Florida native Joe Mercurio is passionate about fishing, competition and sports. He has melded these passions to create a unique and challenging job on the waterfront as the host and director of the popular and controversial all-release Professional Tarpon Tournament Series (PTTS) and the Women’s Professional Tarpon Tournament Series (WPTTS) in Boca Grande, Fla. He has become a familiar face on television covering the tournaments, referred to as “like NASCAR on the water.”
When Joe realized that pro ball was not going to be his career path, he dove headlong into tournament fishing to quench his competitive spirit. Having worked the broadcasting booth in different facets, he naturally combined TV and competitive fishing.
The idea came to him when was broadcasting live for Clear Channel Radio while competing in a tarpon tournament in Boca Grande. Listeners driving out of the range of the radio towers were so compelled by what they heard that they pulled off to the shoulder to listen to the dramatic ending and who had won. When this was relayed to Joe, he told his business partners that the tournament needed to be televised. When the tournament he had participated in was discontinued, that opened the door for Joe and his partners to launch a made-for-television tournament.
The PTTS has gained viewers each year of its seven-year span, leading to the introduction of the WPPTS this year. With access to over 44 million homes through the World Fishing Network and the Sunsports Channel, the PTTS now claims to be the largest and richest tarpon tournament in the world. Prizes for the five-week series include boat, motor and trailer packages to the winning team of each week’s tournament (estimated at a value of $35,000 each), among other cash and prizes for second through fifth place. The overall winning team of the championship at the end of the tournament wins a boat package worth $55,000, while second place gets $8,000 cash.
The prizes are not the major draw for viewers. Mercurio credits the location for the success of the tournament on TV. “It’s a stadium on the water,” he says. The tournament is held May through June in Boca Grande Pass, when the highest concentrations of tarpon occur. The deep, narrow pass funnels the waters of Charlotte Harbor to the Gulf of Mexico, attracting tarpon to feed prior to spawning offshore. With the tournament restricting fishermen to a small area of the pass, the boats are concentrated so the action can be filmed easily to allow viewers to gain familiarity with the competitors and their catches.
With 50 to 60 boats, along with local and recreational fishermen, all drifting through the pass attempting to hook a tarpon in a three-hour period, it can best be described as organized chaos to an outsider.
As Joe says, hooking the tarpon is the easy part. Getting the fish to the boat can be difficult in the confined and crowded competition field. With his camera crews filming all the action, Mercurio is able to hop aboard a boat fighting a fish and interview them in the midst of all the action, making for great television. Spectators can even view the action live from the beach of Gasparilla Island State Park. At times binoculars are not needed as the action comes within a few feet of the beach.
An added twist to the drama is the team deciding if the fish is large enough to weigh in, as they are only allowed to weigh one fish per week until the Tarpon Cup Championship. Teams can release fish for points and take non-invasive DNA samples for further points (the tournament has been working with the Florida Wildlife Commission since 2005 in its Tarpon Genetic Recapture Program, obtaining more than 2,500 DNA samples). When a fish is brought to the beach to be weighed, a crowd gathers to watch the catch through the clear weighing harness, along with commentary and interviews by shore reporter Sheli Sanders. Later, the beach crowd can view the awards and prizes. Every aspect of the tournament is made for compelling television viewing.
It’s not all fun and games for Mercurio, however. He is not just hosting the show and jumping from boat to boat on tournament day. Joe heads up a crew of more than 35 people to put the tournament together and produce the TV series. Sixteen crew film and record the tournament. Six release crews ensure the fish that are brought to the scales are revived and released in good health. Five others man camera boats, in addition to tournament support staff, weigh masters and score keepers.
The five weeks that the tournament runs is when Joe is most likely to have a consistent schedule. The rest of the year sees him away from home (278 days last year) trying to secure sponsorships, which along with other business aspects of his work, is the toughest part of his job. He does appearances for sponsors, organizes events for them, attends meetings and is involved in all other business activities related to the PTTS and WPTTS.
“It’s a 24/7 job,” he says.
On tournament day he is up at 4:30 a.m. and meeting with the director. Filming starts at 6:30 and runs for five hours. Once the weekly tournament ends and filming finishes, it is then time to verify the results and update the website and Facebook and create press releases.
When asked why he does what he does Joe answered, “I enjoy the excitement of watching these guys, telling their story and showing everybody out there what they do.” His growing audience seems to agree.
Glenn Hayes is a regular contributor to All At Sea Southeast. Find him online at hayesstudios.com.