Ed Zern: The Fisher King of Droll

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Like any curmudgeon, Ed Zern criticized everything, including himself, the sport, and other anglers because they all periodically blocked his path to the river.

If you’ve ever traveled hundreds of miles and spent hundreds of dollars to catch a handful of fish, each smaller than a man’s foot; or if you’ve received facial stitches because your brother, cousin, or some other dimwit hooked your cheek instead of a fish; or if your bumper boasts one of those “A Bad Day of Fishing is Better than a Good Day of Work” stickers; or if you’ve spent the dawn of Christmas, Easter, or Thanksgiving waking with the sparrows in a freezing stream catching nothing more than influenza; or if you’ve purposefully jumped into the water to net a fish, or cancelled a date with a friend for a photo opportunity with a slimy beast, or got stuck in quicksand while crossing a “no problem” creek, Ed Zern is your man.

Zern, the former Field & Stream columnist, essayist, humorist, cartoonist, and outdoor Renaissance Man, celebrated for his dry wit and unique brand of mischievous intellectualism, electrified audiences for decades with that one lure that never fails to hook the maddest and most obsessive angler back into the mundane sanity of daily existence: humor. For more than 34 years, from the late '50s through 1991, Zern authored the magazine’s “Exit Laughing” column. As the Merry Prankster of Outdoor Fanatics and leading candidate for President Emeritus of Anglers Anonymous, he frequently wrote about the “mythical” MARGBM&LRBA -- the Madison Avenue Rod, Gun, Bloody Mary, and Labrador Retriever Benevolent Association -- and lampooned diverse topics from duck hunters to conservation groups to adolescent anglers. His wit knew few boundaries, and he was often the target of his own jokes. When asked about his Parkinson’s Disease, according to an International Herald Tribune piece written by Arthur Higbee in March 1992, Zern replied, “I shake a lot, but it keeps my wristwatch wound.”

And as saltwater fly-fishing guru Jack Samson explains in his tribute to Zern on the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA) Website, “After watching him attempt to address an OWAA conference audience at one of the last ones he attended, I asked him how he was handling the debilitating trembling. ‘Well,’ he replied, with a wry smile, ‘at long last I can now fish a fly like a living insect.’” A long-time member of many important conservation organizations including Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, the Atlantic Salmon Federation, and the Federation of Fly Fisherman, the OWWA has designated Zern one of its legendary “graybeards”, a distinction held by only 47 other 20th century outdoor writers.

Although best known for his Field & Stream column, his books, The Best of Ed Zern, Hunting and Fishing from A to Zern, To Hell with Hunting, and Are Fisherman People?, were also popular. Zern was born in 1910 in West Virginia and died in 1994 at the age of 83, but the laughter he generated still resonates. Zern cast his wisdom behind a mask of irony and humor because through that lens his words and cartoons often make multiple, paradoxical points. In one swift jab, he could mock anglers, conservationists, fish, the government, and himself.

In the Spring 2007 edition of Ralph, The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy, and the Humanities, L.W. Milam reviewed The Best of Ed Zern, republished in 2003. Milam aptly captures Zern’s essential theses: “1) There are people who hunt and fish; 2) They also drink and tell lies when they are fishing and hunting; 3) Or any other time; 4) They are not interested in anything else; 5) Like politics, wives, name it; and 6) If you think they are dotty, you have another think coming.”

Ironically, although he loved fly-fishing for salmon and bird hunting, Zern worked for an advertising agency in New York City. This dichotomy highlights his perverseness, and Zern knew how to bring disparate parties together. As William Washabaugh writes in his book Deep Trout: Angling in Popular Culture, “Zern’s passions and pastimes often seemed out of alignment, as if they were forced into a body that was ill-prepared to receive them. His character was riddled with dramatic incongruities, as if competing forces met head on inside him, never to be reconciled and fully meshed…Though a nattily dressed Madison Avenue man, he embraced leftist social and political positions. He was a corporate man with distinctly counter-corporate inclinations.” Zern’s paradoxical nature was no different than ours: he just embraced and publicly shared it.

Washabaugh reports that after a stint in the merchant marines, Zern worked for the N.W. Ayer Advertising agency in 1934. Fourteen years later, he found work for the Geyer advertising agency, where he designed advertisements for Nash-Kelvinator, which later became American Motors. The car advertisements are filled with angling anecdotes and illustrations with titles such as “Musky Fisherman Marooned!” and “Bait Outwits Fisherman”. A decade later he joined Field & Stream. These ads are as contrarian as Zern himself, especially because in the late '70s, he became a leading opponent of American Motors’s Jeeps because they encouraged driving in fragile ecosystems. Combine Zern’s advertising and urban background with his self-effacing personality, commitment to conservationism, and maverick radicalism, and you have an author with multifaceted perspectives.

Take for example his “Exit Laughing” piece titled “Good News for Anglers”, about the Asian catfish. Exotic dealers of aquarium fish imported this catfish to the states. However, once discarded in local waters, the fish can anatomically “crawl” on land and live without water for several hours. Zern good-naturedly finds hope in this species because it represents the new wave of fishing: eventually, since “the Reagan administration has no intention of making a serious effort to combat water pollution,” anglers will no longer need to get wet because more fish will evolutionarily follow this catfish to escape gross, polluted waters. In one swoop, Zern condemns with a smile Reagan's environmental policies, exotic fish dealers, water polluters, and anglers themselves.

In an online article dated 19 November 2002 on the “Fly Tying: The Angler’s Art” website sponsored by Washington State University, Dave Engerbretson describes how Zern captured both the reverent and irreverent. Engerbretson reports escaping graduate school one day in the late '60s to fish at a local trout stream. As he walked the riverside, he noticed an “apparition” ahead. It was the quintessential fly fisherman, a portrait extracted from the annals of Izaak Walton: the ghost was donning a tweed sport coat, Tattersall vest, Irish tweed hat, silk paisley ascot, and holding an…umbrella and binoculars? It was Ed Zern, and that, in a nutshell, is Ed Zern.

During his tenure in advertising, Zern founded the Chevron Texaco Conservation Awards program, which in 2007 will be celebrating its 53rd anniversary. In a Chevron press release, Helen Engle, a director on the National Audubon Society’s board, said, “Ed had this idea about the awards at a time when conservation was a hard thing to talk about. And he knew intuitively that nothing would be achieved unless we built partnerships.” According to the press release, “(Zern’s) belief in the power of collaboration remains the program’s cornerstone.”

"Cold bird"

Zern understood people and their paradoxes, frailties, idiosyncrasies, and obsessions. Like all good writing, his words are as much about the human condition as they are about the subject of fishing or hunting. He had a great sense of comic timing and a masterful command of language. He adored Hemingway, respected Izaak Walton, and occasionally reviewed classics for Field & Stream such as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He valued other classic outdoor writers, and in the Preface to The Best of Ed Zern, he wrote, “The only immortality I’m sure is available to fisherman is achieved by people like Izaak Walton and Theodore Gordon and Lee Wulff and Roderick Haig-Brown and a few other writers and innovators among whom I’m not numbered.”

Zern also respected the traditions of fishing. Samson said one of their most memorable fishing trips together came during the 1980 Hemingway Tournament in Havana, Cuba. The two men caught several marlin, but more memorably, they met Hemingway’s fishing guide, Carlo Gutierrez, who at 85-years-old narrated his own fishing tale that echoed the story in Hemingway’s classic The Old Man and The Sea. Gutierrez wondered if his story was the source material for Hemingway’s novella. “The old fisherman is long gone now, but years afterward, Zern and I both recalled that night as one of the highlights of our lives,” Samson said.

Zern adored Hemingway, and as Washabaugh writes, like Hemingway, while in his 20s he traveled to Europe to draft a novel; he loved hunting, fishing, and other sports filled with “machismo”; and he was fascinated with Spain, particularly its bullfighting and flamenco guitar playing. However, like Hemingway, Zern was not immune from criticism, and he was occasionally reprehended for his flippant attitude toward women.

Washabaugh writes, “Someone should publish an extended study of sex and gender in the writings of Ed Zern. It would be a dazzlingly complicated but always entertaining project.” Zern’s zany characters did sometimes prefer to fish and hunt in the wild with other men than stay home (or go anywhere) with their female companions. However, to call him a misogynist would be to simplify a complex personality. These depictions speak more about the author’s own obsessions and insecurities than anything else. Zern rejected all obstacles that prevented him from fishing, and they all felt the sting from the whip of his wit. Like any curmudgeon, he criticized everything, including himself, the sport, and other anglers because they all periodically blocked his path to the river. His comic disdain is not directed nor limited to a specific gender. Considering the bulk of his work was produced in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, and considering his stories were often laced with a “let’s not take this too seriously” attitude, one cannot ignore the context of his intended humor. As he once wrote, “Fisherman are born honest, but they get over it.” Zern’s tales force us to not take anything too seriously, including his own words.

Although he reveled in prodding them, Zern was a conservationist, and perhaps his greatest contribution to angling was his effort to promote catch and release fishing. He passionately advocated this angling philosophy, which means catching fish and being required by law to release them back into the water; today, catch and release fishing is an accepted standard for managing fisheries and has since been extended to include fish-friendly mores including smart fish-handling techniques, barbless hooks, or fly-fishing only rivers.

Zern’s belief in the importance of catch and release fishing reflects one of the fundamental themes underlining his life’s work: fish are more than just quarry; they are an extension of ourselves. Like Narcissus, we see our own reflections in those pools where large brown trout lurk, and in those reflections, we learn volumes about our own existence while studying the nuances of other species’. There is a reason why “fishing” isn’t called “catching”: the process, the drama, and the hunt for fish are what really matter. Zern reminded us that there is much to smile about during those pursuits. So the next time you or a friend suffers a sleepless night before a fishing excursion, consider what exactly it is that’s blocking sleep. As Zern frequently noted, it’s probably not the fish, but rather, laughter waiting to be heard.

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