Andy Mill Tarpon Techniques
Andy Mill shook the fly -fishing-for-tarpon world last year when he took first place in both the Gold Cup and the Golden Fly tarpon tournaments in a span of two weeks. This year, on January 27 at the IGFA headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he gave an important talk on the techniques that make him one of one of the world’s more accomplished tarpon anglers.
Scott Collins, a Florida Keys guide, was kind enough to report to me on the contents of the presentation, which gave rise to a lively discussion on the Fly Fisherman bulletin board. According to Scott, a lot of what Andy said flew over the heads of the audience, since it was a highly detailed look at the various things Andy believes make the difference in landing fish….
Rather than paraphrase the info Scott passed on, I’ll quote Scott’s professional insights directly:
“Reading the Fish: Basically [Andy] just talked about identifying how the fish are moving, if at all, to determine what the presentation will be. Like, a fast-moving ocean fish needs a longer lead versus making sure you get the fly closer to the face of a laid-up fish, etc.
Casting and Presenting the Fly: He talked about getting the fly into their “strike zone.” To do that, different fish (ocean, laid-up over grass) will require a different presentation. What I got the most out him was here where he began talking about his techniques on ocean fish. (Of the 44 fish he took last year, he said 33 were ocean fish.) As you see, the long 30-40 foot lead. But, what he described in detail was how he gets the fly into the strike zone. As you well know, ocean fish are finicky, so this is where the long (14 to 16ft) leaders came into play. Long flouro butt sections, and thrown with a clear “ghost tip.” He only uses the 9-foot tips instead of the 14-foot tips so he can pick up (recast) easier. Leaders constructed with the least amount of knots and most slender of knots. His leaders are the “Stealth Leaders” laid out in the Rob Fordyce book. Anyway, back to getting the fly into the “strike zone” on ocean fish. Andy described how he does NOT throw AT the fish. What he does is cast well in front of them, to where their path should cross. Instead of “stripping” the fly into place, he talked more about “sliding” the fly (quickly) into where the strike zone will be (using a rod sweeping technique), and THEN begin to “work” the fly and entice the bite. It certainly wasn’t absolutely clear the way he was describing it. At first I was trying to read too much into it. But then I backed up and began thinking about ocean fish. What Andy is basically saying (I think) is that he does not want to toss the fly at the fish, and then just begin working (stripping) it, thinking that the fish is going to turn on it. As you know, ocean will aren’t too interested in changing their paths, and will not “go after” a fly. If it is RIGHT THERE off of their upper lip, they can’t help but to have their natural instincts take over and they will strike it. So, by getting the fly way out in front, quickly sliding the fly into position (clean, swift moves), there is no line slap on the water (cast was done well ahead of them), no visual on the flyline(long leader/ghost tip), the fly all of a sudden appears there in their strike zone, THEN you begin to “work it” (depending on the speed of the fish, etc). He was even [commenting on] anglers he sees as he is riding down the ocean side past other boats. He sees guys cast at the fish, and immediately start stripping, stripping, stripping (long, fast). They aren’t feeding fish, just having target practice.
Laid Up Fish and Feeding and Hooking the Animal: Nothing too much here other than what you see in the outline, like use current or wind to help you present the fly. He harped on the fact that once you get the fly in their face, don’t be overly aggressive and strip it out of there. Keep it in their face and
“work it” to entice the bight. He was big on small flies, as most in the know are these days. Says he even scores with 1/0 flies, where even his guides were like “what you think you are gonna do with THAT little thing?!?!”
Setting the Hook: Not sure he said anything special here. He said it took him a looong time to get over the reaction of sweeping the rod too early, basically going on the visual of the strike rather than the feel. Strip tight until firm and then give it to him as the true hook set is going to come from your hand and not the rod sweep or reel drag. I think he even mentioned that he would have been better off in the early days by closing is eyes when the fish struck! Said his first “real, perfect hook set” came when the flyline got wrapped around his finger as the fish “swiped” as they do on the eat. He held the line tight in fear of loosing a finger. As the triple-digit fish was tail-walking alongside the skiff, Harry Spear hollered out from the platform “YES! THAT’S how I want you to hook ’em!!” 😉
One cool point he made was about clearing line. He actually had photos taken of him on different fish clearing line with two separate techniques. First technique is the more common method of feeding line out with some pressure on the line to maintain pressure on the hook, etc. Of course, this causes the remaining line coming off the deck to “jump” and “pop”, making it susceptible to tangles. The second photo he had taken was of him clearing the line with zero pressure on the line as it is being cleared. The photos showed the incredible difference between the two techniques. In one pic, you could see the line jumping all over the place, and the other the line was very neatly going into the
Fighting Big Fish:
He spent a lot of time talking about max pressure and getting the job done quickly. But, one thing to note there… There are the guys that throw lighter rods
(10 or 11 wts). They know how to see, cast to, and feed fish. They are not really interested in partaking in a tug-o-war and “landing” the fish. The live for the hunt, the strike, and the jumps. Once the fish settles down, they’d just as soon pop ’em off. Then there are the hardcore tournament anglers like Andy. He lives for the competition. So, he wants to perfect the techniques mentioned above, but he also wants to learn how to land fish to be measured in the most efficient way possible. So, every single fish Andy hooks, his goal is to beat the fish as fast as possible. He measures every single fish he catches also. He wants to get as good as possible at guess-timating a fish’s weight while in the air in order to know if it’s a “release fish” or a “weight fish.'” So Andy uses only 12 wt rods, and his reel of choice is the monstrous Tibor Pacific. Andy is alllll ’bout line retrieval, let me tell ya. He doesn’t give the fish a single inch that doesn’t have to. Says no fish, no matter the size, should take more than 15 or 20 minutes to beat.
As far as fighting techniques, nothing too special. Light reel drag, belly of flyline run through left-hand fingers on the cork grip (hold line with
right hand also when pressuring), loose and quick elbows (extend arms out when fish kicks), point rod at fish and only rod bend is in the butt, keep fish off
balance, 12#’s of pressure on Mason 16# tippet to beat fish.”
Wow — Thanks for all that great detail, Scott. From Scott’s perspective the reason Andy gave all this info about his fishing techniques is the he wanted to increase the competition at his level! If that’s true, it was a fine gesture.
If you have even more interest in the subject, Donald Larmouth and Rob Fordyce authored a book called “Tarpon on Fly” that contains lots of detail on successful tarpon strategies. As I understand it, much of Andy’s presentation could be found in the content of Larmouth/Fordyce book.
Finally, I’d to offer a different perspective on hook-setting than the one recommended by Mr. Mill, only because it is something that I also found works extremely well on tarpon. The technique that I espoused for clients for many years was this:
1. Bring the fly tight in the fish’s mouth, but only tight enough to keep the hook from falling out.
2. Wait for the fish to turn; they almost always turn once they sense that minimal line pressure.
3. Get the fish on the reel, which should be set to 3-5 lbs. of drag pressure. Hopefully this happens without a jump as you have not put excessive pressure or struck the fish beforehand.
4. Usually the fish coming tight on the reel is plenty of pressure to get the hook set in a good part of the fish’s mouth; more often than not it also allows the hook to slide back into the corner of the mouth assuming it has not found a good purchase.
5. With the fish stopped (this is important because it’s the only way to control the pressure), give a couple of good sideways strikes with the rod coming from about a 15-degree angle to the fish. I have to say, though, that this last step is often not necessary; I’ve seen many novice tarpon fly fishers catch their first several tarpon in a row without ever setting the hook.
Thanks also to David Dalu for putting me in touch with Scott Collins and for cluing me in to the thread on the Fly Fisherman board.