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Tarpon Valhalla

I'm sitting at a traffic light behind a diesel pickup sporting a bumper sticker that says, "I Heart Violence."

Instinctively, I know I'm close to Boca Grande Pass. There's a philosophy that comes with fishing the Pass, one set in the single mentality of brute strength against brawn.

The light changes and the truck fails to move, so I lean on the horn and get an obscene gesture from the girl driving. At least, I think it was a girl.

Every year, thousands of tarpon migrate into the ditch to the west known as Boca Grande Pass, and with the tarpon come the anglers, not by the thousands, but certainly by the hundreds. This is southwest Florida's version of bumper boats, as these anglers gather gunwale to gunwale to chase silver kings.

This is not the beauty of sight casting to fish on the turquoise flats of the Florida Keys, or the copper-tinted shallows of Homosassa, also on Florida's West Coast, or even the clear blue of the beachfront bait bombing, but for everything it lacks in shallow water sight fishing it makes up for in buzz. And that's what Boca Grande and Charlotte Harbor tarpon fishing is about.

Fish are constantly rolling in every direction around the boat, so that you know sooner or later that your bait is going to die, and that it's going to be a violent death.

Garbaged by a fish with the mouth the size of a bucket and lined with bone, the telltale "thump" you feel on the end of your line is a threadfin herring hitting the back of a fish's throat. Even more significant is the fact that all the fish are big.

During late May and early June the fish average 130 pounds, which is an hour and 25 minutes in angler effort terminology, and it's not uncommon to have a brute roll next to the boat and have an angler say, "I've changed my mind, I don't want a bite."

When the fish move into the Pass and the guides and recreational anglers form an armada with only a few feet between boats, the technique shifts to a combat mentality, with 50-pound gear, heavy jigs and a necessity to be aggressive and stay on top of the fish.

Almost every other tarpon fishery in Florida requires creeping up on the fish like a loose pair of underwear, whereas in Boca Grande Pass if you're not sitting directly on top of the school, you're fishing in the desert.

During the tarpon tournament season, logo-covered boats and anglers integrate into the mainstream mayhem where obscenely large sharks are as commonplace as obscene gestures as hooked giant tarpon blister their way through the fleet. This is not tarpon fishing for the weak of mind, spirit or sinew.

Boca Grande Pass during tournament season is a game of beat the fish as quickly as you can. There's little time to reflect on the beauty of the surroundings or long runs that give the fish a sporting chance.

These fish need to be landed before they can throw the hook, jump in another boat or get eaten. And if you fall overboard in the Pass, you're just another link in the food chain.

The rub is that the boat jockeying, rolling fish, feeding sharks and fishing are all taking place at once. It's controlled anarchy, with boats in every direction hooked up to fish and barking at the fleet to let them fight their way to open water where the hammerheads and bull sharks are batting cleanup.

The intensity is no different than any other tarpon fishing on the planet, but with no less skill and sophistication as the more common forms. There is a method to the madness of fishing Boca Grande Pass, and like everywhere else, the select few who dedicate their blood, sweat and tears have a hand up on everyone else with a dry boat and a sturdy back.

The Boca Grande Style of tarpon fishing is not for everyone, but it does require skill, patience, preparation and the same amount of luck as all the other tarpon fisheries around the globe. And that's why Boca Grande will always be Florida's version of tarpon Valhalla.