Tarpon Tamers of Tampa Bay

By David Brown

They target a fish they can't eat, and one that's more likely to jump free than submit to capture. Indeed, tarpon fishing is no easy task, but this obsessive focus for Captains Bill and Billy Miller has yielded a lifetime of rewarding challenge, and something much more profound.

Photo of Capt. Bill Miller on his fishing boat

A former Tampa Bay area fishing guide, Bill hosts a local cable program called "Hooked on Fishing," while Billy, 24, now handles the family charter business. Bill took his first tarpon trip at age seven with his father and started fishing on his own at 16.

Now 60, Bill has reeled in many in the 175- to 185-pound range. During his chartering days, he led a client to a giant estimated at 225 pounds. Billy once weighed a 159-pounder (in a tournament that no longer kills fish) and released an estimated 200-pounder in 2010.

The younger Miller recalls his earliest glimpse of tarpon fishing. "When I was a baby, my mother would bring me on the boat in a picnic basket while they were tarpon fishing"

Why They Fish

Consider Megalops atlanticus: This large, powerful fish clad in silver armor blends power and pageantry like none other. Given to long runs and numerous jumps punctuated by head-shaking, gill-rattling fury, the tarpon brings it's A game every time.

The Millers love that jumping and shaking stuff, but tarpon season represents something much deeper. It's a time of family bonding; an opportunity to get out and get away with those who matter most.

"Tarpon season is very important to us," Bill said. "I tarpon fished with my family as a child. We took both Billy and (his older sister) Marjory with us tarpon fishing when they were babies. Both of them caught their first tarpon before the age of 10."

Photo of a tarpon being pulled to the boat

Billy adds: "Tarpon fishing in my family is something that we all do and enjoy — It's in our blood."

Fishing together about 50 times a year, the Millers have tamed many tarpon, some of which earned top placements in various tournaments. Bill's wife, Debbie, once held the IGFA Ladies World Record on 20-pound line with her 176. No one keeps score — not officially. But there's nothing wrong with a little family motivation.

"We always compete when we are fishing together and it's subtle with lots of fun back-and-forth commentary," Bill said. "When we are competing against each other in tournaments, I always try as hard as I can; all the while hoping he wins and does better than me. I have had my day in the sun and won my prizes. It is his turn now and he will, and has done very well in tournaments.”

Most importantly, Bill said, tarpon fishing has helped bridge the generational divide. Watching Billy follow in his footsteps has been gratifying, but knowing that his input's still welcomed hits deep.

"It is very rewarding to teach him and have him want to learn," Bill said. "Watching him develop his skills has been fun and a learning experience for me. I had to learn to let him make his own mistakes and not micro-manage him. I gave him the professional basics and I'm available for questions at any time. We talk about things all the time. Now that he is very advanced in his skills, the questions and conversation about technique are very sophisticated."

Adept at modern tools and tactics, Billy is unquestionably a throwback angler. He attributes this to the perspective Bill has imparted.

"The most important thing that my dad taught me about tarpon fishing was the history," he said. "Anyone can put in the time and become a descent fisherman, but to know the history and the old methods and the path that tarpon fishermen took to get to where we are today is something that most people don't know.

"Also, he taught me patience. Tarpon are finicky creatures and you have to be patient at times."

Chariots Of Fiberglass

Billy has also learned about boats from his dad. In 2003, Bill worked with an independent boat builder to strip down and custom rig a 22-foot Aquasport hull, primarily for tarpon fishing. Billy has been running this tower boat for about five years and lauds its fishing-friendly features.

"A good tarpon boat has to be open," he said. "You can't be worried about climbing over top of things to get to a rod or (to respond) if the fish makes a tough move. It also preferably needs to be able to handle a bit of a chop at times. A lot of tarpon fishing is done in open water so it can get bumpy. My boat has sharp entry in the front to cut through the waves but flattens out mid ship to allow me to easily get into shallower water when catching bait."

Billy also appreciates numerous rod holders and a large livewell that's positioned behind the console for easy accessibility without impediment. Bill incorporated all of these features into the design of his new tarpon boat, completed in May. The Hanson 23 Classic was built to Bill's specs by bay area builder Trevor Hanson and rigged by powerboat racing veteran Andrew Engle.

"Andrew has traveled the world in the offshore powerboat racing scene with big, fast boats and lots of money at stake," Bill said. "He rigs to the max and he's very particular in how he rigs. It must be bulletproof or he will redo it."

Billy likes the vantage point and the shade that his aluminum tower provides, but after a decade of the up-and-down deal, Bill's happy to keep his feet on the deck of his new boat. He compensates for the lack of shade with a popup umbrella that mounts to his console for nearly full beam coverage. Between uses, the umbrella breaks down, packs into a canvas storage pouch and hangs from a rack under the port side gunwale.

Where And How

The Millers pursue tarpon throughout the Tampa Bay region, particularly at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge spanning the bay's mouth. Here, strong tidal flushing delivers a dependable stream of forage for the tarpon that patrol the pilings from about April through September. When the strong tides of new and full moons crank the water through this gulf portal, anglers and tarpon take full advantage of what's colloquially called a "crab flush."

These big tides pull loads of crabs from the bays backwaters and draw them past the bridge. Tarpon greedily gulp the crustacean snacks and the Millers waste no opportunity to scoop each one they see with a long handle dip net. Targeting the current seams and eddies where tarpon congregate, they'll present fresh crabs under baseball-sized floats and drift them through the target zone.

Crabs or threadfin herring (aka "greenbacks") also produce well when sight fishing for tarpon along Gulf Coast beaches. And then there's the plug casting and fly fishing that Bill occasionally undertakes. Both are lower productivity tactics, but it's the hunt he enjoys.

Day to day, however, both Millers are most inclined to anchor on one of their stealth spots in Tampa Bay, pepper surrounding waters with chunks of cut menhaden (shad) and deploy a spread of dead baits pegged to the bottom. This may fly in the face of the tarpon's rock star image, but all fish are scavengers at heart and the poon's upward sloping lower jaw is perfectly suited for scooping easy meals off the bottom.

"I like to catch them any way I can, but my favorite method is bottom fishing with dead bait," Bill said. "It's probably the least glamorous way, but it's how I started."

True, dead baiting is not pretty, it’s not fancy and it's a smelly way to catch tarpon. However, this is how Bill learned to fish, it's how he taught Bill and that's the family tradition.

Protecting The Resource

Florida law allows licensed anglers holding tarpon tags to harvest two fish a day. However, the Millers side with the common recreational belief that these inedible fish should be released. Both have participated in "kill tournaments," but as Bill notes, that’s a thing of the past and keeping tarpon in the water helps ensure the continuation of the sport he and his son cherish.

To this end, father and son participate in Florida’s Tarpon Genetic Recapture Study — a cutting-edge approach to fish tracking. Run by the state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, in partnership with Mote Marine Laboratory, the study collects tarpon DNA samples obtained by rubbing the fish's bony cheeks with abrasive pads prior to release. FWRI catalogs catch data for each sample and maintains a database of all received. Cross-referencing recapture data provides details on fish migration critical to species management.

"Tarpon are hardy fish and the data shows that they do survive after being released," said Kathy Guindon, the program's director. "The next question is: "If most of these fish survive, "How many are caught again and where?" We're now looking at this so we can start to see the recapture rates and movement."

As Mote biologist Carole Neidig notes, the study's slogan "Any Tarpon, Anywhere, Any Size" describes a more far-reaching system than conventional dart tagging. The DNA method opens the study to more fish and, therefore, more data.

"Genetic sampling allows you to take DNA from any size tarpon, whereas we wouldn't have used conventional tags for smaller fish," Neidig said. "You can take that sample and we’ll know that fish forever."

Bill said he and Billy consider their responsibility to contribute toward the species' management: "The data that is collected and the information it yields will help protect the resource and that means more fish for the anglers to enjoy. It's also a chance for the angler to give back and help (manage) the resource. That makes you part of something very meaningful."

For information on genetic tagging or sampling kits, call (800) 367-4461 or email TarponGenetics@myfwc.com.  End of story hook

— Published: Summer 2011

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