There are lots of legends in Boca Grande Pass

■  BY MARCY SHORTUSE

By the time this week’s newspaper goes to press, we will be halfway into The World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament for 2016. We are very lucky to have the greatest tarpon fishery in the world right in our backyard, and every year since the early 1900s, anglers have come to our waters to bow to the silver king. Izaak Walton of Useppa Island realized how fantastic it was to fight a fish like the tarpon, and he started his own fishing club in 1908. This was the dawn of the time as we know it, when the very wealthy started coming to our island, and to Useppa, and one of their favorite entertainments was to fight a tarpon.

In the early 1900s Joe Spadero, owner of the former Boca Grande Hotel, decided he would start his own fishing tradition called the Boca Grande Tarpon Tournament. Whoever caught the biggest tarpon during the period between May 1 and July 1 won the big prize back then.

In 1977 Jack Harper, the owner of Millers Marina (now the Boca Grande Marina) started his own little tournament, which eventually turned into a series of tournaments. These tournaments had very little overhead, very little production cost, and the anglers and captains won thousands of dollars. There were others as well, like the Hollinswood Tournaments and the Billy-Bo.

Then, in 1983, the Boca Grande Club started an annual tournament called the Boca Grande Club Invitational Tarpon Tournament, which later became known as The World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament. They gave that tournament to the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce in 1991. The Chamber ran it for years, then gave it to the Boca Grande Fishing Guides Association in 2005. The BGFGA ran it until 2012, when they gave it back to the Chamber. They still work right alongside the Chamber, though.

People have often wondered why there wasn’t a huge amount of response from the “outside world” to come and fish the World’s Richest, at least not like we expected. The reason why can be summed up in just a few words: Joiner … Coleman … Darna … Lowe … Futch … Italiano … Mills … Smith … Ahlers … Melvin … Chatham.

These guys, these are the guys right here. They know every move the tarpon are making in Boca Grande Pass and when they’re making it. They know when the fish are just socializing and not really hungry. They know when they’re leaving and when they’re coming back. They are the tarpon whisperers, to coin a phrase, and other anglers were afraid to put their money where their mouth was because of them.

Heck, many of them still are – and with good reason. That’s why this year we took out third place, and in its stead we now have “first release” and “last release” prizes for each of the two days of fishing. That evens the playing field a little bit, because catching the random tarpon is anyone’s game.

You see, when you’re tarpon fishing, the angler’s experience does count, but the angler is at the whim of the captain. If he’s on his game, the captain is checking the fish finder, checking the weather. He checks the tides days in advance. One minute he’s telling you green on the reel, 20 seconds later he’s telling you to reel them up, and he goes somewhere else. The captain is the one who sees that rod pull down and throws the throttle down to break away from the pack, and to put some space between his boat and the tarpon. These captains know almost immediately whether you have a goliath grouper, a shark or a tarpon on your line, just by watching how the rod plays.

I have fished and observed many tournaments over the years and have seen this for myself. I have fished with Capt. Babe Darna and his first mate (and son) Scooter many times, and caught my first tarpon with them. If you listened to them, you would catch a tarpon. Period. Same with Capt. Sandy Melvin. That guy will keep you hopping in the quest to catch a tarpon, snook, redfish, whatever it is you’re angling for. Think you’re going to enjoy a cup of coffee while getting your line wet with Capt. Sandy? Wrong. You’re working it, and he’s showing you how every second. Every fish I just named – and more – I caught with Sandy Melvin. (Walking the dog on the backwater is almost as good as tarpon fishing, believe me.)

But the weirdest thing I ever saw was Capt. Willie Mills call dibs on third place in a tournament almost before the first fish was caught. I’m going to tell a tale on him real quick, and I hope he doesn’t take me to task for it because, honestly, he’s a little scary.

That night I was an observer on his boat in one of the Howl at the Moon tournaments, and it seemed pretty obvious he wasn’t in the best mood he could be in. It was a quiet ride, which I don’t mind at all sometimes. It stayed pretty quiet on the boat once fishing started, and it wasn’t long after that he announced we were taking third.

While we had hits that night, I think we might have only had one or two releases. First and second place were secured by other teams with more fish caught and released, and the darker it got in the Pass, the darker Capt. Willie’s mood seemed to get. It was like he went out there knowing it would go just like that for his team. He was impatiently biding time.

About 10 minutes from the end of the tournament, his whole attitude changed and something lit a fire under him. He started moving around the boat, chiding the anglers for not doing this or that, instructing them in what they should do. Suddenly – WHAM. A pull-down. This was only about three minutes from tourney end at that point, and I was sweating bullets hoping our team would get that third-place fish (the last one hooked during regulation time and successfully released).

I swear to you on a stack of beef jerky, as Poseidon is my witness, he spoke to that fish telepathically. He said, “All right, get on the dang hook now. Show time.” And the fish listened.

I deemed Capt. Willie a fishing warlock from that day on. And since that day, I have seen him smile (once, maybe?) so don’t take that story to heart as far as him being a sour tart.

I didn’t observe during the last Howl at the Moon, but I sat at my kitchen table glued to my cell phone instead. What started out as me trying to post the occasional leaderboard on the Facebook pages I administer, turned into a live-time posting session for every fish caught and released. I have done this before for several other tournaments throughout the years, and people seem to enjoy it.

Ironically, it was Tracy Mills who was keeping tally that night, Capt. Willie’s wife, and she smiles all the time. I was so happy she texted each of those results to me, and by the end of the final hour of the tournament, I felt like I was on an adrenaline high.

Maybe that makes me a tarpon groupie, but I’ll own that title.

It was Capt. Waylon Mills’ team who won that night, but man, was it a heated and close competition. Waylon is Capt. Willie’s brother … and he smiles a lot, too.

Huh.

Nothing will ever prepare you for the strike of a silver king. You feel like you have the devil himself on the end of the line, and he’s trying to take you to hell with him. When you bring him to the boat, you feel like you’re the king of the world. Then you start hoping you don’t catch another one for awhile, so your tired arms can get some feeling back.

This is my last year with the Chamber of Commerce. I’ve done my five (and one-half) years, and the bylaws (and my own peace of mind) tell me it’s time to go. I worked by Lew’s side doing behind-the-scenes work on the World’s Richest in 2014, and in 2015 I was helping him organize it. This year I have done what I could, with the help of the board of directors. I am very happy to say that we have 25 boats this year, and with the entry fee raised from $2,500 to $5,000, we have a $100,000 purse. As far as I’m concerned, that’s everything we need to have a nice local fishing tournament showcasing some of the finest captains that Boca Grande Pass has ever seen. I’m very happy with that.

All I ask is that every person who reads this give serious thought to having one of these guys take you out tarpon fishing. Even if you don’t normally fish, this is an experience that cannot be duplicated. Watching a sunset on the Pass, watching these captains in action … believe me, it’s worth it. You need to help us keep our fishing tradition alive with all-release, live bait drift fishing in some of the most handsome tarpon boats you’ll ever see.

Help the guides and the Chamber keep the love of sport fishing alive in the present day, and for generations to come in Boca Grande.

And don’t be too hard on me, Capt. Willie, for telling people you’re a fishing warlock. After all, you’re in good company among many in the Pass.