Last tarpon season, former Olympic downhill skier and fly-tournament champion Andy Mill caught 70 tarpon that weighed over 80 pounds, and it took him no longer than 27 minutes to whip any of those fish. In fact, he landed all but one fish in less than twenty minutes.
Mill attributes the short battles to his ability to apply maximum pressure throughout the fight. But just as important, he has a good handle on how much pressure he’s applying, and exactly how many pounds of pull his leader can withstand before breaking. A “virtual fish fight” system involving a 5-gallon bucket of sand, a pulley and a battery-powered, digital scale, gives him a precise feel for their exact breaking strengths.
The system is simple. Mill went to a marine store and bought a pulley and a bracket. He mounted the bracket to the underside of his workbench. He also bought a five-gallon bucket and a digital, battery-powered scale that’s accurate to the ounce up to 2,000 pounds. He uses this contraption for a variety of purposes, including leader and knot testing, but it really opened my eyes in regards to how important rod angle is when fighting big gamefish such as tarpon.
Mill fills the bucket with just enough sand to test the leader’s breaking strength without breaking the line. The IGFA gives record applicants a 10 percent-over-breaking-strength leeway when they submit a leader for world record consideration, but Andy likes to give himself more than what amounts to 1.6 pounds of room for error (in the case of a 16-pound tippet). So, for example, he fills the bucket with 12.5 pounds of sand to test a 16-pound leader. To arrive at that weight, he ties a length of 60-pound mono to the bucket, strings the line through the pulley and then ties the line to the scale. To get an exact reading, it’s important to weigh the bucket from the angler’s side of the pulley because the pulley places slightly more friction on the line and thus adds to the weight.
I paid a visit to Mill’s garage and quickly learned that most of us have no idea how little pressure we actually put on fish. I took my turn at pulling on Mill’s “bucket tarpon.” Mill attaches a butt section (60-pound in this case) to his fly line, threads it through the pulley and ties it to the bucket containing 121⁄2 pounds of sand. This unscientific, yet practical, test simply illustrates that it is impossible to put 121⁄2 pounds of pressure on a fish if the rodtip is much higher than your knees, or if the rod is pointed more than 45 degrees from the fish. With the rodtip about waist high, I couldn’t lift the bucket off the ground at all. But when I lowered the tip, and pointed it at the bucket and pulled back with the butt of the rod, the bucket climbed toward the pulley.
“You’re learning three things here,” Mill said. “You’re learning how to put maximum pressure on a fish. Most people keep too much bend in the tip during the fight. You want to fight with the butt, bend the rod right above the cork. To do this, keep the tip pointed no more than 15 degrees off the fish’s direction of pull. Second, you’re getting a feel for the maximum pressure your tippet can withstand.” When you’re pumping on a fish, you reel down to zero degrees and pull back to 30 degrees. If the rod passes 90 degrees, you’re resting the fish, and you’re in the high-sticking zone where the rod is most liable to break. So, 45 degrees is the mean, but say the fish is at the stage where it’s towing the boat around but not making any more runs or jumps. That’s when Mill needs to know how much closer to zero degrees he can get. Five to 10 degrees is ideal when you’re trying to gain inches.
“At that stage I like to keep the rodtip about 30 degrees off the fish at the most. The trick is to keep your knees and elbows loose and bent. You let your body become as much of a shock absorber as the rod and the tippet,” said Mill. When he’s gaining line on tiring fish, Mill uses his index finger and pinkie to keep the fly line trapped against the cork. The fly line is under the first fingers to keep the line trapped against the cork and the other hand on the reel when gaining line or lifting a tiring fish. Lift the rod six inches to a foot at a time. You can lift the fish and just keep lifting and that’s where you can break its spirit.
“If the fish surges so much that I can’t cushion it with my knees and the extension of my elbows, I can instantly release the line without taking my hand off the rod,” adds Mill.
Fighting a big fish on light tippet requires the angler to have both the nerve and the feel to apply pressure on the fish at or around breaking strength. The pulley system will quickly show a beginner how to use a fly rod to best a big fish as quickly as possible. This setup gives Mill the confidence to put maximum pressure on tarpon to beat them quickly and release them in good shape.
First published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, print edition.