Merrill Memories: Never “Tick Off” A Fishing Buddy

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Another in our “Memories of the CanoeMan” Series
By CAPT. MEL BERMAN, 970-WFLA

Rising over the steep crest of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, I was happy to see that the bars and rocks in the bay below were already covered with water. “Good incoming tide,” I thought. In the rear view mirror, Merrill’s old 1978 Toyota trailed its one headlight not quite as bright as the other. My late friend Merrill Chandler, alias ‘The Canoe Man’, followed me off onto U.S. 19 heading toward the “Fast  Fetch” for an ice stop. Meanwhile, I continued on to the ramp. It had been a dark, sliver-of-a-moon night, but now, looking eastward, the sky began taking on a lighter bluish coloration in preparation for the dawn.

Launching my small 14-foot flats skiff, Merrill pulled along side in his ancient auto. Systematically filling his end of the boat, the canoe man loaded it with what appeared to be all his worldly fishing possessions. “Only four poles,” I asked sarcastically. “I see where this is gonna be ‘a Merrill kind of day’… rods and tackle boxes everywhere!” We always seem to engage in this kind of derisive banter as a sort of giddy ritual before the start of a fishing day. “Tide’s still kind of low,” do you think we should use the trolling motor to get out?” “Might not be a bad idea.” 

We headed toward the mouth of the shallow creek and into the open bay. Our first fishing decision was a quick right turn to work along a stand of mangrove trees. We were in business and all it took was a mere 8-minutes from launch until the first lures were flung. The Canoe Man kicked off proceedings with his favorite, a D.O.A. Shrimp, casting it to the pot holes just ahead of our vessel. I elected to ‘field test’ a new lure from Mann’s Bait Company called a “Stretch 1-Minus.” Mann’s claims that the loud rattling lipped bait was designed for “skinny water fishing,” purported to dive only one foot or less. Hence the name, “Stretch 1-Minus.” Frankly, I was somewhat skeptical, since it had that lip and wiggle associated with slightly deeper diving bomber-type plugs.  

“There’s gotta be some snook working those pockets on this low, incoming tide,” said Merrill slowly working his imitation shrimp through the sandy potholes ahead. “Well you try it out there. Let’s see how close I can get to the mangroves with this new plug.” First cast landed right on target. Letting it sit for a moment, I then twitched it slowly away from the trees. The plug’s wiggling, rattling and splashing was all a hungry 18-inch snook could stand. It pounced all over the lure. Releasing the juvenile fish, I made another cast.

This time the Stretch 1-minus” reached down and grabbed a piece of grassy Florida real estate. “Wonder of this thing dives too deep?” “Give it another shot,” suggested Merrill.  Using a sidewards flip of the baitcaster, I plopped the plug right at the very base of the mangroves. After a few twitches the lure came to a sudden halt, giving every impression of hooking onto yet another healthy chunk of bottom. Then, suddenly, the ‘bottom’ jumped some 3-feet out of the water disguised as a big and very frisky snook.

“Mel, you’re gonna tick me off,” warned Merrill observing my early success, “and ya know what happens when you tick me off.” I know all too well. This is about all it takes to galvanize the wiley old New England expatriate into action. Faced with this kind of challenge, Merrill will relentlessly catch one lunker after the other, while all I can do is stand by as an envious observer. Meanwhile, my big linesider was still struggling, swimming wildly about our boat. Savoring every last delicious minute of the fight, I finally subdued the powerful snook.

Gently lifting it out of the water,  the exhausted creature and I posed for a few quick photos. In the still dimly light the camera’s automatic flash went off. The snook measured an impressive 33 ½ inches. “Hand me those needle nose pliers,” said Merrill, offering to assist in the release. Disengaging the treble hooks, he gently rocked the snook back and forth, working a good flow of rejuvenating waters across its gills. Suddenly, the big linesider regained it’s composure, springing back to life making a high-speed dash for the security of the mangroves.

“Now we’re gonna fish some of my spots,” challenged Merrill, “and we’ll see who’s ‘top dog’ on this trip.” “Bring ‘em on,” I shot back. Unfortunately, I was destined to learn the same lesson over and over again. At our next few stops, Merrill nailed several big-shouldered reds and a score of brutish snook, while I stood by in my ineptness. That day evolved as yet another reminder that there iwas very little future in getting the Canoe Man ‘ticked off” on any fishing trip.