Tag Archives: Battenkill

Remembering John Merwin

Daily Gazette article
Thursday, February 28, 2013
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By Morgan Lyle

John Merwin

John Merwin, founder of Fly Rod & Reel magazine and author of “The Battenkill,” was remembered as a consummate writer and editor. He died Feb. 20 at age 66. (Photo courtesy the Merwin family)


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 morganlyle@gmail.com.


After the Flood

Daily Gazette article
Thursday, September 29, 2011

Already show signs of recovery from storms

By Morgan Lyle

Fly-Fishing: Trout streams should return to normal

Photo of
Author Mike Valla of Ballston Spa fishes the upper Schoharie Creek in the Catskills ON Sept. 18. _(Valerie Valla)

Trout stream custodians, both official and volunteer, continue to assess the impact of Tropical Storms Irene and Lee on area waterways.

No doubt, there was grave damage to trout, insects and habitat on some streams, especially small, high-gradient tributaries. But there have also been encouraging reports.

“Overall conditions remain pretty much as they were prior to the flood, and we were unanimous in our conclusion that it is extremely unlikely that the recovering trout population experienced any setback as a result of the flood,” said Ken Cox, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife biologist who has overseen efforts restore the wild trout population on the Battenkill in Vermont over the past decade.

Most of that work has involved adding boulders, root wads and other natural features back to the Battenkill so trout have places to hide and grow fat ,safe from pred­ators. By and large, these structures stayed put, despite the epic flows, Cox said.

He noted that the severe weather had occurred well before the time when brown and brook trout normally spawn.

“If there is anything good to be said for the timing of Irene with respect to trout populations, it is that it occurred before the spawning season and the river substrate is loose and not overburdened with sediments. So, the prognosis for spawning and egg incubation success looks good pending ‘normal’ winter and spring river conditions,” Cox reported.

Downstream in New York, similar habitat restoration projects also held during the flood, reports Battenkill Watershed Alliance Executive Director Cynthia Browning. She and Carl Schwartz from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service looked the Washington County stretch of the river over last week.

“Mr. Schwartz found that the Battenkill had flooded out into the floodplain and then returned to its channel without significant erosion or excess sedimentation,” Browning said. “He said that there might be an initial decline in the insect pop­ulation, but that would be followed by a rebound as the newly cleaned gravel bed is re-colonized.”

“This good news for the fish habitat should not be seen as minimizing the damage to crops, houses, and infrastructure from the flooding,” Browning added.

Of course, trout streams were ground zero for the tropical storms, and it would be silly to think there would be no impact at all. Mike Valla of Ballston Spa, author of “Tying Catskill Style Dry Flies,” was poking around the upper Schoharie Creek two weeks ago and found that while the stream had already resumed running shallow and clear, it seemed barren of the aquatic insects upon which trout depend.

“Of course, who knows what things were like, bugs-wise, prior to the flood,” said Valla, who has been hanging around Catskills trout streams since his boyhood days as a houseguest of legendary fly-tiers Walt and Winnie Dette. “But it is very peculiar that the upper Schoharie headwaters seemed empty of macro invertebrates. Weird. I turned over many rocks yesterday. Nothing.”

It seems that all our trout streams will eventually recover from the great floods of 2011, but some will take longer than others.

Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at morganlyle@gmail.com.

40 Rivers’ Alex Cerveniak

Fly-Fishing: Cerveniak’s move was region’s gain

From The Daily Gazette, Schenectady, N.Y.

Alex Cerveniak of Clifton Park is one of fly-fishing’s top bloggers (40 Rivers to Freedom, at hatchesmagazine.com/blogs/40rivers) and the content director for Hatches magazine, the annually published-on-paper and regularly updated online fly-tying journal, as well as the magazine’s sister Web site, Flyaddicts.com.

Considering how popular blogs, Web sites and magazines are with fly-fishers, those are impressive pos­itions to hold. They’re all the more remarkable when you consider Cerveniak cast his first fly just five years ago.

He was deer hunting in his native Michigan, but bovine tuberculosis had made deer scarce, and he was bored.

“I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to start fly-fishing,’ ” he said. “I’d read that steelhead fishing was good during deer season because everybody is out deer hunting.”

That was in the fall of 2004. By the following January, he had acquired the necessary gear for fly-tying, as well as fly-fishing. “I was all in,” he said. That spring, he was catching trout on flies he tied himself. He had a dozen blue-ribbon trout streams within a half-hour of his home in Gaylord, Mich., including the famed Au Sable, as well as tributaries to lakes Huron and Michigan for steelhead and salmon runs.

“It’s just one of those things where you love it, and it’s all you can think about and it’s all you want to do,” he said.

But Cerveniak also is a family man, with a wife, 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son, and family men need incomes. So when the Georgia Pacific particle board factory in northern Michigan closed down three years ago, he reluctantly decided to relocate. His wife, Janet, has a sister, Jamie Radebach, whose husband, Matt, works at the General Electric Co. Global Research Center in Niskayuna.

The Cerveniaks came for a visit that summer, found jobs and an apartment in the Capital Region, and went back home to pack up and move for good. Now, he’s a lab technician at Adirondack Specialty Adhesives in Albany and an envir­onmental science major at Hudson Valley Community College.

“There’s tons of work out here, it’s beautiful, the winters aren’t as long,” he said. “People here have no idea how good they have it, compared to northern Michigan. And [back in northern Michigan] they’ve had two inches of snow on the ground since late September, and they’ll have snow on the ground until mid-May.”

How does he find the fishing in New York? Most of the really good trout fishing involves some driving.

“Once you hit the hour mark, more opportunities arise,” Cer­veniak said. But within minutes of home, in the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers and plenty of lakes, he found highly satisfying fishing for other species.

In Michigan, “I had a lot more cold-water fisheries — more trout, more steelhead, more salmon,” he said. “But the warm-water fishing here is 10 times better than it was back there — the smallmouth and largemouth bass. Other places in the world would consider this world-class smallmouth bass fishing. A lot of days you’ll get into the smaller fish, the 10- to 14-inch fish, that people will get bored with, but there’s nice fish too — you just have to take the trouble to find them.

“Carp fishing has become a little bit of an obsession.”

Naturally, there are steelhead and salmon to be caught three hours to the west of Clifton Park, and Cerveniak has made the trek many times. Also, naturally, he fishes the Battenkill River. In fact, he found some time on a late October Sunday to fish the Battenkill with Geoff Schaacke, who happens to be another fly-fishing blogger from the Capital Region (he’s co-author with Robin Hill of The Angler’s Net at www.theanglersnet.com).

It was pouring rain — a cold, drenching downpour. They floated the Battenkill in a canoe and cast, among other things, a large, shiny, two-hook jointed streamer fly called the Circus Peanut, and caught big, beefy brown trout in weather that would make any sane living thing miserable.

“If you’re going to fish, you’ve got to fish,” Cerveniak said. “You can’t get good at fishing in the wind on nice sunny days. I go to school full time, and I work full time, and my kids are both in sports, and when you get time to fish, you’ve got to fish.

“Hey, the post office still delivers mail in the rain.”