Marshall Cutchin: We are talking to today with Andy Mill, who is widely considered one of the most successful tarpon fishermen of all time. He’s won most of the major tournaments and really changed the sport by applying techniques for tarpon fishing that people were not using or they hadn’t fully explored in the past. We’re going to talk about some of the techniques that he’s popularized and made famous today. Thanks Andy.
Andy Mill: Well it’s an honor and a privilege Marshall, thank you. It’s a nice introduction as well. I wish I could say that about my skiing career, but one career is better than none, right?
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MC: That’s a second conversation perhaps–skiing translated into fishing. We were talking earlier about some of the different techniques and comparing notes with my experience as a guide and you as a long-time angler. To start with the basics, you fish differently for ocean side fish than you do for fish in the backcountry, muddy water, laid up fish, that sort of thing. Is that right?
AM: With a two-handed strip and the new worm methodology, yes. Let’s clarify one thing here: I think the most important thing to remember about being a successful feeder of flies to tarpon is to relate to the cat-and-string scenario. If you throw a piece of string to a kitten or a cat and you hit it on the head it’s going to run away. If you as an angler throw the fly to the fish you’re going to bonk him, he’ll swim away. If you throw the string out of reach to the cat, a little bit too far, he won’t necessarily reach out and grab it. If you get that string just within reach of the cat and bump it and shake that piece of string or yarn, that cat reaches out and grabs it with his claw. That is the same scenario with feeding tarpon with flies.
I used to fish the toad fly a lot. I used to throw it way out in front, intercept the fish. And that’s real key, intercept the fish. Then closing the gap with the fly and the fish without stopping the fly; eventually that fish is going to reach out and grab that fly. That’s the rule of thumb, if you will.
What I’ve noticed here recently, because the toad fly and certain materials flies are tied with, is that the fabric and the material of the fly works as well to help you feed that fish as does you and your methodology with stripping. With throwing a worm fly, the fabric–and there are some that use a rabbit strip–will help feed that fish.
I’ve found that these fish target that worm, and that just goes to show me that these fish want that worm for whatever reason beyond protein. Take a look at the biology and why all these tarpon all over the keys congregate to the bridges during the worm hatch. Why does such a big 80-150 pound beast need that worm so much? I’m almost thinking, and it’s not proven yet, that it might have something to do with fertility, with protein and be related to sperm and sex and the eggs. At that time of year they’re offshore in 400 feet of water spawning. It’s a real important thing to these fish.
MC: That old folk tale that a palolo worm was an aphrodisiac was maybe pretty close to the truth?
AM: Whether it’s an aphrodisiac, it obviously takes place around the mating cycle of these fish. I’m almost thinking that it is almost; it’s some kind of a fertility drug, protein drug, something that really is needed in their biological system for this whole time of year.
AM: When I really started keying in on these worm hatches with my son a couple years ago, we started fishing the worms on the flats more often. In certain areas a worm fly is really obvious to use. That is on the worm bars during that worm hatch. I’m catching fish as soon as I see them swimming in the ocean in April, late April right up through June.
When they see that worm and if you move it correctly, oh my god hang on because they’re going to come take a look and most likely they’re going to smash it. It’s really key to their dietary focus if you will.
MC: A lot of people don’t realize that worms don’t just hatch on the ocean side too. They hatch in a lot of hard coral bottom throughout the Keys and certainly probably other parts of the world too. It is a bit of a fallacy to think that it only happens at the Seven Mile Bridge or in different places on the ocean. There are lots of different places.
AM: Absolutely, but the thing is about the ocean side of the Keys is that these fish are swimming in clear water. So you can see the relationship between the fly, or your worm fly and the fish a little bit more clearly than you do in the back country. That’s why in the back country I’ll use a fly that may stand out a little bit more in that dingy water.
What I’ve noticed though is that there are a lot people that are really gravitating more towards the worm, while there for about ten years it was the toad on the ocean. And I always believed that if you can become an angler to catch fish in that clear water you can catch tarpon anywhere in the world. They’re the most difficult tarpon to catch.
MC: Yes no question. Tell us about the technique itself. I know that it involves two-handed stripping, but beyond that can you tell us the pieces, parts? The things that make it work?
AM: What’s kind of interesting is that I noticed since David Dalu won three tournaments in one year using the double-handed strip and I used to talk to him about it. They were congregating in the bowling-alley, clear water, using worm flies. I talked to him one time and he was saying, “The two-handed strip allows me to get that bite before I yank that fly out of the fishes face when he bites it.” A lot of tarpon anglers don’t have the calm and collective nerve to wait for that fish to get tight in the stripping hand before they set the hook. They yank that fly right out of the water, right out of the fish’s mouth.
He was saying he did it mostly just for the bite. If you take a look at any of these palolo worms in the water–you’ve seen this yourself–they’re skirting and moving consistently. There’s never a pause, there’s never any sort of stage in their swimming patterns where they’re still. They skirt and move continuously.
When I started fishing the worms a couple years ago, more aggressively with a little bit more of a keener eye, I noticed that if I have a fly out in front of the fish on its track–I cast a little bit long of the fish and have to wait for the fish to get up on fly–a lot of times that fish may come over and get interested and start to track it and bite it. A lot of times if they saw it sitting there and I start to slide it they would duck it. They would move off.
Once they started keying in on the worms under the moon and the worm bars and watching how they swim, I started making casts long of the fishes track. Well out in front of the fish with a good lead, but also long of that track. Then I would try to intercept that fish on its track with the fly, a worm fly that was moving. That continuous movement was really predicated upon double-handed stripping. There’s no pause as you have with a single-handed strip.
MC: Do you think the tarpon are scanning as they’re migrating up the ocean? Do you think they’re scanning for moving fish?
AM: I don’t think so. I just think they’re traveling down the road. They’re traveling down the road and rabbits run off to side, and there’s a mullet and this and that. All of a sudden if you can get a fly, if you can get a small enough of a hook and a small enough of a fly and all of a sudden that fly is right in front of that fish’s face. After about an arm’s length, a little bit more, maybe 15 feet and at times maybe 20 feet and all of a sudden that worm is sliding and the fish is tracking. All of a sudden that little Snickers bar is a foot in front of that fish’s face, and there’s a good chance he’s going to open his mouth and smash it.
You remember elephants eat peanuts. (Laughs) It’s not that big, fat piece of meat that you’re chucking. That’s why on a big sunny day, as Steve Huff has always said, “A fly is your best bait for big tarpon.” Because you can get it in front of the fish without bothering that fish. I don’t think, me particularly, I don’t think that they’re looking for food when they’re sliding down the edge but they’re opportunist feeders. If all of a sudden there’s something there that’s going to be easy to get, he’ll just sip it or he might smash it.
MC: You’re using a constant, fairly slow retrieve intercepting the fish. You’ve got to be using a pretty small hook, right?
AM: Yes. If you have really big long lead and too big of a hook it may sink too deep in the water column. That’s why I’ve always use the toads a lot, because that toad woven head has a tendency and the ability to float high in the water column without sinking too fast. I could wait for a fish. I can see a fish coming down the pike. I give it a big lead. Throw it out there a little bit long and slide it and wait for the fish. When I feel that he may be in the proximity of my fly to be able to see it I’ll start sliding it. Depending on what that fish does then I adjust my retrieve.
That’s what all good tarpon feeders do. They adjust their feed of the fly to the fish depending on the fishes’ action. That’s why a good tarpon fisherman can really understand the body language of the fish. That fish will tell you what it wants. You just have to be able to understand it and read it.
I think with the worm fly, if you throw that fly just shy of the fish’s track and you start to retrieve it too soon he’ll never see that fly. Or if you wait for the fish to get up near your fly and start to retrieve it he sees it in a stationary position before it starts to move and he won’t like that. That fly being stationary is not a natural thing for a palolo worm.
MC: Or any kind of prey is not going to wait for a fish to be two feet away before they start to move.
AM: Right. Even if I got it just a little bit further. I found that if I throw it on the track of the fish with a big lead I have to wait. Again, that fly is sinking. If I throw it long of the track of the fish and I wait too long to start to retrieve and the fish gets too close–pretty soon that fish is between you and fly and you pinch that outside eye and they absolutely hate that.
If I can throw it long of the track and you start sliding a little bit. Now when the fish gets a little bit closer and he sees that worm moving, now you can adjust your strip a little bit depending on what that fish is doing. You can slow it down a little bit because it’s already moving. You can slow it down just a hair and wait for that fish to come track it, get up on it. Then you can accelerate a little bit. That’s the most accurate analogy or replication of that palolo worm and your fly and the fish.
The real good key thing about all this is that with a lot of people who don’t do a lot of tarpon fishing, with the double-handed strip you can’t yank that fly out of the fish’s mouth and out of the water. As you would if you’ve got the fly rod in your right hand or left hand and you’re single-handed stripping. When it really comes right down to it that is one of the most key elements to successfully catch tarpon: waiting for the fish to get into your stripping hand. Then when you strip-strike you are almost hand lining that hook into its face. Whereas if you rod strike as you know, the tip of the rod is so flexible there’s no resistance. All you do is poke the fish and when he jumps up the fly falls out of his face.
MC: You and I laughed about this before, but the old technique popularized by Billy Pate and some other people of striking the fish hard is almost guaranteed to get the fly out of the fish’s mouth rather than keep it in, right?
AM: A lot of these guys, these videos of Billy Pate see him with both hands on his cork handle striking it six, seven times the fish. The problem with that technique is that he has an anti-reverse real with only four pounds of drag. You’re striking it with the tip of a rod. You can see why a lot of times these fish fell off their hooks back then.
The real most effective way is when you get tight to a fish with your stripping hand you just hang on obviously. You just hang on and then I use my rod, the rod butt in my stomach. I bend the handle of the rod and seat that hook. It only takes a good; you just hang on to that fish a little bit and the weight of him going in the opposite direction that would drive that hook right to the bend.
MC: Is there ever a time to strike the fish with the rod?
AM: Yeah this is what I do. If I see a fish slide up on my fly, eat my fly and keep sliding towards me. All of a sudden I can’t keep up with the fish because of the slack that’s being created with the fish coming closer to me. You keep stripping until you can tight. Sometimes you can’t get tight. What I’ll do is when can’t get tight is I’ll rod strike and leave my rod way high above my head. When I get tight it’s really not driven that hook home. All it’s doing is poking the fish. What I’ll do is I’ll rod strike nice and high. Get the fly stuck in the fish’s face. All you have in the fish is the tip of the hook. Then I stomp on the deck of the boat. When he hears me stomping he turns around and goes in the other direction. Then I lower my rod and get tight to the fish. That’s the only time I’ll ever rod strike. That’s basically because I’m about ready to lose the connection between the fish and my fly. He’s got my fly but he’s swimming right at me and I can’t get tight to him. You see what I’m saying?
MC: Sure. I think I told you the story of going for a very long streak back when I was guiding with customers who had never caught tarpon before. They caught those fish because they never struck with their rod. At the time, people were telling me that was a really silly idea but it obviously worked very well. I’ve continued using that same technique. I don’t know that I’ve struck a tarpon personally in more than 20 years. I seem to have a pretty good luck.
AM: If you’re teeing it up and shooting seven or under every round you just keep shooting seven under say I keep doing what you’re doing. (Laughing) You know what I’m saying. You have to go with what works. If you take a close look at it, you don’t strike a fish with the rod. You’re hand lining and when you get tight to that fish, you’re way tight.
The only thing here too is that with a double-handed strip when you get tight, you’re basically handlining the fish because the rod is either under your arm or between your knees. When you handline a fish there is no give. You have to adjust how long and how hard to hang on. You’re going to pop a bunch of fish off even though you may be using 20-pound test.
There’s an adjustment period there for “How do I set this fish with a hand line?” It’s so strange the first time you do it because the rod is between your legs. You’re not even close to your fly rod. You have a bunch of string in your hand and you’re hooked up to a 100-pound fish flopping around out there.
MC: You keep the rod between your knees, but I’ve heard of people doing it under their arms. Is there any advantage to one or the other?
AM: Most people do it with the rod under their arm. A lot of the striper fishermen in the Northeast have been doing this. If you’re out in the surf you need to have that rod up and out of the saltwater. Then when they start fishing out of boats they put it under their arm. For me, I’ve got to have total movement with my arms. If I lock it right between my knees, the rod is locked there and I strip with my rod between my knees; maybe just above my knees between my thighs, but low. I see people do it both ways. I’ve done it both ways.
Dustin Huff and I worked together the last couple years. He too likes it between his knees. I do it both ways. It depends on which is more comfortable for that individual.
MC: Who is the first person that you had ever heard of doing two-handed strip in the keys? As you mentioned, there may have been anglers in other parts of the country doing it or other parts of the world. Who was the first to fish tarpon with a two-handed strip as far as you know?
AM: As far as I know, Carl Anderson did it when he was fishing in the Gold Cup with us. He died last year– or I think it was 2010 or 2011, maybe 2012. Regardless, he was using wire with his flies because he felt when the fish bit the monofilament, especially 70- or 80-pound test, that diameter is so thick they could pinch it and the fly remained floating inside that tarpon’s mouth. Then when he jumped and opened his face the fly came flying out. He would use wire for the bite getting tight to the fish. He was the first guy I knew for years that was double-handed stripping flies. He was not specifically using palolo worm flies. He was using your typical splayed-feather tarpon flies.
Then David Dalu won three tournaments in the same year using, I think, the worm fly and double-handed stripping. Since then there’s a lot of people that have gravitated to it because it is so darn effective.
But I think here too it’s really important not to just have a double-handed strip; but really pay attention to where you throw that fly. The double-handed strip will give you that continuous movement of the palolo worm, but it’s a matter of refining where you put the fly in relationship to the speed of the fish and the track that the fish is on. Then tweaking the whole system.
MC: Let’s just say you’ve got a pod of fish coming at you on sand on the ocean side. Are you throwing it five feet ahead of the fish or 30 feet ahead of the fish; beyond them in your case, because you want the fly to be moving when they see it? Is there any way to give a general idea of what we’re talking about?
AM: It’s a movement thing here: the dynamics of movement and the speed of movement. The biggest mistake people make when they tarpon fish is that they throw the fly to the fish. They boink them on the head, or if the fish doesn’t spook the fish swims well under the fly in the water column. It’s like shooting a bird. You need to lead that bird and intercept that bird with that buckshot, and the fish with the fly.
Take the risk of casting too far in front of the fish and the fly gets too low in the water column. The fish slides over it. Once you get there certain fish are sliding faster so you need a longer lead. Certain fish are a little bit more of a crawling scenario. Hell some fish are laid up and you have to use the current to get the fly to the fish. It’s a matter of feeling it. I would much rather be too early than too late, too late its game over immediately. If you’re a little bit early with that cast, and with too big of a lead, you might be able to wait a little bit. If you can tell it’s not going to work, I’d just strip it real fast and recast.
The other thing that people have got to be careful about is–and Harry Spear taught me this a long time ago–remember the adage, “One cast one fish.” Don’t throw to that fish when he’s a 100 feet away, or 80 feet away. You’re going to not be very accurate with that cast. If he bites it and you get tight you’ve got 10% of stretch in the fly line. If you hook the fish 70 feet away from you’ve got 7 feet of stretch before it gets really tight.
MC: How far away would you say most of the fish are hooking on the ocean side?
AM: I would say most of my fish that I catch are between I would say 50 to 60 feet. 60 at the furthest, up to maybe say 15 to 20 feet away from me. I wait for that fish to get a little closer. That way when I put my fly in there it’s right where I want it. I got one cast and I’m going to get one shot. When he bites it’s going to be nice and close so I can get tight and catch him.
MC: You have a really good idea of how far from that distance you can see almost exactly how far from that fish your fly is and what it’s doing, right?
AM: You can watch the movement of his eyes a lot of times. You can lose your fly. That worm is so little. On a real calm day, in clear water, I’ll use a 20-foot leader and my shock is like 40-pound test and I got a clear fly line. I use the Cortland Crystal, so its all clear fly line and 20 feet of clear. Your worm is only an inch-and-a-half long. If it’s slightly overcast you lose that worm. There’s no way you’re going to be able to see it. You have to be able to read the fish, have a gut instinct as to where that fly is. That fish will tell you where that fly is if you pay attention. A lot of times you’re fishing by the seat of your pants.
At least you understand the dynamics and the movement. The boat’s moving, the wind is blowing, there’s some current, the fish is sliding. You put the fly out there, you start to slide it and you have a feel about the speed of the fish and where your fly is when it first hit. Then you guesstimate where everything comes together. Then if all of a sudden you see that fish start to accelerate and maybe change an angle coming towards you a little bit. Then you know you’ve got to get ready. He’s going to smash it. It’s cool. As you know, it’s just the greatest game every played with a fly and fish.
MC: If there weren’t all those variables to take into consideration and you didn’t have to in the end rely on your instincts it wouldn’t be a whole lot of fun, would it? That’s really the exciting part of it.
AM: It’s hard. I’m so glad it’s hard. I don’t want a lot of people getting rewarded and having this kind of fun without putting in some work. (Laughing). I’ve worked for 30 years. If I go out there flopping fish it would be “God I’m doing all that work but this is easy. Anybody can do this.” It’s like making a six-inch putt.
MC: Andy every time I talk to you I learn something. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today.
AM: My pleasure. I’m just glad I have this experience over the last 30 years. I feel fortunate to give something back to these guys who don’t have that free time to fish 60 days a year. When they get out there I feel if I can help them with their encouragement, their excitement, and their success, I feel very fortunate to be able to that. Thank you.