John Merwin was a private guy. You didn’t see him on TV, or hosting seminars at fly-fishing shows, or liking and commenting on Facebook.
But he had friends and fans, and in the week since his death, they have remembered him as an expert angler, a curmudgeon with a heart of gold and one of the most important fishing writers and editors of his time.
Merwin — founder of Fly Rod and Reel magazine, longtime fishing editor at Field & Stream and author of 15 books, including the definitive history of the Battenkill River — died Feb. 20 at age 66 after a brief illness.
“Gruff, erudite, opinionated, tireless, and constitutionally candid, he was a force on the angling scene, pulling the levers of the industry from a lawn chair in rural Vermont,” wrote Merwin’s friend Dave Hurteau of Saratoga Springs, deputy editor and columnist at Field & Stream, who wrote an obituary on behalf of Merwin’s family.
Merwin’s “The New American Trout Fishing,” published in 1994, is a superb book — “the best modern book on trout fishing, period,” in the words of Merwin’s Field & Stream colleague, Kirk Deeter.
You could read nothing else on the subject and live a happy life as a trout fisherman.
It’s an ambitious, literary how-to book that treats readers to history, science and commentary along with instruction.
But for Capital Region anglers, Merwin’s most important book was “The Battenkill: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Trout River — Its History, People and Fishing Possibilities.”
There’s never been anything remotely like it written about the Battenkill, or most trout rivers, for that matter. It’s a richly detailed history of the river, and to an extent of trout fishing itself in the 19th and 20th centuries.
As one might expect, Merwin writes about the Battenkill’s most famous fisherman, the legendary Lee Wulff. But “The Battenkill” also covers Norman Rockwell and Grandma Moses and “the half-mythical (Ethan) Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, who were in fact a handful of arrogant tavern drunks, bullying New York settlers along the border both before and shortly after the American Revolution.”
It’s not a how-to book, but anyone who reads it will learn how to fish the Battenkill. Merwin will warn them he sometimes takes an hour to wade 100 feet, which drives some of his friends nuts but avoids frightening the big trout. And you can almost see him wag his finger when you read, “use a three- to four-foot-long tippet of 6X [or lighter with ultra-small flies] for everything except streamers, even if the book you’ve read says to use 4X with your size-14 Hendrickson dries.”
Hurteau, who fished with Merwin often, heard lots of stuff like that.
“I met John in 1995,” he recalled in an interview. “I was a young, new punk editor from the wilderness at Field and Stream. John was already a legend. I had no idea who he was. The first words John ever spoke to me in person were, ‘You talk too much.’ ”
But under the grumpy New England veneer, Merwin was a softie. “He showed you in no uncertain way that he cared about you,” Hurteau said. “He went way out of his way to take a lot of us young editors under his wing and take care of us. It’s something that has been lost a little bit in editing circles these days — people are just too busy.”
And Merwin, a Connecticut native who began his career as a newspaperman after attending the University of Michigan, “was the standard bearer for integrity in fishing writing,” Hurteau said. “We really looked to John for the right way to do things, and he was just adamant about that. He insisted that things be done the right way.”
Hence the great books, and the many great articles and blog posts, and the overall quality of the magazines he led.
Merwin wasn’t afraid to show his sentimental side in his writing, at least when he was writing about the Battenkill.
“After about 40 years of chasing trout from Maine to California and beyond, I know that the Battenkill is my favorite place,” he wrote. “The Battenkill is more like Bach; with green hills, covered bridges and white-clapboard villages forming the gently repeating steps of a sweetly insistent fugue in which rising trout play an occasional part. Perhaps you’ll develop a taste for it. As I have.”
Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.