I was cleaning up my office the other day, and chanced upon a book that made me smile.
It’s a copy of John Merwin’s The New American Trout Fishing, given to me by my wife as a birthday present, not long after the book came out in 1994. The book made a tremendous impression and influenced a lot of my fishing. And I’d say that if you’re looking for one all-encompassing book with spot-on information on everything you need to know about fly fishing for trout—from the fish themselves, to bugs, to gear and techniques—this would still be the one.
But the smile stemmed from the fact that when I was first given the book, I had no idea that some years later I would actually work with John and he would become a mentor.
John was the fishing editor of Field & Stream from 2003-2010, and I would eventually become an editor-at-large with F&S during that time. He could be a tough critic, and even downright ornery sometimes, but he had a heart of gold, and he was a genuinely caring and thoughtful man.
I remember the first time we met in person. We were at a fishing trade show, and Merwin ordered me to lunch. I was pretty nervous because everyone at the magazine had told me what a tough customer he was. And sure enough, he was no more than a sip into his martini when he criticized the most recent story I had written.
“Your lead was too clumsy, and you took too long to get to the point,” he said with a wry smile. But then he explained what I could do to make the next one better.
So I did. And John noticed, and called me to say I had done well. We would make a point of meeting for lunch or dinner every year at that trade show, and every year he’d go over the hits and misses. And as the years rolled on, the hits outnumbered the misses more and more, and we mostly just talked about fishing.
The thing is, I never had an argument with John, because John was always right. And I don’t think there is much in the fishing world he hadn’t done for himself. He started Fly Rod & Reel magazine. He started the trade magazine that covered fly fishing. He became the fishing editor of the most widely-read outdoors magazine in the world. And to this day, I’ve never seen anyone with more genuine passion for fishing than John Merwin.
When John wrote The New American Trout Fishing, he boiled an encyclopedic understanding of the sport down to 300 or so pages in a way that was clearer than anthing that had been done before. And that’s exactly what he wanted to do.
When he died in 2013, I was honored to be interviewed for his obituary by The New York Times.