Remembering John Merwin: Stories From Those Who Knew Him Best
Anyone who ever spent any time with John Merwin–whether during a long day on the water or an hour at...
Anyone who ever spent any time with John Merwin–whether during a long day on the water or an hour at the bar–has a story about the encounter. He left a memorable impression simply by being himself. His kindness, dry humor, sharp wit, and ability to be a great mentor touched all of us at Field & Stream, as well as countless contributors and friends in the fishing industry. That’s why we asked some of those who knew him best to pen their favorite Merwin memory. Perhaps nothing will tell you more about John than these short stories — Joe Cermele
Fishing with Ghosts
**by Anthony Licata, Field & Stream Editor In Chief **
A few years ago I met John Merwin on the Upper Delaware for a day and a half of fishing. I was new to the river, but Merwin had been fishing it for over 30 years. I was eager soak up as much of his knowledge as possible in the short time we had together.
We started in the morning at Cannonsville, the reservoir at the head of the West Branch. We drove slowly downstream, a Thermos of coffee between us, with John describing each section of water along the way.
He told me the best way to fish the popular spots. He showed me hidden access to riffles and pools that yielded fish if you knew how to get to them. He pointed out stretches that were good for an evening hatch and others that could produce trout all day.
We stopped often, walking the river so he could break down a run for me, showing me how to get the best drift and where the biggest trout usually lay.
We still hadn’t uncased our rods at the fourth or fifth spot we walked, and I realized that we probably weren’t going to.
I’d fished with Merwin enough by this point to appreciate one of his defining characteristics as an angler: his attitude that fishing about was more than fish. Don’t get me wrong, no one loved to fish as much as John did, no one was more obsessed with the sport. He would light up like a little kid every time he hooked one–it didn’t matter if it was a bluegill or a bluefin. But a fishing trip with Merwin also meant a fair amount of time relaxing on the bank, waiting for the hatch. It meant coffee on the porch and cocktails before dinner. I sometimes wondered if all of it–from the fishing to the loafing to the last smoke before bed–was all just an elaborate backdrop for John’s other passion: great conversation. John had a knack for putting himself in the middle of interesting people, where he could keep the talk flowing with his intelligence and wit.
But this time was different. We didn’t fish at all. There was a lot of water to cover and John kept pushing. He broke down the whole river system for me, pool by pool, riffle by riffle. He kept telling me not to forget, to remember what he was telling me for when I came back on my own.
On our second day, John started telling me stories about the legendary fly fisherman Lee Wulff. We were parked at Lordville, that deeply creepy, half-abandoned village on the banks of the main stem.
The Great Man had taken John under his wing, mentoring him and teaching him much about fishing, writing, and life.
“He was a legend,” John said to me that day, “and I was nobody but an enthusiastic young kid. He went out of his way to give his time to me.”
He drank his coffee and looked at the river sliding by. “Guys like Wulff and Ernie Schwiebert changed my life, and they’re gone now. These days I feel like I spend a lot of time fishing with ghosts.”
I wanted to say something, but I wasn’t sure what, because John, being a taciturn old Yankee, could be weird about too much naked sentiment directed his way. We both knew that he had been a generous and patient mentor to me from my first day at Field & Stream. And of course, it was far from just me–John reached out to any young person that showed curiosity and passion, as you can see from the many essays here that are a different version of the same story as mine.
I searched for just the right words to thank him, for everything, but John, always wanting to hide his big heart behind the persona of a curmudgeon, sensed what I was thinking and headed me off.
He started the truck, grinned, and said, “Of course, you do realize that I haven’t been showing you all my spots, don’t you? You’ve got to figure some shit out on your own.”
A Different Style of Teaching
**by David E. Petzal, Field & Stream Rifles Editor **
In the late 1990s, for reasons too sordid to go into here, I took up flyfishing when I was well past the point in life that I could retain new information. I asked John Merwin endless questions about this and that, and eventually he asked if I was really interested in learning something. Sure, I said, and he invited me on a three-day fishing tour of the Delaware and all the other legendary trout rivers gurgling away in the Catskills.
It was in the course of this excursion that I encountered the Merwin Method. I was wading a lovely pool just off the Beaverkill, and I remember that I was trying to cast with a very fine 4-weight rod.
“How am I doing, John?” I asked, expecting encouragement.
“You’re terrible,” he said, “if I were you I’d stick to something you can do, like shooting.”
“Oh,” I said, and kept casting. Periodically I’d check on my progress and get an insult in return.
I would have gotten angry, but what John was saying was true, and he did it with such malevolent charm that all I could do was smile. Not laugh, smile.
But it’s important to remember that he volunteered to take three days out of his life to show a rank beginner something about the sport he loved, and at which he was a past master.
Falling Out of Boats
by Sid Evans, Former Field & Stream Editor in Chief
I remembered that I had written an editor’s letter about John when I was at the helm of Field & Stream. This was back in 2004. John had invited me to fish with him on the West Branch of the Delaware, which was very nice gesture but also a kind of test. Ever the skeptic, he wanted to see if I had the editorial chops for the job, and perhaps more importantly whether I could fish. We ended up becoming good friends, and I always thought of Merwin as a mentor and a compass when I was trying to set the direction for the magazine. He had that instinctive editorial sense that just can’t be taught–in other words, a great bullshit detector. But what I remember most is this story from the Delaware, and afterward, how we sat on the front porch of our little rented log cabin drinking a beer and laughing about it:
“John Merwin, our trout columnist, has a bad habit of falling out of boats. I recently witnessed this firsthand when we were fishing on the Delaware River a couple of hours north of New York City. Merwin was stepping over the gunnel of a drift boat with his waders on–admittedly a tricky maneuver–when he suddenly raised both arms and one leg in the air like Mikhail Baryshnikov doing a pirouette. Then he was splashing around in the water, and other fishermen at the launch were wondering if someone had too many beers for breakfast. I was bent over laughing because Merwin had fallen out of two bass boats in the last six months, once with a nice fish on (which he landed). As Merwin stood there dripping on the banks of the Delaware, I asked if he was equally graceful with a fly rod, and he made an obscene gesture that cannot be reprinted in a family publication like Field & Stream.
Naturally the guide, a Catskill flyfishing veteran named Mark Malenovsky, thought he had a couple of yahoos in the boat as we set off downstream. Then he saw Merwin make a cast. Even with a stiff wind, Merwin was rolling out 60 feet of line as effortlessly as an artist making brushstrokes on canvas. Malenovsky said that Merwin was possibly the best fly caster he’d ever had on board, and I, of course, was eating my words. This got worse when I started casting, first snapping the guide’s fly rod (sorry, Mark), then throwing one tailing loop after another, which is my specialty. “Hey Sid,” Merwin said, cackling from the back of the boat, “the fish are over there.”
I can still hear him mocking me every time I make a bad cast, which is far too often.
**by Joe Cermele, Field & Stream Fishing Editor **
The first time I ever sat down to dinner with John Merwin was at one of the fancier seafood restaurants in Orlando, Florida. By the time I arrived, John had already put away a few martinis, and as we perused the menu, he was met with a dilemma. Both the crab cakes and scallops sounded appetizing, and John simply could not choose. When the waiter came to take our order, he handed him his Field & Stream business card.
“Give that to the chef,” he instructed. “Tell him I can’t decided between scallops and crab cakes and that I want him to pick for me.”
A while later, the waiter brought all of our food except John’s. His plate was hand delivered by the head chef.
“Both of those dishes are excellent, and I couldn’t decide,” the chef told John. “I made you a special plate with some of each.”
John was elated, though he said little about the food during the meal. At dinner’s end, the head chef appeared at our table again.
“So? How did you enjoy your dinner, sir?” he asked.
John pulled out the chair next to him and signaled the chef to sit, which he did.
“Not the best crab cakes I’ve ever had,” John said. “A little too much breading.”
I will never forget the look on the chef’s face, or the smirk on John’s.
That Thing On Your Chin
**by Dave Hurteau, Field & Stream Deputy Editor **
When I first started at Field & Stream’s editorial offices in midtown Manhattan 19 years ago, I was very, very raw–straight from the wilderness. I wore a Salvation Army suit and s***tkickers. Merwin, I guess, had agreed to work on me. So the brass shipped me up to his home in quaint Dorset, Vermont, for some refinement.
What a mistake.
John, already a legend whom I’d met exactly once previously, sat me down and enumerated my shortcomings: “You talk too much. Your hair is too long. You need to shave that mess off your face….” He actually took me shopping, to the preppy outlet stores in downtown Manchester, Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers. He showed me the khakis, button-downs, and sport jackets I was supposed buy and wear.
I wasn’t buying any of it, I mean any of it. He knew I wasn’t–and he let show a hint of recognition, even pride. (No one, I’d learn, told Merwin what to do.)
Back in his office, he sat me down again.
“All right, now that that bulls**t is over, what do you really want?”
“What do you really want to do with yourself?”
“I want to move back to the country and be a writer.”
“Okay, I’ll help you.”
From that day on, John called me with advice about once a week and never stopped. His last call was a little over two weeks ago: “Have you shaved that thing off your chin yet?”
Bonefishing with Merwin
by David DiBenedetto, Editor, Garden & Gun
John Merwin believed that nothing worked better for editor/writer relations than time on the water. So shortly after I began editing his Fishing column for Field & Stream in 2003, we hatched a plan to go bonefishing. While I had spent my life fishing in salt water, I’d never landed a bonefish nor was I much of a fly caster.
I met John at the Nassau airport. Well, actually, I found him having a smoke outside the baggage claim area. We had both flown in from the north, so we sat outside and relaxed. Relaxing, I would soon learn, would be a theme of the weekend.
I don’t mean to say John wasn’t driven to catch fish, but he enjoyed a slow cup of coffee or two before fishing (and a martini afterward) with the same delight as time on the skiff. “The fish will be there,” he told me as I paced the grounds of the lodge on our first morning, watching the other boats pull away from the dock. And they were. While I stood on the bow, John sat behind me and offered fishing advice (“You’re standing on your line.”) and gave me plenty of grief (“Get a haircut. First impressions matter.”) The fishing was excellent with both of us landing a number of bones.
On our final day we ventured to the West Side of Andros to look for trophy bonefish. During my stint on the bow I heard the guide whisper, “Bone. A very big bone at forty feet.” In front of us a monster of a fish worked the bottom, every so often throwing up its tail with a casual flick. As the guide inched us closer, John didn’t say a word. He already knew I’d be casting into a 10- to 15-knot breeze.
I did as I had been taught–two false casts and release. But my line balled up in a wad and fell short. I stripped the line quickly and made another cast. Same result. And then again. I turned around to find John smiling, truly enjoying every minute of my performance. “John, catch this damn fish,” I said. And with that he unceremoniously stood up on the deck, made a high backcast, then shot the fly forward like a line drive, low and out of the wind. “Oh, very nice,” the guide said. The nine-pound fish took the fly and went screaming off the flat. I couldn’t see John’s face, but I can bet you he was still smiling.
**by Colin Kearns, Field & Stream Deputy Editor **
In August 2008, shortly after I became his new editor, John took me fishing. Knowing how much I loved to flyfish for trout, he tempted me with the beautiful brook trout stream near his home, so I drove north to Vermont. After I pulled into his driveway and we shook hands, John saw that I’d brought my fly tackle and said, “You won’t be needing that.”
The next day we trailered his bass boat and drove to Lake Bomoseen. Along the way, we passed that trout stream. “We’d catch a lot there today,” John said, dryly. “More than we’ll catch at the lake.” He could see that he was torturing me–and he found it hysterical.
After we launched, John rigged the rods and asked me what I’d be more comfortable casting: a spinning or baitcasting rod.
“Definitely a spinning rod,” I said.
He handed me the baitcaster. That was the moment when it dawned on me that this trip wasn’t about two coworkers catching fish. This was about John inviting me into his boat, motoring me out of my comfort zone, and letting me experience something new. As soon as I grasped what a privilege this was–that John Merwin was doing this for me–I forgot all about the trout stream.
The fishing was slow–a wicked cold front the day before had seen to that–and John hardly fished. He was happy at the helm, watching the water, smoking his Camel wides, and mentoring. As I fished my green-pumpkin worm, I asked him all that I could–about his travels, about his biggest and favorite fish, about the ones he hadn’t caught but would love to chase. The stories he shared with me were simple and funny and sharp. It was as if he writing voice had come to life.
I caught two bass with John that afternoon. They weren’t huge, but they were a big deal for me. The next day, John generously sent me back to New York City with a couple old books of his and some tackle–including a baitcasting rod.
Some time after our fishing trip, John told me about a park in Brooklyn that had a lake stocked with largemouths. I went there one evening to fish. I brought my baitcasting rig and cast just like John showed me. I fished the jerkbaits John helped me pick out. I tried a plastic worm–in green pumpkin because John taught me that was the best all-around color for bass. And when I didn’t catch a bass, I returned a week later.
I wanted to catch a fish–but not for me. I wanted to catch a fish so I could call John and share the story.
By The Light of the Crescent Moon
**by Slaton L. White, Field & Stream Deputy Editor **
In many ways John was a trout hunter. He believed in approaching likely pools with stealth and caution, and he would often stand, like a heron, and watch the water for what seemed like hours before rigging up and making a move. The first few times I fished with him, I didn’t understand what was going on; I was impatient to get on the water and start fishing. But what I gradually began to learn was that observing nature is part of the process, and the observant angler will take more fish in the long run.
John also believed, deeply I think, that the observant angler is more rooted in nature’s ways, thus making the fishing experience far more meaningful.
One late-spring afternoon we found ourselves at a small pool on the West Branch of the Delaware River. John told me to expect a mahogany spinnerfall around dark, and that, under no circumstances, was I to slip into the pool until I saw signs that trout were beginning to rise. He then cautioned me that when I did wade, I had better do so very slowly so as not to send out the telltale v wake that an intruder was in the pool. That done, he departed to fish elsewhere.
The reason we were there so early was to keep other anglers out of the pool. (John was always crafty that way.) I had fished with him enough to know the drill, and so I sat there all afternoon, watching birds flit in the trees and defending my stake against several late arrivals.
Finally, after the sun set and as a waning moon was beginning to climb above the horizon, I saw trout rising. I was fishing small flies on a 7X tippet, and though I heard the unmistakable slurping of feeding trout I had trouble seeing the take well enough to get a solid hook set.
As the moon rose higher, I was at last able to make out a crescent ring of rises. I picked one and cast to it, finally getting the drag-free drift I needed. I felt the tug of a take, and lifted the rod to set the hook.
I put just a bit too much muscle in it, though, and popped the tippet. At that point I heard a voice–at the time I assumed it to be God’s–in my right ear: “That was a big fish.”
It was John. He had snuck up behind me. I never even detected his presence. And, now, sadly, he has snuck away from us.
**by Scott Bestul, Field & Stream Whitetails Editor **
I was never much of a fishing guide, but I can always hang my hat on the fact that I put John Merwin on his first muskie. I had just started working for John, back when he edited the F&S regional pages. On the side I guided for a buddy who ran float trips for muskie and bass. When John learned about the fishing, he jumped all over it. I’ll be honest; at that time I didn’t know John’s reputation or ability, but the prospect of guiding my boss was still pretty scary.
By muskie standards, Merwin’s fish wasn’t much. Twenty-eight inches on a generous measure, the muskie lacked the brawn and temperament of the big fish I prayed he’d catch. But like any muskie after a topwater lure, this one had hit in an explosion of teeth and tail. The fight didn’t last long; a quick run against the river’s current, a head-waggling leap out of the foam, and the fish came to the cradle. Some muskies lie in the mesh with evil in their eyes, but this one seemed relieved.
Assured that the fish was under control, I turned my attention to the fisherman, who was anything but. John chuckled, softly at first, then in a deeper laugh that came from his belly. He wagged his head a little and his eyes did a funny dance between full-shut and flickering. And I will never forget the shake in his hands; a kind of mad palsy that, so help me, I had only seen when little kids had hooked their very first fish.
As I said, before that trip I had no idea of John’s pedigree and I wouldn’t until we’d spent many hours on the river together. John had been everywhere, fished with a who’s-who of modern angling, and caught at least one of everything that swims. But by our trip’s end–three days on as many Wisconsin rivers–I learned something about one of sportfishing’s legends from one smallish muskie; when John Merwin had a rod in his hands, every fish was like his first, and every day was like his last.
**by David Draper, Field & Stream Contributing Editor **
Many years ago, over dinner, I was lamenting to John about the poor dating prospects in my small Nebraska town. John was confident that I would soon find someone and when I did, he told me, he would attend my wedding. In fact, he was so confident, he put ten bucks down that I would find a girl within one year’s time. Now, John had never been to Sidney, Nebraska, so he didn’t know the odds he was facing. It was a sucker’s bet and I happily matched his ten spot.
A week later I met Tess, who I’m still dating to this day. The next time I saw John on the banks of the North Platte the following summer, we went double or nothing, because I thought the odds of any woman putting up with me for more than a year were even greater than the original bet. I’m not sure why I bet against Tess, but it was probably just in the hopes of finally getting one up on John. Another year passed and John again beat long odds. I called him and said I had his $40. He told me to keep it and buy him a drink the next time I saw him. I’ve held that note, along with the same $40, on my desk for the past five years, planning to stand him one martini – Beefeaters please, with a twist – on my wedding day. Should that day ever come, that martini will get poured for John’s spirit will surely be there to cash in his bet.
The Last First
** by Chuck Smock, Editor, Cabela’s Outfitter Journal**
I had the pleasure of fishing with Mr. Merwin twice: in fall 2010 in western New York for smallmouth bass on the Niagara River; and last spring in Florida for peacock bass in the canals near Miami.
The thought of fishing with the Fishing Editor of Field & Stream magazine excited and terrified me.
But John never was intimidating or boastful with me on the water. His angling skills, however, even in the later stage of his career when health issues were slowing him a bit, were quite impressive.
On the Niagara River, he went from slinging spinnerbaits with a baitcasting reel, to drop-shotting live crawfish with spinning gear, to fly-casting tight, perfect loops of line with a Clouser minnow attached to the end of the leader. And he caught smallmouth bass using all three techniques.
John Merwin, a guy who during amazing career writing about fishing had traveled everywhere, and caught everything, obviously loved to fish, but – when I knew him – he also liked to sit in the back of the boat, sipping coffee poured from the thermos he took along on each trip. Or smoking a cigarette. Or asking the guide about the local fishery, and the history of the area, and if he had any good guide stories. Guides always have good guide stories.
When prodded, John freely offered words of wisdom and advice, but he said something after our day of fishing for Florida peacock bass that really stuck with me. Five small words that seem ominous in retrospect, but make me very happy I shared the adventure with him.
“I’ve known these fish were here for a long time, but I never managed to make the trip,” he said, almost apologetically, before his eyes sparkled and he smiled. “I’m glad I did this.”
Get On With It
**by Rick Bach, Former Field & Stream Intern **
It must have been a dream. It couldn’t be a cowbell ringing from the bottom of the stairs to wake me up for breakfast. But it was.
I was in the spare bedroom of John’s home, pinching myself as a young aspiring outdoor journalist, staying with a writer who’d penned more words about angling than almost anyone, and he was clanging a bell to wake me up.
After making Merwin’s online acquaintance as an intern at Field & Stream, I’d kept in touch. He’d tolerated my incessant questions about fishing, writing and life. And as I attempted to summon the courage to leave a full-time job and fish my way around the country for Outdoor Life Magazine, I found myself on his doorstep seeking advice, atlas in hand.
He ascertained that I needed to eat something, prepared a meal, avoided smalltalk, brought me into his writing room, pulled up a chair, handed me a beer, and said, “sit.” Through the fog of beer and cigarette smoke, I went along my intended route while he gave me the names of rivers, lakes and guides to investigate. The country was like his backyard. He knew every inch, crevice and trout hole.
In seven months I’d fish as much of the country as I could, my life and perspective would change, and I’d see more beauty than I knew existed. The decision to leave was difficult, and after waxing poetic with my indecision, John said: “Well, get on with it.” He gave me, through his wisdom and brutal honesty, the courage to do something I needed to, but was uncertain I could. I am grateful to be one of the thousands of people he influenced in such a profound and positive way.