Family fishermen return to the Pass when the tarpon circus leaves town.
It’s the Friday afternoon before Labor Day, nary a boat bobbing on Boca Grande Pass as Irby Pugh guns the 27-foot Putopia at black towers and malevolent castles of water vapor squatting on this Gulf inlet.
The source of our reckless courage was, of course, those great pilchards we’d finally managed to put in the livewell.
“It’s when a man has live bait that he becomes a danger to himself, isn’t it?” the usually lightning-shy Irby needlessly pointed out. “And his crew.”
“The question you have to ask yourself,” he went on as we careened across the vacant inlet like a bat into Hell, “is whether life is more valuable than live bait.”
At the time it seemed a rhetorical question, possession of those pilchards clearly having crippled his judgment. Sighting another boat comforted us, halving our odds for the lightning strike, until we could see it was heading in.
For sure the snappers didn’t give a dead clam about the weather as rain and lightning drew around us like a shower curtain. Our presence held the thunderheads at bay and we drifted the storm-free zone between Gasparilla and the sand rimmed Cayo Costa Island, pulling pound to two-pound mangroves and little groupers off the bottom as quick as we dropped into the 30-foot depth.
“See? Storms are like dogs,” Irby illuminated. “As long as they don’t smell fear, you’re okay.”
He sucked down some Gulf air like a thirsty hobo on a frosty bottle, then looked me in the eye. “This is great, isn’t it?”
The tide was running out like a swollen river so we dedicated a few ounces of lead to get the unlucky baits to the bottom where they lasted only moments. My partner’s automatic fish-on grin lights up every time he sets the hook so it was pretty much constantly there. We got snappers for supper and threw back half an ocean’s worth to boot. This was simple, fun fishing.
Fishing that’s not fun is also available on Boca Grande and rarely is the comparison between humans and their prey less flattering. Here’s your majestic tarpon cruising en masse into Boca Grande Pass, stately, awesome and cool as a sea cucumber. Let’s submerge and take a close look into the calm, steely eyes of these hundred-plus-pound fish that have survived from an inch long fry in an unforgiving world of predators.
Back on the surface we have fishing guides cussing each other out and bumping boats, horrified families from Pennsylvania notwithstanding. It’s the local live baiters pitted against the interloping jiggers, all humans understandably trying to hang onto a way of making a living without getting a job. The live baiters are sore at the jiggers who allegedly gun around out there with intrusive outboards displaying something like the obtuse bad manners of a jetskier, not willing to wait until a tarpon is darn good and ready to bite, just looking for a pod to drop their hooks into. And Harold and Maude from Kalamazoo got their money’s worth as long as they see a big bend in the rod, a splash in the distance and a silver king by the boat. The live baiters, who’ve been doing this for generations, but these days are crabbier than ever, reckon the jiggers are running off the tarpon along with their guiding careers. Trouble arises, they all go to Tallahassee to tell on each other.
Tarpon? Humans? Which is the dignified species? You decide.
The moral of this story is that when you introduce money into a fun activity, it always sucks out the fun. If Mr. Nevercaughtafishinhislife from Flapdoodle, Iowa wants to wrastle a tarpon before he’s ever tempted a bluegill, rent him a boat and a fishing rod and wish him luck that he don’t drown.
Back to the real fishing, the fun fishing, the kind where you eat your catch for supper, next day we were up early with some more of Irby’s friends to experience Putopia 25 miles out. They seemed strangely familiar, like a favorite sneaker you haven’t worn in years. The captain had some GPS numbers where he’d caught fish four years ago. We would soon learn that live bait and weather reports have something in common. We cast netted pilchards on the way out, so we had both.
“Weather forecast says 2 to 3,” Irby reassured everybody as we hit a severe chop coming out of the pass.
“This must be the tide hitting the waves,” the optimistic Mary Ann offered sweetly.
We passed an anchored shrimp boat that we would become better acquainted with the next time we saw it, the chop got worse, and well away from land I was surprised to still see the tidal effect. We also seemed to be hitting some decent sized swells as we banged on out at half speed. At about 20 miles Irby stopped to discuss the situation.
“Do we go back or keep going?”
“The farther we go, the more of this we have to come back through,” a movie star pointed out, checking her mirror. “And it’ll be a lot worse the other way.”
“Let’s go for it,” said Gilligan, just wanting to tie into some big groupers.
It got steadily worse and started looking like an angry Atlantic Ocean. “You know, Irby,” the professor said, “A favorable weather forecast makes you dangerous.”
“You’re right,” the captain agreed. “It corrupted my judgment, didn’t it?”
“Yes,” the professor said with enthusiasm, hanging on to the Bimini top as we slammed down into a sharp trough. “Your faith in the weatherman overwhelmed what you could see with your own two eyes.”
The GPS finally started beeping, Irby threw her into neutral and we tossed and rolled and dropped baits with 6-ounce weights, Gilligan with the only pinfish as we hadn’t bothered to catch more. Over goes his rod and up comes a 22-inch red grouper with Irby hootin’ and hollerin’. We caught all lizardfish after that on pilchards and I started getting queazy trying to thread 25-pound mono into a banged up hole on an 8-ounce egg sinker.
I got a holier sinker, got rigged, dropped and focused on the horizon for awhile as we skated on 6-foot swells.
Fishing was too hard with this Gilligan guy staggering around crashing into everybody so Irby aimed the Puketopia back the way we’d just come. “Anybody want raincoats? It’s gonna be wet.”
Nobody opted for raingear so we were immediately soaked as Irby and I enjoyed the flavor of small doses of Gulf of Mexico. About when my hand felt welded to the Bimini frame, we sighted the shrimp boat. As we drew near, it motored up and came at us on an intercept course.
“What next?” Irby said in disbelief. As he took evasive action, we saw the captain beckoning us.
“Hey, it’s the skipper,” Gilligan yelled and they all waved.
Turned out a crewmember had to return to the mainland due to a family emergency. We pulled alongside and took him on board.
We dropped off the shrimper and boated to exquisite Cabbage Key for lunch. There I did something I never thought I’d do—pay seven dollars for a cheeseburger. But hey—at least it was in Paradise.
Back into the pass we caught the slack tide, only a couple other boats out there. Like sitting on a 30-foot-deep lake full of snappers and groupers. Everybody but the movie star dropped baits with an ounce of weight, I opted for yellow and white tube jig on a 1⁄16-ounce head with an egg sinker. The jig got hit first and wound up out-catching bait for snappers, including the biggest one. But Gilligan was the grouper man and he hauled up two keeper red ones. Otherwise small groupers and nice mangrove snapper were constantly swinging over the side.
“Isn’t this great!?” Irby beamed. FS
Boca Grande In Short
About the Pass: One of the deepest, broadest natural passes on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Mid-channel depth of around 40 feet drops to 72 in the famed Lighthouse Hole. Lots of snaggy bottom habitat for snappers, groupers and snook. Main tarpon season runs late April through the end of June, but some hang around through early fall. Mackerel get pretty thick as autumn approaches.
Where to Stay: Some fine inns and weekly home rentals on Gasparilla Island. A local favorite that caters to boaters is Innlet on the Waterfront, www.innletonthewaterfront.com, (941) 964-2294. Summer rates run about $100 per night double occupancy, which includes use of boat ramp and slip. For other options, contact the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce, (941) 964-0568. Primitive accommodations and camping are available at Cayo Costa State Park, (941) 964-0375 and rooms can be rented at Cabbage Key, (239) 283-2278.
Boat Access: Public ramps are scarce in this skyrocketing waterfront real estate market. There are two at Placida Park, on Boca Grande Causeway. You can also launch at one of a handful of mainland ramps administered by Charlotte and Lee counties (whose lines bisect Gasparilla Island). Gasparilla Marina, just a short boat ride from the Pass, rents 20-foot center consoles for $245 a day; call (800) 541-4441, www.gasparillamarina.com
Boatless? Great fishing off the beaches of Gasparilla and Cayo Costa islands. Small white bucktails, plastic-tail jigs or spoons catch plenty of snook, especially early in the morning. You’ll also pick up trout, redfish and flounder in the suds.
Special Tarpon Regulations
Fueled with all the teenage drama of a modern West Side Story, the tarpon fishing turf wars of Boca Grande Pass play on unresolved. The dispute among fishing guides stirred the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission into passing rules aimed at easing tensions in the pass. These rules include:
No more than 3 lines per vessel may be used to catch any species in Boca Grande Pass during April, May and June.
Use of breakaway sinker gear prohibited in Boca Grande Pass during April, May and June (jigs are okay, so long as the elements aren’t rigged to come apart).
No intentional snagging of tarpon.