John Merwin, who helped found Rod & Reel (later Fly Rod & Reel) after editing and writing at Fly Fisherman for many years, who was fishing editor of Field & Stream from 2003 through 2010, and who also started the first trade magazine for fly fishing, Fly Tackle Dealer, passed away on Wednesday. John had many other accomplishments, including authoring Stillwater Fly Fishing and several other books on trout fishing and fly tying, and serving as executive director of The American Museum of Fly Fishing.
He was a fishing mentor, not just to the masses but to many other notable anglers.
John was also on the editorial board of MidCurrent, and his insights into the evolution of publishing from the golden years of magazines to don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it journalism of 2013 were invaluable to me. John was, perhaps, the only person more adamant than I that the days of print were ending, and that if we wanted to do right by our audience, we needed to give them what they want and when they want it. He was opinionated, but he never offered conclusions based on which way the winds blew or because he had an axe to grind. In short, he was a reliable partner and—as the title of the blog on Field & Stream he co-authored represented—an “Honest Angler.”
I spoke yesterday with several long-time acquaintances and friends of John, some of whom shared wonderfully humorous stories of John’s life.
“John had a wickedly subtle sense of humor,” said Silvio Calabi, who went on to edit Fly Rod & Reel when it landed at Down East. “Once I mentioned to him that I had to come up with a pen name for a magazine in New York that was buying a lot of stories from me. I said, ‘I’m going to be ‘Nick Adams’!’ John snorted at my Hemingway pretensions and said, ‘Nah, you’re going to be . . . Harry Olmstead.’ I said, OK, why not. A couple of years went by before I found out that ‘Harry Olmstead’ was the town drunk in the place where John grew up. I’m sure I had readers wondering if Harry Olmstead had finally turned a corner in his life and was doing something respectable.”
When asked about the name change from “Rod & Reel” to “Fly Rod & Reel,” Calabi had another story: “John’s idea for the original magazine was to take the fine writing that was being done in fly fishing and use it to elevate the editorial tone of a magazine for all types of fishing. That didn’t work very well—we were still just a small fish in a very big pond—so we refocused the magazine on fly fishing. That was what we all knew and loved anyway. After the sale to Down East, we were trying to figure out how to build circulation. At that time, Publisher’s Clearing House was selling a lot of magazine subscriptions. But if someone was looking for a fishing magazine on PCH’s long list of titles, they always stopped at ‘F’ and never made it down to the ‘R’s. So Kit Parker, our circulation director, suggested we change the name to something starting with an ‘F.’ Circulation doubled within a couple of years.”
Tom Rosenbauer was John’s longtime friend and shared this with us:
“I moved to Vermont in 1976, a snot-nosed kid who thought he knew about fly fishing. I had no friends or family in the area and $75 in my pocket. I forget how and when I met John, but he was one of the first people to welcome me to the area. Here he was, the bigshot editor of Fly Fisherman magazine, offering to show me some fishing spots and help me learn how to write if I’d help him with his fly tying. During John’s tenure with Fly Fisherman, and later with Fly Rod & Reel, he was always available for advice, even if I dropped into his office unannounced. I submitted my first-ever magazine article to him, which he read with his soft chuckle, handed it back to me, and said ‘keep trying.’
John was a lovable curmudgeon with a sly smile. In print he was scholarly and even more of a curmudgeon, but in person you could only take him half-seriously because he was always willing to laugh at himself. In the past decade we’d seen each other more often at the general store, or amazingly somewhere far from home like at the Fly Tackle Retailer Show, instead of professionally. He went more toward conventional tackle fishing, which his position with Field & Stream demanded, and he’d pass my house every day trailering his boat to Lake Champlain and the next time I saw him he’d remark that I shouldn’t leave my trash cans at the top of the driveway for six days after trash pickup. When I told him about the car who had made a drive-by deposit into my empty trash cans he roared with laughter.
We fished some together but I’m sorry we didn’t fish more. I wish his son and my daughter had continued to date (both of us were older guys with second marriages and young children so it kinda made sense). I will miss his wise and ironic wit, and will still chuckle when I see the trash cans at the top of my driveway.”
My own personal example of the kind of friend John was is this: When I moved to Colorado in 2009, I asked him where I should go first. He considered it briefly and then named five specific places and times of the year in order of priority, then he said, “When you’ve done those, here’s where you go next.” Of course the advice, despite the fact that it came from a Vermonter who was born in Connecticut, was in every case spot on.
John either fished with, edited, encouraged or cajoled just about every name involved in the upper tiers of angling writing, from A. J. McLane to Lee Wulff to Charlie Fox. He lived a life that most of us would envy. But I can’t help feeling a loss at his absence and will always remember this bit of sage advice: “Don’t believe what anyone says,” he said, “because they’re all selling something. Save yourself the disappointment and find out for yourself what’s really going on.” If I were teaching journalism today I’d be sharing that with every one of my students.