The Best of
Ed Zern

Ed Zern
(The Lyons Press)
These are Zern's basic theses:
  • There are people who hunt and fish;
  • They also drink and tell lies when they are fishing and hunting;
  • Or any other time;
  • They are not interested in anything else;
  • Like politics, wives, children ... you name it;
  • If you think they are dotty, you have another think coming.

Zern's writing is wonderfully droll. For some of us he is a lifetime addiction (I first read him in 1947). It might have to do with the names. Zern seems to know everyone and anyone in this country who spends any time at all hunting and fishing: he's constantly dropping names of people we've never heard of. Hell, I don't know --- maybe he makes them all up.

He also seems conversant with every place in America and the rest of the Western world where one can drop dry flies in a cold river, or fish from a boat, or take a shotgun to zebras, deer, woodcocks, or spend mornings shivering in a blind waiting for ducks or turkeys to happen by.

I guess some of his charm is his well-disguised intellectualism. In one of his pieces for Field & Stream --- Field & Stream, mind you --- he slips in references to Wagner (comparing his operas to big game hunting), Bach Sonatas (trout fishing with a dry fly). Proust and Joyce turn up here or there, as does D. H. Lawrence (see below).

The main reason that Ed Zern is not listed up there with S. J. Perelman, Robert Benchley, E. B. White and Peter de Vries is because he wrote for the sporting set at Field & Stream instead of the smart set at The New Yorker. Yet he bests many of the more famous humorists --- with the possible exception of Perelman. Here, for instance, is his complete review of a certain lurid book you may have run across:

    Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley's Lover has just been reissued by Grove Press, and this fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoorminded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways of controlling vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper. Unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savor these sidelights on the management of a Midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer's opinion this book can not take the place of J. R. Miller's Practical Gamekeeping.

The Best of Ed Zern contains over 200 of his columns along with excerpts from his six books. Unlike the humorists listed above, Zern did not, thank god, mellow with age or begin to parody himself. His later writings are just as waspish and silly as those from sixty years ago. He goes to Mont St. Michel, for example, and calls it "an island with a chapel on it surrounded by water too shallow for good fishing." Or this, one of his many Q&A's:

    Q. When I became engaged, my fiancee said she understood how much I loved to hunt and fish, and promised never to interfere. Now we're married, and she nags me night and day to give up outdoor sports altogether. She says if I loved her I'd gladly stay home. If this keeps on I'm going to blow my brains out. Please give me whatever advice you can.

    A: Since trajectory isn't important here, our recommendation would be a .35 Remington with 200-grain soft-nose bullet. E. Z.

Or this suggested test for would-be trout fishermen:

    Q. After spending considerable time and money learning to tie flies, you collect a magnificent assortment of natural blue dun and other high-grade hackle, furs for dubbing, fine-wire hooks and other materials. Shortly after you install a fully-equipped fly-tying table in your den, your six-year-old son develops a violent allergy to feathers. What action do you take?

    A. Frankly, you may not get full credit on this if you suggest putting the boy up for adoption. There are several good boarding schools that accept boys of this age, or you could send him to live with relatives. Adoption is a lengthy, bothersome process.

And this from my all-time favorite sports book, To Hell with Fishing:

    Some wiseguy once defined a fishing line as a piece of string with a worm on one end and a damn fool on the other.

    This is a silly definition, of course --- for many fishermen use flies instead of worms. They think it is more hoity-toity. If worms cost two bits apiece, and you could dig Royal Coachmen and Parmacheene Belles out of the manure pile, they would think differently. This is called human nature.

    Fly fishermen spend hours tying little clumps of fur and feathers on hooks, trying to make a trout fly that looks like a real fly. But nobody has ever seen a natural insect trying to mate with a Fanwing Ginger Quill.

Not content with putting out some of the funniest prose in American letters, Zern also does the illustrations --- except for a few by Webster from To Hell with Fishing and To Hell with Hunting. These give Zern a chance for a back-and-forth with the pictures, a /monologue/dialogue worthy of Will Cuppy (who ended one of his tales exchanging insults with the footnotes).

In his later books, Zern does his own drawings, and they are very waggish. It all makes me think that he might be a peculiar version of the modern Renaissance man. Not only does he write witty prose and draw pictures and know every type of gun and bit of fishing-tackle and every dismal fishing-hole and ratty hunting-lodge in the Western Hemisphere, he probably paints ceiling murals at the Sistine Cathedral and, when he has time, composes Spenserian sonnets on the side.

--- L. W. Milam
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