He was a Vietnam vet, father, husband and a gourmet cook.

But more than anything, Steve Merlo was a passionate outdoorsman.

Merlo, the longtime outdoors columnist for The Bakersfield Californian, died early Tuesday in his sleep. He was 68.

Growing up in Buttonwillow surrounded by farmland, open fields ripe for hunting and canals teeming with fish, Merlo’s love affair with hunting and fishing began as a youth and never waned. Many of his columns through the years were recollections from his youthful hunting and fishing endeavors, not all of them kosher, a fact he never hid.

He could bring a tear to your eye with columns written from the heart, such as when he remembered Buttonwillow friends he hunted and fished with who died in Vietnam. Just as easily, he could make you laugh with tales from his past.

But most of all, he could inform in a way that few others can.

There are many people who excel at hunting and fishing. Few are able to put that knowledge to words and do so in the easy-reading style of Merlo.

“He was one of a kind,” said Ken Barnes, a five-time All-American skeet shooter who has been friends with Merlo for 41 years.

Barnes was guiding goose hunts as a side job when Merlo called him in 1975 and wanted to go on his first goose hunt.

“He had hunted ducks, but he was all excited about going on a goose hunt,” Barnes recalled. “We went up and hunted the (Tule Lake) bottom and had a good hunt. He said it was his favorite bird. We hit it off, both of us being avid waterfowlers.”

Merlo wrote about that hunt in a Jan. 1 column this year, citing it as his favorite goose hunt.

“His writing was profound,” Barnes said. “He had a way with words, like that article on that goose hunt. It was unbelievable.”

While Barnes and Merlo spent countless hours in duck and goose blinds over the years, George Dollar and Don Crabtree probably spent more time with him on water than anyone else in search of a variety of fish.

“He was from Buttonwillow, I was from McFarland and it was a good thing we hunted different areas growing up because there might not have been anything left,” Crabtree quipped. “In those days (the 1960s), it was all you could carry, plus one. There were no limits. I’m not proud of it and we all reformed.

“I just had lunch with him (Monday). We hunted last Saturday and were planning to hunt ducks on Saturday (the opening day of the waterfowl season). You just don’t know.”

Crabtree said he and Merlo would often fish for a few hours two or three times a week as well as going on longer trips, such as a long-range tuna trip out of San Diego a couple of months ago.

“You know how stubborn Steve is,” Crabtree said. “Well, I told him he was way under-gunned for that tuna trip, that he did not have (heavy enough) equipment. He said he was fine.

“He could hook ’em but couldn’t hold them. They would spool him and he’d be bent over, hanging on at the rail. I told him we were tuna fishing, not bass fishing. After the trip he admitted he was wrong and would never use that light of gear again.”

Dollar, who was a professional bass fisherman for many years, met Merlo when he joined the Bakersfield Bass Club in 1978.

“You would put him and I together and people would shake their heads, saying they were fishing for second place,” Dollar said.

Dollar and Merlo were fishing a tournament at Isabella Lake on Dollar’s boat in October 1983 when Merlo landed what was then a lake-record 16.58-pound largemouth bass.

“We had a bet that day — most fish, biggest fish and total weight — and I had just caught an 8-pounder and had him whipped,” Dollar said. “He threw right behind me and doubled my weight.

“You think his head was big before he caught that, you should have seen him after he caught that fish.”

Merlo learned through the years how to prepare game and fish for the dinner table and published a cookbook so others could share in his delight.

“He loved cooking, and the cooking wasn’t a meal unless that meal was shared with family or friends,” said Merlo’s sister Elizabeth Brewer. “You got together and either argued, laughed or reminisced. But you enjoyed the meal and a great glass of wine.”

Merlo had a novel published many years ago, “Orren’s War,” and had just finished another.

“He had just finished his second novel last week, ‘Foxes, Rats and Dragons’, and was badgering us to read it,” said sister Cathy Merlo. “He grew up in a family of storytellers and he became a storyteller.

“It’s a family tradition he took to a new level.”

Merlo is survived by his wife, Candace, sons Christian and Jason, brother Larry and sisters Cathy Merlo and Elizabeth Brewer. Services will be at 10 a.m. Monday at Canyon Hills Assembly of God, 7001 Auburn St.

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