Being at the ICAST and IFTD (conventional and fly tackle) trade shows in Las Vegas this week has been, as usual, wonderful. Gun Nuts get charged up about SHOT show; we “fish heads” get all worked up about the fishing tackle shows, and they did not disappoint this year. I’ve seen and played with more interesting, legitimately innovative new products than I have at these shows in years.
But I have to say there’s a big piece missing. It isn’t a “something,” rather, a “someone,” and that person is John Merwin, the former fishing editor for Field & Stream who sadly passed away last February.
Usually, we writers keep the “behind the scenes” stuff to ourselves, but I’m going to break with that tradition and give you all some backstory.
I’ll set it up by saying that, despite what you might think about “living the dream” when it comes to writing about fishing for a living, it’s a very tough job. Sure, we get plenty of gear, get to travel and fish, and get to write about that. But every penny always counts, the road gets mighty long, and anglers, as an audience, are rightfully very critical. You need not have run for office to be a political reporter or a wonk on cable television, and playing in the NFL is not a requirement for being a pro football beat reporter. But if you don’t know your stuff when it comes to fishing–if you haven’t stood knee-deep in water for many, many hours–you just can’t pull this job off.
Nobody knew his stuff better than Merwin did.
And the thing is, when I joined the Field & Stream fold a decade ago, I was invading Merwin’s space. I had some writing chops, but I still had “spots” when it came to writing about fishing. He could have been a total jerk and stiff-armed me and made my life difficult.
Instead, he invited me for after-hours drinks in the lounge at the Hilton at the ICAST show in Vegas to “talk about things.” I, of course, bought the martinis. And Merwin didn’t worry about second-hand smoke as he worked through a good handful of lung darts during that first confab.
Merwin was not a candor-challenged individual. He told me what he liked about my work and what he thought sucked. And he said “sucked.” He could be cantankerous and rough. But he was a teddy bear at heart. And he deeply cared about fishing.
Thing is, I listened to what he said. Thus, I earned his trust, we made peace, and in ways, he took me under his wing. And every subsequent year at these trade shows, one way or another, Merwin and I would carve out time to have the “annual talk.” Sometimes it happened at a swanky restaurant, sometimes on a park bench outside the convention hall. It was always very honest, and always helpful.
Truthfully, the last few years were more a formality than anything else. Merwin and I had grown comfortable with each other… comfortable enough that he would actually compliment me on some of my features, and offer helpful advice to steer me through editing the industry trade magazine (which he had done, years earlier). We talked about jazz music. We collectively complained about the publishing industry. We wondered aloud about the future of important natural resources.
For the record, Merwin was one of the loudest proponents for bringing the ICAST and IFTD trade shows together. “We need to put fly fishing back in fishing,” he said. So he would have been encouraged to see this week happen as it did.
I am encouraged too.
But damn, I miss those talks. And I wish he would have seen this himself.
The other night I bought a martini in his honor and let it sit across the table, untouched, as if he were there.
In many ways, he was. And he always will be.