Captain Mike Merritt: 50 Years in Fishing and Still Going Strong
by Capt. Dale E. Wills
While at the helm of the 52-foot Irvin Forbes-built Billfisher, Captain Mike Merritt had a young deckhand named Arch Bracher. One day Bracher asked if he could try something different when it came to leader material. Capt. Merritt, in his easy-going style said, “Sure go ahead as long as it doesn’t cost us any fish.”
Weeks later the Billfisher was steadily doing just a little better than the remainder of the Oregon Inlet charter fleet. It was evident something was going on when one day as they approached the marina. “I’ll be behind your boat when we get in,” radioed Capt. Bull Tolson. That evening when the Billfisher backed into its slip at the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, Capt. John Bayliss helped with one stern line and Tolson helped tie up the other. The impromptu meeting and the tackle inspection that ensued changed white marlin fishing to this day. The year was 1988.
Prior to the Billfisher’s experiment, the entire North Carolina fleet used wire leader with ballyhoo. Bracher’s decision to use mono leader and dink ballyhoo baits, similar to his Mexico sailfishing spread, brought about change in the fleet. Bracher’s eagerness to catch more fish and Capt. Mike’s willingness to change is one of many contributions Merritt and his crews have developed for the sportfishing industry.
A Life Spent on the Water
Capt. Mike “Bubble Gum” Merritt, is 50-year fishing professional. Growing up on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, he was destined to live a working life mostly on the water. “At the age of six, I had a bicycle and a fishing pole and every day I could, I would ride down to the water and fish. One day a thunderstorm blew in and my mother got real worried and hopped in her car and came looking for me. When she found me, I was unphased by the storm and continued to fish. From that day on, my mother would tell anyone who listened, ‘That boy is going to be a fisherman when he grows up.’”
In 1968, fresh out of high school, Capt. Merritt’s first full-time job came as a mate on a 48-foot Manteo-built boat named Germel with Capt. Dan Lewark. “I made $90.00 a day for an offshore trip,” says Merritt. After seven years as a mate, in 1976, Merritt stepped up to the bridge on his own 40-foot Warren O’Neil, the Billfisher. “I only had a VHF radio, a compass and a Flasher for electronics. We would use landmarks for navigation. Upon returning to port from offshore, at the first sight of land, if we saw cottages, a water tower and/or a lighthouse, we were five or ten miles north of Oregon Inlet. If we just saw beaches, we were south of the inlet,” recalls Merritt. From 1976 through 1991, Merritt was a fixture in the Oregon Inlet Charter fleet along with the Billfisher boat name. Boat builders, such as Sheldon Midget, Billy Holton and Irvin Forbes each had a Billfisher name on the transom through the years. “The 52-foot Irvin Forbes was my first twin motor boat in the late 80s,” says Merritt.
“One day in 1991, while getting fuel for my charter boat, a man asked me to run his boat. At that point, I wanted to give the private gig a try. It didn’t take long before I was traveling the world. I fished Bermuda, St. Thomas, Mexico (Puerto Aventuras) and the Bahamas.” Asked about his biggest catches, Merritt reflects on some large fish. “We weighed in a 958-pound marlin in Oregon Inlet, released a bigger blue in St. Thomas and a big one in Venezuela. I’ve seen a lot of big fish in my career,” says Merritt, humbly.
When asked about his role models, Merritt reflects, “Tony and Omie Tillett come to mind, but I have just too many to name.” It turns out that the fishing is only one of the things Merritt cherishes from a life on the water. “It’s been the dock comradery and the people who make up the fishing community which have made my career so blessed. I’ve had some great times around the dock.” In a chuckle Merritt says, “The Oregon Inlet Charter Fleet is home to some of biggest pranksters you’ll find anywhere. I could go on and on about the stuff we would pull on each other.” Here is one of Merritt’s favorites.
“In the early 90s, we were fishing a tournament when a small outboard decided to try to drive through the middle of the fleet. As luck would have it, the outboard hooked up with a nice marlin. It didn’t take long before the outboard gets on the radio telling everyone how big his marlin is.”
“As time passed any boat remotely pointed in the outboard’s direction was given instructions to deviate course. The outboard continued drifting with the current and miles from where it first hooked up when the situation took on another dynamic. The captain began desperately trying to communicate with a big Japanese tanker ship.”
“’Japanese tanker, this is the outboard with the twin motors, please alter your course, we are fighting a marlin….Please turn left.’ After failed attempts to reach the ship, the desperate outboard called anyone asking if they knew what channel the tanker was on. ‘You have to use channel 13’, I responded.”
“Seconds later, with the entire charter fleet tuned in… ‘Japanese tanker, this is the twin outboard, can you please turn, you are going to run over my fish. Merritt, in his best broken accent responded, “‘Ahhhhh, twin outboard, no can turn ship.” In disgust, the outboard radioed one of buddies saying “I can’t believe he won’t turn and every one of my radios onboard were made in Japan.” Eventually, the tanker passed, and I’m not sure if the outboard ever caught the fish, but us charter captains sure had a good laugh after that,” says Merritt.
Today, Capt. Merritt has returned to the charter business and can be found at Pirate’s Cove running the Sandra D. When asked about the difference of captains and crew compared to days gone by, Merritt says candidly, “Electronics and dredges.” So what advice would you give a future captain or mate? “Choose this industry because you love meeting people and you love fishing. It takes a certain character trait to do what we do as a career. I’ve never thought about doing anything else.”
You can charter Merritt by visiting www.sandradsportfishing.com or call 252-305-2825