I don’t own a bamboo fly rod and until that sunny morning, I had never cast one to a trout. I’ve always steered clear of bamboo rods for fear that I would catch a very expensive addiction and start collecting them like many split cane junkies.
The rod I was casting on that day in June was no ordinary wand. This one was a custom 1964 Morris Kushner masterpiece inscribed “for my dear friend John D. Voelker.” Many anglers know Voelker by his pen name, Robert Traver, author of Trout Madness and Trout Magic as well as his bestseller Anatomy of a Murder which was made into an Academy Award-nominate film starring Jimmy Stewart. The rod itself was the subject of a Traver story in Trout Magic called “Morris the Rodmaker.”
And this was no ordinary trout pond. This was Uncles, according to the locals, but better known as Frenchman’s Pond, that special, secret beaver pond that appears in a number of Robert Traver’s stories. This was my second trip to Uncles, almost exactly two years after my first visit in June 2017 as part of my Storied Waters adventure.
So, there I was fishing with the late, great John Voelker’s famous rod on his own pond, trying to entice a descendant of the brook trout he caught there many years ago.
I was invited back to Marquette, Michigan on the Upper Peninsula to attend the annual meeting of the John D. Voelker Foundation. The Foundation was established in 1989 to pay tribute to the ideals for which the good judge and writer stood, and the values that his life and writings exemplified. The Foundation administers three programs:
A Native American Scholarship Program to support members of Michigan area tribes who attend law school.
The Robert Traver Fly Fishing Writing Award, the most prestigious annual award for fly fishing writing with a prize of $2500.
The Trout Habitat Program, supporting organizations like Trout Unlimited, the Anglers of the Au Sable, and Michigan Department of Natural Resources to protect and enhance “the environs where trout are found.”
I was there to brief the board on the Robert Traver Writing Award that I had helped to resurrect after a two-year hiatus. The Award had been suspended when Fly Rod & Reel magazine, which administered the Traver Award for 20 years and published the winning stories, was suddenly shut down in March 2017.
In June 2017, when I was visiting Grace Voelker Wood and her husband Woody on my Storied Waters adventure, we went to dinner at Rich and Sue Vander Veen’s house in Marquette. Rich, who is a founder and president of the Foundation, was lamenting that they were having no luck finding a new partner to administer the Award.
I’m a total sucker for these kinds of challenges, so I said I’d reach out to some contacts I had made during my trip, including the folks at the American Museum of Fly Fishing, Orvis, Outdoor Writers Association of America, and other major players in fly fishing and literary circles, to see if I could drum up some interest in supporting the Award program. Finding a publication to showcase the winner was the paramount goal.
After a few bumps and dead ends, I found a willing partner in the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont. Together, the Foundation and AMFF developed an agreement and schedule to relaunch the award in January 2019 with the winning entry to be published in The American Fly Fisher – Journal of the American Museum of Fly Fishing. As instigator for this joint venture, I agreed to administer the Award for the first year to get things moving. Our hopes are to sign on additional partners in the future, but we had enough to go on to announce the 2019 award and solicit entries.
Thanks to the wonders of social media and cooperation from several publications, including announcements in The Journal, MidCurrent and The Drake e-zines (two excellent on-line magazines), and TU’s Trout magazine, we received over 150 entries, with a flurry flowing in right at the May 31 deadline. This summer we are now judging the entries with a winner to be announced in September.
As I made plans to fly to Marquette, Gracie and Woody invited me to stay at their home again. And Rich invited me to stand for election to the board, which was an honor. The Board met on Saturday morning in the historic Landmark Inn (formerly the Northland Hotel) in Marquette, followed by an outing at the Voelker camp at Uncles.
When I arrived on Thursday night, Woody stayed up well past his 8 pm bedtime to pick me up at the airport and I was pleased to find Grace waiting up also to greet me when we pulled in. It was all hugs and goosebumps to find myself again feeling so at home in the Voelker/Wood household. After catching up briefly on news and plans for the weekend, Gracie showed me to “my room” where I slept like a rock.
On Friday morning, Woody and I stopped for coffee and a quick cribbage game with his friend who owns a shop in downtown Marquette before we meandered out to Uncles to get ready for the outing on Saturday. We also planned to do a little fishing, of course. Woody had told me not to bother bringing a fly rod on the plane because he would loan me one of his. He suggested I bring my own reel as he fishes with a right-hand retrieve and l fish with a left-hand reel.
I was more than thrilled when he pulled the vintage Morris Kushner rod out of the case and handed it to me to string up. Wow. Just. Wow. I had fondled this rod on my last trip, but now I would have the privilege of casting it.
When we walked down to the footbridge, we saw a few trout feeding near the dock. Minutes later, I was casting to a rising fish and on the fourth or fifth cast, a trout took my fly, an obligatory Betty McNault. Bringing it to hand, I lovingly caressed a beautiful nine-inch wild brook trout, perhaps from the original strain of trout native to this pond. More trout magic in this enchanting place.
Soon, we were joined on the pond by Fred Baker and Rich Vander Veen, the two attorneys who had worked with John to set up the Voelker Foundation two years before his death. Woody and Rich took the canoe to the lower beaver dam, while Fred and I stayed near camp on the upper pond. Fred and I had little luck, but Woody was happy to haul in a couple decent brookies while Rich served as his guide.
On Saturday, Gracie took me to breakfast before we met her sister Julie at the hotel for the meeting. Gracie and Julie are both board members. Gracie and Rich introduced me to the others in attendance. Most are attorneys or judges, either practicing or retired, and many had known John and fished with him at his famous Opening Day gatherings.
This was the 30th anniversary of the Foundation, so everyone was in high spirits and looking ahead to the Foundation’s next 30 years. All were pleased to hear that the Award was on a new path, hopefully one that can be sustained for many years to come. Likewise, the discussion of the scholarship program revealed the powerful legacy of Judge Voelker and his commitment to Native American rights and jurisprudence.
After the meeting, board members and their spouses drove out to camp where Woody was readying the grill, spreading out a choice salads, cold drinks and cocktails on a warm sunny afternoon. The annual meeting is scheduled to fall as close to John Voelker’s birthday as possible. This year it fell right on the actual day, June 29th, so the picnic was a birthday celebration of sorts. Wildflowers blooming along the rough dirt road and around the pond provided festive decorations for the event.
A half-dozen bamboo rods made their appearance and soon several folks were out on the pond casting with grace and optimism. Mike Anderegg, a retired probate judge, offered to guide me on the lower pond while I cast his sweet rod in search of some piscine dance partners. With Mike paddling in the stern, I was fortunate to raise one young brook trout before Woody rang the cocktail bell for lunch. As things wound down, I said my goodbyes knowing that I’d be back next year for the 2020 annual meeting.
On Sunday, Woody said he’d take me out to scenic Black Rocks park on Presque Isle in Marquette after breakfast at his favorite café. On Presque Isle, we visited the grave monument of Charlotte Kawbawgam, the subject of Robert Traver’s gripping historical novel, Laughing Whitefish, about a lawsuit filed by Charlotte (a Chippewa Indian also known as Laughing Whitefish) in the 1870s to claim her father’s financial share of the lucrative Jackson iron mine, which was denied him by the Jackson Mining Company. The courtroom drama is a fascinating narrative of how the young lawyer, Willy Poe, battled against cultural bias to establish Native American legal rights in the Michigan and federal courts.
The book, which I highly recommend, touches on many issues of racial discrimination and corporate greed that are oh so relevant today. I learned during my visit that the Foundation has wanted to have the book made into a movie and I agree it would be a perfect story for the big screen. So, sucker that I am, my newest challenge is to find someone to write the screenplay and produce the movie. Stay tuned.
My return to Frenchman’s Pond was a vivid reminder of how one’s choices and discrete actions in life can lead to unexpected opportunities and destinations. Writing The Confluence led to an invitation to visit Frenchman’s Pond, which led to my Storied Waters adventure and my soon-to-be-released book of the same name, and subsequently led to a rewarding experience as a member of the Voelker Foundation and point person for the 2019 Traver Award.
Who knows where this journey will lead? It’s an understatement to say I’m thoroughly enjoying the ride.