For tarpon freaks like me, that 5 a.m. drive along U.S. Highway 1, where it takes you barreling out across the bridges of the Florida Keys, is magical. As the caffeine kicks in and the Steve Miller Band blasts out of the stereo, the first light of dawn plays across the eastern horizon and wild images of skyrocketing silver kings fill my head.
I have more reason than most to be excited. Up ahead, the taillights of the trailer and skiff that I’m fol- lowing belong to the one and only Andy Mill.
If you don’t know who Andy Mill is, where have you been?
For anyone who’s been washed up on a desert island for the last 20 years, let’s just say that Andy Mill has caught more tarpon
than you can shake a stick at and has won any number of tourna- ments — including the prestigious Tarpon Gold Cup no fewer than five times. Andy’s book, A Passion for Tarpon, is a classic, and is the undisputed bible for tarpon fly-fishers everywhere. In short, when it comes to tarpon, Andy is the man, and every minute on the water with him is a genuine master class. Andy’s son Nicky is the living proof: At 18, Nicky is already spotting fish, nailing casts and beating up fish like a pro. He is also a chip off the old block — good-natured, great company and an absolute credit to his old man.
I met Andy on a photography assignment two years ago and we instantly hit it off. When Andy invited me to Florida to fish with him, I all but bit his hand off.
Last year, Andy took me out in his immaculate skiff, and I spent an unbelievable day being guided by the man himself. Andy is a great teacher — full of encourage- ment and constructive advice. He showed me some of the super- stealthy casts that he employs to present the fly, and how to use subtle movements of the rod tip and an ultraslow, smooth draw to keep the marabou-tail toad fly tantalizingly alive. I’d read Andy’s book cover to cover, but to see the master in action was a real educa- tion, and I felt genuinely privi- leged to be out on a bluebird day with arguably the greatest tarpon fly-fisher who has ever lived.
The highlight of that golden day was the moment that Andy put me onto a big, laid-up fish of around 125 pounds that lit up the wide Florida skies in a blur of wild silver magic, before opening up the stout hook like it was a paper clip. That fish has been careening around my dreams ever since, and I counted down the days until this year’s trip like the proverbial kid waiting for Christmas.
Now I’m back, and after helping Andy and Nicky launch the skiff, we are suddenly fizzing across the mirror-bright sea, the big golden sun breaking over the horizon
and winking at us through the stanchions of the bridge as we
run north. I feel the rush of early- morning adrenaline that all avid tarpon-fishers will know. We snake through a narrow cut and sud- denly we are oceanside, the clean, clear Atlantic waters racing by as we head for one of Andy’s secret spots.
Nicky offers me the rod, but I urge him to jump up front, keen to get some images “in the can” and also more than happy to enjoy the sight of father and son fishing together. Andy twirls the push pole and, in a moment, we are gliding effortlessly over the turtle grass, looking for the patches of white sand that will betray the tarpon in the low, livid light of the dawn.