It’s been a long week, and there is much to report. The March Merkin tournament ended two days ago, and our fishing was challenging but rewarding. In the end, we won the event–something I am incredibly happy about and have many people to thank for–primarily, John O’Hearn.

Before the tournament started, I fished for a day with Pat Bracher. I’ll start there and work through to the end of the tournament in this post.

 

Day One (first prefish day):

Pat Bracher and I had spoken some time ago about getting out together for a day of fishing, and when he told me he had an opening the day before I was to start prefishing with John for the Merkin I took the opportunity in hopes of greasing the groove before the tournament. We started in the late morning, and Pat brought us to a faraway bank that he hoped might show us a tail or two. After 10 minutes poling the flat, Pat pointed out a tailing fish in the early light. It was hard to see in the glare except when it tailed, and though I could see a quiet shadow I didn’t have a clear read on the fish and what it was doing. I threw the fly twice: the first time was behind the fish as it traveled down the bank, and the second cast was in front of it. I didn’t have an opportunity to throw it a third time, since the moment our fly hit the water on the second cast I was tight to a fish. We thought the fish to be larger than it was based on the depth of water (and visible tail), and our belief was that this must have been a second unseen fish along with the one we saw initially. Still and yet, it was a great start to a day to put one on the deck early. Pat photographed the fish before we let it go:

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After that we continued on our way, interrupted by a few opportunities along the way. Our next shot was at a group of fish, and while I put the fly in front of the group as they ambled down the bank it was never quite right enough to elicit the kind of interest we needed. The fish slowed when the fly landed, came toward the boat, and blew out when our still long shadows came near. We had another shot at a pair of giant permit that we first thought might be sharks, and again the fly landed imperfectly and the fish scooted away from us.

We moved to another spot, there finding slow but steady fishing. We talked fishing, mostly for barracuda–a thing we both have a soft spot for. We had a shot at a pair of permit when we first arrived, and then had a shot again in about 20 minutes. We plucked through our shots–some of the fish were tolerant and appeared catchable, and others less so. Finally, after a second hard look without a bite, we switched flies to one that we thought might work better. The first cast with this new fly landed in front of a fish and was slowly approached, looked at, and eaten by the large fish that came immediately at the boat. In an effort to take up the slack created by an imperfect presentation as well as a gap-closing target, I slid the rod tip to the side and felt weight. In so doing I ensured this wouldn’t last long, as the fish continued on its path toward us and jettisoned the insufficiently set hook. We were saddened by the loss but glad nonetheless for the second bite.

We continued on throughout the day, attempting to create a second photo-op with our target species. We had no such luck, though late in the day we found a school of large bonefish to round out our day with a nice 5-6 pounder. In an effort to keep the population under as little stress as possible, we released the fish in the water without a photograph. The bonefish stocks seem to be rebounding, and the last thing we wanted to do was interrupt even the possibility of this fish self-replicating.

With that our day was done, and we headed home. I’d like to thank Pat Bracher for a truly great time on the water, and I am looking forward to doing some barracuda fishing with him in the years to come.

 

Day Two (second prefish day)

With the first day of the tournament starting the next day, John already had an idea of where we would begin and spend our mornings. As such, this day was given to finding some new and current value we might capitalize on in the tournament proper. As is always the case when fishing a practice day (for permit especially) we wanted to find, though not necessarily capture) as many fish as we could so that we might have options for the scoring days.

We looked and looked, finding a few shots at each place before we left and looked elsewhere. In each spot we discovered there were a few fish, though we never stayed long enough to find out exactly how many there were. I had a shot or two here and a shot or two there, and late in the afternoon we found a school of small fish tailing. I hopped out of the boat and approached them on foot, getting a decent angle after a few minutes of pedestrian positioning. I watched as a single fish in the school turned and positioned itself behind the fly, shuddering as it took part. Since I had never caught a fish “full wade”, I stayed in the water and grabbed the little guy for a true out-of-the-boat experience. John snapped some pictures:

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We finished our day after that, content that we had a small seam of possibility to exploit in the later parts of the upcoming tournament days.
Day Three (first tournament day)

Energized by the one-a-day pace we’d set over the last two days, and with the current inclusion of John’s morning plan that we avoided yesterday, we were in great spirits going in to day one. After a small run, we arrived at John’s destination and began our looking. In the calm, he hoped to find similar looking school of tailing fish to the one he’d discovered the week prior. As it was, we had two opportunities for two separate tailing events. Each was a single fish, each was walked to, and each never gave us a shot. When the water became to high to find the tails any more we pushed onward to the place where yesterday we had a few shots at large single fish. There we found only two fish, and in neither case were we able to get a shot off before the fish made us. We moved again and again found few if any interested parties. At this point it was early afternoon, and the doubt was beginning to creep in. We had a few shots at fish that seemed totally devoid of interest, though we stuck with them for two hours in a fruitless attempt to convert. With our fishing from yesterday afternoon now our only leg to stand on, we hobbled over to the place we had found the tails and began scanning for some disturbance.

I had a great shot at a school of fish that never found the fly before they moved into a deep pocket, and I remained in the water to await their reappearance. Instead of the school, the next permit I saw was a large single fish, tailing happily away a mere 20 feet in front of me. I tossed the fly as cautiously as I could, and it landed a little outside of the fish. Not wanting to spook the fast-approaching fish I left the imperfection in play, and the large permit looked hard but couldn’t find the fly that was now buried in the turtle grass. I watched as the fish looked and looked as I stripped the fly through the grass, and when the fish blew out as it came too close I was dismayed. With 14 minutes left to fish, John and I discussed our options. Should we run elsewhere and finish out the clock in new water, or stay and look into what we both believed may now be an expired opportunity? We chose the latter, and as we poled over what we had already fished we felt the pain only a fishless tournament day can cause. The doubt was no longer creeping in; it was making itself a sandwich in the kitchen.

After a silent 5 minutes, John spotted a school of small fish rumbling across a shallow bank. I hopped out of the boat, and put a cast behind the school. I re-presented the cast to their left, and they dodged right and continued to tail. My final cast landed in the middle of the school, and all of the members turned to inspect this new crabby arrival in their midst. I stripped the fly once, and saw the back of the fish that ate it slide through the shallow as I set the hook. The fish wasn’t big enough to clear the line right away, which led me to an odd walking-away from a hooked permit in order to get the fish on the reel. After this I pulled on the small fish, knowing full well that if we lost it the doubt would undoubtedly take over. John started the motor and I hopped in, and in a few minutes he had the little fish in the net. At 17.25 inches at check-in it was no doubt one of the smallest permit I’ve ever caught, but a fish on the board in the final minutes of the tournament is sometimes all you need to keep your head in the game. Here’s a picture of the fish:

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Also at check in, we discovered we were only near where we wanted to be: John Holt and Captain Trevor Luce had a (very) strong showing with a 31 inch giant, and Mark Richens and Captain Joe Rodriguez had a 23 inch fish on the board as well. With a smaller 14 inch fish also scored from Ned Kaplan and Captain Mike Gorton, our standing going into day two was third place, by a decent gap.

Day Four (second tournament day)

The second day of the tournament brought lighter winds and no better fishing for us to start. We stuck with our previous plans, and by 11 AM had a single low-quality shot to show for our efforts. Our discussions tacked toward where our success had happened the day before, and John and I arrived nearby at noon to pick it apart. After an hour we had seen nothing, and John repositioned us on another nearby edge to take a hard look. It was now nearly 1 PM, and we had no fish in the bank. The water was slicking off fully now.

Soon, we spotted a single fish on the bank and I hopped out of the boat to give it a toss in his direction. This didn’t work out, but the permit gave the fly a hard look and a much needed boost to our confidence. We maintained hope that we might get one of these fish to play in the calm.

John soon spotted a pair of fish on the bank, and I left the boat to give chase on foot. John shadowed me as I walked after them, calling out the location of the fish when I lost them in the glare. After what felt like 20 minutes, one of the fish turned toward us and I made a cast that landed about 15 feet away from the fish in an effort not to spook it with a close drop. John called out the correction (“the fish I’m seeing is 15 feet right of where you just…”) followed by a “never mind” as the fish turned at the sound, rushed over, and ate the fly on the run. I cleared the line and hopped back in the boat, and we gave chase under power. The fish was larger than we thought, and with its added mass gave us a decent tussle in the added pressure of tournament context. We finally landed the fish, tagged it, and measured it before releasing it. It measured 24 inches, and here’s what it looked like:

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After this we were ready, confident, and prepared for another. A second pair of fish on the bank caused a similar situation to the first: I left the boat, tracked them for a while, and when they gave me an angle I put the fly far away so that they might not be spooked off by a high-velocity imitation crab. The fish crossed where the fly landed, one of them weaved toward it, and as they continued on their way I was tight. I nearly lost the fish to a tangle in my line, barely untangling it before the fish kicked on the afterburners and raced into the deep water. John copied Aaron’s high-five photo from the Del Brown after we measured and tagged the fish, a 23.25 inch fish that gave us great satisfaction:

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After this our fishing slowed, and John repositioned the operation to a nearby bank that he hoped might hold another tailer. As soon as we got there we had a school of tailing fish that I walked after, though they didn’t seem interested and slid off the bank into the nearby safety of the deep. I stayed in the water, and in a small sliver of clear visibility saw what at first I didn’t recognize: a little permit, all alone where there should be (and just was) a school. I threw the fly twice: the first time the cast landed a little close and the fish ducked away from it, but the second time the fly landed out in front of the little fish and I watched the back fall in line with my leader and shake as it tailed on the fly. I cleared the line, hopped in, and in a few short minutes John netted our third fish for the day: an 18 inch fish that we would need every inch of:

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We had one more shot in the lowering light before lines out, and headed back to the dock. We discovered there that John Holt and Trevor Luce had caught another two, and one was another giant. Their fish measured 29 and 21 inches, each with change, and even though we had caught four our fish were smaller, giving us the lead by only 5 points.

Day Five (final tournament day)

The last day of the tournament we were confident, relaxed, and focused. Still and yet, we knew that if we were to catch nothing all it would take to lose this tournament for a second time would be John and Trevor catching a single fish.

Our first shot was another wading shot at a tailing pair, and I came tight on the second strip. The hook never found a home and we watched the fish skitter off the bank in the morning calm, unhinged and unattached to us. I had another shot at a tailer, and this fish looked hard at the fly but never committed before taking off.

We had another few shots in what was now an opaque varnish of slick calm, and in the afternoon had nothing to show for our efforts. The wind picked up and John made a run to some new ground, where we immediately found great fishing. I had two fish get behind the fly, appear to eat it, and never felt a thing. The doubt was crushing. In the final hours, we had a shot at a small group of permit, one of which was all up behind the fly but couldn’t find it in the grass. Another shot was at a true giant, floating over a white spot. I threw the cast in front of the fish, letting it drift down current to the beast. The fish never moved until it darted away, taking a few feet of line from my hand but leaving me with a painful slack. We never knew if the fish ate the fly or if the leader got caught on its fin: at this point, we were in the fullest extent of an inexorable pain. I had another two shots at fish that also appeared to eat the fly but left us with nothing. We returned to the dock, fully aware that we may have lost the thing.

There, we discovered that Trevor and John had also caught nothing. I took a few minutes to talk to Trevor and congratulate him on a great showing, and went upstairs to hand in our zero scorecard.

I sat outside and waited for the final boat to check in, and it was Scott Collins (of slightly less recent but far deeper Merkin victory) that told me we had won. After a close call last year that cost us the win, we were able to squeak out a victory on the 10th anniversary of this tournament:

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I would of course like to give a heartfelt hats off to Captain Trevor Luce and John Holt, who won first runner-up as well as largest fish. They deserve a serious handshake for a great effort. Bear Holeman and Jeff Ferguson, who caught a large fish to take second runner-up.

On a personal note, thanks are due primarily to John O’Hearn. Not only did he put us in great positions, but he likely kept me from a stress-induced breakdown on the final day. I can’t say how great it felt after our close second last year to take home the grand champion trophies. Thanks are also (and always) due to Dave Dalu, who continues to talk me through my tournament efforts and give me much needed advice along the way.

Next Thursday and Friday with Doug Kilpatrick, and Jason Schratwieser is coming down to fish with us.

 

More to come,

 

nathaniel