The March Merkin ended three days ago, and while I haven’t yet completed the report from the Everglades I’m making an effort to write things down while they’re fresh in my head so this one will have to come first.

The forecast was scheduled to be a complete shutdown, a wicked cold front rolling in the morning of the first day. Water temperatures were still on the low end after the blow that we had experienced in the Everglades, and with the addition of more wind and a plummeting thermometer going in to the event we were sure of one thing and one thing only: this was going to be a grind.

Day One (prefish day)

With the weather report still calling for the End of Times on day two, we made an effort to find something we could exploit on the first day. We bumped around in the morning where John thought we’d likely start, and had two good quality shots before we left in order to rest the fish for the following day. John made a run to elsewhere, and we settled in to a scouting pace. We fished from spot to spot, never making a commitment to a plan for any length of time. By the early afternoon we had found nothing. We were convinced that the only thing we had to rely on was the group of fish we’d found to start, and returned there to see if we could catch one to grease the groove for the following day. John got us another three shots, and while they were good enough to make something happen with I was unable to get tight. We finished fishing and headed in to the captain’s meeting, where most people seemed to share our corrosive feelings about the day. I went home and got some rest before the first day, preparing for the onslaught.

Day Two (first tournament day)

John brought us right to where we had the fish the day prior, settling us under the burgeoning clouds. We divided up the work between us: John would scan far for tails and surface shake, and I would look near in case I could get a look at a fish in the water. The weather was changing, but we did have windows of sun and used them to stay ready for permit lightning if it struck us. In the first 10 minutes a small permit spooked off the boat, determining us in the early glare. I pointed the fish out to John, and while we were sad for missing the shot we were hopeful that this fish might represent some basis for our optimism. We pushed the long bank for an hour, and when we finished it we went back and did it again. The fish from the day before had vacated, and as the wind built and the clouds grew we kept it light and had fun. John took us to an inside spot, where we stuck with it for an hour before leaving. We saw a mud that we felt was likely from a permit, though never verified the source. It was now late morning, and John again made a move–this time, to places relatively far from home. We replayed our program from the day prior: a look here, a push there, repeating each fishless facet of the scouting mission. We kept at it until the early afternoon, when John attempted to run back to where we’d found our three shots the day before. The wind had completely blown out our destination, and considering that we were now running out of time John brought us to a spot that was nearby and had relatively clean water. We fished the last hour and a half as hard as we could without a shot, though a small group of waking yellow jacks caused me to get out and wade after them, ensuring that I was wet as well as cold on the way in. We checked in and I headed home, finding out later through the telephone tree that no one had caught a fish. I spent some time texting with John that evening, and while we agreed that the fishing was going to be near impossible we were buoyed by the fact that it was still an open field. In the years that I’ve fished this tournament one fish won it more than once, and it’s never been blanked–crazy statistics, but we figured the only thing to do was keep it 100 and have fun.

Day Three (second tournament day)

The weather looked not worth looking at, though with the open field and our  recently shifted baseline we felt like things might actually be possible as we saw some sunlight crack through the grey cotton before the start. John took us to a place he thought might have some warm water, and we bumped around for an hour or so before he grew restless. He mentioned a plan to make a long run to [redacted], and I had nothing to say other than “Well let’s do the [censored] thing” and suit up. John brought us to a place far far away, and after a rough ride we arrived at a bank and began the work. We saw some life on the flat, though not what we were looking for. We fished an hour, moved on. Another hour brought another move, and in the early afternoon John dug his heels in where he thought there might be some warm water and slowly picked it apart. We kept things easy and had fun–if John and I have learned to do one thing in our time fishing together it’s how to have fun and take what the weather gives you with a smile and a turned cheek. At about 2:00, John said “OK. I’ve got a fish and it’s a permit” to which I replied something I’ve since forgotten and we went to work.

The fish tacked upwind from us, tailing occasionally and moving slowly. John did what he could to keep the boat in range but not too close, every so often blowing back away from the fish when I made a cast that couldn’t get there or wasn’t eaten. In all, I’d say we made at least a dozen casts to the fish. Many of them felt as though they could work, but none did until the fish turned broadside to us and we got the little feathered crab just so in front of the business end. The fish turned and kicked on the fly, and I was tight immediately. The fish ran at the boat at high speed, and I went briefly slack before coming tight again when the fish passed by the stern. I hopped down and cleared the line from the cooler handle just before the fish hit the reel, and John started the motor to give chase to what was unquestionably a very valuable fish. I don’t remember much about the fight other than the feeling of incredibly high stakes, and when the fish tired I asked John to please end it. The net went in and the fish swam into it without incident, and while I was excited John told me to hang on. I paused, wondering if some terrible thing had taken place behind the scenes. He lifted the fish into the boat and said “OK. Now it’s caught.” I let out a scream, and we took a moment to collect ourselves. We grabbed the board, moved the cooler, and kept the fish in the cockpit the whole time. After we took more photos than we needed and tagged the fish I held it for a glamour shot to mark the striking of lightning:

The 2017 March Merkin brought some truly awful weather. John O'Hearn found us one shot in the three days, and good things happened. Photo/(very amazing) guiding Captain John O'Hearn

When we measured the fish we knew it was large, which was a huge bonus for us. A small fish could be pushed out of first place by one slightly larger, but that this fish was big meant that in order to knock us down someone would likely have to catch two. That said, the doubt now started to creep in. Even though the fishing was tough, there were more than enough people in this tournament that were worth worrying about, and suddenly I was thinking that someone else was probably having great fishing. John and I kept at it at the spot for another hour before making our way in the direction of home, fishing a few places on the way back. We never saw another fish, let alone another shot, and at 5 PM we stopped fishing and headed home. John briefly caused a stir when the tide pulled us over a skinny bit of ground and stopped us, and he had to get out to push the boat back to deeper water. Floating thereafter, we texted the pictures to our other phone in case something happened and raced back to check in. There we found that we were the only boat to catch a fish, and started to make a plan for the following day. Our plan was simple: return to where we’d had our only shot and pick it apart, piece by piece in hopes of getting struck again.

Day Four (final tournament day)

Having a lead in a tournament should feel great, but I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that we simply have more to lose when we’re out in front. The final day of the tournament brought colder temperatures but no clouds, and we were looking forward to looking in some sunlight. John ran us summarily out to [redacted] and we started the grind.

We found nothing at the first spot, and nothing at the second. At our third spot we found nothing, and then John decided to run to where we had gotten lucky the day before. Guess what we found? If you guessed another shot at a willing fish, you’d be wrong. We found nothing. Not the first time we poled the bank, and not the second. We saw some barracuda, which kept us on our toes. We saw some sharks, and at 3:00 John decided to make a move and we headed closer to home. We fished two flats before lines out, and in one of these we saw a few bonefish that we thought might be permit before we figured out what they were. It’s hard to effectively condense such a long and fishless day of fishing into this report, especially since it’s not something I want to revisit. The fishing was tough, we had fun, and when the clock was counting down I made a cast at the fishiest piece of bottom I could see just to make sure it wasn’t a permit. When John called time I reeled in and we headed back for check in, sitting through the worst part of tournament fishing: waiting for everyone else to check in when you have a lead.

I sat outside with Matt Fitzgerald and we shared stories of check in stress, and when the clock hit 6 it was done. John put out a serious effort, and we had things come together in a way that was incredibly lucky and awesome feeling. On a personal note, I want to say this: winning a tournament is always great, and there was also a ton of luck involved. I’ve fished this tournament in the past more than once when a single fish won the thing, and I’m happy to be a part of a great story that I’ll look back on fondly for the rest of my life. I’m also aware that everyone else in the tournament put out a great effort in the face of some awful conditions, and that effort is something I hold in the highest regard. It was great, we got lucky, and I can’t wait for next year.

I’m switching gears to tarpon at this point, and have a number of days booked with John and Ian before the Goldenfly in May. I’ve got two weeks without anything scheduled, but as usual I’ll find a way to get out there.

More to come (including the report from the six assault with Steve and Chad that happened two days before the March Merkin started).

nathaniel