Sunday, February 16, 2014


Last fall, a photo showing a number of large, dead striped bass piled up in the stern of a New York party boat made its way around the Internet, where it caused anger and consternation among anglers concerned with the declining health of the striped bass stock. 

The photo was just one of a number of similar pictures posted by various for-hire vessels.  What bothered a lot of anglers about the photos wasn’t just the number of prime breeding fish killed—although that was bad enough—but the language used to promote the action. 

The party boats called it a “Striped bass slaughter!” or words to that effect; promotional photos showed crewmembers standing up to their knees in piles of dead bass.  Breathless reports described how every angler on the boat was able to “limit out” and kill two big fish.

If you had heard some of the descriptions, and didn’t know that people were talking about striped bass, you might have thought that the boats were proclaiming a great victory against a hated enemy that threatened their lives and their homes.

But even then, if they were talking about warfare, you might expect to hear someone express some measure of respect for the skill, honor or courage of an opposing warrior.  Here, there was no sign of respect at all.

That was unfortunate.  Folks who lack respect for their quarry really aren’t sportsmen at all.

In The Old Man and the Boy, Robert Ruark looked back on a conversation with his grandfather—the “Old Man”—in which he was told

“A sportsman, is a gentleman first.  But a sportsman, basically, is a man who kills what he needs, whether it’s fish or bird or animal, or what he wants for a special reason, but he never kills anything just to kill it.  And he tries to preserve the very same thing that he kills a little of from time to time.  The books call this conservation.  It’s the same reason why we don’t shoot that tame covey of quail down to less’n ten birds.”

Ruark’s Old Man probably would have disapproved of the way the party boats—and a lot of private boats, too—treated the striped bass south of Long Island last fall.  It’s pretty certain that he wouldn’t have liked their tasteless promotion of the “slaughter.”  And he would only have shaken his head at how, in their frenzy of killing, none gave any thought to “preserve the very same thing that he kills.”

Fortunately, there are groups of sportsmen who still cling to the ideal.  In an earlier post, I pointed out the good efforts being made by folks such as Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, with their “My Limit is One” campaign, and those who created that “One @ 32 Pledge” page on Facebook.  But I don’t want to be parochial, and concentrate on folks in the northeast.  There are sportsmen working hard to protect marine resources all around our coast, and they deserve some recognition, too.
Down in Florida, one group has proven themselves to be giant-killers.  They call themselves “Save the Tarpon” (  Save the Tarpon isn’t part of any national organization.  They are just a bunch of fishermen, guides and other people who got tired of seeing their local tarpon and their local tarpon fishery abused by people who seemed to have no respect for the fish or for other fishermen.  But they are also sportsmen determined to make things right.
For the Save the Tarpon folks, things probably started going wrong when the “Boca Grande jig” was introduced into the waters of Boca Grande Pass, which support what is arguably the oldest and best-known tarpon fishery in America.  The Boca Grande jig differs from typical jigs in that both its weighted lead head and its body hang below the bend of the hook.  Tarpon aren’t expected to actually strike the lure; it is designed to snag tarpon in the head.
The jig rapidly became popular, as it allowed fishing guides’ customers to hook up regularly even when tarpon were not striking the live baits that anglers traditionally drifted through Boca Grande Pass.  Because boats need to stay directly above the tarpon in order to snag them with the jig, the snaggers’ presence made it very difficult for ethical anglers to fish the pass successfully.  
(Some might object to my use of the word “ethical” here so, in order to avoid any possible misunderstandings, let me be perfectly clear:  Sportsmen don’t intentionally snag gamefish.  Such conduct demonstrates a marked disrespect for the fish involved; it allows an angler to score a “cheap” win, hooking up without the effort required to entice a reluctant fish to strike.)
Following close on the heels of the snagging came a glitzy, televised tournament that brought additional jig boats crowding into the pass, further displacing local fishermen.  Tarpon caught in the tournament were unnecessarily stressed by being dragged—generally by gaffs punched through their lower jaws—a substantial distance to a weigh station before being hauled onto a scale before being set free.
That was too much for the Save the Tarpon folks to take; they felt that the jig fishing not only displaced traditional anglers, but also caused the tarpon to change their behavior.  They also believed that far too many tournament-caught tarpon died after release.  So they adopted the simple message “Respect the Fish; Respect the Pass,” set out to outlaw the jig and took on the folks who abused it, including the tournament promoters.
I can’t describe everything that happened it this brief post.   I’ll just say that Save the Tarpon stood in defense of the fish and the pass, and that things got pretty ugly as a result.
Last September, thanks to Save the Tarpon’s unceasing efforts,  Florida regulators adopted new rules which require that tarpon be released promptly (no kill is permitted unless a fish is a potential world record), and prohibit removing tarpon more than 40 inches long from the water.  The use of the “Boca Grande jig” in Boca Grande pass was outlawed (
Save the Tarpon won a complete victory, and its accomplishments should serve as an example and an inspiration to sportsmen everywhere on the coast. 
Those who support ideals of conservation and respect for the resource really can prevail.
But what is most inspiring about the Save the Tarpon folks is that they’re not done yet.  They are expanding their recent success at Boca Grande into a new effort called simply “Respect the Fish” (, which promotes the traditional sportsman’s ideals.  They note that
“Fishing is both a privilege and a responsibility, and each one of us is a steward for the resources we cherish.  It is both our responsibility and our privilege to ensure the longevity of our resources so that future generations can follow in our footsteps to make the same memories we have made, and live the adventures we have lived.
“Because, as we know, a fisherman’s life is a journey.
“It is our outright obligation and our duty to ensure longevity and sustainability of our fisheries while we take the journey.  Those of us that live this Code understand it is also our obligation and duty to enjoy the hell out of this journey while we do…”
Those are the same sort of sentiments that gave birth to this blog.  And I couldn’t have expressed them any better.
“Respect the Fish” really says it all.

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