The last time I saw John, we were somewhere on Lake Powell. We were attending one of those outdoor-writer junkets, coordinated in that instance by St. Croix Rods. We sat atop house boats, drank Scotch, watched the stars appear, and talked about fishing.
Sometimes great people choose to write about the outdoors for a career. Who knows why. A longtime editor with Field & Stream, John Merlin was one of those. He was one of the founders of Rod & Reel, later to be known as Fly Rod & Reel. You can read of John’s many other accomlishments in better obituaries, written by people who knew him better than I.
I met John in Ireland, on another of those junkets, sponsored by the tourism board of Ireland. We shared different castles every few nights with some of the best fly fishermen from both Ireland and America. And, having the opportunity to share a mug of Stout with them after long days spent fishing the many rivers of the Emerald Isle, we had little choice but to listen to them pontificate. A conspiratorial wink and a knowing smile over one of those mugs of “fresh” stout in an Irish pub endeared me to John.
I sat beside him in defeat on the River Shannon. She was too wide and deep to ford, so we both finally surrendered to a gale that blew in our faces all day. We sat together and marveled at John Randolph’s ability to rifle 50-foot casts into that mighty wind. All for naught, as the salmon sat and sulked in their deep pools, completely uninterested in everything we threw at them. It was August—a decidedly bad time to angle for Irish salmon. They sat in the rivers from May until we arrived, sulking and getting less active with each passing day. I was the only angler to hook a salmon on that tour, and I was coached every step of the way by John. It quickly shook free, but I was immensely grateful. It was fairly hooked, and John’s smile was bigger than mine, he having long ago graduated to that level of angling knowledge and ability that allows us to appreciate someone else’s accomplishments better than our own.
We met for many years at I-Cast and shared lunch or, at the very least, a cigarette, outside, in the searing summer heat of Vegas. John’s wit always placed everything at The Show in better perspective.
When I lost my full-time editorial position to the Great Recession, John was the first to offer advice. His was best, and I’ll keep that between he and I.
John could handle a fly rod like few others, but he seemed to equally enjoy fishing for crappies or bass with plastics and a spinning rod. Some called John a “curmudgeon,” or a “grump.” But he never looked down his nose at me, or, I think, any other angler. In my experience, when the nattering naybobs spoke (of which our industry is populated with an inordinate supply), he was more likely to smile, look for someone who could appreciate it, and offer a nod.
Under the stars, in the perfect stillness of an early autumn night on Lake Powell, we talked about carp under the winking stars. John didn’t care much for carp. Which made me smile. I disagreed with everything he said and blurted out something witty that made everyone burst out laughing, probably not so much because it was extremely funny, but because I had the chutzpah to tweak the nose of a giant like Merwin. He just sat and smiled, quietly showing me the mercy I so ill deserved.
John’s eyes were always smiling. He had a devlish sense of humor, but somehow managed to deeply offend no one that I know of. He was an enthusiast and a teacher who authored or edited 15 books, primarily on the subject of angling. Primarily for you. If not acquainted with his work, please use this link to read one of his last blog posts for Field & Stream, called The Lake. If nothing there reminds you why fishing maintains a grip on you, check your pulse.
John passed last Wednesday, after an extended illness. My sincere condolences to his family. Though I’ve never met any of them, they will always be welcome here, as long as I have a guest room to offer. He was a very good friend of mine. I doubt he knew that, because I never told him so. I will miss him a great deal.