby Millers Marina held its own Catch the King Tournament and 29 boats using a variety of methods hooked 178 fish in two days.

"People come down here to fish and want some action," said Dawn Harper of Millers Marina, which also hosts a series of weekly tournaments. "In our tournament you do whatever it takes to catch the fish."

Cappy Joiner, a 62-year-old guide and member of a legendary fishing family whose name has become synonymous with tarpon and Boca Grande Pass, said the rule change was designed to even the playing field. Joiner, president of the Boca Grande Fishing Guides Association, said that in recent years "professional fishermen" took over the tournament.

"Our clients are hard-working people with money who might only get a chance to fish once a year," Joiner explained.

"They don't want to compete against professional fishermen. It is as simple as that."

The entry fee for the Chamber of Commerce Tournament is $3,500. If you add in the captain's fee, food and lodging, officials estimate the average cost per angler/boat sponsor is $10,000.

"People pay a lot of money to fish our tournament," Joiner said. "They have the right to decide how they want to fish it."

Joiner, a charter boat captain with more than 30 years experience, said Boca Grande is overrun with out-of-town guides during the summer tarpon season.

"I was born and raised here and can tell you how the tide is running just by looking at the moon," Joiner said. "But these days anybody can be a guide. They might be up north working as a cocktail waitress, come down here, buy a jig and and start running charters."

The local guides association has 62 members and publishes a yearly pamphlet containing the "Ten Commandments of boat operation at Boca Grande Pass." But Joiner said some of the 100 or more guides who descend upon Boca Grande for the tournament season do not take the time to learn the rules.

His brother Lamar Joiner, one of a dozen or so family members that guide in Boca Grande, said the new tournament rules have made the pass a safer place to fish.

"It cleaned things up a bit," he said shortly after his boat, Miss Sarah, won the $100,000 first prize in the 1999 Chamber of Commerce Tournament. "For a while there it was out of control all those (flats) boats getting in the way."

Harper said those anglers not welcome in the Chamber of Commerce Tournament can fish Millers Marina Catch the King Tournament next year. The entry fee is $5,000 and the field is limited to 40 boats. This year, the Millers Tournament paid out $163,100, nearly as much as the $165,000 Chamber of Commerce Tournament.

Harper said the low number of fish caught the "old-fashioned" way will cause more defections to the Millers Tournament.

"The rule changes will do what they wanted them to do _ stop people from fishing the tournament," she said.

"The world's richest tarpon tournament will now be the world's dullest."