Notes on John Merwin; fisherman, writer, mentor

John Merwin died last month; Feb. 20, to be exact. Merwin was well-known in fishing circles; his accomplishments warranting a eulogy in the New York Times. Among other achievements, of which there were many including authorship of The New American Trout Fishing, he served for a while as fishing editor for Field & Stream. Some of the folks at that fine publication have gathered some of John’s best works along with a few personal remembrances at It’s worth reading.

I worked for Merwin briefly, when he served as regional editor for Field & Stream and I served as a regional contributor. We weren’t close and only met once. Most of the work communications then – as now – were handled via e-mail. I don’t recall Merwin ever complaining about anything I sent him. I took this silence as a supreme compliment.

Several years ago I somehow got myself invited to a F&S meeting. It was someplace in New York state. I don’t remember where. Merwin was there but this was before he took over regional duties. The meeting was winding down. My friend Scott Bestul (who later became the F&S Whitetail columnist) and I were having coffee with John. Bestul and I were a bit starstruck but during the coffee and chat I got the nerve to ask John to give me a fly casting lesson. He said yes. When Scott asked to join us John refused his request, framing his answer in something of a joke. I assumed this was so I wouldn’t embarrass myself in front of my friend, who was and remains a skilled fly caster.

Merwin rigged a rod and I follow him beyond a stand of trees were no one would see us. The lesson was basic. The same things I had read (many times in John’s books and articles) dozens of times. But standing there beside Merwin, who was one of the best and most knowledgable fly fishermen in the world, things changed. I became a different fisherman. And, ultimately, a different writer.

We spent several minutes together; John casting then watching me cast, making corrections, giving suggestions, taking the rod and showing me things it would have taken years to discover on my own. So relaxed was it that I forgot for a moment that I was getting a personal minute with someone who could arguably have been considered the best in the world at what he was doing. it was a sobering thought.

He then told me something, a prediction of sorts, that I won’t repeat here. At the time I thought he was mistaken but it turned out that he was correct. I did ask why he thought the way he did. His answer stunned me. It still does.