Tag Archives: John Merwin

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.


Casting for Carp Can Be Challenging

Daily Gazette article

Thursday, February 7, 2013

By Morgan Lyle

One year ago, Field & Stream fishing editor John Merwin declared in the magazine’s fishing blog, The Honest Angler, that “Carp Fishing is Not the Next Big Thing.”

In the post, he referred to an art­icle he had written in 2006, comparing fly-fishing for carp to dragging a piece of fried chicken through a senior citizen center. “If it looks good and moves slowly enough, something will eventually try to gum it to death,” he wrote.

Merwin’s been around long enough to see plenty of next big things, and his authority is seldom questioned. Still, carp fishing sure looks like a big deal these days, and seemed to really take off in 2012. In magazines and blogs, on Facebook and YouTube — all summer long, you saw anglers proudly holding up large fish with big scales and vacuum snouts.

This year, Merwin’s partner at The Honest Angler, Kirk Deeter (who is also editor of Trout Unlimited’s membership magazine, Trout) will have a new book out on fly-fishing for carp, and I’m betting it will sell a lot of copies.

Carp fans generally cite two general reasons for their enthus­iasm. The first is that carp are fussy eaters and it’s hard to get them to bite. No veteran fly-fisher can resist a challenge to his or her skill.

The other reason is that carp are so widely available. Carp live in everything from Texas farm ponds to Colorado reservoirs to the flats of the Lake Michigan shore.

They’re versatile fish that can tolerate water that’s much warmer, dirtier and oxygen-poorer than trout — so while the trout angler often drives anywhere from an hour to a day to find a suitable stream, just about everyone lives within a few miles of carp water.

One of the best places to fish for carp in the Capital Region, and in fact one of the coolest places to fish for any species, is the mouth of the Mohawk River near Peebles Island State Park in Cohoes, where Cobleskill fly-tyer Pat Cohen took me carp fishing one day last summer.

Pat's carp fly box. Or one of them, anyway.

Pat’s carp fly box. Or one of them, anyway.

In case you don’t know — and every fly-fisher in a 50-mile radius of Albany should — this part of the Mohawk is a vast, warm-water fly-fishing playground, with acres of water that’s shallow enough to wade and holds smallmouth bass, carp, the occasional striper and heaven knows what else. There are two waterfalls and many riffles, runs and pools. There’s an angler parking lot behind the U-Haul depot on Ontario Street in Cohoes.

You don’t fish the water when you’re after carp; you target ind­ividual fish. And don’t bother casting to carp rolling and cavorting on the surface; they’re not feeding, and your fly will be ignored. You cast only to fish that are actually feeding.

In fact, even when you do cast to a fish that’s feeding, there’s a good chance your fly will be ignored. Mine was, all day long, despite Cohen’s expert help. He stood on a 20-foot bluff, looking down at the water, and called out directions for me to cast.

“Morgan, there’s a fish 40 feet away at 11 o’clock,” he’d say.

Most of the time, I couldn’t see the fish or even the plumes of mud they kicked up when rooting around for food on the river bottom, but I cast where I was told, or as close as I could.

“Perfect,” Cohen would say when I dropped the fly right where he wanted. “Strip, strip, strip. He sees it, he’s turning, keep stripping.” But every time, the fish seemed to sense that something was wrong, or maybe just lost interest, and went about its business, and Pat had to look around and find me another fish to cast to.

Everything I’d heard about carp being fussy and finicky proved true for me that day. Fortunately for my ego, Cohen didn’t do any better during the few minutes he fished instead of spotting fish for me.


Pat Cohen of Cobleskill fishes for carp on the lower Mohawk River in Cohoes, N.Y. last summer. Big, abundant and challenging to catch, carp are increasingly prized by fly-fishers. (Morgan Lyle/For The Daily Gazette)

Finally, just before it was time to leave in the afternoon, I hooked up. It was my only hook-up all day, and I struck too hard and snapped the 12-pound tippet.

It was a fun day of fishing. I agree with those who say the common carp offers a real test of skill, not to mention the possibility of a tussle with a big fish. And I do appreciate not having to burn up a lot of gas and time to find them.

Of course, carp are butt-ugly, a fact that even their biggest fans don’t dispute much. I guess you take the good with the bad.

Why does Merwin think carp are not the next big thing?

“If my local fishing options consisted solely of carp, I would indeed be an ardent carp angler. But I can fish for three trout species, largemouths, smallies, walleyes, pickerel, pike, and even a few muskies within a 50-mile radius, so I don’t ever bother with carp,” he wrote.

“We have far too many other opportunities on and in the water. And because of that, the carp-fishing ren­aissance here that some are predicting just ain’t gonna happen.”

Far be it from me to argue with John Merwin. But I’m going to buy Kirk Deeter’s book.

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