For the Love of Speckled Trousers, Troterella & Sockdolager

[Grayling Devereaux Library, April 28, 2006]

Allow me to set the tone for the night. Our revered Yooper Grand Brd John Voelker once declared, “Fishing is such great fun, I have often felt, that it really ought to be done in bed.”

One caveat: Probably it ought to be done in bed — without waders. We have no quotes extant from the author’s wife, Grace, on the subject.

There is an Irish proverb that tells us: “Listen to the sound of the river and you will get a trout. Profundity in simplicty: What part of the river makes the most sound? Riffles. Where do we find the most fish?

I love to fish in the U.P, mostly in places you’ve never heard of — and won’t — at least from me, certainly not when I’m sober.

To quote Voelker again, “It’s a pretty good idea to never show your favorite spots to someone you wouldn’t trust with your wife.”

As a writer, I love words. For example. In 18th century England and egg was a “cackling fart.”

What I chase in the U.P are giant brook trout: what I usually catch are what Italians call “troterella,” little trout. No matter, I still seek a “sockdolager,” a word that comes from the combination of the word “sock” (to strike someone) and “doxology” (a diminutive hymn of praise sung toward the end of a church service; ergo, a sockdolager is something exceptional in any respect. Over time, however, the word has come to mean a particularly large fish. Odd word, great word, strange word, and here’s something even stranger.

April 14,1865, just a hair more than 141 years ago Abraham Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater to see a play called Our American Cousin, by playwright  Tom Taylor. The last line spoken on stage before John Wilks Booth shot the president at 10:20 P.M. was this: “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologising old man-trap.”

See, I find trout-related things everywhere — even when I’m not looking.

A couple of weeks ago I was telling a friend about fishing for 200-pound taimen in Mongolia, and then I shifted to Mongolian funerals. The Mongols say: “Cover you privates in life and your face in death.”

So, they put a white cloth over the deceased’s face, put him naked on a horse and let the horse go onto the steppes. They follow along, carrying big blue stones. When the decease eventually is unhorsed, the stones are placed by his head to mark where he “died.” A fire is made, lamb is cooked as an offering to the gods, and the body is left where it falls for the ravens and wolves to consume. I thought my friend was going to summon the rubber-room patrol.

People tell me my fiction takes odd flights, but all I do is what Picasso said, “I show what I found, not what I was looking for.”

I didn’t pick writing. It picked me. And for some reason, life keeps bringing me wonderful experiences.

True story. I’m in the U.P with a CO and he tells me he’s got a guy selling illegal pike minnows. Would I mind going undercover and making a buy? No problem, I said. I took the unmarked vehicle, drove to the house, bought the minnows and returned to the CO who was waiting in a nearby park. He asked me if I wanted to go along when he confronted the man and I said sure, the man would never see me again.

So we went and took care of business and afterwards, outside the house the CO had the big shit-eating grin (SEG) and says, “Would you have gone in there if I’d have told you the Chicago police were up here investitating the guy for a mutlipel homicide?”

Ha Ha. This is CO humor.

Want to know one of the secrets to writing? Get off your couch, out of your comfort zone, open your ears and your eyes, and write it all down. By the way, the craft of writing is not so much about what you put down on paper; it’s more about what you leave out, which is easier to say than to do.

Last month my son and daughter in law moved back to Michigan from New York City. An author in the the New Yorker once penned, “Bass fishermen watch Monday Night Football, drink beer, drive pickup trucks, and prefer noisy women with big breasts. Trout fishermen watch MacNeil-Lehrer, drink white wine, drive foreign cars with passenger-side airbags and hardly think about women at all, this last condition possibly having to do with trout fishermen spending so much time up to their thighs in ice-cold water.”

I hardly know how to begin my response.

Michigan trout fishermen, I would tell the magazine writer, drink whatever alcoholic beverage is handy, have fish-cars and trucks that defy description, much less categorization, use old seat belts to create rod holders to supend from the inside roof, turn old airbags into float tubes, and bring our women to rivers with us because they like the same things we like — fishing included — and no way are they staying home while we are out chasing trout. We also use broken flyrods as driveway markers up here in big snow country, pluck the hair from our pet dogs for tying flies, and those same dogs get to run free and don’t have to get self-conscious with us walking behind them waiting to scoop their scat into baggies. I would add that fly fishers use flyrods to chase bass, blue gills, walleye, pike, suckers, muskies, goldfish and anything else that swims in sweetwater. I used to spend a lot of time in New Yort city and came to realize that their view of the world could be summarized as follows: Outside New York is China.

One last point re human physiology: I don’t know about New Yorkers, but the testicles of most trout fishers in this part of the country are well above our thighs.

Okay, okay. If New York is such a great place, how many Yankes actually hail from New York? Hell, their shortsop is from Kalamazoo!

One day my dog Shanny and I were fishing the Day’s River in the U.P and i caught and released a short trout and Shanny immediately plunged into the shallows, chasing it. Just then a game warden hopped down from the tag alders. “Uh, what’s that?” he asked with a nod toward the dog.

I said, “Flying fish. He’s practicing for bird season.”

Many writers are paranoid about their work, you know, what’s good, what’s not so good, do people really like my stuff, or at they just being polite and patronizing? I mean, how can you really know?

One time I read two poems at a downstate library and afterwards this gorgeous redhead came up to me and said, “That Poem is the most sensuous thing I’ve ever heard and I’m so turned on I want to take you back to my house and make love to you like you will never, ever forget!”

I said, “Which poem?”

A game warden pulled me over on a lake and said. “Your boat’s not registered.”

I said, “Of course not. It’s an indendent.”

I was hunting pats  on the Yellow Dog Plains up off the Triple A Road north of Marquette and the game warden came up and said, “Your dog doesn’t have a license.”

I said, “Duh. He’s not carrying the shotgun!”

This is the eve, that special night ere pfishing beginneth in earnest. Be assured this should be a night of mirth and fun and I will endeavor not to, as Shakespeare put it, “draweth out the thread of my verbosity finer than the staple of my argument.”

Lest we all get too serious about all this fishing business, let us be reminded that in 18th century parlance the term angler was synonymous with hooker — not those plying the professional trade of clicketing (defined euphemistically in 1737 as the “Act of Fruition”), but petty thieves who carrried hooked sticks they used to pluck various items from windows roofs, grates and so forth. The sticks were called angling sticks.

Trout fishing is not a mere sport. It is a way of life.

I used to prepare for the trout opener by making sure the back of my truck was filled with flies to cover every impossibility — you know, ought-two snowflies or size six black spruce barberpole drakes, things tgaht might have been in Mother Nature’s recipe book in a lesser epoch, when the world was solely owned and inhabited by insects, but would never happen, could never happen in our time, under any conditions or circumstances, but…what if they did happen…and I wasn’t ready?”

The upshot of this insecurity is that you end up with several thousand flies in 200 fly boxes scattered like a madman’s omelet in the back of your truck and when that snowfly sudden pops, you can’t get basck to the damn truck to get the fly you need — even if you knew where the magic fly was — which you distinctly don’t. You have similar nightmares, don’t  you?

Now I’m older and wiser and walk  a different road to preparation. I start loading the truck October 1, the day after the trout season ends on most of our waters.

See, you just can’t escape fishing and trout.

Ever read James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake? Most literary critics have never paid much attention to the aspects of fishing in the novel, which Joyce took 17 years to write and called even after its publication,  a “work in progress.”

In Finnegan’s Wake the author asks, “Spiggoty Anglease?” This is not an attempt at Italian Pidgin English, but a straight inquiry. “Do you speak angling — fishing?” There are 2,200 allusions to fishing and wate in the novel, which works out to about 3.5 per page. It also lists more than 1,000 rivers and bodies of watear, and critics shrug and ask, “What’s that all about]?”  They’ve never been able to figure out why such allusions are in the  book.

Excuse me: Joyce talks of brown trout and rainbows and various salmon, as well as “speckled trousers “– or speckled trout — what we call brookies.

When my agent — a New Yorker — sold The Snowfly she called me up and said, “HeyWARD, howyadoin’ (she’s never figured out it’s HeyWOOD). Do you know ther’s a hole heap of books about fly fishing?”

I said, “Really?”

Everywhere I look I find fishing.

I wish I could say the same for finding fish.

In doing some research for a book I discovered that the Chinese have considered fishing a contemplative activity for almost 4,000 years and a man name Fu Hsi is said to have invented writing, hunting, trapping, and fishing. Now there’s a guy I would enjoy hanging out with.

We all know the problem our state is having with black cormorants. The government has even poured oil on the eggs in their rookeries. I say, why not capture them, put metal rings around their necks and them them fish for trout with us. The Chinese and Japanese do this.

Can you see it. The guy upstream is catching fish after fish. You yell, “Hey, what are you using?”

“29-pound cormorant,” he  calls back.

There is nothing existential in my interests in solitude. Leonardo da Vinci was once described as the most relentlessly curious man in history. In my mind this describes all of the most accomplished tgrout fishers I know.

As a writer I find myself absorbed in the same disorder and I let my curiosity loose wtihout leash or license to go where it wishes; I simply try to keep up. When you are loose in this statea you’re liable to think about anything, such as when da Vinci in a notebook in 1508 wrote under a column that resembled on of his scientifid demonstrtions: “Perche il cani oderan volentieri il culo l’uno all’altro “– which sort of translates to , “Why dogs willingly sniff each others’ bottoms.”

There is some da Vinci in every trout-chaser. We love our dogs, right?

Our dogs like the same  foods we do, right?

Our dogs love us unconditionally, right?

Our dogs lvoe to sniff the butts of other dogs: And you never once ever wondered why?

Back when the world was only dogs, there was a huge party. Dogs from all over the world came. God wanted the dogs to be social so he told them to check their assholes at the entrance.

Well, a fire broke out, pandemonium ensued and the dogs, fearing being burned grabbed any asshole they could reach on their way out.

They’ve been sniffing to find their own ever since.

Okay, it’s  an old joke. But how many times have you heard it in the contextg of a Leonardo da Vinci quote? This is the fun of writing.

When you got off alone to seek solitude, following your dog of curiosity, nothing is out of bounds, and herein is the great beauty of the enterprise, whether you stumle onto fish or not.

People who abhor solitude should neither chase trout, nor write novels.

One final story, a true one. I did a reading. I won’t say where. This very attractive, much younger woman sidled up to me afterwards while I was off having a smoke.

She said, “Youre COs have a lot of sex.”

“I guess.”

“If I was a CO would I have a lot of sex?”

“I would think so.”

“If I pretended to be a CO would I have a lot of sex?’

“Probably,” I admitted.

She dangled a key in front of my nose. “If I pretended to be a CO tonight, do you think I might have sex in room 206 or the Ramada Inn?”

I said, “Which one of my books is that in?”

She smiled. “One you can start writing tomorrow morning.”

My mom always said a good speech ought to have a good start and a snappy ending, both of which should not be too far apart.

Thanks  for you attention. Make ready your angling sticks. The time is here!

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