In May 2012, Doc Ford's restaurants withdrew our sponsorship from the "Professional Tarpon Tournament Series" (PTTS) in Boca Grande Pass because the tournament, in my opinion, endorses snagging techniques that are contrary to fishing ethics and dodges Florida game laws under the guise of "jig fishing."
Sadly, state legislators and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) have turned a blind eye to this outrage; worse, a badly flawed study by the FWC tacitly endorses the illegal snagging technique.

First, I'll address the technique.  Secondly, I will address the flaws in the FWC's three year tarpon study.

Note: I first published this assessment in May, 2012.  To date (March, 2013) several biologists have written to agree with my findings, but I've yet to hear from even one biologist -- or lay person, for that matter -- who has attempted to impeach my point-by-point criticism of the study.

Previous FWC commissioners have dodged their ethical and fiduciary responsibilities, in my opinion, by doing nothing to stop snag fishing.  Current commissioners will meet in April 2013 and, for the first time, vote on whether or not to address this important issue.

-- Randy Wayne White 

1.  Is Jig Fishing Snag fishing? Is jig fishing, by definition, snag fishing?  No -- not as jig-baits are used world wide.

Is using a greatly modified "jig" while drifting Boca Grande Pass snag fishing?  Often, in my opinion, although perhaps unknowingly by some anglers who employ the technique.  (To be accurate, the rig used is, in fact, not a jig lure as defined by historic fishing literature.  It is a hook with a weight attached at the bend or “belly” of the hook -- typical of snag or snatch hooks, by definition.)

There are myriad scenarios in which a fish could be snagged using a 'jig' as the rig is commonly configured in Boca Grande Pass.  Here, though, is the most likely scenario as assessed from my own experience, and after discussing the subject, over a span of two decades, with other guides, many of whom were/are far more expert than I on the subject.

Imagine a column of tarpon stacked forty feet high, mouths pointed into the tide.  This mass of fish is then transected by many dozens of near-invisible fluorocarbon fishing lines, heavily leaded-hooks attached, a process repeated hundreds of times over a day.  Leaded hooks attached to these lines may be oscillating violently up and down, but are actually more effective as snag hooks if they are held motionless, allowed to drift quietly near the bottom of the column of fish.

These tarpon aren't feeding (in this scenario) nor are they unaware.  Even so, the jaw structure of a tarpon is such that the bony side-flaps of the mouth (the maxilla or 'clipper plates') are exposed targets.  These flaps are hinged (by soft tissue and sutures) and flair slightly outward, not unlike an overgrown thumbnail, or the backside of a human ear.  When fluorocarbon line makes contact with this bony flap, the line is sometimes funneled toward the inside hinge of the maxilla (clipper plate.)  The hinge, as it narrows, becomes an effective guide.  Soon, as the boat moves, or the fish moves, the flow of line is halted by an abrupt collision: The hook (given additional mass by the heavy sinker) either loops and buries itself in soft tissue at the edge of a suture outside the tarpon's mouth . . . or it bounces free.  Key elements to this technique:

1. A heavy (3-6 oz.) sinker must be attached directly to a hook.

2.  Tarpon must be stacked in a contained area (which is why this technique works only in Boca Grande and a few other passes world wide.)

3. The circle hook must be extremely sharp and is more effective if canted slightly, using pliers, (Gamakatsu brand "circle hooks," a favorite of "jiggers" are sold pre-canted.)

4.  Low visibility fishing line --fluorocarbon -- and an unpainted grey sinker are necessary because deception is imperative.

5.  A high speed reel (to rocket the hook upward through schooling tarpon at 5-feet per revolution) and a good boat handler all add to the likelihood of hooking a fish.  This finesse is known as 'Floss fishing,' a term that is more accurate than the misnomer, "jig fishing."

If a tarpon is hooked in this manner, does the angler realize it?  Often not, judging from the sincere responses I've gotten to this question from some PTTS anglers and guides.  But possibly yes, depending on the angler's experience, or if he is knowingly 'speed-flossing,' by using a high speed reel.

Has the fish been fairly hooked?  Or has it been foul hooked?  According to the FWC it has been fairly hooked.  According to sports fishing ethics, however, and literature that dates back to the 1600s (Sir Izaak Walton) the fish has been foul hooked -- indeed, worse: this tarpon has been "snatch-hooked,"  "flossed" or "snag-fished."  These terms are synonymous with "poaching" in the literature.

A three year study done by the FWC is consistently offered as proof that an insignificant percentage of tarpon are foul hooked when landed by this "jigging" technique.  Considering the absence of oversight on the biologist/biologists who did this study (or peer review!) the data collected is pertinent, but how the FWC reached a conclusion that is often at odds with its own data is mystifying.  The study also suffers at least two key flaws: one flaw is an inarticulate definition; the other is a glaring oversight.

1. The FWC's Definition of What Constitutes a Fairly Hooked Fish is Too Broad to Address This Issue.

Picture yourself holding a spoonful of cereal.  You swing it toward your mouth but, instead, hit yourself in the forehead, the throat, the cheek, or the nose.  By the definition of this study, you have successfully hit your target, and are now chewing your cereal compliments of your head, your cheek, your outside maxillary, your isthmus (in terms of tarpon physiology) but NOT your mouth as it is used by primates and fish alike.  It is for this reason, and this reason only, that the FWC was able to conclude in its study:

"While more tarpon were foul-hooked using artificial bait than live bait, percentages were not unusually high and did not contribute negatively to the survival of tarpon."

What a convenient but unconvincing way to dodge a controversial issue!  An obvious question is: 'unusually high' compared to what?  I've read the FWC study many times.  An answer to that question is not provided in a study that, frankly, is further plagued by incompetence, indifference or, possibly, some participant's personal agenda

My observation: the tarpon is an ancient species; a marvel of evolution that has outlasted dinosaurs, survived global cataclysms, all largely due to its ability to hunt, forage, ambush and feed successfully.  With its giant Megalops eyes, its sensitive lateral line, this is an apex predator and survivor -- an animal that has NOT survived the eons by whacking its head, throat and cheeks against prey it intended to eat.  I know dozens of guides who share my experience that when a tarpon strikes a bait, that bait ends-up inside the tarpon's  mouth, not on the outside, in the vast majority of strikes.  The FWC study, however, dismisses this aberration as "not unusual."  Again, compared to what?

Despite the FWC's own broad and misleading definition, the snag numbers are revealing to anyone who has more than a cursory knowledge of fish and fishing:  About 10% of tarpon landed using "jigs" were foul hooked.  Using live bait?  Zero percent (0%) of tarpon landed were foul hooked.  Ten percent is a small number, but still markedly disproportionate.  These figures disprove a naive but common assertion that it's "impossible" to snag a tarpon with a circle hook.  This disparity (10% versus 0%) does more than that, though: it proves that using the heavy-lead-on-a-hook technique ("jigging") is markedly more likely to snag a tarpon than a hook drifting live bait.

2.  A glaring oversight: the FWC study failed to acknowledge that only tarpon foul-hooked near the head have any likelihood of being landed.

As most who have caught a tarpon will agree, it's difficult enough to land a fish that's hooked in the mouth, but it would be nearly impossible to land a tarpon that has been hooked in the belly, the anus, or chest -- particularly in Boca Grande Pass where tidal velocity on spring tides, especially, is epic.

The FWC study includes data regarding tarpon that were hooked but not landed, but the implications of that data were pointedly ignored.  In the study, 138 tarpon were hooked using modified "jigs" -- 41 of which were landed (a success rate of 30%).  Using live bait, 92 tarpon were hooked -- 44 were landed (a success rate of %48).

To me, these numbers are compelling if not conclusive.  Consider these oddities:

1.  Startling statistics.  In this study, among anglers who fished Boca Grande Pass during the same period, and on a similar number of outings, "jigs" hooked 20% more tarpon than live baits (swimming crabs; live fish) which tarpon have depended upon for eons for survival.  (138 versus 92 = a 20% increase.)

My observation:  Aside from Boca Grande Pass, I don't know of another place in the world where tarpon demonstrate this preference for eating plastic when natural prey is also offered.  A simple question: if this "jigging technique" hooks twenty percent more tarpon, why don't anglers use the same leaded "jigging" technique off shore where tarpon school, literally, by the acre in water of similar depth? Or in backcountry hotspots like Captiva Rocks, Burnt Store Bar, Hendry Creek Rocks?  Or on the flats?

But they do not.  No knowledgeable angler would bother to waste his or her time, and here's why: this "jigging" technique works ONLY when tarpon are stacked in columns, and constrained by limestone walls that form Boca's Grande's deepest holes. World wide, this same scenario -- schooling fish, constrained by structure or current -- is key to successful floss or snag fishing.  An aphorism comes to mind that references fish in barrels.

I don't care what you're studying, twenty percent is a significant portion.   How could FWC biologists have ignored this startling disparity?  If I still guided for a living, I would break down doors to find a method that produced twenty-percent more tarpon hook-ups, yet freed me of the pre-dawn chore of catching live bait.  Had I invested money to produce a fishing show, I would fiercely protect any technique that guaranteed twenty-percent more action footage to my viewers and sponsors.  Why not?  By whatever name -- jigging, flossing, or snag-fishing -- the technique is not only allowed by the state of Florida, it is tacitly endorsed by the FWC's own limited and determinedly myopic study.

Hyperbole?  Nope.  Between 1974 when my Ocean Operators License was issued, and 1991, I did more than 3,000 full or half day charters, and I know how tough it is to make a living (let alone a reputation) as a fishing guide.  I also once hosted a fishing show, and know the pressure to produce action on a limited budget (two camera hours per episode, in my case.)  Would I have used modified jigs as a guide or as a host?  IF (and only if) supporting my family  required it, you bet!   Indeed, to be shed of that pressure, I would've used .22 hollow points (on myself, or the fish, not my anglers -- although tempting in a few instances.)


2.  Most damning evidence.  Of the 138 tarpon hooked on a modified "jig" only 41 were landed.  Only thirty-percent!  In my opinion, this is the most damning statistic regarding this issue.  Seventy-percent of all tarpon hooked by "jigging" were lost -- even though using the very reliable circle hook.  Why?  Tarpon veterans I know agree that a normal land-loss ratio is somewhere between 50-50% and 65-35%.  But 30-70% is an outrageously poor showing.  Even my fly fishing clients landed about 40% of fish jumped!  Yet the FWC failed to notice, or even allude to this aberration, nor did its biologists pose an obvious question: Are these so called Professional Tarpon Tournament "experts" to be faulted as hopeless incompetents?

No, they are, in fact, competent in my opinion.  Then why do "jig" fishermen lose 20% or more tarpon than live bait anglers?  If you have read this assessment, you already know the answer.  Don't feel badly if you missed it.  The FWC also missed this significant point.  As I wrote earlier:

It would be nearly impossible to land a tarpon that has been hooked in the belly, the anus, or chest -- particularly in Boca Grande Pass where tidal velocity on spring tides, especially, is epic.

That's why "jiggers" lose so many fish, in my opinion.  Many of the tarpon they battle have been foul hooked (as defined historically AND by the FWC.)  Fish that have been snagged in or around the head can be landed.  Tarpon that have been snagged mid-body, the anus, the lateral fin, would be nearly impossible to get to the boat.

The FWC study does acknowledge that one tarpon was landed after being jig-hooked in the tail!  But it otherwise, sadly, ignores the issue of fish that have been snagged and lost.   In doing so, the FWC has turned a blind eye to the significance, and the wider implications of snagging a tarpon in the belly area, fighting it to near exhaustion, only to lose that fish to the hydraulics of Boca Grande Pass, or much worse: to the load bearing limits of a tarpon's own body flesh.


The issue of "jig fishing" Boca Grande came to my attention in the early 1980s when I was guiding at Tarpon Bay Marina on Sanibel Island.  We guides had just switched from CB radios to VHF, as I remember, and were able to eavesdrop on Boca Grande guides commenting on this new phenomenon of outsiders "jigging" tarpon successfully.

Among my favorite clients was a superb striper fisherman from Long Island, Don Brezniack.  Don liked to experiment and innovate on our week-long charters, so we decided to give it a try.  I had switched to circle hooks in the late 1970s, after seeing their effectiveness on a trip to Asia, so that's what we used, attaching heavy, break-away sinkers with copper wire.

Don hooked three tarpon and landed two, one hooked in the throat, one hooked outside the mouth.  "They're snagging these fish," Don had already guessed, and the third tarpon convinced us both.  When hooked, instead of rocketing  away at an angle quartering the tide, the fish ran straight down-tide -- behavior I'd observed in jack crevalles snagged during feeding frenzies.  The fish then used the tide to apply body-leverage out of proportion to any tarpon in my experience.  "She's hooked in the side fin or the belly," Don told me after ten minutes, then he intentionally cupped the reel and popped the line, freeing the fish at the leader -- we hoped.

When people ask why I'm convinced that "jig fishing" is more than occasionally snag fishing, my reply is simple.  "Because I did it."  Same with using pliers to cant circle hooks -- I did it

Why I withdrew my name and sponsorship.  Two years ago, through my own dumb inattention, I didn't realize that a boat sponsored under the Doc Ford name was entered in a tournament that encouraged "jig fishing."  This year, again due to my own inattention, I didn't put the threads together until after my restaurant partners had already paid to be a principal PTTS sponsor.  Much to their credit, my partners took the financial hit, and backed me 100% when I told them, "We don't want anything to do with snag fishing -- or with what this tournament represents."

I stand by this, and by the points I've made about the FWC study.  Rather than make my opinions known in haste, though, I invited my own form of "peer review" (something the FCW failed to do) by sending a first draft of this letter to, among others, three respected biologists for review (two of whom are experienced anglers and have the credentials to comment on tarpon; the third has published widely on other saltwater species.)

Like me, two of the three were aware that the FWC took pains AFTER its study was published to prop-up the validity of its conclusions by inviting input from Dr. Justin Grubich of the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, and Dr. Philip Motta, Professor of Biology at the University of South Florida.  Writes Dr. Grubich, "Tarpon almost invariably turn their heads quickly to the side just after the strike which is probably how they are getting snagged in their "clipper plates…"

If quoted accurately, Dr. Grubich's conjecture is shaky at best.  "Almost invariably . . . probably?"  Dr. Grubich's syntax is "almost" as unsettling as his apparent eagerness to agree with the FWC's conclusion.

Writes Dr. Motta,  "For fish hooked on the inside of the maxilla, there is little chance that these hookups occurred by chance (i.e. the hook dragged past the fish and caught it)."

I don't know either of these men but, in my opinion, both are either unfamiliar with the subtleties of floss fishing and "speed-flossing" or they have been quoted inaccurately or out of context by the FWC.  Neither biologist has much experience hooking or landing tarpon judging from the quotes chosen by the FWC, because their observations are100% at loggerheads with those of four fishing guides who have also read a first draft of this letter.  Collectively, these captains have more than 100 years of guiding experience, and have collectively landed approximately 25,000 tarpon, yet agree to a man that a tarpon that hits a live bait is RARELY hooked outside the mouth.

                     FISHING GUIDES SPEAK OUT

"It happens so seldom," one guide wrote to me, "I've come to believe the hook comes free when the fish jumps, then re-snags the outside of the fish's mouth on those few times it happens.  But for someone to say it happens alot is total BS as you know."

He's right.  I won’t say it's total BS, but I will say with confidence that the assertions of biologists solicited by the FWC do not remotely reflect my own experience.  In my career of 13-plus years, my clients landed just under 600 tarpon* (not a stellar record, I admit, when compared to guides who boated 300-500 tarpon annually) but I side with my more experienced and successful colleagues.  It was rare when we landed a tarpon hooked outside the mouth -- and never did we land a fish hooked in the throat, the tail, or the lateral fin.

Regarding this point, one biologist wrote me,  "I agree their [FWC's] definition of ‘snagging’ is inadequate. I am also intrigued by the phrase 'percentages were not unusually high' – compared to what!"

Sound familiar?

Regarding the FWC's findings that ten percent of jig-hooked fish were snagged, but zero percent of bait-hooked fish were snagged, another biologist wrote,  [Re: They don't find this significant . . . ?"Given that the study determined that a 0% versus 10% difference in snagging was deemed 'not significant,' it is not surprising that a 20% difference in the number of  tarpon hooked is also deemed 'not significant.' It seems to me to indicate a preference to first look for no difference, making unreasonably high standards for determining that there is an impact."

Exactly!  But why would Florida's own Fish and Wildlife Commission launch a study that, from the start, prefers (and also manipulates) data that suggests there is no significant difference in "jigging" snag percentages?  I don't believe in conspiracies (not successful conspiracies, anyway) but there other possible explanations, none of which are very savory. Neither do they do justice to the people of Florida, nor the species Megalops atlanticus, a fish that is key to bringing in eight billion dollars annually to our state economy.

Do I have an opinion on this puzzling and disturbing incongruity?  Yes.  Do I have suggestions on how to mitigate these issues, and help buffer the treasure that is Boca Grande Pass?  Yes.  The simplest and most succinct solution was recently offered by veteran fishing guide, Capt. Van Hubbard:  Require anglers to secure weights on the leader ABOVE the hook, not ON the belly hook, as snag fishermen currently configure their rigs.   Other guides agree.

Further questions, however, are beyond the purview of a letter written to explain why I took a public stand and withdrew my name and support from a tarpon tournament.  Readers may disagree with my assessment of Boca Grande "jig fishing," but it would be disingenuous not to agree I have the right to protect the name of a fictional character I created, I own legally, and to whom I've been devoted for twenty-one years.

Doc Ford would NOT participate in a PTTS tournament as it is currently administrated.  Nor will I.

Randy Wayne White

Sanibel Island, Florida