Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Voices from the Past: Ed Zern (1958)

Ed Zern was always my favorite of the "back-page" outdoor magazine writers. Of all the angling humorists I always got the feeling he understood the fishermen better than the others. And, of course, he could be devastatingly funny (see To Hell With Fishing). But he was also clever, as was the case with the following story called "Uncle Milo and the Monster Trout." This particular story had an interesting history. It was the only Zern story to be run twice (consecutively). Published first in the April 1958 The Fisherman magazine, the editor botched the ending--leaving the all-important tag off, rendering the story pointless. Inundated by frustrated and confused readers, Zern's story was run in full form the following month. It is reprinted here with editorial mea culpa. Note that not long after this, Ed Zern switched over to Field & Stream. Whether the editorial gaffe had anything to do with it is not known, but it could not have helped.

-- Dr. Todd


Since the appearance of the March issue of The FISHERMAN and Ed Zern's story "Uncle Milo and the Monster Trout," many readers have written to ask a rather pointed question: "Has Zern lost his mind?" They have been curious as to the strange lack of point in the story. Something, they felt, was missing. They were quite correct. And what was missing was surely not Mr. Zern's mind which is still as intact as it can be under the circumstances. What was missing, simply, was that portion of the story upon which the entire point was hinged. It was dropped in one of those maddening moments when, in making space for something else, an editorial pencil slipped and neatly excised the wrong thing. Because The FISHERMAN feels that "Uncle Milo and the Monster Trout" (with its full point intact) is one of the most hauntingly fine fishing stories ever written, it is repeated herewith--in its entirety. Anyone who read the original will be vastly relieved and rewarded by reading the full version. Anyone who did not read the first one, has a treat corning now.


by Ed Zern

Last May my Uncle Milo died--of a coronary thrombosis, the doctor said. He was found dead in his study, where he'd been making an entry in his fishing diary. I was sorry to hear about it, because although I never knew him very well I had liked him; then it occurred to me that he had owned several really fine trout fly rods and some other tackle, and I wondered what would become of the stuff. So I wrote to my Aunt Lila, Milo's widow, saying I'd like to buy the Payne and the Thomas rods and some other odds and ends, and suggested a very fair price.

I didn't think I'd get the rods, because in his home town of Connell's Forks, Pennsylvania, Uncle Milo was a well-known fisherman, and had many close friends among local sportsmen there; some of them would be sure to get the best of his tackle. I was right about the rods, but Aunt Lila did send me a salmon reel I'd put in a bid for and a couple of boxes of standard-pattern salmon flies. She also sent me Milo's fishing diary, saying it might be of interest to me since I was a writer and since she had tried to read it and had been unable to make head or tail of it. It was a large, battered notebook with entries dating back to the middle Twenties. I browsed through it a few pages at a time all through this past winter, and found that most of the entries were too cryptic to be of much interest--"Tried Connell's Branch with Tom G. No luck," "Took limit before noon above CCC Camp," Rained all day. Four trout on cahill, one on bucktail"--that sort of thing.

Between the dates of May, 1952, and the last entry there were six or seven references to a large brown trout reputed to live in the lower end of the "Wagon Pool" in Smith's Creek; it had been christened "Herbert" by Uncle Milo or some of his cronies. Since Smith's Creek annually produces at least four or five brown trout of five pounds or better, and occasionally a verified seven-pounder, any fish that rated a nickname must have been quite a trout. The final entry in the journal was the longest in the entire volume, and I quote it here in toto:

Saturday, May 11, 1957. Delivered the table to Mrs. Haskauer and went direct from there to Walker's Bridge, left station wagon back of store and started fishing at first bend. Had a leadwing coachman for dropper and picked up five small trout on it before I got to Tent Rock, but except for one chub nothing touched the tail fly, a Hare's Ear No. 8, same fly on which took three-pound rainbow opening day. Met Dave Sneeder at Tommer's Brook Pool, he had no fish but said some were rising at lower end of fast run below RR bridge, wouldn't take Quill Gordon although feeding on naturals. Ate lunch on bench at Boy Scout Camp and watched water but saw only chub rises. After lunch walked across meadow and followed path along river to Henderson Run Pool where I lost the big brown last week. fished both sides of pool but took only two small trout.

About 3 P.M. walked on down along creek to Wagon Pool. sat beside upper end of pool watching small chubs taking a few natural March Browns. Joined by city fellow in new waders and fancy tackle but pleasant, eager to learn. Said he owed great debt to fishing, didn't say what kind, probably health. Had three dandy trout in creel. biggest about nineteen inch. said he'd taken all on dry fly he designed and ties himself, calls it Fallen Angel. Something like Hendrickson but body more sulphur- colored. Asked me about big trout. Told him all local gossip about Herbert and various people who have hooked and lost him. Said I'd sell my soul just to latch onto Herbert for ten minutes.

After city fellow went on upstream, saw small trout rise nicely to March Brown so switched to dry fly, dressed my line and fished dry but no luck. Worked on down through Wagon Pool, ten-inch chub took fly just above boulder at head of fast water and ran down into riffle. Then something took chub. Felt tremendous weight and power when tried to reel chub in, then line stripped off reel in screaming run across riffle and up into main pool again. Knew it was Herbert when he ran
back upstream. Held rod high and walked upstream above boulder, waded out into channel far as possible to try to keep him from going downstream into fast water again.

Kept pressure on him as much as possible with 3X gut but he was sulky, finally when arm almost paralyzed holding rod high, tapped butt to stir him up. Monster took off, came down around boulder and into fast water. never even slowed up when he came to the end of backing. Pop! Reeled in feeling sick, decided to call it quits. maybe give up fishing altogether. On way back to station wagon met city fellow again, told him I'd hooked Herbert. More than ten minutes, wasn't it, he said. It surely was, I said. Fine. he said, laughing. I'll be around at midnight to collect. Collect what, I said. You. he said, that was the deal wasn't it. I'm not in any mood for jokes, I said, and he said sorry, no offense but a deals a deal, midnight sharp. I went on up to the car.

Thinking about it just now, got to wondering about city fellow. Where from? Strange accent. Can't understand how anyone could see how upset I was by loss of big trout and make feeble jokes about "collating." But it is now exactly five minutes after midnight so my slight nervousness about stranger was unwarranted.

Just occurred to me I set watch ahead five minutes this morning so must be exactly midni

* * * * *

Aunt Lila found Uncle Milo the next morning, with his fountain pen still in his hand. I'm glad he hooked Herbert before he died, but I wish I'd got that Thomas rod.


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