Community | Conservation | Fishing | Fly tying

The passing of two giants

John Shollenberger at the vise.

The calls came 24 hours after each other.

I was driving down I-95 on New Years Day. Brian Cowden, a former Trout Unlimited employee, called to say that Rick Ege, a former chapter president and council chair had passed away. I last spoke with Rick a few years ago. Another New Jersey guy had mentioned that he was sick and, in the hospital, so I snuck out of a Trout Unlimited annual meeting and called him from my car.

On the morning of Jan. 2, 2020, I was making a venison stew, and saw a call from Pottsville, Pa., flash on my phone.

“Hello?’

“Chris, it is Joanne. I just lost my best friend of 30 years.”

It took me a moment to realize I was speaking to Joanne Shollenberger, the spouse of John—the finest fly-tier you have likely never heard of.

That’s how John preferred it. The late Lefty Kreh, who spent more than a few nights huddled next to John at his bench said, “I’ve never known Johnny to take money for a fly. I’ve known him for years, and as far as I know, he’s given away every fly he ever tied.”

John specialized in very small flies

He started tying after returning from the Korean War, and never stopped. In 1976, he won the prestigious International Federation of Fly Fishers’ Buz Buszek Fly Tying Memorial Award for fly tying excellence. Other luminaries such as George Harvey, Helen Kessler Shaw and Art Flick have also won the award—all after John won it.

I met John after Joanne sent me a handwritten letter in response to a direct mail appeal from Trout Unlimited asking him to become a life member. Joanne’s well-taken point was that John had donated thousands of dollars of flies to Trout Unlimited chapters, veterans organizations, and many other charities over the years. I drove to Tower City, Pa., and hand delivered John a life membership in TU

With my hands full of flour and venison, I listened as Joanne told me over the phone, “Before he died, the last thing John did was hold my face with his hands, and say, “look how pretty you are.”

Rick Ege on the water

Rick Ege was a different cat. I first came across him on a Thanksgiving phone call 12 or so years ago. A few of the New Jersey TU guys and I were looking to establish a watershed restoration project on a New Jersey river. New Jersey is the nation’s most urban state, and one I am proud to hail from. A few other luminaries such as Agust Gudmundsson, Rick Axt, and Rich Thomas were on the call.

I was pushing for the headwaters of the Passaic—which, believe it or not, may have native brook trout in it—as the place we should create a home-rivers initiative. My Dad, a fifth-generation Newark guy, delivered kegs for the Anheuser-Busch plant along the river as a high-school student. Agust, Rick Axt, and Rich all made muttering comments—not agreeing, but not disagreeing, either.

The last person to speak was Rick Ege.

“That’s a totally dumb idea,” he said. “A really, really dumb idea.”

Filled with turkey and stuffing, I suffered minor indigestion as Rick explained why the headwaters of the Passaic was the wrong river and the Musconetcong was the right one. Rick was right.

I spent more than a few hours in the back-seat of a van with Rick, and the other members of the NJ TU mafia, getting creeped-out by stories of the Shades of Death Road—where all manner of allegedly unspeakable acts occurred. I learned from them how “the Musky” is an upside-down watershed where Lake Hopatcong dams the headwaters, but the springs allow cold and clean water to re-enter the system and allow wild trout to flourish (with help of TU members and staff).

Every other year or so, Rick would remind me of the story of how my predecessor, after a contentious meeting, physically shied away from Rick when Rick approached him in a crowded room with his hand in his breast pocket. Rick, who was an imposing physical presence, loved to recall how instead of pulling out a revolver, he handed my old boss who was backing up with a frightened look in his eyes, a check to TU for $4,000 from the New Jersey Council.

Rick, who hid a heart of gold under a gruff exterior, was desperate to bring the full weight of TU to bear in a river system that he cared for deeply. He and other NJ TU leaders set up a pig roast and invited me and my family. Rick, even then using two canes to support his failing body, made sure my Mom—who has suffered through rheumatoid arthritis since she was 25–was safe and comfortable.

We will never forget the legacy of people such as Rick Ege and John Shollenberger, and the very many lives—including mine—they made richer and better.

Chris Wood is the president and CEO of Trout Unlimited.