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Vol 5 No. 30- April 13, 2005

Tough Duty: April’s Silver Lining

By Rusty Chinnis

SUGARLOAF KEY - Early spring in the Florida Keys can produce some mind boggling action for anglers willing to risk the capricious whims of wind and weather. It’s a game of chance where the winners reap the rewards of bone jarring strikes and soaring leaps from one of fly anglings apex predators. The key to the arrival of tarpon to the flats from Flamingo to Key West is warm, stable weather. These conditions occur most every year from February through early April, but can be as hard to predict as the spin of a Las Vegas slot machine.

The arrival of a cold front can change red hot action into a fool’s game, turning a vibrant flat into a virtual waste land. As the water warms between fronts it becomes a test of will for anglers and guides as they search for their often unpredictable prey. This is a time that separates the good from the bad, and all but eliminates the ugly. These were the exact conditions I found during a photo shoot with fly angler Andy Mill and his guide Captain Doug Kilpatrick the first week in April. A front had blow through five days before, dropping water temperatures into the uncomfortable zone for the silver king. The weather had warmed, but persistent 20-plus mile an hour winds and cool nights had kept the water temperatures from rebounding.

Angler Andy Mill and Captain Doug Kilpatrick
land a tarpon in the Florida Keys.

I rendezvoused with Mill and Kilpatrick at Sugar Loaf Marina in the lower Keys. The day before the winds had topped 25 miles an hour forcing the anglers to spend a good part of their day hunting for permit in the lee of the gusting east winds. While they had a number of shots at the elusive "dean" of the flats, their search for tarpon had produced a couple of sightings. As we left the shelter of the marina the full effects of the still gusting east wind was apparent in the tops of the mangroves as Kilpatrick weaved the 16- foot Dolphin flats skiff through Tarpon Creek to the Oceanside of Cudjoe Key.

As Mill stripped line from his twelve 12-fly outfit Kilpatrick mounted the poling platform to scan the basin for tarpon. Although Mill didn’t get but two shots during the first hour, the fact that we saw any fish at all was encouraging. Anyone who has the idea that a guide has an easy job, fishing all day every day, would have that notion quickly dispelled on a day like this. For the better part of nine hours Kilpatrick poled the skiff into a 20 plus mile an hour wind.

We fished the Oceanside as well as the gulf side looking for the right combination of fishable locations and favorable tides. There are few places in the world that have such convoluted tides as the lower Florida Keys. Where else can you fish a high falling tide on one side of a key and then run to the other side to catch the high rising tide. The ability to discern the combination of tides and places to locate tarpon is a combination of skill, hard work and determination. Finding the fish is just a part of the equation, seeing them in murky water, in high winds; in time for the angler to make a cast, is a gift. While Kilpatrick gave credit to his Action Optics sunglasses, there was no doubt that he was endowed with a special talent.

When you combine the talents of an experienced guide with one of the world’s best fly anglers it’s a special occasion, and one that I relished. Even fly legend Lefty Kreh characterized Mill as, "one of the best tarpon anglers ever." I was constantly asking questions of Mill and Kilpatrick and they both freely gave of their vast experience. We fished until late in the evening and despite the weather and lack of tarpon Mill managed to get three bites and land one tarpon. In the end it was a tough but very educational trip. This was a day in which only the very best or the very lucky would have managed to even see tarpon, much less catch them! It was tough duty with a team that was up to the challenge of finding the silver lining.

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