Gary Merriman

Uni Products Fly Tiers Corner

Merriman’s Tarpon Toad

By Polly Dean

July 2021

Gary Merriman began fishing at a very young age, and while a young boy he became enamored with fly fishing. With hard work and a fortunate turn of events, his passion for fishing turned into a business.

Gary Merriman at the vise. Photo by Polly Dean.

Besides operating the premier fly shop in Atlanta, Merriman is also known for a fly he developed and that bears his name, the Merriman‘s Tarpon Toad. It was watching an old film that proved the catalyst for the fly. “Back in the day, it was probably Billy Pate, fishing for tarpon,” Gary recalled. While watching, he noticed the fly’s moving through the water. “It was odd, that in it’s movement, it was moving up and down.

“You know,” Gary added, “you want to keep the fly in the fish’s face as much as possible. Each time it moves out of the fish’s sight, that is less chance of him eating it.”

Thus he decided to make a fly that pulls straight through the water. After playing around a bit with the design and testing it out, Gary developed the Tarpon Toad. It stayed on a level plane when stripped through the water.

Merriman’s Tarpon Toads. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs

In the winter of 1994, Gary tested it while in Florida with a buddy of his, Ron Winters. They were fishing a basin that is known for the tarpon being educated and  difficult to get to bite. “The first fish I threw at, I made a bad cast,” Merriman explained. “Probably missed it by 10 feet. Well, the fish have big eyes. They don’t ever not see the fly. It came over, 10 or 12 feet, and ate the fly! This happened all that day. This was the first testing of the fly and it worked like a champ.”

His next outing, Gary was fishing with a guide friend. The guide looked at the Toad, and told Gary that he wasn’t fishing it on his boat. Gary put it up and still caught fish with the guide’s flies.

His buddy Ron Winter, whom Gary describes as kind of an outlaw, often fished by himself. He was catching tarpon everytime out with Merriman’s fly and each time anyone was around he would yell “The Toad rules!”  For several days Winter did this near the guide that refused to let Gary use the Toad. Finally the guide pulled up to Winter, and asked what he kept hollering?

“The Toad Rules!” Ron said.

”What are you talking about?” asked the guide.

“The fly that Gary tried to give you last year, the Toad.” So the guide started tying it and kept it quiet for several years as he bagan winning tournaments while guiding Olympic downhill skier and fly fishing fanatic Andy Mills. Eventually word got out about the fly and it was christened the Merriman’s Tarpon Toad..

“I tie it in all kinds of crazy colors and I just try to get a reaction strike. It just stays in the zone,” Gary said. When asked if he had caught species on the fly, other than tarpon, Merriman replied, “I’ve caught snook, bass, trout – everything.”

Photos by Jimmy Jacobs.

Gary Merriman grew up on a farm near Bowmans Island on the Chattahoochee River just north of Atlanta. “As a kid, we whacked them (the trout) on worms. I was about 8 years old. One day this guy came through the shoals fly fishing. He was in Trout Unlimited and I talked to him about fly fishing. I told my daddy that I wanted to fly fish. Well, we went to Sears Roebuck and bought a 95 Ted Williams, Beginner Fly Fishing Rod. I would sit out there on the gravel bar, just past a big hole and using a wet fly, I’d catch fish.”

As a teenager, Gary became president of the Chattahoochee Chapter of TU. He gives credit to his many mentors that have influenced him greatly.  While attending DeKalb College, Merriman worked at a place called Dean’s Sporting Goods. Gary headed the fly fishing department, when they introduced it. When he was 19 years old, a customer came in and asked Gary how he would like to be in the fly-fishing business.

The Fish Hawk on Miami Circle today. Photo by Polly Dean.

Merriman jumped at the chance. “ We started a business and after a year, I basically took it over,” Gary explained. “I moved around and eventually ended up next to Chuck’s Firearms on Buckhead Avenue. That was a Godsend, as the owner helped me out a great deal.” Thus The Fish Hawk was born and the rest is history.

Gary and his sales crew can be said, to be just as much “fixtures” in the world of fly fishing as is his shop. If one needs any gear, rods, reels, waders, boots or even the “magic” fly, this is the place to go. These folks live and breathe fly fishing. They are happy to pass along their knowledge and expertise whether you need advice on where to go or to brush up your casting skills.

The friendly confines of The Fish Hawk. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

And, it is not uncommon to find anglers that have wandered into The Fish Hawk to just hang out and talk fishing. Gary even jokes that he had to do away with his shop sofa, because it was just too tempting to even him, to just socialize and shoot the breeze with the customers.

It’s also worth mentioning that Merriman fishes all methods, including those that don’t involve a fly – and he sells all types of fishing gear to help bring success, not just fly fishing equipment. Gary says his mission is “to help people learn how to fish, to make sure they have the proper equipment, and to make friends and be kind to everybody. I want to be a ‘friendly’ fly shop.  I’m from the South. That’s important.

I’d say that Gary Merriman has accomplished that goal and more.

Presently in it’s fifth decade as Atlanta’s iconic fly shop, The Fish Hawk is now located at 764 Miami Circle NE, Atlanta GA 30324. Drop by to pick up some Merriman’s Tarpon Toads, any other gear needed, or just to talk fishing. Or you can visit The Fish Hawk website.

A World-Class Catch

Anyone entering The Fish Hawk is unlikely to miss the huge blue marlin hanging on the shop’s wall. Gary has always enjoyed offshore fishing. His friendship with the original owner of the Atlanta Falcons, Rankin Smith, Sr., earned him a chance to tag along to Kona, Hawaii for a National Football League meeting in March of 1984. While there, they decided to go marlin fishing with legendary Capt. Bart Miller, known as Black Bart. Merriman was in the fighting chair fishing 130-pound class conventional tackle with about 90-pound.drag when the marlin took the bait. After a 3-hour-plus fight and seeing the leader 21 times, the large blue marlin was boated.

The fish was 16-feet, 4-inches long with a girth of 7 1/2 feet. She weighed 1,649 pounds. The marlin would have been an IGFA world record, but because of a technicality with the leader it was disqualified. It still stands as the largest marlin every taken on a rod and reel by a single angler.