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  • David A. Van Wie

Bourbon Out Of An Old Tin Cup


I felt like I had walked onto the pages of Trout Magic.

There I was- casting into the fabled Frenchman’s Pond under the friendly guidance of Ernest “Woody” Wood, John Voelker’s son-in-law.

Frenchman’s Pond – also known as Uncles – is a long narrow beaver flowage that appears in several of Voelker’s stories, a carefully guarded secret fishing spot. Voelker (always “John” to Woody, so even I started referring to him as John, as if I had known him, although I still think of him as Robert Traver, his pen name) acquired the land around the pond and built a tiny cabin there. He constructed a bridge across the pond, and several small casting platforms along the marshy edges among the alders. This is where John brought his friends and special guests.

Woody was casting about ten yards to my left. A trout had just short-hit his fly - a Betty McNault, a down-wing, caddis version of a Royal Wulff that is a favorite on the UP. Woody urged me to give my fly – an Adams emerger - a try where the fish had risen.

Two casts later, a stout eleven-inch brook trout was in my net. This was a special moment, almost surreal. I was laughing and grinning as I played that magical trout in Frenchman’s Pond!

To double the pleasure, a few minutes later I caught a six-inch native brookie in the same spot. I really couldn’t believe that, after all these months of planning, I was actually here catching fish.

The Old Beaver Dam

As rain showers alternated with patches of sun, Woody and I moved down to the old beaver dam. In one of his stories, John had fished this exact spot with Art Flick – author of Streamside Guide to Natural’s and Their Imitations. In his story, John had observed that, when visitors come from far away, the fishing often turns lousy – “the farther, the lousier” – as it had on that much-anticipated outing.

The beaver dam was John’s last and best shot at getting Art Flick a fish. He described this spot, where the “bottom is a vast tangle of crossed logs” and called it the “very hottest spot in the very hottest fishing place that I knew.”

Because I had caught two fish from Woody’s spot, he had the honors of the first try here. His casts were slow and graceful with his 7 foot Orvis bamboo rod, as he aimed to put the fly near a downed tree with some overhanging dead branches.

Of course, I couldn’t resist saying “watch your back cast!” just after he caught his fly in the alders behind him. I extracted his fly and two casts later he hooked up with a hefty brook trout, just about where Art Flick had missed the big one on his Grey Fox Variant in the Trout Magic story.

Landing Woody’s trout was a bit complicated because Jenny, his gentle and aging hound who is Woody’s regular fishing companion, decided she wanted to sniff the fish. We finally convinced Jenny to move out of the way so I could net the brook trout, a twin of the one I had caught earlier.

It was proper that Woody and I both had success on this special outing, despite how far I had traveled to fish here.

The Mermaid In The Cabin

The rain started again, so Woody and I retreated to the cabin, back on the other side of the pond. John had built the tiny one room affair, where he enjoyed drinking bourbon from a tin cup (or mixing Old-Fashioneds) and playing cribbage with companions when the fish weren’t “in the mood.”

Woody pointed out pictures of the many characters that appear in John’s stories, including Danny Spencer, from Danny And The Boys, which I must now read. A carved mermaid sat on a shelf next to several of John’s books. I signed the log book of visitors, one among many who shared a deep appreciation for this storied place. And I left behind a copy of The Confluence dedicated to John's spirit.

I’m not much of a cribbage player, so I passed on taking an inevitable whupping from Woody. But I was more than happy to sit at John’s saloon table and sip some good bourbon from a tin cup, making a toast all the fishing madness and magic that he shared with generations of readers, recognizing as he did that “fishing is at once an endless source of delight and a small act of rebellion.”

Above all, it was a privilege to be there with Woody, an irrepressible man who keeps John’s spirit alive with the same passion that his father-in-law passed on to him. I’ll never forget my magical day at Uncle’s with Woody and Jenny. And I thank Gracie for her kind invitation.

The Yellow Dog

The next day Woody and I headed to the Yellow Dog River, a spectacular, wild stream just west of Marquette. This river was a stop on my list because it appears in Jim Harrison’s book, True North*, which my friend Paul Cain had loaned me (coincidentally, Paul had just finished reading it when I was telling him about my plans to visit the UP). David Burkett – the anti-hero of this captivating but contemptuous novel set in and around Marquette – loves fly-fishing (as did Harrison), thus the book serves as a trout fishing guide to the UP.

Woody reminded me that the Yellow Dog is also the setting for Voelker’s story in Trout Madness called ‘The Old Fox’ in which John’s companion introduces him to the virtues of the Betty McNault (size 16), which Woody was using the day before.

On the way down the 510, a long dirt road, Woody stopped to show me Little Pup Falls, a tumbling cascade dropping 30 or 40 feet in 100 yards or so through the beautiful Michigan forest. The new leaves were still a few weeks behind the trees in Pennsylvania, blazing with a dozen shades of pale green.

At the Yellow Dog bridge, we scrambled down the bank on the downstream side. We waded across and walked quietly up under the bridge to toss our flies to the pool above it, which Woody said was a reliable spot for stocked rainbows.

Casting under the bridge was a little tricky, but sure enough a rising rainbow took my CDC caddis fly. Yeah, the eight inch trout was “factory fresh”, as Woody commented while I removed the hook, but I was thrilled to have a trout out of the Yellow Dog, a doubly-storied water -even if it wasn’t on a Betty.

Woody and I waded upstream, flipping various dries and nymphs into the small runs and deep holes under downed trees. Just as Voelker described in 'The Old Fox,' our casts had to be short – less than 15 feet of line at any time, letting the current take the fly, with a quick retrieve so we wouldn’t get hung up in the branches or roots.

The river was gorgeous. The slightly stained water made the sand on the bottom appear yellow, which may have something to do with the name. The water was cold (50°) and there were few bugs in the air. We saw no rising fish, nor had any real action on the way upstream or back down, except below the bridge where Woody and I each caught another small rainbow before heading back into town for a late breakfast.

We had a lovely dinner that evening at home with Woody manning the grill and making the Old-Fashioneds, while Gracie and her sister Julie told me about growing up in the house where I had been staying. Julie told me of hours spent outdoors and a world opened to the Voelker children by two interesting and enlightened parents.

The next morning I was up early, ready to head east for more of my Storied Waters adventure. It was so sad to say goodbye to Gracie and Woody, my new, dear friends. Woody and I have been texting several times a day. I've been giving him and Gracie fishing and mileage reports. I’m sure we’ll remain in touch, and hopefully I’ll make it back to the UP soon.

Somewhere on this journey I’ve got to find my own tin cup for future bourbon sipping. And, now and then, I’ll remind Woody to watch his back cast.

* I am providing links to referenced books on Amazon for convenience, but please, when you can, buy them from a local independent bookstore!

#StoriedWaters #UPMichigan #JohnVoelker #FrenchmansPond #Bourbon #Mermaids #YellowDogRiver

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WatchYourBackCast   © 2018 by David A. Van Wie, Lyme, New Hampshire, USA