Eight years ago, on a Saturday morning in April, I did what I had done each of the previous 18 springs: I drove to beautiful Darlington, in Harford County, parked my car near the Stafford Road Bridge, across from the old Flint Furnace, donned chest waders, set up my fly rod and stepped into Deer Creek to try and catch some shad during their annual migration.
There was a fellow already standing in the water, up to his waist, and he was casting to a pool where, in previous years, schools of hickory shad and Atlantic herring always seemed to stop during their journey. I grumbled a little because one of my favorite spots had been taken, and it wasn’t even 7 o’clock yet.
I decided to hike downstream to another pool. I grunted hello as I walked by. The guy in the water answered me and then did something unusual — he invited me to step into the creek and fish right next to him, and as soon as he did this, he hooked a silvery shad. “I’ve caught 10 already,” he said, the words accompanied by a puff of cigar smoke.
At first I didn’t believe the guy. Ten shad before 7 o’clock? I have fished a lot over the years and smirked at big talk from anglers who felt a need to brag. But I wasn’t about to challenge the guy in Deer Creek. He had just invited me to fish with him, after all, and before I could get in position to cast, he caught another hickory, about 16 inches long.
Several years earlier, a buddy and I caught and released close to 100 shad in a day. When these migratory fish come up the Susquehanna River and swim into Deer Creek — when their numbers are big, and the water temperature is just right, and the sunlight is just right, and your cast is just right, and your fly is just right — you can have a day like that.
The fellow I met that Saturday was Steve Merkel. He said he had just picked up fly fishing and had developed a secret weapon for shad — a small fly with a slanted, weighted head, and a sparse tail of silvery tinsel. Some of the flies were green and black, others orange and black. And they worked. That first day, Steve and I barely moved 30 feet to fish. We cast his magic flies into the same big pool for the next couple of hours and caught plenty of fish. I did not keep count. But Steve always did. Whenever I called or sent him a text, he could tell me exactly how many shad and herring he had caught the evening before and the evening before that.
Some years were better for shad fishing than others, but you could always count on Steve being there in spring, trying to catch shad and serving as the shad guru to others. He was, like the great blue herons perched on boulders, a fixture on Deer Creek.
I listed him in my phone contacts as Steve “Shad” Merkel. He was good-natured, gregarious and generous. He loved to lean against his pickup truck and talk fishing, and he never let an opportunity for a conversation pass. He shared his flies with lots of anglers who were otherwise stumped in pursuit of the hickory shad.
Over time, I got to know about Steve, where he worked — he rebuilt Caterpillar engines for Alban CAT on Pulaski Highway — where he liked to fish, where he went on vacation. He loved being on water and was once a commercial crabber. He always mentioned his family — a brother, Chris, a sister, Carol, and his son, William.
It was William who called me Monday with the shocking and sad news that his dad had just died from an aggressive cancer that had been diagnosed in late November. Steve was 52. I did not know what to say to William except sorry, and sorry, and sorry again.
There are people we know most of our lives — from back in elementary school days — and some become and stay our friends forever. There are people we know for just parts of our lives, as in college or during military service; our friendships with them can be long-lasting, too.
Then there are the people we meet several times, here and there, along life’s journey. You might call them acquaintances. You might also call them seasonal friends. We develop a bond with them. We look forward to seeing them, and it might only be once or twice a year, at a favorite restaurant, for instance, or at an Orioles or Ravens game, or at a conference for work, or during the annual trip to a family vacation spot, or maybe at a familiar fishing hole in spring. They become, in their brief time with us, dear to us, and we miss them dearly when they’re gone.