A Distant Touch: Fly Casting with John Randolph
January 20, 2015
A Distant Touch by Joe Mahler
John Randolph was an influential man at a pivotal time in the sport of fly fishing. As editor and publisher of Fly Fisherman magazine, John's gentle guidance shaped much of the way we view and enjoy fly fishing today.
When Ross Purnell, editor of Fly Fisherman magazine, mentioned that John Randolph would be spending a few months in Florida, I didn't waste any time in contacting him in hopes of meeting up. I invited him to spend an evening on Lake Okeechobee with Capt. Mark King and myself. I arrived 15 minutes early to find Mr. Randolph already at the ramp. Oddly, he showed up with minimal equipment and left most of it in his car. When I asked him about any preferences he might have about our evening of fishing, he replied, "I want to do what you guys do."
We came to find out that allowing the guide to guide (or the writer to write) was the modus operandi throughout his career: Fish with the best and expect the best. It seems simple.
During our time together, we discussed the finer points of fly casting. John used the phrase "a distant touch" to describe how a very small movement of the hand can have far-reaching and magnified results on the out-stretched fly line. As I learned, those same words could easily describe his influence on fly fishing as a whole.
John D. Randolph grew up hunting and fishing with his father. When John's father, (John W. Randolph) landed the job as outdoor writer for The New York Times, he was encouraged by his employer to pursue fly fishing. Arrangements were made, and John W. was sent to the home of Lee Wulff for instruction, with 16-year-old John D. in tow. Young John remembers showing up for the first lesson to find Wulff editing the now famous Newfoundland video. "Not a bad start," said John of his first exposure to what would become a life-long passion.
John attended Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he played football and in 1962 received a BA degree, with a major in English. From 1963 to 1966, John served as a rifle platoon and company commander in the U.S. Marine Corps Second Division.
After his service to the country, John entered the corporate world and landed a job with General Electric in Schenectady, New York. But, due to the nature of square pegs and round holes, he decided that a career in journalism would be a better fit. After three years with the Brattleboro Reformer and later the Bennington Banner, John founded The Vermont Sportsman monthly magazine. The course was set.
John Randolph joined Fly Fisherman magazine as managing editor in 1978. At that time, fly fishing was largely a pursuit of the privileged. That would soon change. His travels, military, and journalism work gave John a feel for the pulse of the common sportsman. His "how-to, where-to" approach was an instant hit with readers. From sheefish in the Yukon Territory, to tarpon in Costa Rica, or even panfish in Ohio, Fly Fisherman would offer something for all fly anglers. By assembling top-notch talent such as Lefty Kreh, Dan Blanton, and Nick Lyons, Fly Fisherman magazine became the literary voice of the sport and the world's largest consumer magazine devoted exclusively to the sport of fly fishing.
"John Randolph is a widely experienced fly fisher. He was able to assemble a team of editors who were craftsmen but also were competent anglers for Fly Fisherman magazine," said Lefty Kreh who is still a contributing editor after more than 35 years. "He was wise enough to send all his editors on assignments in both fresh and saltwater, creating a staff that was composed of skilled fly fishermen and editors. I don't think anyone will ever match John's efforts."
John's impact on conservation must also be noted. From day one at Fly Fisherman, no dead fish photos were used and catch-and-release would become standard practice. At times, the Randolph touch was not so distant. John used the "Streamwatch" column and his own "Riffles and Runs" to directly help conservation causes local and abroad — from stream access and water quality issues in Pennsylvania to the controversial Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska.
John's influence on those directly under his leadership was also profound. Many of his employees have gone on to top-level positions in the fly fishing industry. Jay Nichols, former managing editor at Fly Fisherman, and currently publisher at Headwater Books states, "John has helped my career in so many ways, first and foremost was giving me an opportunity to come and work for him at Fly Fisherman, which not only opened up a lot of doors for me in this industry but gave me the chance to fish around the world. One of the most important things that John taught me is that you need to spend time in the field to excel as an editor — everything from being able to handle a camera to casting well. While you needn't be an expert, competency in all aspects of our sport is a critical part of helping authors communicate effectively with readers." Other writers and editors that passed through the tutelage of Randolph include Greg Thomas (current editor of Fly Rod &
Reel), Ben Romans (current editor of American Angler), and Geoff Mueller (senior editor at The Drake), and of course Purnell, who Randolph hired in 1996.
Randolph officially retired in 2008, and since then has written frequently for the magazine as a freelancer, and remained on the masthead as "publisher emeritus." He was voted into the Catskill Fly Fishing Hall of Fame in October, 2010.
As a freelancer, Randolph's work has also appeared in Outdoor Life, Field & Stream, Sports Afield, and Vermont Life. His books include Becoming a Fly Fisher (Lyons Press), Fishing Basics and Backpacking Basics (Prentiss-Hall). Currently, John is researching a book on a subject very near to his heart — "A Case Against Open-Net-Pen Salmon Farms," which examines the pitfalls of open-net-pen Atlantic salmon farming and better options for the future of wild salmon.
While he is well-known for his work with the written word, Randolph's friends also know that his story-telling skills are world-class. During our time on Okeechobee, while giving an animated account of catching a giant brown trout in New Zealand, John hooked the biggest largemouth of the evening. His story continued, without interruption, as he fought and landed a beautiful 6-pounder. I guess good things happen to good people. I'm just glad that John Randolph happened to fly fishing.