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OP-ED: Hook Line and Sinker: A return to these pages, just in time

May 20, 2024


Editor’s Note: Van Hubbard’s column Hook, Line and Sinker appeared in the Beacon beginning in 1988. We are delighted to welcome him back.

I’m returning to the Boca Beacon because I realize how important Boca Grande is to my career and life. I first traveled to Boca Grande because it offered world famous tarpon fishing; it lived up to its top billing. My first guide experience was to fish a week here teaching friends in the early ‘70s. We caught snook in Stump Pass and tarpon in the big Pass. I was captivated. My first writing experience was for the Boca Beacon back in 1988. I missed this community.

I didn’t leave, I just moved to the mainland in ‘86. Like most locals, I couldn’t afford to live on the island. I kept my charter boat on the island when I could, and fished the Pass until the circus competitions took over mid-90s. Fishing the Pass with short sighted fishermen snagging tarpon with weighted hooks was too much to observe. I just couldn’t watch their destructive behavior disrupt our tarpon. Outboards swarming the schools of fish and bombing them with “jigs” ran the fish off. Many have varied opinions about this, and I have no desire to start anything again. That is why I stopped fishing in the Pass about 1995 and retreated. The fish supported us, so we needed to protect them. We formed Save the Tarpon. After years of battles finally, we outlawed weighted hooks. It took too much money and effort.

In the early ‘90s, I began transitioning back to backcountry fishing, especially snook and redfish. I had guided bay fishing around Tampa Bay starting when I became a captain in 1977, and this was familiar. I had learned to fish live minnows from the old hook and line trout fishermen at O’Neill’s Skyway Marina. These skilled fishermen hated snook and redfish because they tore up gear and had no market value. I helped them find trout; they helped me find my objectives.

I got lucky and won the Suncoast Tarpon Roundup in 1981. A friend offered to let me take his 39-foot sportfish to Boca Grande. It was big enough to sleep on, and I wanted to transition south. My journey to my new home began. First I mainly tarpon guiding. I especially enjoyed the Pass on the strong outgoing Hill Tides. The place was alive with silver kings, splashing in the clear blue-green waters everywhere. There were thousands of feeding fish as far as you could see. It was unbelievable.

I went to Isabelle Whidden. She rented me a slip and welcomed us to a new family. I was able to thank her frequently while she was with us. She and Bill Caldwell made my career here possible. Thomas Lowe, Johnny Downing, Bill Miller, Tater Spinks, Raymond Rodriguez Sr., and Bobby Buswell, along with others helped me learn local techniques and etiquette. I made it here because they helped, I listened, and I worked extremely hard.

In ’82 and ‘83 I had a fancy sportfish boat that was much more comfortable, and we set up at Miller’s Marina. I later got “Just ’n Time”, a 24-foot Morgan, thanks to Tater and Mark Richmond. That is the most popular boat in the Pass. Our first win in a Tarpon Tide tournament saved me.

The best tarpon guides and fishing in the world encompassed me. With tight quarters fishing in the pass, everything was in plain view. I watched and learned. Everyone noticed if you were catching fish or not. It was uphill, but I was accepted after a decade or so. I brought my business down with me and wasn’t competing for trips locally.

I came from a much different fishery. We hunted for fish around Tampa Bay, then sight cast to schools of tarpon along the Gulf Coast beaches. But fish were everywhere down here. It was catching, not hunting. Nowadays everyone has tower boats or flats boats with electric motors to chase beach fish. We caught them from much larger sportfish rigs casting conventional rigs from the flybridge. It required understanding the fish and positioning the boat accurately to allow us to cast in front of the fish without getting directly in their path. If you got too close, they spooked, and we started looking for new happy fish.

Capt. Scott Moore and I had the backcountry areas to ourselves for a decade or so. We became friends fishing around Tampa Bay. We pioneered minnow fishing here and caught loads of fish. We also worked to protect them by starting the Florida Guides Association to lobby for conservation and better management. The schools of snook and redfish were impressive and there were plenty of big fish. The fishery exploded as we educated our competition but those are great memories. Everyone else was tarpon fishing, we had snook to enjoy. It grew as we educated our competition and those are great memories.

I was living my dream, unfortunately it ate up most everything we earned to keep it going. In the off season, November and December like most local guides I mullet netted until the net ban in ‘95. This kept us on the water and supported our fishing habits. It was brutal work in rough, cold conditions but we loved it and made money for some years. Commercial fishing we only got paid for results, you caught fish or starved.

Growth and regulations have changed our home waters. Business is up and down with the economy and water conditions. Red tides and hurricanes have also hurt our fishing and tourist economies. Oil spills and economic crashes all curtailed business. Most of us have survived and I’m blessed to still be able to fish. Family fun fishing for whatever is biting has become my niche now. We enjoy observing the abundant dolphin and wildlife. I still take advantage of any opportunities catching tarpon or snook because I do love pursuing them. My passion now is introducing families to our water world and fishing. Children are sponges absorbing everything they encounter. Their smiles and energy encourage me.

It is an awesome ride; I’m so blessed to continue my voyage. It’s exciting coming home to share memories and thoughts again through the Boca Beacon. Thank you all for your support and encouragement.