One of the truly great humorists of the outdoor field, the late Ed Zern was a devoted OWAA member and one of the finest outdoor writers of our time — though many people didn’t consider him an “outdoor writer.”
I considered him one. I also considered my friend the late Gene Hill an outdoor writer — though he never called himself one. I also thought both Ernest Hemingway and Robert Ruark outdoor writers at times — especially when writing about Africa.
Most of his columns, short stories and cartoons, though primarily humor, were in some way concerned with hunting or fishing. Zern’s writing fell into the same category as the writing of our current King of the Yaks, Pat McManus, and Pat certainly falls under the humor/outdoor umbrella.
It must be a genetic trait of humorists that, in person, they don’t appear or sound funny. McManus is no thigh-slapping jokester by any means and it took me years to realize Ed Zern really was funny in person, sometimes, in a laid-back, inscrutable sort of way.
He and I were fly-fishing for smallmouth bass in a canoe on Lac Desert in Canada once. Our Indian guide was quietly paddling us past a sandy bank upon which sat a flock of arctic terns — enjoying the morning sunlight.
“Jackson,” Zern said, turning to me, “You got any rocks with you?”
“Hell no,” I said, “Why?”
“Every intelligent person knows,” He said solemnly, “One never leaves a tern unstoned.”
The Indian looked at him as though he were from outer space.
Zern died a few years ago from Parkinson’s disease, a malady that leaves one with disabling shaking in the last few years of one’s life. It would have depressed a lesser man than Zern. 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 lot of people never did realize when Zern was being funny. He nearly drove me nuts when, as editor in chief of Field & Stream, I had to answer mail about him. Zern was forever making up fictitious letters to himself in his regular column. One time he invented a British colonel who wrote him — asking what the term “deer in the rut” meant in America.
Zern solemnly wrote back that the American white-tailed deer was a creature of habit — feeding in the same fields, drinking at the same stream and bedding down in the same patch of woods every night — hence getting into a rut.
I must have gotten 500 irate letters from readers — all telling me that Zern was an idiot and that was not what the dear British colonel had asked at all!
When I asked Zern to devise a satisfactory answer for our readers, he laughed.
“You’re the editor,” He said. “Answer your own mail.”
I finally made-up a standard postcard that read: “Dear Reader: Mr. Ed Zern writes a humor column for Field & Stream.”
One guy definitely didn’t understand Zern. I received a letter from a New Jersey doctor who lived near Atlantic City on the seacoast. He said he didn’t think Ed Zern was funny at all.
The next time I had lunch with Zern I asked what was bothering the good New Jersey doctor.
“He didn’t think you were very funny Ed,” I said. Zern looked at me.
“He didn’t, eh?” He said. “What the hell did he expect? He invited me down to go fishing and we rocked around all morning in his big boat — in high seas and a heavy overcast — and caught nothing. About noon I asked him for a beer and the son of a bitch said he never allowed alcohol in any form on his boat. I told him to take me back to the dock as fast as he could.”
One month Zern was late with his regular column. He sent in one that had run in Field & Stream in the late 1950s, figuring I wouldn’t catch it. He was right. I didn’t. It was a typical loony Zern column about bonefish schools swimming in a counter-clockwise motion in the northern hemisphere and the opposite south of the equator.
But an alert reader remembered it and notified me. When I called Zern, he wrote me a brief note.
“How many times have you heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony?” he asked. “Have you ever heard it played the same way twice? Of course not!”
Zern loved OWAA and attended as many conclaves as he could. He worked for a major advertising agency in New York and at one time handled the Nash Rambler automotive account. He was famous for his Nash Rambler cartoons — drawn by himself. He officiated as the awarding executive each year for a major oil company OWAA conservation award, which many of us remember well.
Zern, for a desk-bound city man, was a professional outdoorsman. A left-handed shooter, he was an excellent wing shot and a marvelous fly-fisherman. Conscientious about the game laws and bag limits, he adhered strictly to them and was a true gentleman and sportsman. His two loves were bird shooting and fly-fishing for salmon and I was privileged to have spent a good many years doing both with him at many lovely spots in the world.
We hunted big game together in Africa, shot quail and turkeys in Texas and even went big-game fishing in Cuba, where we attended the 1980 Hemingway Tournament in Havana. The high point of that trip for both Zern and me was not so much catching marlin, though we did, but one night we met Hemingway’s longtime guide Carlo Gutierrez who skippered his beloved boat, the Pilar. Gutierrez was 85 years old at that time.
We spent one night sitting in a darkened bar and listened, through an interpreter, as the old man talked of his life with the great writer.
The old fisherman said he once told Hemingway he had been fishing from a dory with a handline and had hooked a white marlin of about 80 lbs. He said he told the writer he felt a tremendous tug while fighting the fish and, when he finally landed the small marlin, it was creased through the middle where something huge had squeezed it. He said he guessed a giant blue marlin had grabbed it and wondered that night if Hemingway had based his famous The Old Man and The Sea on his account.
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.
I remember one night at the storied, old Anterim Lodge in New York State where Zern was sitting at the bar regaling a bunch of young fly-fishermen about the fine points of the sport. He was describing a legendary old man who fished the Beaverkill River and had the most perfect casting style Zern said he had ever seen — elbow against his right side and all his casts made with elbow and wrist.
Zern told his rapt audience he had followed the old man often and said the old timer’s phenomenal success in catching big trout was in the man’s adherence to keeping his elbow pressed against his right side as he cast. Zern said the old man was reported to have kept a book there — held tight against himself to make sure his arm didn’t relax and move away from his body.
“What do you suppose the book was?” asked a young man in a hushed voice.
“I wondered myself,” Zern said. “So I followed him for a couple of days until I found out.”
“What was it ‘George La Branche’?” the young man asked.
“Hell no,” Zern said. “The crafty old bastard. The reason he caught all those big fish was because under his elbow he always carried a cigar box full of night crawlers.”
I can still hear the silence in that venerable old bar.
Ed Zern left a great legacy. I wish to hell I could figure out what it is.
Jack Samson, of Santa Fe, NM, is special correspondent for Saltwater Fly-fishing and saltwater editor of Fly-fishing & Tying Journal.