By Jim Junttila
Egrets, herons and ibis stealthily waded the shadowy shoreline shallows, pelicans perched on pilings, and cormorants skimmed the surface like fish-seeking missiles in the dawn’s early light, all looking for breakfast. The water and air temperatures were tied at 62 degrees.
“What does it take to make an Amish woman happy?” Mel Berman asked as we sidled out of a boat ramp.
“Two Mennonite,” he grinned. Berman was full of one-liners that could make you spit out your coffee laughing on the boat first thing in the morning.
My relationship with Berman goes back about 40 years, long enough to know that, to me, Mel is short for mellifluous, mellow and melliferous. He was more than a friend; he was a mentor, a conversationalist and a conservationist. We were kindred spirits.
Anybody who knew Berman knew he had a sense of humor. His Web site, www.capmel.com, featured a daily chuckle for years.
We were working the same water as the avian predators who make a good living on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.
What I liked best about fishing with Jim Plastic and Berman was that I was the youngest guy on the boat. At 63, it’s nice to be called “kid.” When I first met Plastic, I thought it was a nickname because all he pitched was plastic, not live bait. But it’s his real name. Like Berman, he knows how to twitch a tail and manipulate a Mirrolure.
The specks were snapping at sunrise. So were a few pompano, ladyfish and blues. Life is good when a full moon gives way to a mango dawn, both reflecting in the tranquil mirror surface of the Intracoastal Waterway.
“Bars and beds are two of my favorite places,” Berman said, slipping an electric chicken Old Bayside split tail shadlyn on his quarter-ounce jig. “Look for the intersection of grass flats, oyster beds and a sand bar. It’s the best place to find fish.”
It turned out to be an understatement. We caught and released about 40 specks in 3- to 10-foot shallow water by 11:30 a.m. and were off the water by noon. Mornings spent catching about 50 fish were natural and normal with these guys. This is skinny water, the kind of water Berman loved enough to write the book, “Skinny: A Guide to Shallow Saltwater Fishing,” co-authored with Gary Poyssick. I highly recommend it; you can read a sample chapter for free and order it at capmel.com.
We talked about our favorite foods and those of Florida sportfish, how bay anchovies, glass minnows and shrimp are the dominant forage, how a Mirrodine lure most accurately imitates a sardine and why girl blue crabs have red pinchers. Sports, politics, radio, writing and our personal lives crept into the conversation once in awhile.
Berman was a fish magnet and the specks couldn’t resist his touch. Occasionally, he’d miss one. He’d check the hook and change tails if there was even the slightest ding in it.
“He’s second to none, a broadcast pioneer and fisherman who loved what he was doing,” said veteran WFLA-AM 970 radio host Tedd Webb.
On the air, he was an audience magnet.
Berman was born in Philadelphia. He began his broadcast career in 1952 and lived in New York City, Pittsburgh and Kansas City before settling in Tampa, Fla., in 1969. He won a Freedoms Foundation George Washington Medal and was part of a broadcast team that won a Peabody Award for coverage of the United Nations. He interviewed John F. Kennedy before he was president; Eleanor Roosevelt; Adlai Stevenson, former UN ambassador; and Jawaharial Nehru, the longest serving prime minister of India.
Berman had street credential and media traction. He was also a senior active member of OWAA.
A lot of water has been under the bridge since I met Berman. In the early 1970s, I was a young advertisement agency copywriter in Tampa, Fla., and I frequently hired Mel, among other media personalities, as voice talent for radio spots and TV voiceovers.
The radio roller coaster enabled Mel to go fishing a lot and he became a charter captain, getting his Coast Guard license and running offshore charters for about 10 years.
Webb worked with Berman at WDAE in those days. “We’d go fishing all the time, out at the [Florida] Middle Grounds in the Gulf [of Mexico] and dig grouper. I called him the ‘Master of the Middle Grounds.’”
Berman started the original WFLA-AM 970 fishing show in 1984, working there for 25 years. It evolved into a town hall talk show format that gave fishermen and boaters a voice in fisheries conservation and environmental matters.
“I let the callers pretty much set the tone and topics of the show,” Mel said. “Sometimes it was like herding cats, but it worked.”
“I never did beat him in the ratings back then,” said Jack Harris, who can still be heard on the radio in Tampa.
“All the girls loved his voice, he always had the lion’s share of the female radio audience,” Harris said.
“While the closest I ever get to fishing is beer and grouper at Crabby Bill’s,” Harris added, “I loved to listen to Captain Mel’s show, just for the joy of hearing his handling of the two crafts he loved and mastered: fishing and radio.”
OWAA has 50 members from among its ranks and many knew Berman, fished with him and contributed to his Internet magazine, Florida Fishing Online.
Frank Sargeant did all three. “One fishing trip with Mel and I was hooked,” Frank said. “We were snook fishing and Mel accidently stuck a hook into my right thumb on a backcast. Even though we had a hot bite going, he insisted on accompanying me to the emergency room where the offending barb was cut out.”
“First 180-pounder I ever hooked,” Berman quipped.
“I met Mel in 1985 shortly after I moved to St. Pete,” Bill AuCoin said.
“I was delighted to be a guest on his radio program and felt privileged to fish with him a couple of times, too. Mel was a terrific radio host who seemed to speak directly to each one of his listeners. I always imagined that every one them considered Mel their fishing buddy even if most never got the chance to actually fish with him in person.”
Berman was mellifluous to the end. At 81, those golden pipes and velvet tonsils were still going strong, as immediately recognizable and a pleasure to listen to as ever.
He was a fishing and broadcast icon in Tampa Bay, Fla. and beyond, reaching thousands of loyal listeners and fishermen through his radio show, Web site, newspaper columns, fishing shows, seminars and on the water. You couldn’t put the boat in or take it out anywhere on the Gulf Coast without somebody recognizing Berman’s voice in the dark.
Michael “SnookMook” Wilson considered him a mentor.
“He supported me and was a valuable resource in my coverage of saltwater fishing,” Wilson said. “Being a guest and co-host on the Captain Mel Show was always a learning experience. I’ve met many good friends and fishing buddies from the CapMel Internet fishing forum.”
Berman passed away from complications of heart surgery on Feb. 5, 2010. He leaves behind his wife of 61 years, Ginny, son, Ron, daughter Debbie Arkin, and three grandchildren, Melissa, Matthew and Emily.
“Mel was a deep thinker and active to the end,” his wife said. “He loved to fish, write and do his show and Web site. His ashes will be scattered at sea. We think that’s appropriate.”
Berman appealed to a broad audience beyond fishermen. Memorials are planned. Visit capmel.com for dates, times and venues. A memorial thread is posted at his forum and may be viewed at forums.capmel.com.
I hear fishing is big in Heaven and Captain Mellifluous already has the No. 1 outdoor radio show in the market.
By Jim Junttila