It’s Saturday now, and I’ve had a week to recover after fishing a tough March Merkin. Fishing in any tournament is always a grind, though with the March Merkin it seems to always be a click above the norm. The tension of the tournament machine starting up is aggravated by the arrival of guides from out of town, finicky fish and the ever-present cold front that seems to drape itself over any scheduled competition. This year we enjoyed a beautiful stretch of weather that parked itself on the Keys for nearly a month leading up to the tournament, and things felt easier than they should have before the tournament torches were lit.
Day One (prefish day)
John and I made our way out for a single day as usual before the tournament started, and our intention was to keep it light and have fun. In my fantasies a prefish day is a chance to grease the groove before the scoring starts, sharpen edges in preparation. The reality instead is that I always feel like I don’t catch enough to feel ready or too many to feel like things could possibly last. We fished until we caught one in the early afternoon, on a few shots, and after John snapped a few pictures we switched things up:
As we looked for fish I poled, hoping that John might get a chance to throw at one himself. He didn’t have any great opportunities until the middle of the afternoon when we came across a school of small ones he’d been finding recently. His cast in to the middle of the school was rewarded with a bite from a micro-sized permit, though his hook set (and, admittedly, my boat positioning) caused things to come unbuttoned. The small group of fish remained nearby, and while we together desired to throw to them again we instead poled away, leaving them intact for the following day. We kept moving into the late afternoon, and at our last stop John insisted on poling himself. Never one to turn down bow time I got the rod ready and stood at attention. We didn’t see any fish at the first flat we fished, though after John relocated us nearby he spotted a school of fish close by and called out the shot. I got one off at the fish barely in time, and by the time they spooked in to the channel from which they’d come in I was tight to one. This fish was clearly large, and John and I got some practice fighting it in deeper water full of crab trap. We finally landed the fish, our second for the day, and called ourselves ready for the next three days:
Day Two (first tournament day)
The weather was scheduled to hold out for the first day of fishing, and it was apparent that what whatever damage we intended to do had better be done in the first day. We started at a place that was familiar to us both but that we hadn’t fished the day prior, got ready and waited to make the most of any opportunity we were lucky enough to be exposed to.
I spotted a pair of tails first and got out to walk in their direction; John held the boat and waited for things to go down. The pair of fish was tacking away from me, and I tried to get outside of them to cut one of them off if it turned in to the current. The pair split as I got nearby, and one fish took towards the trap I’d set. I remember thinking how perfect things were when the cast landed, and when the fish ducked my cast and spooked towards me I felt the particular pain of an opportunity lost when it mattered most. I hopped back in to the boat and we moved on, and when a small crease in the water came back towards us I threw it its direction. We agreed that this was likely the second of the pair leaving the flat, and while the cast landed in a decent location the fish appeared to be already half spooked and continued on its way toward the nearby channel. We fished for another half hour without seeing anything but a school of permit in deeper water that we couldn’t get to, and near 8:30 saw a shake out deeper and I got out to give it a shot on foot. What first had looked great turned out not to be anything to get excited about, and after five minutes of suspending my disbelief John and I discussed the fact that we’d acted too soon (and on too little information) and I headed back to the boat. As I did I noticed a small dimple in the water heading between John and me, and I staked out an intercept point as I told John to hold tight. He smartly shoved the boat away from the future action to keep the hull slap to a minimum, and I got the line in the air to minimize the air show as the crease approached. I got the fly out in front and slightly up current of the disturbance, stripping slowly until things lined up and the fold seemed to take notice of the nearby fake crab. The bulge leaned left then turned towards the fly, speeding up and becoming more defined before dropping down and nearly disappearing. From the shaky surface knifed a dark tail, and on the next strip we were tight to the fish soundly. When the line was on the reel the fish took for deeper water and I hopped in the skiff, which John had already started up to give chase. We stayed close, overindulging the pressure not to lose this fish. At one point John mentioned he’d lost one nearby to a coral head, and I remember a brief but powerful conviction that this fish was a large jack crevalle, though both of these insecurities I’ve learned are normal when things are as tense as they are on the first morning of a permit tournament when we have a big one on. We fought the fish for longer than normal, due only to the fact that it was huge, and after 20 minutes the fish floated up and John slipped the net under it. Once in the boat we measured it and tagged it for the points, then let it go and enjoyed the chemical satisfaction of catching a fish big enough that we were nearly sure anyone else would have to catch two to beat it. Here’s the photo:
After that we moved on, liberated and willing to check out some places John hadn’t fished in a while. We did, not finding anything, and kept on. By the early afternoon we found a good population of fish, though at this point the wind had subsided and the clouds had moved in. So too had the tide, and we were left with the stuff permit fishing nightmares are made of: water too high for the fish to tail in, a varnish of glare we couldn’t see past, the fish happily nearby but safe from our efforts. Every so often a tail tip would stick up nearby just to remind us that what we were after was just barely out of reach.
We finished the day in search of the school that John had missed one from the day prior, and actually found them, which we both thought odd considering how seldom things we try to save for the tournament tend to stick around. I got a fly in to the midst of the thin backs and stripped as they approached, unbelievably never coming tight to something I thought was a sure thing, and when the lines out alarm sounded on the phone I sat down and reeled up.
At the dock we found that we were in first place, having caught the largest (31.75 inches) of the three fish that were scored that day. Simon Becker and Clint Packo put up a 26.75, and Justin Rea and Christian Rohde sat in third with a 15.5. We had a comfortable lead, but if I’ve learned anything over the years it’s that any lead is only comfortable after check in is complete on the final day of a tournament.
Day Three (second tournament day)
The front had moved through the night before, and it was now reminiscent of years past. This tournament does seem to be cursed with bad weather, though this year the water had been so warm leading up to the front that it was clear there would be at least a shot or two to be found in the water that would cool but still be warm enough for a permit to make a mistake within.
John and I didn’t find much in the morning, though in the afternoon the strangest thing happened: we found a lot of fish. In all we had nearly 20 shots, which I wouldn’t have believed possible as we left in the morning, but the fish were hanging in deeper water and not actively feeding. Despite the fact that every cast seemed to put the heavy breeze over my casting shoulder we were able to get the fly in front of most every fish we saw, and we had four fish track the fly hard. We never hooked one, sadly, and the effect of casting a long leader with a heavy fly with a right-hand cross wind was effective only at planting the seeds of frustration within me. We finished the day surrounded by fish, never able to coax one to a mistake, and headed back to the dock with the sinking feeling that our lead could not have possibly been gripped tightly enough by the fishing we were unable to produce a bite from.
At the dock we found that we were far from alone in our treatment by the fish, and only one boat had made something from the tough fishing. Kris Suplee and Scott Harkins put up the only fish of the day, a 29-incher that put them in perilously close reach of our 31.75 inch fish from day one.
Day Four (final tournament day)
The weather had improved, if slightly, and while there was a bit less wind the sun was uninterrupted by clouds. The water was going to be cooler today than the day before, which wasn’t a good thing, but it was still above the permit minimum and if there was a fish nearby the bright sunlight assured us we would see it. With as many wolves at the door as there were on the scoreboard, John and I felt that we would have to catch another fish on this day if we were going to maintain our lead.
Our morning was spent looking, trying to stay ready before things got warmer in the afternoon. I did as much as I could to stay coiled but not tense though throughout the morning I had a clear sensation that things were going to get greater later, if they were ever going to at all. A dance partner never showed up and we kept hunting, ready as we could be without anything to remind us what we were looking for.
After returning to a place near where John had found the fish the day before we redoubled our efforts, searching for a shot that we were starting to think might not ever materialize. Even the barracudas and sharks were in short supply, and after an hour of searching John said he was going to push a piece of bottom he’d not pushed the day prior before we left. As soon as we verbalized the fact that things seemed dead on the flat John spotted a fish behind the boat. John pointed it out to me and I took a cast upcurrent of the fish, hoping to counter any move it might make. As it turned out the fish noticed the fly late, and I knew John was doing everything he could to hold the boat in position for my longer than usual feeding to get finished. The permit lined up the fly and ate it at the end of the strip, forcing me to reload my hands before I could snug the hook in tight. The fish stayed put for a while before swimming slowly away from the boat, and as I cleared the line I watched in horror as the fish swam in a 10-foot circle back towards the boat before parking again in the current and shaking its head. The line wasn’t yet on the reel, and John tried to back away from the fish to help things along; this caused the fish to sprint away. It was as if this fish could sense its opportunity to throw us off balance. Once the fish was on the reel it swam on its side, flounder-like, into the nearby channel full of crab traps that lay in tippet hungry wait in the current and wind.
What followed is, honestly, one of the strangest fights I’ve ever had with a permit. At times it was skipping under the surface as it ran, on its side and only inches below the chop of the wind in the deep water. Often it would start in one direction before swinging around and parking under the boat, forcing John to drive away from it to keep the boat from bearing down in the breeze. Twice it swam in tight circles, half of which were directed at us, and every crab trap we neared was sprinted towards by our very unhappy but incredibly valuable finned friend. For nearly a minute the fish swam just below the bow in circles, completely inverted, its pale belly reminding me that things were nothing if not completely upside down.
I know I told John multiple times “It’s ok. We’ll get him. Just run the plays. We’ve done this before.”
I am even more sure that in my head I never doubted, for a second, that we were going to lose this fish.
When the moment finally came for John to net the animal the mesh of the net wrapped around the hoop, forming a unintended flaccid spatula that the fish fish sat perilously atop until it finally was over and the fish was in the boat. I always doubt success when I’m fighting permit in a tournament; in this case, I was truly surprised that things had worked out. We measured the fish and took pictures, still in shaky disbelief, and went back numbly to our fishing to try to make it happen again:
For the rest of the day we had two shots. The first was at a large tailing fish that spooked before we could get a good cast in its direction.The second was minutes before lines out at a fish that, had I been able to thread the cast between the teeth of the breeze, would almost surely have eaten. I wished when it was over that I had the shot to do over again (to be honest, I still very much do), but as it was the fish never saw the fly until it was too close to give a mistake any serious consideration. John spotted another tail and headed over to take a look and we scanned where he’d seen the spike with minutes to go, hoping to get a shot before the alarm sounded. The clock ran out before we could find the fish, and I sat down to wind up with my back to where we’d been scanning obsessively. We took a minute and collected our things, sent an insurance picture to Dave Dalu in case we lost a phone, and headed to check in.
At the dock we found out that we were safe from both Simon Becker and Kris Suplee as soon as we arrived, luckily tying up at the same time they did and finding that neither had doubled up on the last day. I went upstairs to score our fish, then soon left to deal with the pressure of check in on my own. In 2014 I experienced a formative experience as a tournament angler when John and I were beaten in the last day by Scott Collins and Greg Smith at the buzzer: they had caught an unimaginable three fish on the last day in a fishless field, nudging John and I out of the Grand Champion position. This has gone down in history as one of the most amazing comebacks in March Merkin history, and in me it has left a permanent doubt of the outcome until after the check-in is complete.
I took some time to myself downstairs and heard via text message at 5:01 that the tournament was over. We were the only team to catch a fish on the last day. Our fish from day 1 was the largest, and the two combined gave us Grand Champion honors for the third time.
On a personal note, I know deeply and surely that winning one of these tournaments is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I’m also sure that I wouldn’t be in a position to be saying that as many times as I have if it weren’t for two people in particular: John O’Hearn and Dave Skok. Without the effort of the former or the genius of the latter the distance from where I started to where I am now would never be closed. There are a bunch of other people, including Dave Dalu, who I think of as a necessary part of every win I’ve had, and to list them all would take too long and I’m sure I would leave someone out. That said I feel beyond lucky to be surrounded by as many people that I look up to as I do.
Here’s John showing his kids how talented their father is:
So that’s how it went down, and I had a couple days after the tournament that I haven’t gotten to yet. I’ll get current tomorrow, before I leave for the Everglades on Tuesday to fish with Steve for the six on Wednesday through Friday. Ian Slater is coming along for third man duties, and I’ll have a report up here when it’s over.