Photos by Pat Ford
Spring has settled over the Florida Keys. It’s hot and sticky and still. You know how it gets — you don’t need a calendar to tell you the tarpon are back and the fishing is about to explode.
“The key ingredient is when you start to feel the sweat from your back drip down into the crack of the top of your ass. That’s tarpon weather,” says tarpon nut Andy Mill, who spends six weeks each year living right in the thick of it in the Keys, fishing every day with his son Nicky, who at 21 is also an accomplished fly tosser.
The non-fishing world might remember Mill as the handsome former two-time U.S. Olympic downhill skier, TV commentator and onetime husband of tennis star Chris Evert. When he was tearing up the slopes, European downhillers nicknamed Mill the “Wilde Hund” (wild dog) for his go-for-broke style, long hair and beard. “I skied wild, and I looked wild,” Mill recalls.
The angling world knows Andy Mill as one of the best, most intense tarpon fishermen on the planet. He won a dozen top tarpon fly tournaments, including a record-tying five Gold Cups, before retiring six years ago from competitive fishing, which threatened to consume him.
With the spring fishery now in full throat, I recently had a conversation with Mill about everything tarpon, from his obsession with the fish to what it takes to become a great ’poon fisherman.
“A good fisherman can catch a lot of fish, and big fish, too,” says Mill, 63, who remains athletic, colorful and competitive. “Great fishermen can catch the tarpon that doesn’t want to be caught.”
A lot of people cast to a tarpon and just start stripping, Mill says, but they’re not reacting to the body language of the fish. They don’t understand exactly what it’s going to take to make that big fish eat the fly.
“It’s a chess game of small movements,” says Mill, author of A Passion for Tarpon (Wild River Press). “How much do I strip the fly? Do I bump the fly? Do I slide it? When I bump it, do I shake it? Am I too short in the cast? Am I too long in the cast?”
And there’s lots of moving parts: wind, current, perhaps a pitching boat and a fish on the move. “You have to understand the dynamics of movement and what the animal wants,” says Mill, who is as exacting as they come. “That’s what makes a great tarpon fisherman.”
Mill says the attraction of stalking tarpon in the shallows on fly is as old as our Pleistocene ancestors. “Fly-fishing for tarpon is that ultimate combination of hunting and fishing,” says Mill, who loves bow hunting for elk as much as he does waving a fly rod at giant tarpon. “In our DNA, in our blood, man is a hunter. You never throw the fly until you see the fish. And the fish is the most perfect gamefish to be caught on the fly. It swims in very shallow water. It eats flies voraciously. It’s the best bite in the game. And then they jump, putting holes in the ocean the size of trucks. When it all comes together, it’s like getting hit by a bolt of lightning.”
Mill was first struck by the bolt out of the blue about 30 years ago, when he was in Belize as a celebrity guest on the television show Fly Fishing The World with host John Barrett.
“I remember all of a sudden having this animal come flying out of the water to eat my fly and then go flopping through the air,” Mills says. “It literally changed my life. I didn’t catch a fish that trip, but I came back to Florida and started tarpon fishing. And for the next 30 years I dedicated my life more seriously to being one of the top tarpon fishermen in the world than I did when I was trying to win Olympic gold medals.”
When he was a young hotshot skier on the U.S. Olympic team, Mill says he didn’t have the foresight or the understanding of what it took to win at the highest level. “I didn’t have a really good mentor, and I wasn’t smart enough to win on my own,” says Mill, who lives part of the year in Boca Raton, Florida, and part in Aspen, Colorado.
He saw tournament tarpon fishing as a second chance, one that he now had the competitive makeup, experience and maturity to excel at.
He credits his success to mentors such as tarpon great Harry Spear, a former guide, tournament champion and skiff builder. Mill used to fish with Spear 40 to 50 days a season. “He groomed me for tournament fishing for about seven years before I ever fished a tournament,” Mill recalls. “I had a great mentor, and I had a great understanding of the dynamics of winning from my ski-racing days. And internally I was really recommitted to doing something that meant a lot to me. I had a second chance, and I was going to do everything I could to win.”
And win he did, including five Gold Cup Invitational Tarpon Fly Tournaments, fishing with guide Tim Hoover. Before he won his first Gold Cup, however, Mill lost a big tarpon right beside the boat, which cost him what would have been his first win in the prestigious five-day tournament. He lost by a mere 8 ounces.
“I swear I did not sleep for two years,” says Mill, repeating the sentence for emphasis. “I tied flies. I fished. I tossed and turned at night, trying to figure out this passionate drive I had. My guts, my spine, my core was on fire, and it stayed that way for probably a solid 10 years.”
Has he mellowed some? “No,” he says. “I still love it. The reason I stopped tournament fishing is because it became unbalanced with what I think the relationship should be with these fish. After I won a bunch, if I got second, I was tormented. If I was winning and leading the tournament midweek, I was tormented. It was only about winning. And after I’d win, I was tormented to win the following year.”
Mill realized he was spending a lot of time and money and not having very much fun to prove something he’d already proved. So he quit tournament fishing — with one small caveat.
He did come off the beach last year to win the three-day Golden Fly Invitational Tarpon Tournament with friend and longtime competitor Capt. Rob Fordyce, an excellent tournament fisherman in his own right.
“It was a chance to see, do I still have it? We fished that one tournament last year. I won, and I’m back in retirement,” Mill says laughing.
I asked Mill to compare the Gold Cup tarpon wins with an Olympic Gold medal. “It’s comparing apples to oranges,” Mill says. “In the world of tarpon fishing it is the gold medal. But to win a gold medal in the Olympics is so much harder. The competition is so much more vast, such a bigger stage.”
What he enjoys most these days is fishing with his son Nicky, who caught his first tarpon on a fly when he was 12 or 13 and, like his father, bow-hunts elk and is a scratch golfer. “I love fishing with my son. He’s really gotten good,” says Mill, who fishes a Hell’s Bay Biscayne Bay skiff. “And to watch him stand in the bow — he’s just a phenomenal caster, both forehand and backhand. He understands the dynamics of hooking fish, and he can catch a fish as fast as anyone I know. He’s just the real deal.”
Nicky is a product of his father’s intensity. Mill recalls a conversation he had with his son during their tarpon mentorship.
“Dad, why are you so mean to me?” asked Nicky.
“I’m not mean. I’m trying to teach you something,” Mill answered.
“You can do it in a nicer way,” Nicky replied.
“Well, if I’m nicer, you’re not going to learn as fast.”
Mill chuckles now. “It wasn’t like beating him up,” he says. “It was like, OK, I’m your dad, but putting that aside, I’m now your mentor. I’m your coach. If you want to do it, you’ve got to do it this way.”
And now the son is developing his “own style and own feel,” and taking his fishing to the next level. “I’ll put him up with anybody in the world, bar none,” Mill says. “There may be a few who are more refined, but he’s right there with anybody, including me.”