Searching For Johnny-Bob’s Trout

Joseph Heywood

Sept. 27, 2008

Library of the State of Michigan

50th Anniversary of Anatomy of a Murder

Searching for Johnny-Bob’s Trout


Please briefly suspend your disbelief regarding the title. With your forbearance, I’ll bring us back to it a bit later.

Meanwhile, I can’t figure out if my being here today is peculiar karma or the organizers just needing a third body to fill out the panel. If I weren’t here, I’d be in the U.P. – I’m not saying where– wading on snot rocks and fishing for brook trout all tarted up for their annual sex-fest.

I’ll be 65 in three weeks and I find myself beset with a curious blend of CRS (Can’t Remember Squat) and OMS (Overactive Mind Syndrome). Disorders aside, I will try make the most of being here and pretend to entertain, a real stretch for a curmudgeon.

After Bill Castanier called me this past April, I made a point of going back and reading all of John Voelker’s work, not just his angling tomes, – and I’m left with the impression that he was a fisherman who wrote, rather than a writer who fished. This may not seem much of a distinction to many, but as a writer who fishes, not vice versa, it was a major discovery for me.

Having been published since 1985, my reputation as an author has skyrocketed from internationally unknown to regionally obscure. I rarely get reviewed in my hometown paper, and most of my neighbors have no idea that I am an author, or even what an author is, which will give you some sense of my neighborhood – the same place I’ve lived for 37 years. Truth be told, it was more than a little jarring to be a card-carrying member of the DNS squad (That’s Don’t Know Squat) and to be asked to this august celebration of the work and life someone I have greatly admired for a long, long time.

Talk about a strange moment. But after canoodling the situation, it turns out that John Voelker and I probably have more than a few things in common, some of which may come as a surprise to you. They certainly surprised me.

Let us first address our unlikenesses. I doubt that this is proper vocabulary, but like trout fishing, you often find yourself electing what feels right at the moment, not what’s technically correct.

He was born in, and lived in the U.P. most of his life. I wasn’t born in the U.P. or evening Michigan and only lived in the U.P. a total of seven years. But unlike His Self –Declared Majesty, The Most Exalted Ernest Hemingway, who spent one measly damn week in the UP in his entire life and milked it forever with Nick Adams, I spend a month or two up there every year. I don’t own a cabin or camp. I live mostly out of my truck or tourist cabins — like a true nomadic trout bum.

John Voelker (hereafter Hizzoner — with all due respect and affection) was a law graduate of U of M and I am an MSU man. Tremendous differences here in all sorts of matters, mostly to be left unsaid on a day like this.

.He loved Manhattans. I loathe them, as much for the associative images they conjured in me as anything. Here I must confess to not liking New York City very much. The prevailing attitude of its inhabitants seems to be, “Outside New York is China,” a viewpoint that does not set well with this particular Chinaman.

In my Air Force days we used to do some business with F-4 Phantoms, and sometimes found ourselves at their clubs on Friday nights. The stag bars would have two humongous punch bowls, one on each end. One would be filled with Manhattans and the other with Martinis. The drinks were referred to as Tacburgers, red or white, Tac short for Tactical Air Command

John Voelker got to fish a lot more than I ever have or ever will.

I find it a bit disconcerting that I know so little about John Voelker’s writing habits. I know he wrote with green felt marker or ballpoint, and mostly when the snows were flying. But who typed his stuff? Did he work every day for four hours, or six, or eight? Did he share his manuscripts with anyone? Who was his agent? What part of the writing process did he find most challenging? Most writers seem to gravitate at some point in their lives to talking about their craft. I see little evidence of this phenomenon in the Judge’s work.

Okay, now to the things Hizzoner and I seem to have in common.

One, all my first drafts are likewise written by hand, not on a computer or typewriter. I favor black over green, black being the total absence of any color, a reminder that it’s up to me, the writer to provide the color through my words.

Two, we both have prominent probosci, genetic inheritances at their most obvious, hiss from hiss Cherman blut, mine by way ov da Oyrish ov da auld sod — out of Castleblaney to be precises, an’humbly beggin’ your lordships’ pardons. Okay my beak’s been broken a half-dozen times through sports and various fraci and altercations, but again I’ll spare us the details.

Three, both of us are sort of on the tall side.

Four, we both take great pride in a fully-stocked fish-or bush-cars, provisioned for just about any emergency or contingency. Coming home from the U.P. last weekend, we had a chilly morning and Jambe Longue asked, “Have you still got extra socks in your door bin?” I did and she put them on. Being prepared. Get it? Same principle holds for fishing vests. You may not need an item but once every, or every other blue moon, but when you need the damn thing, you NEED it! Weight and comfort are not considerations here.

I once extracted a Moon Pie from my vest and shared it with my trout fishing pal, Godfrey Grant — aka God. We were sitting on a log in Augusta Creek and he asked, “How old’s this thang?” in his lilting Baton Rouge brogue.

“Five years, give or take,” I told him. Might have been ten. Five was an arbitrary pick.

“Well within its shelf life,” he declared, taking an enthusiastic bite.

Five, both Hizzoner and I were published later in mid-life, him at 52, me at 43.

Six, both of us were gainfully employed at the time we began to be published, him as the Marquette County District Attorney, and me as a corporate flak for the now long-gone Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo. Before moving from the nebulous category of writer to author, both of us made our livings with aspects of words and language, and both of us had to deal with the vagaries and frustrations of the mass media in those previous lives.

For example, a reporter-reviewer was seated in my office in Portage some years back, trying with great effort to bring literary gravitas to the interview. He said, after a number of bizarre questions, “If you could be anything right now, what would you be?

I said, “A radioactive plume.”

Seven, as of October 1, we’ll both have authored eleven books and like John’s, eight of mine have been largely or exclusively set in the U.P. In reality I’ve written 15 novels, 11 of them set in the UP, but not everything I write gets published – and sometimes for some very odd reasons. I don’t know if John has unpublished manuscripts, but I certainly do. Most writers are like me in this regard.

Eight, we’re both brook trout addicts. I’ve fished in various parts of the US, and in Canada, Ireland, Belgium, and Japan. And, I’ve fished for blue fish and red fish and sharks, and Atlantic and Pacific salmon, suckers, bass, muskeis and pike, and blue gills, and steelhead and rainbows and brown trout, but it is brook trout that continue to interest me. Like John, I eat some of my brook trout, though I throw the larger ones back because any fish over a foot long is a prime spawner.

I hasten to add that this throwing back is purely selfish, with no eleemosynary components whatsoever. “Get thee out there and propagate,” I tell them.

I believe that John and I both had our share of fishing experiences outside the state and even the country, and both pretty much reached the point where we really couldn’t see the point of leaving here. Michigan has more trout than I can ever catch and more beautiful water than I can ever fish. This is home. Hello! Why leave?

Nine. Like Hizzoner, I have minimal tolerance for paved roads…or paved people. As kids, my now-adult children would always complain to their late mother. “Mom he’s taking us into the dirt again!” How true. I doggedly sought to instill this acquired taste in them. Not sure it took, but hope springs eternal. When I travel around Michigan, I do my very best to avoid macadam, a word that always makes me think of the management of a bawdy house. I once journeyed to my annual fishing camp on the Pere Marquette in a personal record time of just over 11 hours, this for a drive that takes normal humans less than two hours.

Ten, if my reading and note-taking have been accurate, John’s maternal grandfather came to Michigan from the Hudson Valley in New York State, and in a piece in Fly Rod and Reel, John wrote of taking wife Grace to see cousins in Rhinebeck, New York, which just happens to be my place of birth and where many of my relatives still reside. My mom, age 89, was buried there this spring with my dad, grandpa, grandma, and our extended family. Actually we’re Rhinecliffers – River Rats in the local parlance, but Rhinebeck is but a few miles distant and most River Rats (except Julia Roberts and her brother) were born in Rhinebeck.

Eleven, Hizzoner and I both started out as worm-dunkers, and whereas his dad helped him along the road to fly fishing-hood, my old man didn’t fish and I had to discover trout and fishing on my own and, for many years, was the Little Munoscong Trout Academy: Faculty, administration, and student body rolled into one high-testosteronal 16-year-old body, which hauled home every bloody brook trout he caught, including a 19-inch monster, the trophy of a lifetime, consumed with no more ceremony than my mom declaring, “Pretty good.”

Twelve, both of us admire the people of the U.P. and love the physical beauty of the region.

Thirteen, John had at least one of his books as a Book of the Month Club selection. Me too.

Fourteen, John had one of his books made into a movie and one of mine, The Berkut, is currently under option for a similar fate.

Fifteen, I have a small remembrance to share here among the brethren. In my four years as a tanker navigator in the 46th Air Refueling Squadron at K.I. Sawyer AFB, I spent most of my off-duty time out in the woods, mostly fishing for trout, but also hunting birds, bears, and deer. Having grown up as an Air Force Brat, I was genetically programmed as a nomad, so I moved around the U.P., from river to stream to feeder cricks looking for better trout water and some sort of loosely imagined and ill-defined holy grail of brook trout.

One day up the East Branch of the Escanaba, I happened upon a man with a prominent nose and porkpie hat. This would have been in the summer of 1968 or 1969, ten years or so after the hooha over Anatomy of a Murder . I immediately recognized John Voelker standing beside a boulder, on a flat rock, watching a downstream pool.

He was the first fly fisherman I had ever seen and while I was fascinated, I was also wise enough to suspect the man wanted, as I did, just to be left alone. I often regret not introducing myself, but he was famous and I was a snot-nosed USAF El-Tee, pitching tiny red-and-white Daredevle spoons.

Actually I saw him twice in that same area that summer and neither time did I approach him.

Hizzoner, like many true Yooper trout-chasers, was secretive in nature about his spots and though he wrote wonderfully funny and sometimes beautiful essays about the endeavor, he was tighter than Silas Marner with details and directions to his favorite spots. He told us: Don’t trust a man with your secret spots you wouldn’t trust with your wife. This makes for a damn short list.

Ergo, to find him roughly in that same spot on the East Branch of the Escanaba two different times was nothing short of a remarkable discovery, one I never forgot, and which — forgive me my trespasses — led me to do just that this past July, only to get caught red-handed and red-faced. But that story’s for another time – after the sentencing, right Woody?

I confess to being torn by conflicting emotions, one part of me, the aspiring writer, wanting to meet the man, and the other, the equally secretive fisherman, wanting to watch him work and see what secrets I might uncover. But that fly rod of his I found damned intimidating and sportsman’s decency drove me to move on and to leave him unmet, unwatched, and undisturbed, but I can still see him standing there waiting patiently for a rise.

We regret only those things we don’t do. I wish to hell I’d have met him, even if it got my ass chewed.

I once got the heave-ho from the Green Bay Packers locker room at the Cotton Bowl, by Vince Lombardi Himself; he even called me a “sonovabitch.” But that’s for another time. Suffice to say We buckos in Da Oyrish clans have very thick skins.

Sixteen: Like John, I tend to do most of my writing in the winter when the snow is on the ground, so that when it melts, I can fish, or pick berries, or rocks, or shrooms, or driftwood, et cetera, and get out into the backwoods and cedar swamps for research for my books.

Finally, let me say that I am proud of having discovered solely on my own and without exogenous assistance the location of Frenchman’s Pond, even if I had to trespass to confirm my analysis.

Here an aside in the interests of full disclosure: the name Heywood is of Middle English origin and translates roughly to “of the high wood,” meaning my ancestors were in all likelihood ridge-runners and poachers. Thus trespassing on the king’s land is no doubt in my blood and genes. I do not offer this as an excuse for my recent behavior. I simply make the point. Draw whatever conclusions you find comforting.

I will not disclose the location of Frenchman’s here, one in the interest of keeping it obscure, and secondly as an act of political correctness, about which I will say no more. All I can tell you is that if you do a little research and think, you can discover the location of the place with very little assistance and very limited resources. It only took me forty years to do this. You’ll probably do it faster.

But once you figure it out, stay the hell out — or Mister Ernest Wood may shoot your ass.

I strongly suspect that if John Voelker were still among us and invited to today’s shindig, he might NOT be here in Lansing or even in Marquette, but at Frenchman’s flicking the last flies of the season. And, I suspect, his not being here would not even raise an eyebrow among this assemblage, much less cause the group to take affront. If he had to, he might grace us with a CD and a little talk from the cabin with a fresh Manhattan in hand and fish rising to tiny bugs behind him. Sort of like Dick Pobst’s great little film – just updated to modern media.

Trout fishing is a curious way to spend our time. Trout bums, like serial killers, are in two classifications – organized and spontaneous. The maximum fly gear and clothing changes in the truck – just in case a body of water suddenly begins to sing your name.

Trout fishing is in my mind the quintessential act of hope. You have to believe that every cast will be the one. And you have to think about the fish to be caught, not those in the past. Expectations in writing are eerily similar. I do not think about the last book, or the next book — only the one I am writing at this moment.

I’m also almost certain that legitimate trout-bumming (as opposed to simple trout fishing) is essentially a solo activity, not one for groups, or even buddies. As the amended song goes: One is the loneliest number – except where trout fishing is concerned.

In my life I’ve learned that big brown trout are a labor of lucubration. Voelker hated night fishing. Alas, I am hopelessly addicted to it on foot or in a boat.

The so-called writer’s life seems to make most of us who make stories to become more and more insulated. We not only need time alone: We like being alone.

Over this past Labor Day, while rock-hounding at Whitefish Point, a woman came over to me and said, “You look serious. What are you looking for?”

I said, “God, but I don’t think he’s been here in one-point zero to two-point one million years.” She blinked frantically and pivoted away. I was of course referring to the estimated age of the rocks I was collecting. Rock-hounding and trout fishing have a lot of commonalities.

A lot of authors bemoan the drudgery and scut-work of writing. But I like all of it, especially those parts that involve dressing the way I want, not shaving if I’m not in the mood, ignoring haircuts for months, and providing outrageous answers to ludicrous questions. Okay, I don’t like the media stuff or book signings, but then these things aren’t actual work. They’re just time-eaters.

For me a book-signing tour is somewhat like an ocean cruise: You’re going to be restricted to the places you can go, and you’re going to end up back where you started, and afterwards nobody will be able to tell you if the journey and results were worth the time spent, effort made, motion sickness suffered, or the expense incurred.

A particular John Voelker quote sticks in my mind. He wrote: “Maybe my own form of poverty is that I have a little too much to bother writing what I really feel, and a little too little to give up trying.” [Frederic Ludlow in People Versus Kirk] Interestingly I sense that Hizzoner may have lost his zeal for writing after Anatomy and on this one statement alone I judge him as a fisherman who writes rather than a writer who fishes. Others will surely know more about this than me. But, after Anatomy fewer things seem to have been published, and I wonder how many unfinished manuscripts are lying around gathering dust and flyspecks.

One big question for his family and close fishing pals: he allegedly kept a fishing journal for 40 or more years. If true, why has no one edited and published this? Who has his journal, or is it missing and to finally get to the title of this talk, would alleged missing journal be the basis for a Heywood novel entitled, “Searching for Johnny-Bob’s Trout?”

Voelker also said: “Old fishermen never die; they write books about their passion, usually couched in mournful elegiac, Thoreauesque prose – withal landed with a sort of dogged jocularity.” This is distinctly not the writing of simple prose that will ensnare common readers. This is the vocabulary of an erudite gentleman, who just happens to hail from the U.P.

John Voelker appeals to a lot of trout chasers, especially in Michigan, but I’m fairly certain he appeals most of all to the most capable and educated readers. Hizzoner is, in my estimation, not a writer for and to the common man, but a Yooper aristocrat, aiming his writings largely at people of intellect and / or fly-fishing interests. In his mind I strongly suspect he equated intellect with flyfishing.

Why such an assertion, which might seem to some an almost negative declaration? Consider the author’s references to music by deBussey and Rachmaninov. Or phrases like “Veblen in reverse” (how many well educated people know who the hell Thorsten Veblen is any more? Or ever knew for that matter?). References to Freud and Jung. His calling fly fishing a form of “progressive dementia.” Or his talking about having to “fish in the Antipodes” [and I’d bet most people here, including we panelists have at best only a vague sense of what the hell the antipodes are?]. Or his using the phrase “declamatory arias.” Or salting his prose with references to Roxanne and Cyrano ? Am I making my point yet? These are neither the thoughts, nor vocabulary of a common man or average guy. What they are, are hallmarks of a very intelligent fellow and a damn readable writer who talks about being deliberately “under-leadered.”

There is an element of intellectual elitist in Voelker. In Anatomy, there are references to: Cyrano de Bergerac, Thomas Wolfe, Henry James, Justice Hughes, Thorsten Veblen, Rostland, William Hazlitt, Churchill, William Blake, Roxanne and Cyrano: These are not references that trip off the tongues of everyday trout bums or Yoopers or we common folk below the bridge. This is ethereal stuff way beyond most trouters. My late mom was from Mississippi, Mize in Sullivan County to be precise and I remember being there one time and my cousins and their friends sort of hanging open-mouthed over my Yankee “tawk” and one of them finally declaring, “We don’t unnerstand a damn thing you sayin ’yank, but you sure make it innerestin.’” I think this phenomenon applies to John Voelker as well, and it was but one of his gifts.

I once knew a trout bum, an enlisted nuclear submariner of Vietnam vintage, later a professional school custodian, whose hobbies were — after trout and smallmouth bass — interstellar mathematics and theoretical physics, planetary masses spinning …and black holes sucking…and so forth. He didn’t write like Hizzonner, but he thought like him and had the same kind of mind, including extreme fixations on trout. Trout fishing and writing attract some strange folk, me included.

John’s dialog doesn’t sound like the way people up there spoke in his time. And again, it is suggestive of Yooper professional aristocracy, not hardscrabble Finns and Italians of the mines and woods. A lawyer scratching out a living is different than a pulpie scratching out a living. Some of the dialog between the law partners smack of attempting to humanize case law and theory into conversation that’s filled with information and informative, but somewhat thuds on the ear, more like expository chitchat than realistic human dialogue.

How about John’s vocabulary? Such words as saurian, harridan, undulant, lissome, stolid, public pettifogging, tympanist, mountebank, sylvan, sapient, pixilated, hoydenishly….all these terms sliding seamlessly into his sentences thereby suggesting something markedly different than an address to the common man.

Thank the gods, Hizzoner John Voelker was a very uncommon man and individual. It‘s been an honor to be here. Thank you for listening.

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