Boca Grande Pass on Florida's Gulf Coast has long been known for two things: stellar tarpon fishing and a bitter feud between old-school traditionalists favoring long drifts with live bait and the jig fishermen who look for pods of fish on their depth finders and then vertically deploy their artificial baits.
Over the years, contentious debates on jigging practices have prompted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to implement specific gear and fishing regulations for Boca Grande Pass and now, the agency has taken decisive action to ban jigging in its current form.
Background: Spirited discussions on stylistic differences could rage for days, but at the heart of the conflict is the particular type of artificial bait used by jiggers. Models vary by angler, but in simplest definition, the common tarpon jig features a plastic bait stuck on a lead head that dangles from the bend of a hook tied to the fishing line (leader). Those opposed to this style of fishing assert that tarpon do not always bite the jig, and that many of the fish caught are actually snagged.
Addressing that assertion Sept. 5 at its meeting in Pensacola, Fla., the FWC approved a two-part proposal that will take effect Nov. 1. Applicable statewide, Part One adds language to the snagging definition to prohibit catching or attempting to catch tarpon that have not been attracted or enticed to strike an angler’s gear.
The current definition for snagging or snatch-hooking is the intentional catch of a fish by any device intended to impale or hook the fish by any part of its body other than the mouth. The FWC believes that adding language specifying that gear must entice the fish will help protect tarpon from snagging.
Click image to view Boca Grande fishing photos
Part Two prohibits fishing with gear that has a weight attached to a hook, artificial fly or lure in such a way that the weight hangs lower than the hook when the line or leader is suspended vertically from the rod. This change applies year-round for all species within Boca Grande Pass. Inside the pass boundaries, this gear may be carried aboard a fishing vessel, but cannot be attached to any rod, line or leader and must remain stowed.
FWC believes this change will further reduce the likelihood that tarpon in Boca Grande Pass will be snagged.
“The actions taken today by the Commission represent a historic move to further protect this iconic fish,” Commissioner Kenneth Wright said. “One day, there will be a chapter on these conservation measures in a book on proactive fishery protection.”
Joe Mercurio, tarpon angler and TV host of the BGP-based Pro Tarpon Tournament Series, has been on the forefront of the pro-jigging argument. He expressed disappointment that the agency apparently made its decision without solid evidence.
"I respect the FWC's concern for the protection for tarpon in the BG fishery, but their decision to take away the use of an artificial lure for recreational anglers, in this instance, was not based on science or any biological evidence," Mercurio said. "It was done based on the reaction from a small group of individuals (led by the Boca Grande Fishing Guides Association) who lobbied to get it done."
Aaron Adams, Director of Operations for the Florida-based conservation advocacy group Bonefish Tarpon Trust, said that while definitive scientific evidence can be elusive in the world of fisheries management, the opposition to jig fishing includes the concern over disruption of fish behavior. The annual tarpon aggregations in BGP are thought to be a prespawn staging ritual and a key element of the species' life cycle. Jigging, Adams said, entails presentation methods that could bring the lures into unavoidable proximity to the fish and potentially alter their natural patterns.
"The method of fishing a jig in the pass, which is vertically – not trolled, or drifted or cast – would enhance its likelihood of snagging fish, whether intentional or not,” he said. “Another concern is that because the jigs are fished vertically, the boats have to be maintained over a school of fish. That means the fish have no chance to refuse the lure if they aren't in an eating mode.
"If you drift through the pass and the fish didn't want to eat the bait, it would just move aside and the bait would pass through; whereas, with vertical jigging right over the school, there's never any relief of pressure over the fish. Our concern is that since Boca Grande is a very important location in the tarpon spawning process, that (behavior) was being altered by that type of pressure."
Tarpon were recently classified as “Vulnerable” due to habitat loss and degradation, declines in water quality, and harvest in parts of its range. Florida's resulting decision to require catch and release for this species as of Sept. 1 was well received by BTT.
In a BTT release, Chairman Tom Davidson reacted to the FWC's Boca Grande Pass decision with this comment: "These new regulations, along with the recently enacted regulations making tarpon catch-and-release only in the state of Florida, are important steps in protecting tarpon for future generations. Many thanks to everyone who weighed in to achieve these positive results, and to the FWC for setting a positive example for the rest of the country."
Mercurio counters by pointing out that while the decision only affects a relatively small segment of Florida's overall recreational anglers, he's concerned that it opens the door for more such actions.
"I think that this sets a horrific precedent for the future of recreational angling in Florida to know that hook-and-line fishing gear can be summarily taken away based on no scientific evidence," he said.
Find existing Boca Grande Pass regulations at: http://myfwc.com/media/2077379/Tarpon_brochure.pdf.