Boca Grande History

By Capt. Mike Manning
Professional Tarpon Guide

In 1885 the Statue of Liberty was shipped to New York and placed onto Liberty Island. In 1885 the Washington Monument was dedicated as a tribute to George Washington. In 1885 George Eastman

invented modern photograph film, and in 1885 the first modern bicycle featuring a chain drive was introduced.

But none of that was the big news, because in 1885 W. H. Wood caught the first-ever tarpon on a rod a reel.

It happened in Tarpon Bay, in nearby Sanibel on March of that year. The fish was 5 feet, 9 inches long and weighed 93 pounds. It was landed in 26 minutes. Led by Punta Gorda guide John Smith, he caught another the same day in 21 minutes weighing 81 pounds. It was 5 feet, 7 inches long, and sport fishing for the  greatest inshore fish on the planet was born.

Now 130 years later, that region of Florida, which includes Boca Grande and Charlotte Harbor, remains the tarpon capitol of the world. I fish these tarpon-rich water from April through July, and days with a dozen or more tarpon hooked are not unusual. We’ve even jumped two dozen or more on some days.

Getting back to the beginning of it all, the Boca Grande area was established as a sport fishing destination as early as 1870, when several “fish ranches” were operating out of Charlotte Harbor. Commercial fishing for mullet and other fish also was big in the area, and fisherman took huge catches of mullet, salting the fish for shipment to markets.

But after Wood’s famous catch, the region became known for its tarpon fishing, and local fishermen soon began guiding out-of-state anglers eager to land a mighty tarpon. Indeed, many of the guides in Boca Grande today are fifth-generation in the business. It was around this time the tarpon was awarded official gamefish status.

In the infancy of the charter business, guides used small wooden row boats to carry their anglers to the action. Drifting in the pass, a common bait was

metal spoons. Many of the fish landed in those days were caught on hand lines. Can you say “rope burns?”

A friend of Wood’s, Chicago street car magnate John Roach, bought Useppa Island, which is just a bit south of Boca Grande Pass in the Pine Island Sound. He paid a wopping $395.

Roach built a home there in 1894, and at the urging of friends, he shortly after built the Useppa Inn. It became a popular place to stay for wealthy northern anglers who came for the tarpon. Many credit the inn with popularizing the area as the number one tarpon fishing destination. Guests included Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Hoover, and Fort Myers locals Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

A regular guest of Roach’s was New York advertising executive Barron Collier, who in 1908 established the Izaak Walton fishing club at Useppa, w

hich became one of the most exclusive sporting clubs in the world. Collier bought the island in 1911. He later bought the Gasparilla Inn in Boca Grande.

By this time larger power boats were the norm and much of the fishing was done with live bait in Boca Grande Pass, but guide Charlie Cleveland, along with Tampa Tribune outdoor editor Herb Allen and Vic Dunaway, of Florida Sportsman Magazine, established by the 1970s that fishing jigs deep in the pass was a winner.

Not two decades later, jigs were king in the big pass, with break-away jigs that dropped the heavy weight once a fish was hooked regularly

winning the tournaments.

The use of the break-away jig became a major point of contention, pitting local live-bait drift captains with “out-towners” who preferred the jigs. The claim was that jigs illegally snagged tarpon rather that hooking them legitimately. By 2013 Florida sided with the locals and implemented a ban on jigging.

Today many have returned to fishing with live pass crabs, perhaps the tarpon’s favorite bait of all. I use live crabs almost exclusively, but when fishing the beaches and backwaters of the harbor, artificial bait casting is always an option. When it comes to fishing the Hill Tides during the crab flush, of course nothing works like the crabs themselves.

With 130 years of non-stop tarpon fishing action, it looks like the future will be nothing but more of the same great action in the Boca Grande region. Book that trip and become a part of that rich angling history.