Andy Mill A Passion for Tarpon
Steve Huff: “A Passion For Tarpon”
Andy Mill: Your reputation precedes you in many ways—the success you have had through the years in tournament fishing and all the world records—but I think one of the things that stands out most is your work ethic. Here we are in the winter, it is cold as hell, and you got off the water last night at 7:45 p.m. I talked to your son, Dustin, and he said, “Well, Dad loves pain more than anyone I know.” So I guess the first question is what drives you more, your pride or your passion to fish?
Steve Huff: I just like being out there. I like where I work. I have had people beg to come home and I say, “Wait a minute, I got one more…” Years ago I used to think that I was doing it to try to give this person a special time, but the truth is I was really doing it for myself, because I just like being out on the water. I just cannot get enough of it. I have been guiding now for 39 years and I still—as long as there is daylight—I still feel it is such a beautiful place to be. You never know what you’ll see. Not only fish—you can see eagles or manatees or whatever. I think that is more of it. It is a passion for the outdoors. A lot of times I am trying to make the day—catch a fish at the end of the day. But even on days when we have had a great day I still want to make the last cast to see if we can pull something out. But I am not doing it because of one of my clients. I just have an undying curiosity about the country. It makes me crazy when people say, “Oh. I know the whole Islamorada area.” You know what? Nobody knows this stuff. I mean they do not fully know it. You could never know it. There is not enough lifetime to really know it all, especially here in the Everglades. There is not enough lifetime. Anybody who says he knows it is ignorant. You can never figure it out. Every day I am always trying to figure out some little move, some little something on a certain stage of the tide, to add to my knowledge.
Mill: So you are still learning about tarpon?
Huff: Oh yeah, absolutely—daily. I’m just trying to pick up little stuff. I mean you can say go fishing at the mouth of Lostmans River and send somebody down there who has fished all day and never see a fish and there are fish everywhere down there, but they are just not here when it is time to be right here—right here in a place the size of this room. Some fish swim up there and lay up for a short period of time and when the tide is right—there are two tides there. You just have to be there at those times. People can go to the exact place…
Mill: But they will not find fish.
Huff: They won’t have a clue. It just looks like trees and water.
Mill: Being out there and being a part of nature—how much of the hunt drives you and keeps your curiosity working versus just catching the fish?
Huff: Catching the fish is secondary. That is the reward for putting the whole thing together, starting with knowing where the fish are going to be. Because a lot of times you do not have light, any light. In the Keys you can go to a place with no light, but you pole the spot and you know that if a tarpon pulls up on the edge of this little bank and pulls right in this one place for a short period of time, you have a chance. In fact, Craig Brewer and I were talking about this. Craig guides in the Keys; it’s fun fishing for a guide. You know, you tell the person there is nothing there: “Oh, it is just water. Okay throw it, let it drift, let it drift, okay bump it now.” He is hooked up! It is not because you saw anything, it is because you know. In your mind you do see that tarpon lying down there. You see him lying down there even though you cannot see a thing, but you picture him sitting there in the current and you sweep a fly right where you think and bump it now.
Mill: That’s some real guiding.
Huff: Every time we hook up that way, I always say, “Great moments in guiding.” It does happen often enough.
Mill: Certain guides have the ability to think like a fish. Is it more being able to think like a fish and acclimate to their environment and the tide? Or is it more your background and the knowledge of tide and fish?
Huff: I don’t think it’s possible to think like a fish. You’re just around that species of fish.
Mill: So you know how they behave?
Huff: And you know what they are looking for—what they are looking for with changes in water temperature, current flow, and the time of year. So what they are looking for in March is a whole different thing from what they are looking for in June, and where you are going to go look for them. You have to understand that species. For the snook here in the Everglades, water temperature is huge. It determines whether you are going to find them or not.
Mill: Same with tarpon!
Huff: It is the same thing with tarpon or any of these fish. They have totally different habits in the winter versus the summer—how they swim, how they move around in an area. So I suppose you could call it “thinking” like a fish, but it is more recognizing the habits of the fish. I think maybe it’s just being smarter and able to recognize the small differences that you see and trying to put a game plan together. You might not have ever fished Key West, but you might have fished around and you see what those fish are doing and you go to Key West and you could be right on the fish. You have never been there before in your life, but you could look at a chart and look at how these basins are and figure, Okay, they have to be right there. I did that one time with Tom Evans years ago. We were off Key West and I had fished there only a couple of times. I fished Islamorada. We were running across a bank and I said, “Do you see that point on that bank over there—that is a tarpon spot.” We pulled up there and they were laid up all over the place. Nobody ever fished it before, nobody that I know anyway. You have enough experience so you can just look at a spot and can say, “That’s a tarpon spot.”
Mill: Where the tide pushes up against the bank.
Huff: Sure, access, deep-water access maybe into a lake or something, or the current is running by it or funnels them in there. Those places become obvious. You’re not thinking like a fish, but know what those fish are looking for. Your intuition kicks in.
Mill: Dustin also says he has never seen anybody who has such a tough, never-give-up frame of mind.
Mill: Again, it seems to me it goes back to what drives you.
Huff: I don’t know. I think the harder it gets, the more determined I become to make something happen. That’s basically it. I get angry. I mean, when it starts blowing, I just start poling into it.
Mill: Some might call that masochistic.
Huff: Years ago I used to do this with Del Brown. We would get to a bank and it would be blowing 15 to 20 right at us, poling into the wind, permit all over the place. He has no chance of making a cast, no chance of catching a fish. You cannot cast into that wind. You just pole for hours right into the wind from fish to fish. Now what motivates you to do that? You should just say, “To hell with this” and go home, but you just keep pumping it into the wind. I’m thinking, somehow a miracle is going to land the fly in the right place. Not that Del was not a good fisherman—but he was not that good when the wind was really screaming.
Mill: Most people when they go for a bike ride, they go around the block. You go across the country.
Huff: A couple times, yeah.
Mill: Is that an example of your tenacity?
Huff: I guess. We will have gone 60 miles that day and I’ll turn to my wife and say, “It’s just another 40 miles to this next little place.”
Mill: Do you ever drive yourself crazy because of all of this?
Huff: No. How could it drive me crazy? Life is great. I am looking for the next challenge.
Mill: Let’s go back to the old days when you first got into all this, captured beautifully in the classic 1974 film, Tarpon. Take me through what you experienced back then. Do you remember the first time you saw a tarpon?
Huff: It was like a drug, seeing these giant fish eat these little tiny flies and come smoking out of the water. There are two analogies that I remember. Tom McGuane wrote that when you first hook a tarpon it is like pushing a Steinway piano off a cliff. Have you ever heard that before? I thought that was a pretty good analogy—shit flying everywhere.
Mill: It is big stuff.
Huff: It is such a great thing. Sandy Moret always says, “If you could teach them to roar you would have the perfect fish.” When they jump out of the water if they roared…
Mill: Or growled…
Huff: If they growled—right! This is a massive fish in shallow water and your heart is pounding every time you hook one. You just cannot wait to get one in so you can watch it happen again. You can never get enough of it. It’s an insatiable desire. You have it.
Mill: I do.
Huff: Just watching the bite—the bite is so cool. Sometimes they stick their head out of the water, other times they suck it in. You come up on them and they just go ballistic: cartwheeling, pinwheeling. And they do not make a splash; they make like a boosh when they hit water. When you get through that and you actually fight them down. I like fighting them, but you just want to get them in as fast as you can so you can watch it all again.
Mill: You want to go get another one.
Huff: Have you ever seen a slow-motion film—a really slow-motion picture—of a tarpon jumping?
Huff: When those fish are in the air, if you watch their mouth parts, their gills pumping, even the scales on their body—you will see them lifting. Have you ever seen that?
Huff: When a tarpon is jumping through the air and if you watch closely their scales are pulsing, every scale on their body is pulsing. It is unbelievable to watch. In the film Tarpon there is one jump shot where the water is calm and the water starts mounding. You can see the water erupting in a mound before the face comes out of the water and the tarpon comes up and you can see—it is just awesome. That is probably some of the best footage of tarpon jumping.
Mill: How did you come to be involved in its making?
Huff: I was lucky. I had not been guiding that long when that was made, but I was doing a lot of tarpon fishing and became friendly with a guy named Woody Sexton. I don’t know if you know him—he and Stu Apte started out together as partners in guiding back in the late 1950s and they shared a house down there. I don’t think Stu was married at the time. He actually met his first wife, Bernice, on Little Torch Key. But I became friendly with Woody and he knew Guy de la Valdene who was making the movie with Tom McGuane and all his friends—Jim Harrison, Richard Brautigan. Yeah, they were all there getting weird and talking about tarpon fishing. I was invited to that dinner that night. There was one guy there by the name of Ray Donnersberger; have you ever heard of him?
Huff: The dinner was at his house. Ray Donnersberger was one of the best fly fisherman in the world at that time. He was a businessman from Chicago, but he was a super high-class individual—the nicest, nicest guy. He lived out there on Little Torch where they had this dinner. Anyhow, Ray should be remembered always. I know he taught a bunch of people to fly cast, many who are well-known anglers and guides today. And that was years and years ago. Anyhow, I was fortunate enough to be at this dinner and it was just a bunch of bullshiting about tarpon and what you liked about tarpon. It was interesting, a lot of hypothetical stuff, notions which has never been proven and never will be… where did they come from, where they are going, all that stuff.
Mill: After all these years, Steve, does the fish still stack up?
Huff: Oh yeah. For sheer excitement, there is nothing like a tarpon on a fly rod. People catch marlin and zillions of other types of fish that are bigger and probably stronger, but it’s not true fly fishing. It’s not where you see a fish and throw it to them and feed them. All of that marlin fishing is just teased-up stuff. It is kind of an artificial situation. But when you just see something lying out there that looks like a Goodyear blimp and you throw a little piece of chicken in front of it and strip it a couple of times and you see their tail kick, and gloomp and you come up on the thing and it looks like a plane crashed out there—that is pretty cool stuff. So I do not know for sure, but with a fly rod I don’t think there’s anything in the world you can compare it to. If tarpon lived on a mountaintop in the Himalayas we would all be going there. If that is the only place you could catch them we would be going there.
Mill: You’re right. We would.
Huff: Wouldn’t you think? You’d have to go there. You’d have to go there.
Mill: I know.
Huff: Thank God they do not live in the Himalayas.
Mill: They are in your backyard.
Huff: They are—and they’re in mine.
Mill: Is there one aspect of catching tarpon that stands out more than another—feeding them, or the jumping, or the fighting?
Huff: When they take the fly, when they bite. Then you’ve really caught them. So many tarpon get away that you have to have some gratification, so you have to say, “Wow that was a neat bite.” When he throws the fly, that’s okay. That’s cool. I think my favorite tarpon are laid-up fish, fish that are sitting still, very peaceful, sitting there. And throwing a fly to them and watching them move in behind and bite. That is the neatest of all. I think most experienced tarpon anglers would say laid-up fish is their favorite. Swimming fish, ocean-side fish, or fish that are traveling—they’re fun, too. But give me fish that are just sitting there. Have you ever seen a tarpon yawn? You probably have because you have fished so much.
Huff: Sometimes a fish is laid up and you are sneaking up on it. And you see a tarpon open his mouth real wide and stretch, pump his gills, and go right back to sleep Have you ever seen that?
Mill: I have. They are almost like a cat stretching.
Huff: Aaahh. The fish goes back into a slumber and then you throw a fly and it goes, “Oh nice—I bet I can get that.”
Mill: When did tarpon fishing change? When, instead of just showing the fish the fly, you had to start communicating with and feeding the fish?
Huff: Tarpon fishing has gotten a lot tougher with the pressure. Fortunately, where I fish, not totally. But here in the Everglades I don’t have to deal with it as much because the fish aren’t as they are in the Keys. Tarpon are a targeted species in the Keys. Here it’s a targeted species at certain times of the year, but the fishing is much harder here because the water is muddier and clouds do you in. There is no white sand. The wind comes up out of the west and nukes the gulf and you cannot fish out there. Here the pressure is not as much a factor, but in the Keys you definitely have to scale down and use smaller flies. Actually, when I go down to the Keys to tarpon fish these days, I don’t go to the places that I need to use small flies. There are still places down there that people are not fishing much.
Mill: Where you find happier fish.
Huff: Yeah. You could throw half a chicken out there and they would still eat it. I will never see the number of fish that are swimming in the ocean, but if I can get a dozen shots we will hook them all.
Mill: What about Homosassa, the Holy Grail of tarpon fishing for a number of years?
Huff: Homosassa was the most amazing place. I was so lucky to experience it. What a privilege. I was fishing in 1976 with a guy by the name of Tom Evans. He booked me 45 days straight, the first of May to the middle of June. We were fishing at Loggerhead down in the Keys, and it was raining and crappy and the weather was awful. We heard this rumor about Homosassa and these big fish and we were talking. Evans is definitely a big- fish guy. He wanted more, bigger, and faster tarpon. He said, “What do you think about going to Homosassa?” I said, “Well, it beats the shit out of this, we are not doing anything here.” So we loaded up the boat. I told my wife I would be back in a week and we drove up there, had no clue where to fish or anything else, which is really the way I like to do it. I don’t want anybody to help me because in my opinion if somebody tells you where the fish are, they have stolen from you because then you cannot find them for yourself and have the thrill of finding them yourself. People sometimes try to tell me, “Oh go that way.” And I say: “No don’t tell me. I am going to find it. I will find it.” I don’t want people to tell me because it is robbery—it steals the thrill of discovery.
Mill: Like somebody telling you the end of a book.
Huff: Yeah. I do not want to know. I will figure it out. I want to figure it out. So we went up there and just started poking around out there. We spent a couple of days not seeing anything then we started seeing fish and tried to figure out how they were moving. There were so many fish, so many giant fish. When I went up there I didn’t know what a truly big tarpon looked like. I thought I did, but I mean the first fish we hooked we thought was 200 pounds. Every fish we hooked seemed as big. They were all really big fish—all 150 pounds. It was crazy. The best day we had there was in 1977 on Memorial Day weekend. By 3 in the afternoon Tom had landed his seventh tarpon of the day. Five of them were over 150 pounds.
Huff: And the seventh one was a world record at the time, 177 pounds. There was not a boat on the horizon anywhere you could see and there were tarpon to the horizon, thousands of tarpon with their backs out of the water, daisy chains everywhere, daisy chains with 200 fish going around on white sand as far as you could see. We cranked up and headed home and ran for a mile before we got out of the fish. They were blowing up everywhere. But there was no other way to get out of there. You could not pole out of them—armies and armies of fish. Five fish over 150 pounds. How many times can you do that today?
Mill: You can’t.
Huff: There were so many gigantic fish. Just gigantic.
Mill: It must be like sticking a knife in your heart knowing what is happening up there now.
Huff: There is nothing happening up there now.
Huff: I have not been to Homosassa since 1986; I think was the last time I went. I’m not going to go now. I would not ever want to see those flats without fish after everything we saw. Tom Evans still goes back.
Mill: I know. I talk to him. Every day he is out there.
Huff: He calls me, of course. He gets a little trashed every time. He calls me up and says: “This place sucks. There is nothing up here. The tarpon hate this place.” And they do. I mean they just don’t come in there. But hypothetically we try to figure out why. I think it’s the food supply. When I was up there the blue-claw crabs were everywhere—on the bottom, on the surface, and when you caught the tarpon and pulled it up on the boat…
Mill: There are crabs all over your boat.
Huff: All over the boat, crabs bulging out of their anus, just packed. Good blue-claw crabbing is a function of water quality. And I don’t think the water quality is good or as good. Plus, those tarpon are in there to spawn and water quality is real important for tarpon to spawn. The same thing as in Florida Bay. Until the water goes bad it still looks same, right? But the oxygen and the nutrients in it aren’t…
Mill: When the food supply goes, everything is gone.
Huff: So you kill off the food supply. I mean how much food does a 150-pound fish eat a day? I don’t know, but he has to eat something. If there’s nothing there they can go someplace else and find it. Those fish still exist. Those fish are old.
Mill: They are just not there.
Huff: They may be farther offshore. You know, in Louisiana they can catch tarpon, huge tarpon. The fish never come inshore, though. They troll out in the Gulf of Mexico for them. Have you ever heard about that?
Mill: I have.
Huff: They troll with giant spoons and coon pops out in the Gulf for fish that are usually in 20 feet of water off the outside of the islands. They never come inshore. I was out there fishing for redfish. It’s beautiful. There is a channel coming in with 15 feet of water opening up to a lake or something—you’d think the tarpon would be in there.
Mill: They just don’t come in?
Huff: They don’t come in. I think ultimately we can force them out of here. We can push them along. I think that is what happened at Homosassa. There were so many fish… I mean thousands and thousands of fish. When the tide was high we would go to this place called Chassahowitzka Point. We would pull up on that point and hook 40 fish in a couple of hours just waiting to bust out.
Huff: Yeah. We would clean out our tackle box—just get rid of all of our old flies and stuff, all of the tippets and everything. No kidding. We jumped fish after fish. Usually they were not as big—100-pounders just streaming by. We’d get one jump from a fish and then break them off. I was taking pictures. Tom Evans had Nikon with a motor drive. We were anchored off this point and he would hook fish after fish. I sat on the platform and had this thing running like a machine gun. We got some incredible photography, some fabulous jumping shots of tarpon in the air—neat stuff.
Mill: Does one tarpon-fishing episode stand out more than any other?
Huff: You mean the big fish up there?
Mill: Anything, but you know I love the story of your catching the world record with Evans!
Huff: Well, that was certainly a high point for Tom as a fisherman and me as a guide. It was an extremely lucky deal that we were fishing at Homosassa. Again, there was a ton of fish. It was windy though. It was blowing about 20 and we were poling around. Tom made me aware that he needs to relieve himself. Hanging off the back of the boat, he said, “If something comes by why don’t you cast?” I said: “No, no. I will sure as hell get a big-ass fish and you know it!” And he said, “Really, go ahead and cast.” So I hopped up there and he is hanging out the back of the boat. I had to anchor the boat because it was so rough. I wanted the bow to swing into the wind so I threw an anchor down so we could float in place. Just as I picked up the rod a school of fish was going by. I was pissed off because I missed a shot at them. And sure enough here come two fish and I threw out in front of them and one of them—just geezers—swims over and takes the fly. Back then we had a term you know like Moby Dick or another great fish. We used to call it “Rockquetta.” We were looking for Rockquetta—the legendary big tarpon. So I hooked this fish and it jumps in front of the boat and Tom is hanging over the back of the boat and he goes, “Jesus Christ, it’s Rockquetta!” I said, “You got that right!” The thing went launching off and just smoking the reel.
Mill: Tom’s rod and reel?
Huff: His rod and reel. So I am trying to pull the anchor and he is trying to pull his pants up and I got the anchor up while I was holding onto the rod. Of course there was not much to do because the line was vanishing. Tom got the motor started and we went after this fish. I wanted to get it in fast, because I didn’t want to take any time out of his day. I didn’t want to mess around because there was so many fish around. And I wanted him to catch a giant fish.
Huff: Rockquetta. So anyhow I got this fish pretty quickly—20 minutes I think—up to the boat. We gaffed him in about 20 minutes. Tom gaffed it. I think it is the only tarpon he has every gaffed—I am sure. We pulled it into the boat. It was big. And we fished the rest of the day.
Mill: With the fish lying in the boat?
Huff: Yes. That is a lot to pole around. It was like taking on another crew. When we finally took it back and weighed it in, it was 186 pounds.
Mill: That was the world record at the time, right?
Huff: I never entered it though. To qualify for a world record you have to send in the leader with the fly and the line has to be certified. One week later, we did all that with Tom’s 177-pounder.
Mill: So your fish was actually 10 pounds over the current world record?
Mill: Why didn’t you enter that fish?
Huff: Because I wanted him to catch it.
Mill: Your client.
Huff: Yeah—and it was not that important to me. Everybody who knows about tarpon fishing knows about that fish.
Mill: So when you see that photograph…
Huff: Pulling him out. Well, I am actually standing in the boat holding his head up. It was a big tarpon. Of course I was a scrawny little kid—I’m still scrawny.
Mill: When you see that photograph what comes to mind?
Huff: Oh it was interesting, it was fun. I knew at the time that it was the biggest tarpon that I would probably ever catch. Since then actually I have hooked tarpon that were bigger but haven’t landed them. I have had I think two bigger on. Once, also in Homosassa, Dale Perez, who was a fishing guide in the Keys—you know Dale, right?—Dale and I took the same five days off while were up there and fished together. He had just hooked a fish and lost it, and it was my turn and I stepped up on the bow and was stripping out line and Dale says, “Steve! Quick, quick, look here—quick, quick.” And I turned around and looked, and there were two tarpon going by and I cast. I didn’t have all of the line stripped out. I had about 60 feet out, and I was about 10 feet short of the fish and they were passing by, so I didn’t strip. When they got just even with it, I barely stripped and he started for the fly. I stripped it one more time and he ate it. When he ate the fly Dale Perez was standing behind me and he went, “Oh my God.” I will never forget it. He was standing behind me. I had the hook in this thing and it came out of the water like a freakin’ manatee flying out of the water. And he and I to this day believe that that fish was closer to 300 pounds than 200 pounds. Oh, it was just immense. All of the giant tarpon you ever saw up there times two. I mean it was just a gigantic fish. When it took the fly, it ate the entire leader. I fought it for about five minutes and the leader came back and the tippet was all…
Mill: Scraped up.
Huff: That was one fish. And then I hooked one here in the Everglades one time that I thought was at least 200 pounds. Just huge. I mean you don’t catch these things. You can call them whatever you want it’s probably not important. They are big fish.
Mill: Do you miss being on the bow at all?
Huff: No. Not at all. When I first started guiding I would see fish and I would think: Oh man I would love to catch that fish. Man if I was up there I would not have missed them. I would love to get that fish. You know, all this stuff. But now I would rather have the people who fish with me catch the fish. I want it more for them than I do for myself. I think that is true. If I could pick a fish that I would really love to catch for myself it would be a giant snook on a fly, a 35-pound snook on a fly.
Mill: Why a snook?
Huff: I was born and raised in south Florida and spent my youth on a bicycle fishing in people’s backyards and under bridges. Snook were always a special fish for me. That is what I was trying to catch as a kid.
Mill: Does fishing kind of come full circle?
Huff: Yeah. Well, no because I never left.
Mill: You just detoured with a few thousand tarpon.
Huff: I think if you have a fish of your childhood that always has a special place for you. I have a friend in Maine who has caught marlin and everything else on a fly, but brook trout is his special thing.
Mill: It’s funny because I grew up in Aspen trout fishing and I will go down to the river if a hatch is going off for an hour or so and smoke a cigar, but I dream of tarpon. I dream of the bite and see this thing sliding through the water.
Huff: I love tarpon, too, but snook will always be a special fish for me. They are sneaky, snook are.
Mill: What about fishing means most to you?
Huff: I get up every single morning excited to go out there. And I don’t really think about what I have done before. I don’t think that I won a bunch of tournaments. I don’t think anybody is special, especially me. I don’t think I have done anything that anybody else couldn’t do. I’m disappointed because in the Keys the way the fishing has gone down and the amount of boat traffic and fishing pressure, it’s like watching a friend die, slowly.
Mill: Homosassa as well.
Huff: Homosassa as well because you are never going to see it like it was. It’s still quite good, but it’s never going to be like it was where you could go out and be into herds of tarpon—forever, as far as you can see with not another boat around. I used to get physically ill when I had a special spot in the Keys that only I knew about where I was creaming them and somebody would find you there. You get nauseous. You get sick.
Mill: Your spot is gone.
Huff: Yeah, and you know what? That’s not fun. That is one of the reasons I left the Keys. You get sick watching it get raped because you have to respect these spots. You cannot just go in every day and beat them, and beat them, and beat them. So I would have a spot like that. I would go there maybe once a week. I would just try to go in there and use it and then leave it alone for a long time, because I wanted a quality experience when I got there that I knew if I threw a fly over there you were going to get a bite. You could tell the demeanor of the fish would change. I watched a body of fish that would come in through a series of lakes, and they would be in here we’d have great fishing. And then after a year or so they would not come into that lake, they would be in the next lake farther out.
Mill: Pressured out of there.
Huff: And then they’d be in the next and then they would be on the fringe of the Gulf, never coming into the estuary again. They got spooked out of the area with fishing pressure. I have seen that happen a number of times.
Mill: To me, these still are the good old days—but there aren’t that many of them. You know, early in the season, in March or February, when you get a window of warm weather, and you get Florida Bay slicked off, and you can get into certain areas and just mohawk them. Yet you are limited to a number of days a year when it is going to be like that.
Huff: It does not happen often but when it does…
Mill: It can be epic.
Huff: People know about that chain of events that makes those fish show up—weather, current, and all that stuff. People know now. They are ready to jump on it when they can. The trouble is that you always have some angler who…
Mill: Cannot get it done.
Huff: Does not want to mess with them or cannot get it done. Most of the people who fish with me today, though, can get it done. Anglers who fish with me then are normally after snook, but I have a tarpon rod rigged on the boat and if the weather just peaks out…
Mill: You are doing it.
Huff: I have not fished anybody new in 20 years.
Mill: Tell me about that saying that people are dying to get on your boat—literally.
Huff: I was fishing a guy from California who fell face-first on the front deck. He died fighting a tarpon. His name was Everett Watkins, a super nice guy. I had met him only that morning. He told me he had always wanted to catch a tarpon on a fly. It was in April, pretty cool weather. He got on the boat and the first spot we went there was a bunch of fish and he hooked up. He was sweating profusely. I don’t like people to baby a tarpon or just piddle around with them. I mean, the best way for you to catch it—and for recovery of the fish—is to whip it as fast as you can. Just reef on it. So I was busting him about not fighting the fish hard enough: “Come on, pull! You can do it. Come on, what’s wrong with you?” And then he does a face plant on the front deck. He was dead when he hit the deck. He had an aneurysm. I didn’t know what was going on, but I leaped up there and he was lying on top of his rod. Dead weight is kind of awkward. I don’t know if you have ever handled a dead person. Have you ever handled a dead person?
Huff: I mean it is like a big bowl of Jell-O. Really. Anyhow, I got him off the rod and the fish was still on it. I cranked down and broke it off. I could not get him off the front deck actually. I couldn’t move him. He was kind of a short, stocky guy. There was another person in the boat. He put the dead man’s hands under the man’s head to keep it from beating on the deck. It was not that rough and I ran as fast as I could to meet the ambulance, but he was dead. He was blue by the time we got to the dock. Now there are all kinds of bad jokes: “Huff, people are dying to fish with you,” “Why’d you break him off?” “You should have caught him.”
Huff: What is amazing is that the other guy in the boat was really a new acquaintance of his but he went to the funeral, which was in California and all of his buddies said: “That was just so great, that was so great. I mean if he was going to die he would have given anything to die that way.” In fact maybe he did because he had a heart condition. So maybe that’s was what he was looking for. Anyhow, as we were riding back, we pulled the boat out of the water and followed the ambulance back to the hospital and his fishing partner for the day goes, “What’s protocol in this situation?” I said, “I don’t know—this does not happen often.” And he said: “I mean, do we go back out again? Or do we just hang around all day?” I said, “You know, I think he would want us to go back out.” “I do too,” he said. We went back out and caught a couple tarpon that day.
Mill: That’s great—in memory of him. Were you inspired by anybody growing up, other guides or anglers that you wanted to emulate in any way?
Huff: Anglers, no. I wanted to catch something. When I was a kid in high school I used to read about the fishing experts down in the Keys—Jimmie Albright, Stu Apte, Cecil Keith, and some of the other guides—and they were catching these huge tarpon on a fly rod. I didn’t even know a fly rod from my elbow. I just knew I had to have one of these things because I had to do this someday. I got my mother to get me my first fly rod. I don’t know if you remember S&H green stamps when you were a kid—those stamps you got when you bought groceries? Well, she got me a little South Bend rod and some kind of little reel, I think it was a South Bend reel. I remember it had a C level line on it, which you cannot cast to save your life. I knew that whatever kind of lure I was supposed to use had to have some chicken on it, because I knew a fly had feathers. Years ago there was a lure called a Bill Smith lure. Have you ever heard of a Bill Smith lure?
Huff: There was a guide in Islamorada years ago by the name of Bill Smith. This lure had a 7/0 hook. It had lead on the shank of the hook and a cork, a big cork head on it like a popper face but turned backwards. They used to call it a slider. It had like half a chicken and the whole thing was bright orange. It had feathers. It had to be a fly, right? It weighed one-third of an ounce. So I tied it to my level line and I walked down to the sea wall. I rode my bike down to the seawall and I just thrashed myself to death with this thing. I read in the stories about Joe Brooks casting 60 feet into the wind and all of this stuff and I am thinking, “I can do this.” I am just flailing away not even knowing that it was not a fly.
Mill: A heavy jig.
Huff: Finally I thought, This is really hard—I might need a lesson or something. Finally I learned how to cast by looking at McClane’s Standard Fishing Encyclopedia. There were pictures of guy with the rod in different positions with instructions to stop at 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock. That is how I taught myself to cast—from a fishing book. When you learn to cast you know you’re doing something right because the line goes out there. And then you read about hauling and when you make a good haul the line goes out farther.
Mill: When did you decide to make a career of it?
Huff: I went to University of Miami and studied marine biology, but I always knew I wanted to be a fishing guide. I was going to move to the Keys and be a guide, much to my mother’s chagrin. When I did get out of school, finally finished school, I went down there and started guiding.
Mill: What year was that?
Huff: That was 1968. This was at the time when Stu Apte was really promoting tarpon fishing for whatever reason, whatever motivated him. I think he was trying to promote his guiding business as much as anything. There’s no question that Stu brought tarpon fishing to the forefront. He learned how to catch them on a consistent basis, how to feed them, where they were swimming. There was an awful lot of fish then, too. He did not have to go scouting. George Hommell was guiding at the time. Woody Sexton was partners with Stu and they were guiding together. They said that they would get up at first light and hop in their boats and go to Coupon Bight and George Hommell was already there. And he had trailored from Islamorada down there. He was already out there. You could never beat him out there. I mean George Hommel back then was a real go-getter. Hommell is probably one of the most phenomenal guides of that era as well, but Stu publicized it. He made it a sport, a recognized sport, something that people wanted to do, come down and do, catching these giant fish on a fly. Also, I think he was the first one that was successfully and aggressively fighting a fish telling people they could actually land them on light tackle by intimidating them instead of wearing them down. Stu, no question, I think would be the man in my mind. When you think of tarpon and one individual it is going to be Stu Apte.
Mill: Where does Tom Evens fit in? He was an angler not an angler-guide like Apte.
Huff: Tom Evans started fishing with me in 1973. He came to the Keys and started fishing with Jimmie Albright. He caught his first tarpon on the ocean side of Long Key, I think it was 60 or 70 pounds. If you have only ever caught trout and you caught a tarpon…
Mill: You are done.
Huff: You are toast.
Mill: That’s what happened to me.
Huff: Tom got addicted. In 1973 I was still trying to figure out where to fish and what to do and everything else, but he knew that I was a crazed maniac, working hard on the water and trying anything. So he started fishing with me and then we started fishing more and more. We fished a lot for quite a few years, about seven or eight years, from 1973 to 1980. By then we had done the Homosassa thing and we caught a lot of fish.
Mill: Have you fished with Stu?
Huff: I fished with Stu one day. That was in 1968. He came down and he was friendly with a guide in Marathon who I had become friendly with by the name of Cal Cochran. The three of us went out that day. Stu caught a couple tarpon that day in an area that people fish hardly at all anymore, but where there are still tarpon.
Mill: Who would you put as the greatest tarpon fisherman that you fished with? Tom Evans? Sandy Moret?
Huff: I don’t know. The greatest tarpon angler that I have had on my boat? Evans is great; Evans could fight the fish. But I have never fished anybody that has more savvy with the fly rod than Sandy—knowing what is going on out there, knowing how to strip the fly, feeding the fish and hooking the fish, always knowing what to do when a tarpon takes a fly, letting him close his mouth. I mean, Tom Evans, if a tarpon stuck his head out of the water…
Huff: The fly is coming back.
Mill: He is going to pull that fly out of there.
Huff: That is very hard not to do.
Mill: It took me 10 years to finally learn how not to!
Huff: Oh, it is hard. Tom used to say aloud: “Wait to strike. Wait to strike.” He was trying to get himself to slow down before a real aggressive strike. I remember fishing in the Gold Cup one time with Sandy Moret. We were sneaking along. We were at Loggerhead and this fish was coming down the bank. He cast and the fish charged and came up under the fly and came out of the water to his anal fin. His entire body was out of the water and Sandy just stood there. The fish fell back into the water and started away. Sandy screamed, “Holy shit.” Now I would have snatched that fly out of there in a minute. Anybody would—anybody with blood in his veins. But it takes an incredible discipline to not do anything, just watch…
Huff: Not many people I know could ever do it that well.
Mill: What are the characteristics of a good tarpon angler?
Huff: I think reading the shot. I do this fishing school with Sandy, and we’re always talking about casting and how to cast and all of this stuff, but there are people who don’t cast well at all, but they are really fishy. Right? And to me, taking someone out, I would much rather have a guy that has real fish sense than a great caster anytime, because he reads the shot and knows what is going on out there. There is a current flowing or there is no current. Or the fish is high in the water or the fish is down deep. Where to put the fly, how to lead the fish so it puts the fly in front of the fish; when to strip it and how much to strip it. You watch the body language of the fish. He is lying still. You see the tail kick. You know he is coming, but if you strip too fast you will take it away from him, so let him pick up a little speed and strip it. You know this stuff, Andy. It’s all about reading the whole scene. There are a lot of people that can heave it out there, but then they don’t know what to do with it, or how to manipulate it once it gets there. So all that stuff to me is what I call fishing. I mean there is casting and all this stuff, but fishing is feeding fish—talking to the fish with a fly and making it think it is getting away, but maybe I can still catch it. You are trying to communicate “this bait is escaping—see if you can catch it.” Because I don’t think tarpon waste a lot of energy chasing stuff they can’t catch. You don’t see tarpon chasing minnows in the middle of the day. Because they cannot catch them. They are good at night under a bridge where can eat it all the time. That is why I think a fly is so successful, why it’s such a great bait to catch tarpon with.
Mill: Is a fly equal to bait?
Huff: It is the best bait. It is better than a live mullet. It really is. You can see the fish, because if you tweak it and it is still there and it has life, but it’s not running away so he thinks I can get that thing! and he starts up for it and you move it away, but not so fast that he cannot catch it, and you let him do his thing and let him eat it, and you blow his fins off. That is what makes a fly so great. Recognizing all this stuff is what I think what separates the guy who goes out and fishes for one week a year and catches a few tarpon on a fly from the guy who fishes often enough to see all of what is going on: actually watching the mouth of the fish sip a fly in or being able to see a little gill pump. One time Sandy Moret and I were in Homosassa. He had on a grizzly fly with a red palmer. He was stripping this fly and this tarpon came up behind it, sipping around, but didn’t take the fly right away. And it was right on the end of his nose. You could see it. It was early in the morning so the fish was really close—20 feet away. He is not stripping it too fast. He is trying to feed this fish. The fish comes up and takes the tail of the fly. He bites the tail. Sandy doesn’t move it. He then comes up and he bites the center of the fly. We are watching this. And all you can see is the red palmer on his lips, and then he eats the rest in three bites. He took the fly in three bites.
Huff: And Sandy patiently left the fly there until the fish took the third bite. It wasn’t a real big fish, I think 100 pounds. It was a nice fish, but it wasn’t jumping through the fly. Sandy goes, “Did you see what I saw?” I said: “Oh yeah. That was real cool.” But I mean literally he took the fly in three bites. Most people never see any of that stuff. But if you get somebody who can see all of that stuff going on and know what to do when it is happening… I was with Sandy, again, a couple of years ago. We were fishing in the Everglades, and we were into a bunch of tarpon and the only time I have ever seen this done. We were poling around and the water was real muddy, you just barely see a shape or edge of a tail or something in the water. Sandy strips in the line and does a bow-and-arrow cast. He squeezes the fly lightly between his thumb and index finger and separates his arms like he is shooting a bow. Then he puts a bend in the rod tip and lets go of the fly. And boink he flicks it out and it hits the water and he goes twitch, twitch and he has a tarpon on. Now he had too much leader out and he stripped it in—have you ever seen anybody hook a tarpon on a bow-and-arrow cast?
Mill: No, but that is cool.
Huff: Sandy did. But I mean what prompted him to do that? Nobody would have done that that I know. But Sandy was like, “I can do this—boink.” So Sandy is cool about that. He just knows, more than anybody else, he knows what is going on out there. If Sandy cannot feed them…
Mill: Nobody can.
Huff: They probably cannot be fed. Andy, you and I have never fished together, but my son, Dustin, says you are pretty good that at, too.
Mill: I have been chasing them for 15 years. I caught 105 last year.
Huff: That is a lot of fish.
Mill: That is a lot of fish.
Huff: A bunch of tarpon.
Mill: Steve, you were born the year World War II ended. What was it like to grow in Miami during the 1950s?
Huff: When I was 10 years old I had rod racks on my bicycle and a tackle box. I would get up in the morning and ride somewhere in Miami. You could ride anywhere in Miami and fish off the causeways and the bridges and never have a problem. My mother never worried about me. I doubt you could do that today. I don’t think there are any fish there either. My turf was the Broad Causeway. I caught my first tarpon under a bridge there. It was 20 pounds.
Mill: How old were you when you caught your first tarpon?
Huff: Probably 13.
Mill: Did you know what you had?
Huff: Oh yeah, I knew what it was—I killed it dead. I threw it in the back of my bicycle and hauled ass. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. The first snook I ever caught I caught in a canal. It is kind of a long story. My mom and dad were divorced when I was 10. I never saw my father again; he took off. He liked to fish for snapper and stuff on the bottom, but he never took me fishing when I was a kid. When he left, the last time I ever saw him, he gave me a spinning rod. I didn’t even know how to tie a knot or anything else, but I got a lure at some store and I threw it in the canal and I caught a fish. I didn’t know what it was. My sister was dating a guy who liked to fish, Ted Massing, and we are still good friends. I caught this fish and I looked in the fish book and saw a fish with stripes on it and I said, “I caught a striped bass.” I didn’t really know what it was. I put it in the freezer, whole, intact, 12 inches long. I froze the whole thing. When he came over to the house I told him about this fish I caught and he told me that I had caught a snook. He looked at it and said, “That’s a snook.” I repeated the funny word: “Snook, snook, snook.” Anyhow, I got crazed about fishing because I caught this 12-inch snook. I started riding my bike all over Miami, fishing under the bridges. I was like a bridge urchin, hanging around. Nobody took me fishing. I learned how to tie a clinch knot when I stopped by a doughnut shop in north Miami. (I was one of the kids they gave the doughnuts from the day before that had not been sold—“day-olds,” they called them.) I used to tie my lure on with overhand knots, 20 overhand knots. I didn’t have a clue. I had my bike leaned up against the front of the doughnut shop and this guy came out and said, “Kid, what is this mess you have for a knot?” I said, “Man I don’t know, I just put the lures on this way.” He showed me how to tie a clinch knot. That is where I learned to tie a clinch knot, in front of that doughnut shop. Mostly I did not have anybody to show me anything. I learned the hard way. At school I finally met some kid who liked to fish and we would ride our bikes all over the place. In Miami you could go anywhere. The biggest snook I caught—even to this day—was 27 pounds. I caught it when I was 15 years old under Broad Causeway bridge.
Mill: With a mullet?
Huff: No, on a plug. In an area, of course, that we were not allowed to be. We used to hang a rope over the drawspans and lower ourselves down on a rope, fish off the tide down underneath these bridges.
Huff: Haulover Cut in Miami years ago—do you know where Haulover is? It’s dangerous, very dangerous. We used to have ladders. We would pull up a manhole cover. We would pull up this manhole cover and climb down on these ladders to the center where the bumpers were, and we would fish off the center with the current roaring. If you fell in you would be dead. I mean you would be dead. Of course it was not allowed, so we had to go there. We were always getting thrown in jail for fishing in people’s yards and commando raids in some marina or something. So we used to climb down underneath there and then they welded the manhole cover shut because they did not want you in there.
Mill: Then what did you do?
Huff: Next we stole a Hauser line off a drift boat that was tied up, a spring line that was not going to imperil the boat getting driven. We took the Hauser line and then we tied it to the bridge rail. Then we would climb over and swing into the cage where the ladder was. And then we would crawl down the ladder and get on the walkway down there. The other guy would lower all of our tackle down on a rope and then he would climb down and we would fish. Dangerous. Oh, my God—so dangerous.
Mill: But I’ll bet you caught a lot of fish!
Huff: And we caught some tarpon out there, mostly little tarpon, 20- or 30-pound tarpon. But it was scary.
Mill: Was there a defining moment when you realized that this is what you wanted to do the rest of your life?
Huff: I just loved to fish. When I was in high school, every weekend a couple friends of mine and I drove down to the Keys. There was a motel on Long Key called Edgewater Lodge and there was an elderly couple that had the place. They gave me a room because I was doing a lot of the maintenance work for them around their place. It got so I was going by myself. I would mow the lawn and paint and do handy work, and when the tide was right, I would go fishing. I knew I was going to be a fishing guide. My mother said one time, “You know you go down there, they are all a bunch of drunks and bums—that is all those fishing guides are: a bunch of drunks and bums.” I said, “Okay. Sounds good. I can do that.”
Mill: How did you actually get your start as a guide?
Huff: I tell you what, I had no money and no business when I first started in 1968, so I was taking people mackerel fishing or snapper fishing. I thought I knew a lot about the area, but the reality is I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t know anything. I just thought I did. I knew enough to go catch a few bonefish. I have learned a lot since then. I know most of the Keys.
Mill: I can’t think of anyone who knows the Florida Keys as completely as Steve Huff.
Huff: There are not many places you can go in the Keys that I have not been. That is for sure. I have turned over about every rock down there. But even today Dustin will say, “Dad, did you ever try there?” And I’d say, “Yeah, I have tried it.” He’d say, “Did you ever try it on low tide?” I’d say, “Yeah, a couple times.” He’d say, “Oh man—that is the greatest spot.” There are places down there that are great fishing spots. As I said earlier, if you think you know it all, you don’t. I have helped Dustin a lot with his fishing and told him about areas and places and all this stuff, but he has learned stuff that I didn’t know. It is pretty neat.
Mill: What is it like for you to stay at his house when you are down there fishing?
Huff: Oh, he is a great kid.
Mill: Do you guys talk fishing?
Huff: Yeah we do, but not just fishing. We talk about people and friends. He loves to play golf and we talk about his golf. It is not hard to get Dustin to talk about golf. But we have a great time. My sons are my best friends so every time we are together it is a great feeling of being together. We don’t fish together enough, though. I would like us to fish more.
Mill: Do you see a point in the near future where you are going to start slowing down a bit as a professional on the water, taking more time for yourself?
Huff: The people I fish—I have not fished anybody new in it seems like forever, but some of them are getting up there pretty good in age. If they ever quit fishing, or are not physically able to fish, I would probably like to take more time off. I don’t really need to be fishing at all right now. I mean, I don’t have a lot of money, but I don’t have a large lifestyle either. I’m happy with this little town and this little house. If it needs painting I paint it, you know. I do all my own lawn mowing. It does not cost me much to live here.
Mill: Tell me about the Huffnagel knot. You designed that, right?
Huff: I was bored. We were out, Tom Evans and I—probably 1975 or something. He said, “How about going to Panama and fishing for sailfish?” I said, “Sure, I will go.” That was in January. We went down there and we had this guide with a 23-foot Seacraft, fishing out of Pinas Bay at Tropic Star Lodge. The fishing guide, the guy that was running the boat his name was Miguel Camarana. I don’t know why I remember that name. I remember odd names; I don’t remember John Smith. Anyhow, we were out there and he would take that boat and he would drive straight out from shore. We passed 300 feet of water and we would raise a fish. That would continue offshore, and when we came back in we passed 300 feet of water and we raised another fish. It never occurred to this guy, or me, or Tom to concentrate there.
Mill: At 300 feet.
Huff: So we raised two fish a day and it was boring as crap. I was trying to figure out how to fasten heavy shock to the tippet. Everyone was using an Albright knot. But with an Albright knot you could never get close up, you know. There was always a space of a half to three-quarters of an inch between the shock leader and the tippet which took away from maximizing your 12 inches of shock. We drew the knot up so you had double line.
Mill: A double line between the width of the Bimini…
Huff: …and the knot. And I was thinking there has to be a way to maximize the length of the shock to the actual material, the heavy material. I tried to tie a uni-knot, but then you still had a little space. So I just sat there and started messing around with monofilament until I came up with the Huffnagle. I did the same thing with Del Brown—he wanted a fly to swing, because when you strip the fly for permit you want it to dive. He was using some knot.
Mill: A uni-knot loop on the fly and the hook.
Huff: Right. And he could not come up with it so I got a bunch of monofilament and I made it up. Nobody even knows about this knot, but that is how I tie a permit fly on. It has 100 percent integrity and it is a non-closing loop knot for tippet material.
Mill: Is that the one where you go all the way through?
Mill: And then you wrap it around five or six times?
Huff: Five times—not six or four. And it’s funny because Jim Vincent, this Rio guy. I showed him that knot and he has all kinds of testing equipment and he took it back to Idaho to test it and was amazed: five turns are strong and four and six are not as strong.
Mill: So one more wrap it is not as strong?
Huff: It’s not as strong.
Mill: So you basically do an overhand five times?
Huff: It is like a surgeon’s knot, but instead of going through twice you go through five times. You are not going to use it if you’re changing flies all the time because it takes a lot of material, but in permit fishing you put one fly on and that’s it. That is what you are going to use.
Mill: Harry showed me that knot, but he never told me it was tied with five turns. The Huffnagel is still probably the foremost used knot, especially with light tippets.
Huff: If you are going to tie a light line to a heavy line it is the only way, really. It’s the only way that has a lot of integrity. You can tie a two-pound test to a 100-pound-test with that knot. There are not many knots you can do that with. It is not “a” knot, actually, it’s a combination of knots.
Mill: And you gave it the name?
Huff: No, I didn’t. I showed it to some fishing guide friends and this fishing guide by the name of Nat Ragland. Have you ever heard of Nat? A great guy. I showed it to him and he is the one who put the label on it: the Huffnagel. He has all kinds of little names for stuff. He has a language of his own called “Raglandese.”
Mill: How have you seen tackle and flies for tarpon change since the 1960s?
Huff: There was no graphite; all rods were fiberglass. I had actually been guiding a few years before a rod made for tarpon came along called the Great Equalizer. It was made by Scientific Anglers. Did you ever hear of that rod?
Mill: I have.
Huff: Oh, what a beast of a rod! But I will tell you what, you could not break it. It was a dynamite casting rod, a 12-weight. That became the premier tarpon rod in the early 1970s.
Mill: It was the heaviest in their so-called System Series of fly tackle.
Huff: I still have a couple of them in my garage right now—the Great Equalizer. I wouldn’t hesitate to go out and use them today. They are as big around as a push pole. But I’ll tell you what, they cast like a dream. They cast beautifully.
Mill: Is the tip a little soft right at the top?
Huff: A little soft. And when you were fighting a fish it would bend—it bends and bends and bends. You pull on a graphite rod with a heavy fish and graphite has an interesting property, because when you pull down on it there’s a point at which you cannot pass. You can feel everything kind of stops. Have you done that with a graphite rod? The Great Equalizer would just keep bending. But with graphite you know you are there, which I think is actually an asset of graphite. If you pull on it any more you are going to bust the rod. It’s like when you tighten a vice and you know it is locked up.
Mill: So the Great Equalizer was the rod for a while?
Huff: That was the rod for tarpon fishing, absolutely. Everybody had the Great Equalizer. And then the reels back then—generally the reels were great. Fin-Nor Wedding Cake or Seamaster were the top of the line. There were other reels out there. Shakespeare made a reel that had a decent drag, a cheap reel that would corrode and disappear. But Pflueger made a reel that had a pretty good drag in it, not a big capacity, but it held 150 yards or so of backing. The Seamaster was impossible to get because the guy who made it was a jerk. He would jerk you around and never sell you a reel, so you would go buy a Wedding Cake Fin-Nor, which was actually the first bar-stock fly reel. Did you know that?
Mill: I have a few of them.
Huff: That was the first one. Gar Wood, Jr. designed it, and he wasn’t even a fisherman. He was a racecar driver or something, a raceboat driver. Maybe somebody made one in his garage, but that was the first one commercially available. And today you can take that reel out there and catch anything that swims. I still do. I still have a couple that I use. Most people have them in collector’s cases.
Mill: What about lines?
Huff: I don’t know if you remember how they used to rank fly lines. There was a letter system. It was based on diameter—like GAF. So in a weight-forward line “G” was the running line, “A” was the thick head, and “F” was the tip of the line. There was no such thing as a 12-weight or 11-weight.
Mill: But you did not know what the line-weight was…
Huff: You did not have a clue what the weight was. A guy by the name of Myron Gregory in California developed a new system by cutting off the first 30 feet. He weighed it and said this is what this is, a 6-weight, 10-weight, or whatever.
Mill: What about hooks?
Huff: And hook technology has come a million miles, too, because we would have to sit there and sharpen every new hook. You would rub your fingers raw sharpening and triangulating points. Now they’re all lazer-sharpened or chemically-sharpened. Leader materials have not changed much. The flies were bigger and gaudier and tarpon didn’t care. It didn’t take as much finesse to get a bite. We would just chuck it out there and here they come. I mean, you could go on the ocean side and throw a giant orange fly. And singles would peel off and race over there and clobber it. Now it takes an act of God to get a bite from those fish, for Christ’s sake.
Mill: In the Hawley Tournament three years ago, we caught eight fish in Duck Key in that clear water one day. But with a 1/0 hook on 16-foot leaders.
Huff: With those little flies, it has to be right on the end of their nose so their instant reaction is, I’ve got to get this thing out the way. It has to be in their way. It has to be. It is kind of neat, but it’s hard.
Mill: I would imagine it helps you to have somebody on your bow who fishes 40 days a year.
Huff: Over here in the Everglades, if you find a tarpon in muddy water and you throw a fly 10 feet in front of it, the fish will take off after it like a missile launcher—boosh. It’s so different. You’re not going to see as many fish over here, but if you see them they are honest.
Mill: What is the biggest revolution in tackle?
Huff: Graphite rods for sure. Absolutely, graphite rods. The first ones were exploding left and right and had terrible problems. They couldn’t get the ferrules right. Fenwick was the first one I remember using, a Fenwick graphite rod, and then Lamiglas at one time was a big name. That was a huge name in salt water down here. I think there was a place in Miami that sold blanks and rods called J. Lee Cuddy. He was a big-time fisherman in salt water years ago. He had a component shop there and Lamiglas was a big name—actually that 186-pound tarpon was on a Lamiglas rod.
Mill: Gary Loomis was their rod designer.
Huff: Is that right? Well he made a great rod. It was interesting. You know how today the ferrules fit tip over butt? Well, this particular rod that I caught the big fish on was the opposite—the female ferrule was on the butt section and the tip was slid in from the top on those rods. I’ll bet you Tom Evans still has that old Lamiglas. Kennedy Fisher was around then; I don’t think that ever got to be real strong. Sage was actually a come-lately thing. The guy that designed the rods for Fenwick started Sage.
Mill: Don Green.
Huff: Super guy.
Mill: Do you use Sage rods?
Huff: Today? Yeah, pretty much. I work with Jerry Siem, the guy who designs them.
Mill: Have you fished that one-piece Loomis CrossCurrent, the 12-weight?
Huff: I have.
Mill: Do you like that rod?
Huff: Yeah, but you know the rod I like? My everyday rod for tarpon fishing is an old Sage III. It’s not even state-of-the-art and it casts like a dream. They keep trying to redesign these things and shave one-third of an ounce off a rod. I had this discussion with Jerry one time because what happens is it just adds to breakage. Who gives a damn? With tarpon if you have a great day you cast 15 times. What is the point of shaving a fraction of an ounce? You cannot even tell it in your hand. The real test is once you get the fish on. That’s when you need all the butt you have. But Jerry said that is how Sage market rods—light in weight. But I mean in tarpon fishing who cares?
Mill: That’s why I like the CrossCurrent. It’s really beefy at the butt so you can fight fish. But the tip is a little bit soft. On a real dark day when you have a fish suddenly show up like right here—if you have a rod that is a too stiff it takes too much effort to get 16 feet of leader out right across the bow. You want a nice, quick cast that is kind of soft and just go like that.
Mill: And you have that 16-foot leader rolled out perfectly.
Huff: The truth is that the bulk of the fish that are caught within 40 feet of the boat anyhow. Everybody has a euphoric picture of tarpon fishing in the Keys—calm and sunny, fish coming at you on white sand; it has to be white sand, right? Everybody has this picture. That happens like two days a year. The rest of the time you are fighting the wind and casting at your ankles. In fact, I call it a drop-kick cast—you throw it on the deck and kick it to them.
Mill: As a tarpon guide whose career spans four decades, some of your most exciting times must have been when you are getting ready to kill a tournament fish or a record fish. What’s the greatest thrill you have ever had in gaffing a big tarpon?
Huff: As you know, today they don’t kill tarpon in tournaments anymore. And I think that is a good thing. However, I am thrilled to death to say that I killed some. I mean, I love these fish and I have utmost respect for them. Killing them today would be ludicrous. But back then it was such a rush to reach out with a giant, freakin’ gaff and smash one of those things because they would go ballistic. You never knew what was going to happen. Absolutely the biggest rush I have ever had in my life is gaffing big tarpon.
Mill: Describe the rush.
Huff: You reach out to this huge living thing lying beside the boat and you have to really smash it and drive in that piece of half-inch stainless steel. It’s razor-sharp, smashing that into the back of the fish, and having him go crashing away and you are trying to stay in the boat. I got pulled overboard at least half a dozen times trying to gaff a tarpon. They snatched me out of the boat and I’d go flying. One time I was at Seven-Mile Bridge with Sandy Moret early in the morning and there was this spot where I knew real early the fish would kind of slow roll. We didn’t have any light, but we knew where they were going to be hanging. We were creeping around the edge of this bank and Sandy saw one roll. He drifted a fly down there, hooked up, the fish jumped. It was a weight fish—it had to be at least 70 pounds to kill it for the tournament—and this fish was obviously a big fish. The thing goes out 100 yards or so and jumps a few times and I’m getting the gaff out just to be ready when the time comes. And the fish runs straight at the boat and jumps. But the fish has been on only three minutes and it jumps three times coming back at the boat and lands upside down by the side of the boat. I am standing there with the gaff—what are you going to do, right? I just told Sandy I said, “Sandy, come get me!”
Mill: You knew you were…
Huff: Oh, I knew I was gone. I knew I was gone. I reached out and smashed this fish and was thrown overboard. It was 20 feet deep and we were flying along the bottom. I’m holding on to the end of the gaff handle and all I can see in front of me is this fish’s tail—kicking, kicking, kicking.
Mill: You are underwater and you’re being towed along.
Huff: Oh, I am right on the bottom, just hanging on. I was just hanging onto the gaff handle. Actually I have a lanyard and my wrist is in it. So I am tied to the handle. I’m eight feet from this thing and he’s going like hell. We are on the bottom and I am thinking, Okay, if we stay down here too long I am going to have get this thing off my hand because…
Mill: …I am going to die.
Huff: …I can drown. I remember I kept my head back because I didn’t want to lose my sunglasses, have them pulled off. I was keeping my head looking straight at the fish and into the force of the water as I was being pulled through the water to keep my eyeglasses on.
Mill: Now that is some quick thinking!
Huff: That is what happens to me in life, crazy things like that. I see the small stuff going on. And it’s weird isn’t it? Sometimes it’s like you are in the air falling and you think about strange stuff—I do anyhow. I think How I am going to land? or This is really stupid, how did I get in this position? It’s like slow motion. We are flying along and then he angles up towards the surface and again I remember thinking, This is going to be really cool—I am going to see a tarpon jump from underneath! I could see the fish break the surface. I did not know he came out of water towing me, but Sandy said he came out of the water about a third of the way and then he was foundering on the surface.
Pero: Ahab and the whale.
Huff: Sandy alertly cranks up the engine, races over and grabs me by the ankle. He has me by the ankle, I am stretched out hanging onto the gaff handle, and the fish is flopping around out there. He pulls me back in and I hold the gaff handle up to him. I get out of the lanyard, Sandy pulls in the fish and we boat a 112-pound tarpon.
Huff: There was a guy casting plugs in a boat off this bank. He yells over and says, “That was f**king spectacular!” He says, “I gotta see that again—can you do it one more time? You’re crazy.”
Mill: Your best story?
Huff: I gaffed a tarpon for Del Brown one time. It’s still the world record: 127 pounds on eight-pound-test. He fought that fish for three and a half hours. In my opinion he was not fighting him that hard, but the fish was still on. The thing had jumped 23 times and it had not frayed the leader or anything. It was ridiculous. It just wanted to stay on. And the fish was still green as hell after all that time.
Mill: Three and a half hours later.
Huff: Three and a half hours. We were idling at a high speed, and the fish is just off the starboard bow, swimming from its tail. Have you ever seen them swimming?
Mill: Oh yeah.
Huff: The fish is swimming and swimming. It’s about four feet deep and I don’t think he is going to reel this thing in. I said, “Del, I have to try a shot at this.” So I put the gaff down at the fish’s head, just let it fall. I do not know where it is, but I know it’s somewhere in the area of the fish. I said, “Del, the only thing I am going to ask you to do is hit the key,” because if he pulls me under the boat I am going to get chopped up by the propeller. That was the only thing that really worried me. So I said, “Just reach back and turn the key off if you see I actually hit the fish.” I pull back and I just fly out of the boat and I am planing across the surface on my chest. Well, the fish turns and goes right back, goes under the boat, goes back the other way and I’m planing when I finally turn around, and look at Del and the motor is still running and he’s 60 yards away, idling away. I said, “God dammit get over here—over here.” And he makes a big circle and he is reeling his line. Finally, I get my feet down on the bottom because it was only four feet deep and pulled the fish into me and grabbed the fish in the gills and got him by the mouth: 127 pounds. It was a miracle gaff shot. And you know the peduncle on the fish? I was right in front of the peduncle and right through the fish.
Mill: Right in the tail.
Huff: Right in the tail, yeah. So I was just lucky as hell. That was a lucky catch. There was not a mark on the leader. I mean, there was a little fray on the shock but not a mark on the tip of the tippet. After all those jumps and all that craziness the tippet was perfect.
Mill: I have had only one fish in my life gaffed and it was pretty cool.
Huff: It is. You know, when I talk to the guides, the young guides out on the Keys, many of the young guides like Craig Brewer have never gaffed a tarpon. He has had hundreds of tarpon into his boat and he says, “Gosh, I really want to do that.” It is taboo to talk about killing fish these days, but it’s a rush.
Mill: Did you ever get hurt?
Huff: One time in a Gold Cup with Sandy down at Loggerhead, a fish came half out of the water and took the fly. I gaffed that very same fish and it snatched me out of the boat. We are under the boat and the fish keeps banging around under the boat. Sandy saw the handle of the gaff come up. He grabbed it and pulled and it went through my arm…
Mill: Oh, my gosh!
Huff: It went through and came sticking out the other end, so now I’m on the gaff too. We are both on, the tarpon and I, we were double gaffed. I yanked my arm off the gaff and there was blood all over the place.
Mill: The barb did not go through you did it?
Huff: The barb was this far from entering flesh—like one-sixteenth of an inch. It stopped short of the barb. I got off the thing and was real macho. I just took a bandana and tied it around it and kept fishing. I went to a doctor when we got done and this lady took a syringe full of hydrogen peroxide and stuck it in one side of my arm. It didn’t have a needle on it, just the nipple, the plastic nipple, and she shot it and the hydrogen peroxide flew out the other side of my arm. I fainted. I passed out right there. I just went plomp. She shot it in this side and it came flying out the other side of my arm and I went, “Oh my God.” That was the only time it ever bothered me. That was wild, but it was worth it. I’m not sure I’d want to do it again. I might be too old for that crap any more. But you know what if we get a record tarpon by my boat.
Mill: You would smack it. How many chances do you have to get a real big fish like that?
Huff: Oh, I would kill the shit out of it—absolutely. I still carry a gaff. I carry a tarpon gaff and a tag. I’m not going to be one of these stories like, “Oh, we had a 200-pounder, but we weren’t ready.” That’s not going to happen to me.
Mill: How would you like to be known—when it is all said and done how would you like to be remembered?
Huff: I don’t need to be known.
Mill: Then how would you describe Steve Huff?
Huff: A guy who works hard trying to catch fish, trying to figure it out. That’s all. I just want to be left alone to go out and fish everyday. If I’m booked three weeks straight and I have two days off there is some new place I have to look at. There is some place in my mind. Right now I have three or so spots where I just know there are fish, but need more inspection. After 40 years you would think I’d have gotten my fill of it, but I haven’t. I just love it. I love being out there. I don’t care about being remembered. You know what? Nobody is remembered. I have two sons and they will remember me, but not many others. Who cares? We are just passing through here anyhow. I’m not looking for a legacy, I don’t ever think about any of that stuff. I just get up in the morning and go fishing.
Mill: So your epitaph could possibly be Steve Huff, great fisherman.
Huff: No. Steve Huff, the guide.
Mill: A hardworking guide.
Excerpted from A Passion for Tarpon, Wild River Press, 2010.