Tails and Tales

Tails and Tales

John Voelker at Frenchman's Pond; Ed Engle on Bamboo; Fly-Fishing With Trout-Tail

  • By: Seth Norman
Voelker's Pond A Robert Traver Legacy By photographer Ed Wargin With Essays by James McCullough (Huron River Press, 2003; 800-956-8999; www.huronriverpress.com) 144 pp.; hardcover; $45.00, In our November/December issue we published this year's winner of the Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Fiction Award, sponsored by the John D. Voelker Foundation. From my own experience on the judging committee I can say this much: The finalists' selections are studied, debated and carefully assayed. Every judge has his own view-some lend more weight to elements of style, others to the spirit a story reflects; but nobody tips the scale for a famous name.Argue the results if you like-we certainly did-but the process is attentive and fine, as fair a scrutiny as any writer's likely to receive in the real world. There's the Award, then there's the prize, which the Foundation has increased from $1000 to $2500. Although I don't belong to this organization, I can tell you why they took this step: Two years ago the Traver judges selected a winner, then stayed in conference to address several important issues. To wit: How can we encourage the new Robert Traver-an author or authors who are inspired by fly-fishing and its literary tradition? We wondered where he or she publishes today, and what kind of support we offer to sustain such efforts. The answers to these questions led to grim conclusions, in my opinion. The response to this discussion, however, was anything but. Now a writer gets almost as much for a single short story of surpassing quality as he would for the advance on a whole book of fly-fishing fiction. Given that too few of these books sell enough copies to earn an author anything more than the advance… You get the picture. Perhaps you also get some sense of the Voelker folks' dedication. If so, then you might understand why the kind of rigorous rules that govern the Traver Award competition don't necessarily apply to this column. By that I mean simply that Voelker's Pond, A Robert Traver Legacy, was bound to get a sympathetic look from behind these bifocals. That said, I'll assert that I'd have reviewed it in any case. Here's why: Although generations of readers, anglers and movie afficionados know Voelker as "Robert Traver," author James McCullough doesn't dwell on his subject's literary achievements. Instead, he writes about the part of Voelker's life spent among good friends in a special place. Voelker called his homewater "'Frenchman's,' for that is not its name"-a collection of ancient beaver ponds in what was and still is a remote part of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. There, according to McCullough, he and a few others "found the only solid, flat slab of ground," where they built "a cedar and pine cabin, shaped like a miniature barn, barely big enough for four people, cramped with five, tucked between hemlocks at the bottom of a steep bank, only a stone's throw from the pond." Ed Wargin's photos reveal Frenchman's and the cabin in their majesty and modesty: sunset on cedars, an evening with stars, autumn colors in the forest…weathered walls hung with horseshoes, coils of old leader, a corroded cutting board. If readers perusing these images cannot hear ice clinking in the 'Old Fashioned' drinks Voelker served every afternoon-or the echoes of stories, boasts told to laughter and cribbage games played with unusual vigor-he or she may imagine they can, and that's the point. Voelker himself comes across as a host of humor, warmth, generosity and unpretentious grace. The kind of fisher who owns the finest fly boxes-mostly gifts-but keeps his favorites in a battered aluminum film canister; who appreciates excellent split cane rods and leaves these strung, leaning against the wall, ready for action; who used Hardy reels and concocted knot-tying tools from clothespins and rubber bands. He also revered wild brook trout while regretting what he saw as a growing obsession with larger fish, a trend he saw as "transplanting to our trout waters the whole competitive strident, screechingly acquisitive world of business," and which threatened "one of the main rewards and solaces of going fishing at all…the world's only sport that it is fun even to fail at." Charles Kuralt called Voelker "the closest thing to a great man I ever met." Author McCullough author adds this to that measure: "Learning to fly fish with me was one of my father's most profound gifts, more than he may know, but equally, so was this pilgrimage to meet a man who had achieved the heights of success and was willing to chuck all social expectation with a confident grin, who was unafraid to live on his own terms, and who chose to spend his time simply and humbly, among friends, fishing the vast waterways in the landscape he loved." This book won't leave you awed, but admiring. You might not covet a first edition of his work, but you're more likely to wish you'd made the man's acquaintance some evening on Frenchman's shore; and that thought will leave you smiling. Splitting Cane Conversations with Bamboo Rodmakers By Ed Engle (Stackpole Books: 2002 800-732-3669; www.stackpolebooks.com) 212 pp.; hardcover; $29.95 There's more than one reason people fish rods crafted from the culms of a giant grass. Ed Engle offers his own a dozen times in Splitting Cane: Conversations with Bamboo Rodmakers. One my favorite examples is found in Chapter 14, "F. D. Lyons Rod Company." Engle describes receiving a new rod, beginning with the process of picking it up at the post office soon after a flood. Not to put too fine point on this, but think of Russ Chatham approaching a duck, or maybe Don Juan reveling in the pink attributes of an eminent conquest… Engle notes the packing materials in which his prize arrived, the "slender aluminum tube capped with brass at both end," then the "khaki-colored" bag. When the rod itself emerges, "it was clear that the ghost of H. L. Leonard was lurking in the three-piece 3 1/2 ounce, 8-foot bamboo rod that I held in my hands." In the following paragraphs Engle savors every component, from the "graceful Leonard-style cigar grip that tapered all the way to the nickel silver hooded butt cap" to "a signature wrap consisting of a wide burgundy silk winding with a ring-style hook keeper in the center, followed by narrow windings of rust, antique gold and very dark maroon over the slightly swelled butt." Beyond that we have "a classic old-style low-bridge agate stripping guide," ferrule wraps that "mirror the signature," and threads on snake guides "that contrasted gorgeously with the blond cane characterized three-by-three nod spacing…compact and artful." Engle then goes on to describe the physical act, casting that is, with just as much detail: "I deviated from my normal rod-testing agenda, where I make short casts first, and found myself cranking out line on the initial false casts. I just couldn't help it after I felt the first pulse of life enter the cane as the line went out through the guides. It was the silky smooth kind of feeling that can only come from a rod endowed with a fuller action. "…One of the great pleasures of bamboo is that it handles a broad range of tapers and their resulting actions so well. I appreciate the so-called slower rods because I think they make me a better caster. Besides, they make for a sensuous fishing partner." There you go. But lest I lead readers astray, let me report that 16 of the 21 chapters in Splitting Cane are about the making of the rods, and the men who labor in this service- "the secret lives of rodmakers," as Engle puts it. For this collection the author draws from a list he acknowledges "is by no means all-inclusive," often presenting subjects he first approached while writing for The Angler's Journal. "The sum of all the columns taken…is a rather eclectic collection of rodmakers that gives a fair representation of bamboo rodmaking in America today. Most are full-time rodmakers. A few are part time or semi-retired. Some are experiencing a measure of success, while others are struggling. All are dedicated heart and soul to making fly rods out of bamboo." Eclectic is the right word, but as one would imagine of artisans who perform such exacting work, these people have characteristics in common. The most conspicuous, to me, is the degree to which they pay tribute to the makers who have influenced them, either by direct tutorial, or by through the techniques and tapers still used today. Engle casts their products using a variety of lines and tapers, and-despite the exception identified above-a consistent approach. Although he likes most he meets, each rod receives a remarkably distinctive vignette, intimate and "personal." This one throws well at that range, for example, with a particular line; another loads well for another application. Most importantly, Engle understands that individual tastes will vary: whatever his own response, the highest priority is to give a would-be fisher a sense of what a rod does well, and how, along with some sense of the why. No small task, given how much of casting is a sensory game. But Splitting Cane is a book I'd buy before investing in this kind of partner, certainly before signing the pre-nups; and as a reader, I frankly enjoyed wandering through the experiences of somebody who's so clearly delighted by the chance to indulge himself, wrap by wrap and loop upon loop. Fly-Fishing with Trout-Tail A Child's Journey By K.H. Lucas (www.trouttail.com: 2002) 40 pp.; hardcover; $19.95 Sophia and I perused this book while propped up on pillows. She read while I turned pages, an exercise we've pretty much perfected over her eight-year span. Sophie "ooo-ed" over the pretty photographs, picked out flies she liked-"you have some of those!"-and made remarks common to fly fishers three, six or ten times her age, like "nice fish!" That the main character's nickname was "Trout-tail" didn't impress her for some reason; and since Fly-Fishing with Trout-Tail is a pictorial introduction rather than a how-to, she didn't learn much she doesn't know. More importantly, however, this was the first time she saw anybody her own age practicing a sport she already enjoys, and that was exciting. "So what do you think?" I asked at the end. "I like it!" "Yeah? What do you like about it?" "It shows how great fly-fishing is!" "Uh-huh. And if you'd never fly fished before, what would you be thinking right now?" "I'd say, 'Daddy, take me fly-fishing today!'" Okay.