Robert Traver, Traver On Fishing, Nick Lyons editor (Guilford CT: Lyons Press, 2001), 320 pages. Sorry folks, there’s no pictures.
This is my second review for Ed’s DamnYankee Summer Reading Challenge. That’s pretty good, since this Summer Reading Challenge doesn’t really exist, it began as a parody, yet it has taken on a life of its own. I loved this book. I mostly read it back in the winter, reading a story each evening before bed. Then the book fell behind my night stand only to be pulled out and dusted off and finished in the past week. It’s nice to see a Yankee who can string together words using such precise spelling and grammar, as you’ll see in my many quotes from his stories.
On Fishing is a wonderful collection of Traver’s “yarns” about fish, fishermen (he's kind of sexist that way), and fishing along with related occupations such as drinking. The stories come from Traver’s three books on trout fishing (Trout Madness, Trout Magic, and Anatomy of a Fisherman) along with several of his magazine articles and a couple of essays and a speech by others telling us about Traver's life. Traver died in 1991 at 88 years of age.
Rober Traver was the pseudonym for John D. Voelker. Voelker grew up in Ishpeming (what is it about a state with towns named Ishpeming and Ypsilanti?). After a childhood in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, he headed south for college. In 1928, he graduated from the University of Michigan Law School and took a job with a top “Chicago firm that contained so many caged lawyers that in the general confusion they sometimes even sued their own firm’s clients.” After about three years in the city, he told his wife he’d prefer to “starve in Ishpeming than wear emeralds in Chicago.” Heading to the North Country, he was elected prosecutor for Marquette County in 1934 and held the position for 14 years till one day he found himself “abruptly paroled from [his] D.A. job by the unappealable verdict of the voters.” Voelker confessed that after so many years, it was inevitable for him to lose the election because he had passed the threshold of prosecuting at least one person from 50% of the families in the county. Going to the other side of the courtroom to ply his trade, Voelker also started writing. One of his early books, Anatomy of a Murder, became a Book of the Month feature and was made into an award winning movie. Shortly thereafter, Voelker was appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court. He resigned, after serving a little less than three years, rationalizing his decision by saying “while other lawyers may write my opinions, they can scarcely write my novels.” At age 55, Voelker returned to the UP where he did what he loved: fishing for brook trout, hunting morels, playing cribbage, writing and drinking. Voelker was a fantastic storyteller and this is a very funny collection of stories.
Although he does plenty of bragging in the pages of this book, Traver claims to be a quiet fisherman, the type who either eats his catch or returns them to the water. He has little respect for the “kill-kill” boys whom he “suspects the outdoors is but a suburb of their egos” and who “invariably clap [their fish] on the wall. “There are times when I yearn to reunite them there,” Traver muses. Of course, there is one type of fisherman even worst than the “kill-kill boys.” That the infamous “kiss and tell” fisherman, who after being treated to someone favorite fishing spot, goes and writes up their find for a fishing magazine, advertising it to the world. Although Traver himself wrote for these periodicals, he points out for his readers that you can’t learn everything about fishing from reading because “Trout are rather inconstant readers of the outdoor magazines.”
Traver loves fly-fishing and lifts it up to one of the great joys in life. It’s such great fun, he muses, “that it really ought to be done in bed.” Fly-fishing is superior to other forms of angling. It is “what high seduction is to rape.” On another page he compares chasing trout and women, both of which are tiring and complicated endeavors. “Wooing a trout with a fly is almost precisely akin to the slow and patient seduction of a proud and reluctant woman.”
Traver becomes a bit kinky describing the flailer, the type of fly fisher who thrashes the water with his line.
“Some flailers flail away so furiously that one suspects they must imagine they are beating up on someone, like maybe the boss. And I once beheld an oblivious flailer who flailed with such ecstatic abandon that I could have sworn he spied a seductive siren out there called Sade—wups, I mean Sadie—wearing only a Freudian slip.”Traver also addresses serious issues such pollution in his stories. Of course, it’s all done humorously. Writing in 1964 about those who pollute waterways, he suggests that homicide might be a solution, but then goes on to point out “the problem of how one goes about assassinating a corporation.”
One of Traver’s funniest stories is about his friend Danny McGinnis. In one of McGinnis’ many attempts to avoid all forms of labor, he decided to become a fishing guide. Traver tells the wonderful tale of the rich Chicago doctor and friends who signed up for a week at McGinnis place. Getting off the train, they meet a drunken McGinnis. When asked about his waders and creel, Danny told them he didn’t use them. “Saves all kinds of money fer charities an’ to give them missionary fellas fer convertin’ heathens with.” After a rocky start, the men from Chicago have a blast and tip McGinnis handsomely and sign up for a return trip the next year. In this story, I finally learned what the Good Book means in that troubling passage where it says to cast your bread upon the waters (Ecclesiastes 11:1). McGinnis was a practitioner of such advice. I suspect, however, the game warden might call it chumming the waters and take offense.
This is great writing and restores my faith in Yankee literature. I recommend it and offer one last piece of advice from Traver: “Fish, drink and be merry for tomorrow we must cut grass…”
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