MIAMI -- If you spend more than an hour sight-fishing the flats with captain Pier Milito, you soon will realize why one of his clients nicknamed him "Bald Eagle."
Besides his shiny head, this 44-year-old Miami native is known for spotting bonefish, tarpon, and permit hundreds of yards away -- long before the fish feel the pressure wave of an approaching skiff with their lateral lines, or see the angler's fly rod glinting in the sun.
Unaware of Milito's visual acuity, I was surprised when we approached a narrow mangrove creek in south Biscayne Bay in low morning light and he directed me to cast my 9-weight toward the shoreline.
"There are five tarpon in there," Milito said.
I looked once again, and finally made out the outlines of five gray blobs lurking on the shoreline. I cast Milito's "enhanced" glass minnow fly -- a small olive-and-white pattern with painted eyes and red thread -- to the lead fish, which gobbled it like it was the last prey on earth. It wasn't a large fish -- maybe 10 or 12 pounds -- but it fought like a giant, leaping repeatedly to try to throw the hook and dashing for the tangled mangrove roots.
"First cast of the day. Not bad," Milito said.
When I finally brought the tarpon alongside the skiff 10 minutes later, the catch felt every bit as rewarding as the 100-plus pounder I got in the lower Keys last year. And the earliness of the day also raised my hopes for a grand slam. Wouldn't that be something -- a tarpon, bonefish and maybe even the vaunted permit -- all on fly rod in a single day?
Milito pointed the boat toward some flats on the edge of a channel on the ocean side of the barrier islands where permit are known to feed. But in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Nicole, water temperatures had dropped five degrees in just a couple of days, and we never saw the first scythe-like black tail.
"Today would be a great day to throw crabs at some wrecks," Milito said. "They go offshore to find more stable water (temperatures)."
Of course, neither of us wanted to go bait-fishing; we were committed to the flats with a fly rod, so we began looking for bonefish in the shallows on the early incoming tide.
As Milito poled quietly along the east side of Elliott Key, the waters began to warm. Between midmorning and noon, the water temperature rose from 76 to 82 degrees -- ideal for bonefish to cruise the flats looking for worms and crustaceans to eat. For this planned encounter, I was armed with a 9-weight and a furry, orange-pink-and-white shrimp pattern.
For what seemed like a long time, we didn't see a single fish, but then I looked to my left and saw four or five small, dark torpedo shapes moving languidly at a distance of about 40 feet.
To my astonishment, Milito said, "There are 70 fish in that school."
I made a cast toward one of the little bomblets, then watched the fly line come tight as one of them ate it and dashed away. But the fish's escape run was much jerkier and short-range than you would expect from the average bonefish -- even a small one -- and lacked that telltale initial 100-yard dash.
When I stripped it in close to the boat, the fish turned out to be a blue runner.
Milito had seen the whole thing.
"There was a blue runner on the right flank," he said. "There were bonefish trying to follow your fly -- three or four of them. Right when they were coming, the blue runner swooped in and took it."
We continued along, hoping for more bonefish. Milito spotted two that I never saw, but they spooked before I could get off a Hail Mary cast. In midafternoon, we relocated to a shallow, protected bay where, almost immediately, Milito and I came upon two large, cruising bonefish. As he edged the skiff around to meet them, they stopped and mudded. Clearly, they were very happy, feeding fish.
But the casting accuracy I had displayed that morning deserted me, and I could never get the fly to the fish. What a shame, because each looked to be 8 pounds-plus.
"Scale fever," Milito noted, and he wasn't referring to the device that registers your weight.
Too bad there's no cure. But Milito's sharp eyes and fish intuition go a long way toward treating that particular disorder.