Born in the Basement

Born in the Basement

How FR&R came to be...

  • By: Phil Monahan
FR&R 30 Years Logo.jpg

In the mid 1970s, Connecticut native John Merwin was living the back-to-the-land dream in northern Vermont, tending a herd of beef cows and growing his own food, when he came across an issue of Fly Fisherman magazine. A writer and lifelong angler, Merwin was intrigued. “My first thought was ‘This is awful,’” Merwin remembers, but he liked the idea of the magazine, which was edited by its founder, Don Zahner.

Merwin submitted a couple of fly-fishing articles to Zahner, who was impressed enough that he asked Merwin to become managing editor of the magazine. So, Merwin sold the farm and moved south to Dorset, Vermont, to begin a career as a writer and editor that has lasted more than 30 years.

A few years later, Zahner sold Fly Fisherman to publishing giant Ziff-Davis, and in 1979 Merwin decided to strike out on his own. His goal was to launch a fishing magazine featuring better writing and more diverse content, produced at “a higher level of intelligence” than the titles presently then on the newsstand. Thus was Rod & Reel born, in the basement of Merwin’s house, with the help of Kit Parker, whom he had lured away from Fly Fisherman as a partner to run the business side of the operation. Although at first the magazine covered all kinds of fishing, Merwin decided after a few issues that a more narrowly defined publication, devoted exclusively to fly-fishing, would work better.

Promising that his new title would be a cut above the competition, Merwin was able to convince authors such as Lefty Kreh and Charlie Fox to write for him. But his biggest coup was landing Lee Wulff, who at the time was a columnist for Sports Afield, one of the “Big Three” national sporting magazines, with a circulation in the hundreds of thousands.

When Tom Paugh, the editor of Sports Afield, told Wulff that he could not write for Rod & Reel, Wulff quit his prestigious post and took over the back page of Merwin’s untested startup—a testament to both Wulff’s stubbornness and his belief in Merwin’s ambitious vision.

From the beginning, Merwin tried to offer his readers something different from the standard fare. “It’s important to have a surprise or two per issue,” Merwin says, and his Rod & Reel included articles ranging from Robert Traver essays to an analysis of trout vision, as well as no-holds-barred reviews—even negative ones—of fishing gear. (See the All About… column on page 58 of this issue for Ted Leeson’s input on his decades of gear reviews.)

Merwin remembers those early days fondly, but he was working like a one-armed wallpaper-hanger: reading submissions, editing stories, designing and laying out the pages, and “running around New York City to raise money.” The son of a photographer, he also took many of the photos that accompanied articles. To add to the workload, Merwin also started a trade magazine called Fly-Fishing Retailer, which served the fly-fishing industry and offered a way for mom-and-pop operations and new businesses to get the word out on their new products.

The recession of 1981-1982 and grind of producing and financing two magazines took their toll, and Merwin sold both titles to Down East Publishing in 1983. He then served as director of the American Museum of Fly Fishing until 1986, when he returned to writing full-time. He is the author of more than a dozen books on fishing and has been writing for Field & Stream since 1994, and currently serves as the magazine’s Fishing Editor.

Phil Monahan is the former editor of American Angler magazine. He lives in southern Vermont.