A Man for All Seasons

by Mark Pendergrast

Vermont Outdoors Magazine and its editor, James Ehlers, bought the Lake Champlain International Fishing Derby last year. The annual event spotlights lake resources and helps fund environmental causes.

In a recent piece in Vermont Outdoors Magazine, editor James Ehlers jubilantly announced that he was doing the "Deer Hunter's Polka" to celebrate the first deer hunt at Shelburne Farms, thumbing his nose at the "self-appointed elite of Chittenden County and other white tower towns in Vermont (and) the emotional but irrational Green Mountain Animal Defenders." He championed the cause of Vermont's hunters and anglers, who, along with all wildlife-related recreation, contribute 5 percent of the state's gross product, while the underfunded Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department receives 0.5 percent of all tax revenues. It is Vermont sportsmen and women who represent the true heritage of the state, Ehlers wrote, not the "fairytale image of Vermont that includes ice cream made by guys from Long Island."


Readers might assume Ehlers is a crusty, old, native Vermonter, and that impression would be buttressed when they found out that he used to run Uncle Jammer's Guide and Education Service. However, Ehlers is a fresh-faced, 31-year-old who hails from Long Island, along with Ben and Jerry. That's not the point, though, as he explains. "The most famous Vermonter, Ethan Allen, was from Connecticut. It's not where you're from, but where you're going that matters most. I wasn't picking on Ben & Jerry's; I was picking on those who think that's what Vermont is all about."

Ehlers is wise beyond his years, and his Long Island childhood prepared him well to be a champion of Vermont's wilderness. He grew up near Sagamore Hill, Teddy Roosevelt's home that is now a national park. "I used to walk through the woods to peer in the windows," Ehlers recalls. "There were all these full-sized mounts of tigers and lions, and huge elephant tusks on the walls." The oldest of three boys, Ehlers led expeditions into the woods on Long Island's rural north shore to hunt and fish.

His parents separated when he was eight, and Ehlers' maternal grandmother moved in with the family. "She was an old-school, stern, German woman," he recalls, "and she basically raised me." He adored her. During the summer, he spent a lot of time at his grandmother's cabin in rural Big Indian, N.Y. He loved it.

At age 11, Ehlers started spending time behind the counter at the Long Island gun-and-tackle shop his stepfather and mother owned. As a teen-ager, he sought adventure in the U. S. Naval Sea Cadets, a program similar to the Boy Scouts, where he worked with the U. S. Coast Guard on the Maine coast. "I helped rescue people in capsized boats, refueled lighthouses, helped with drug interceptions."

Then he received full scholarship to Villanova through a Naval ROTC program, beginning as a physics major and ending up with a degree in political science. To help pay tuition, he worked as a bartender and bouncer. When Ehlers discovered that Coast Guard officers rarely left their desks, he opted for the Navy, where he spent four years, much of it as a damage control and anti-air warfare officer aboard a destroyer off the coast of Central America.

This summer's fishing derby, June 17-19, will offer prizes for the top 10 winners in every category rather than just the top five. From left: Dick Furbush, James Ehlers, Robin Jeffers, Kevin McMahon, Graydon Stevens and Paul Boileau.

Out of the Navy in 1994, Ehlers headed straight for Vermont, where he held a number of jobs -- ski instructor, landscaper, middle school science teacher, part-time guide, logger, sailing instructor and captain. When his partner was severely injured in a chain-saw accident, Ehlers pulled him out of the woods and rushed him to the hospital. He began to rethink his future. Did he really want to be logging when he was 50?

Ehlers enjoyed his stint at teaching but hated the school bureaucracy. He resolved to own a business. He loved the outdoors, so he decided to try guiding full-time. Everyone thought he was crazy. He called himself Uncle Jammers, adopting the ski nickname he had earned as a result of his aggressive style on the slopes. He was named 1997 Vermont guide of the year, was featured on ESPN, and took famed writer David Mamet into the woods for an assignment in Sports Afield. In the meantime, he attended Saint Michael's College at night for a master's in wildlife education.

Through his altruistic outdoor teaching instincts, Ehlers met his future wife. One day on the Winooski River, he saw Kevin O'Neill, the chef at Sweet Tomatoes restaurant, struggling to fly-fish. Ehlers gave him a few tips and won a new friend. Later, when Ehlers dropped into the restaurant, there was a beautiful young woman delivering fresh vegetables. Her name was Danielle Livellara, and he learned that she also sang with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. They married in 1996.

I wanted to be a combat journalist in the Navy until I discovered there was no such thing any more," says Ehlers, so it was natural he should submit free-lance articles to Vermont Outdoors Magazine while he was a guide.

In 1997, when Vermont Outdoors editor Lawrence Pyne was looking for a salesperson, Ehlers suggested Danielle apply, since they weren't making much money farming. She took the job. A year later, Pyne left and Ehlers was hired as editor. Then, in October 1998, the principal owner decided to relocate and sell out. Ehlers mentioned the opportunity to childhood friend Mark Fludgate -- now a Pennsylvania entrepreneur -- who bought it. Ehlers, his wife, and graphic designer/businessman Kevin McMahon, set out to turn the financially strapped magazine around. They began with a complete design overhaul, along with taking a more active environmental editorial stance.

Today, there are five employees, and the magazine is in the black. McMahon left to form Taskforce, a company that helps conduct precise Internet searches, but he remembers those turn-around days vividly. "That first issue barely made it to the printer on time. We worked incredibly hard, but the three of us bonded closer than we ever thought we could. Now that magazine is the single greatest resource to showcase what this state is uniquely about."

McMahon came to hold the much younger Ehlers in a kind of awe. "He really knew his stuff. He holds a veritable database of hatches in his head. If you ask him a question about a particular time, locale, and fish, he can hand you the right fly. He is really brilliant, on many levels."

McMahon pauses to think. "I wouldn't be surprised if that bugger becomes the governor of Vermont some day. He'd get there because he has a mission to do what is right. He won't fake it." Although they no longer work together at the magazine, McMahon is still involved with Ehlers through the Lake Champlain International Fishing Derby -- another incredible turn-around story.

The staff overhauled Vermont Outdoors after Mark Fludgate purchased it in 1998. Today, there are five employees and the magazine is in the black. Pictured: Rich Pashby (left) and Jason Gluskin.

For personal reasons, the original managers of the derby wanted out, and no one had done any planning for last year's event when, in February 1999, Ehlers and his magazine purchased the ailing, non-profit fishing event. "At that point," he recalls, "the magazine was still losing money and the derby was a total financial unknown, since they wouldn't let us examine the books. I was driving an old pickup with 132,000 miles on it that ran when it wanted to." He would crawl underneath through slush to whack the starter, then throw on a tie to attend a business meeting.

It seemed an insane undertaking. "I had worked with the derby in the past under contract with the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department as a marketing rep at trade shows." Ehlers knew the derby helped support much-needed lamprey control on the lake, fish restocking programs, and other good causes. He didn't want to see it fold, so he bought it through his magazine for approximately $16,000.

Ehlers immediately went to work, lining up a supportive board (including McMahon), finding last-minute sponsors, doing direct mail promotions. He worked 18-hour days, seven days a week. In June, the derby went off without a hitch -- over Father's Day weekend, as always. "No one even realized there was a change in administration," Ehlers observes with satisfaction. Registration was up nearly 7 percent, and it made money, though barely.

The derby not only brings attention to lake resources and helps pay for good environmental causes, it provides excitement, community, and pride for many fishermen and women all over the northeastern United States. Todd Peacock, 30, of Essex Junction won the 1999 grand prize for a giant sheepshead that weighed more than 19 pounds. He is typical of many competitors. "My father and I fished the LCI Derby when it first started, when I was six or seven. It got me hooked on something I'll hold onto forever." He is cagy about where he snagged the giant fish, since he plans to return there this year. "I spent the last five years of my life trying to catch that fish," he explains.

These are the sort of fish stories Ehlers loves to hear, and he has posted a number of them on the LCI Derby website at www.lciderby.com. There's a picture there of Fred Nichols holding his 23-pound channel catfish, for instance, which struck shortly after 1 a.m. It took Nichols more than five hours to land him.

The derby also brought Ehlers a new young friend. Eleven-year-old Thomas Martin, who lives in the North End, walked into the derby office accompanied by his grandmother, eager to fish. He was downcast when he learned it was too late for him to compete, but Ehlers took him under his wing, letting him fish nearby and asking him to help him in the office. Ehlers has become a surrogate dad of sorts, taking the boy into the woods during hunting season, where he bagged his first deer.

This year, the LCI Derby promises to be a much bigger affair. Ehlers and the board held a public hearing to gain input. As a result, there will be prizes for the top 10 winners in every category rather than just the top five. To avoid delays, two of the nine weigh stations -- one in Vermont, one in New York -- will be open 24 hours a day. First prize in each major species category will be $2,000 plus a $2,800 Yamaha engine, a considerable boost from the previous year. Ehlers has accomplished this by bringing in new sponsors such as Denecker Chevrolet, which is giving a two-year lease on a Chevy pickup. WOKO, where Ehlers hosts a Saturday morning sports talk show, is offering $25,000 cash to anyone who catches a 9.89 pound salmon. (The station broadcasts at 98.9 FM.) Anyone who breaks a state record on a fish will also win $25,000, as will the person who catches the fish with the grand prize tag.

All of these efforts have gained Ehlers many admirers. "He's one of the greatest guys walking on the planet," says Robin Jeffers, manager of Winds of Ireland, a sailboat rental company owned by Ireland Concrete. Ehlers captained charter sails for her for a while. Jeffers is also on the LCI Derby board. "James is dynamic, energetic, and kind-hearted. He has more honesty and integrity than anyone I've met." She is equally impressed with his efforts for the derby, which she says was a "sinking ship" when he took it over. "He did a lot of radio, speaking engagements, writing, email blitzes to outdoor writers and publications. He went to trade shows all over New England to promote the derby and Vermont Outdoors. He has been fantastic at fund-raising."

John Hall of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department offers a similar assessment. "When James was a guide, he had one of two guided driftboats in the state. He was always trying to educate clients about the entire ecosystem, not just fly fishing. So if an osprey swooped overhead, James would deliver a mini-lecture on ospreys. His broad approach and his commitment to natural resources underscore everything he does or says."

Hall is grateful that Ehlers stepped in to save the derby. "James knew the event was very important to promote Lake Champlain fishing for the public. The derby highlights the quantity, quality, and variety of fresh-water fishing in Lake Champlain. The spectrum of species is wider than in any other water in North America."

When told that McMahon thought he might be governor one day, Ehlers doesn't laugh. "I wouldn't seek it, but if someone thought I could do something better, I probably wouldn't turn it down. I like making a positive difference for people."

Mark Pendergrast is a free-lance writer living in Essex Junction. His latest book is "Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World" (Basic Books, 1999).