Blood Sport

Should morals and ethics outweigh legalities when tarpon fishing?

Editor John Frazier tackle this ethical dilemma in his most recent blog post.

In May 2010, using 12-pound tippet, Tom Evans set a world record for landing a tarpon weighing 194.8 pounds. His notable achievement was highlighted in the July/August Fly Fishing in Salt Waters’ Salt Spray of the same year. It came as no surprise to me that the accolades from highly respected veteran anglers that accompanied his triumph were also met with a number of vitriolic emails to the editor and similar harsh commentary on social network websites for his “killing” a tarpon.

I’ve pondered this divisive phenomenon over the years and thought this might be a good time to re-­examine the controversy of trophy killing versus catch-and-release. I use the qualifying term trophy because there is not one among us who kills tarpon just for the sake of killing for show. Conservation has become a touchstone for our sport. Anglers and guides no longer haul any tarpon landed to the docks to hang on a hook for a photo op. This also applies to trophy hunters like Evans.

I recently chatted with Evans on this subject. “I’ve been chasing tarpon records with a fly rod since 1969,” he said. “I’ve landed thousands of fish over the years at Homosassa [Florida], and in all that time I’ve killed only 10 fish for world record submissions.” The problem is not taking a rare fish for record, he said, but rather a combination of the sport’s widespread popularity and tournament fishing at Boca Grande, Florida, which indirectly kills scores of big fish each year due to hammerhead and bull sharks that take tired-out fish after release.

Richard Hirsch, an angler who averages about 120 days each year tarpon fishing, put it more bluntly: “The Professional Tarpon Tournament Series (PTTS) needs to be stopped. Far more tarpon have been killed by dragging a beaten fish to a weigh boat on the beach only for it to be hoisted in a net prior to release than [by] fly guys releasing fish in the backcountry or on shoals, far from the main pass.” Hirsch, after the tarpon season is over, volunteers the balance of his year working with the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust satellite-tagging tarpon to find ways to help sustain the very fish he loves.

“I’m not a trophy hunter,” Hirsch says, “but if I caught a world record and my guide wanted to kill it, I would, if only for notoriety for my guide.”

“Look, people are kidding themselves,” Evans told me. “Tarpon fishing is a blood sport. Like it or not, the second you stick a poon in the face, the fish is fighting for its life.”

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Controversial Catch: On May 10, 2010, Capt. Al Dopirak (left) guided client Tom Evans (right) to a 194.8-pound tarpon. Evans opted to kill the fish (left) for a world record that still stands.

I agree completely. I tie IGFA leaders; I have landed a few big fish on 12- and 16-pound tippets. Interestingly enough, my most notable fish was not a trophy but a tarpon that took much longer to land than I would have anticipated. My buddy and I tried in vain for 45 minutes to revive the weakened fish, but in the end, its eyes went glassy and it sank six feet to the bottom. I’m not the only guy out there to have this happen, either. A guy I know landed a fish in under 10 minutes and it still died. Evans is right — tarpon fishing is a blood sport. I’ll go one step further and offer that, occasionally, there can be unintended collateral damage. But, I have no plans to sell my skiff and eBay my 12-weight rods.

In all of this, there is a new thought process gaining popularity that just might be best defined as a “having your cake and eating it too” approach. I first observed this while fishing with a couple of guides in the Panhandle of Florida. I called Capt. Greg Dini to get his thoughts on this touchy subject.

“For the record, I will not book a trophy hunter.” Dini was adamant when I posed the trophy question to him. “In fact, I do everything in my power to release the fish as quickly as possible. So much so, I’ve convinced my clients to fish without a class tippet; we use a heavy fluorocarbon butt section that runs directly to the fly,” he said. “This way, even with novice anglers, we can boat and release fish in just a few minutes. I use a blood knot two-thirds down the butt as a weak point to help pop the fish off at the boat.” I then asked him about photo ops. “The law states that if you bring a tarpon in the boat, you need a Possession (or kill) Tag. I don’t carry one and never will; all photos are of the fish in the water.”

On the flip side, “What’s the point of fly-fishing if you are fishing with tippets exceeding 20 pounds?” questions Evans. “The IGFA does not recognize class tippets over 20 pounds, and I rarely have to fight a fish over 30 minutes even on 12-pound tippet.” It’s a fact that many fly-fishers have no idea how much pressure can really be placed on 12-pound tippet, let alone 16 or 20.

At the end of the day, this polarizing topic has no more chance of mutual agreement in opposing camps than Congress does of passing a balanced budget. So, regardless of where you stand on trophy hunting or catch-and-release, the bottom line is this: If you are putting a fly in front of a fish with a sharp hook, regardless of the leader strength you are using, you are indeed engaged in a blood sport.