Anatomy of a fishing lesson

News item from The Detroit Free Press: The 50th anniversary of the publication of “Anatomy of a Murder” by former Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker, under the pen name Robert Traver, is being celebrated with a series of events in Marquette, Ishpeming and Lansing.

My family discovered the Upper Peninsula in the late 1980s when we rented a little cabin (a “camp” in Yooper vernacular) on Lake Superior near Shot Point, about 15 miles east of Marquette. On our first visit, we unpacked, explored the immediate area and decided we had stumbled upon heaven on earth. Then we took stock of what we forgot to pack, got in the car and headed west on Highway 28 toward Harvey for groceries, sundries and gasoline.

Just before Highway 28 runs into U.S. 41, at the heart of downtown Harvey, the Chocolay River bends out toward the road. There’s a small parking lot, a platform for handicapper fishing and an open bank leading down to the river.

It was right around there that we first saw the old, beat-up, blue Jeep Cherokee, driving slowly, mostly on the shoulder, with the driver-side door open a couple of feet. The driver appeared to be staring intently at the white fog line separating the road from the shoulder.

“What the heck,” or something close to that, I said to my family.

During our two-week stay, we saw the same scene several times, always right around the river. Things are different in the U.P., we decided.

One day, I caved in to my young son’s wishes and took him to fish at the Chocolay access point. I didn’t really care for fishing at the time. No patience for it. Patience is something that came with age for me. I could still use more of it.

We baited some hooks, threw the lines in and waited. From behind me, I heard car tires on gravel. I pulled my line out and hoped that it wasn’t a DNR officer because I was completely unlicensed.

It was the blue Jeep Cherokee.

An old man, crumpled hat, craggy face, nose shaped like a small potato, slightly unsteady on his feet, got out and started toward us. He definitely wasn’t a DNR officer.

“Hi,” I called out.

“Hello. Why’d you pull your line out?”

“Thought you were the law and I don’t have a license.”

“We don’t pay much attention to that around here. How’s he doing?” he asked, gesturing toward my son.

“Not so well. I don’t know much about this,” which drew a look that was a mixture of bewilderment and slight disapproval, perhaps, but he finished with a grin when I added, “but he enjoys it.”

“Mind if I help out?”

“How about it, son? The gentleman knows something about fishing.”

For the next 10 or 15 minutes, he talked to my son about the river, the fish, the weeds, the current, the rocks, where the big ones were. At one point, he went back to the Jeep and returned with something called a “spawn sac,” which he guaranteed would bring a fish to my son’s hook.

It did but it wasn’t a keeper.

After a while, he said he needed to be moving on. My son and I thanked him as he got back into the Jeep and slowed pulled out of the parking lot, straddling the shoulder with the driver’s door partly open.

As the Jeep disappeared, I realized I hadn’t caught his name. I never asked and he never volunteered it.

Several days later, back in the real world of work and Lawyers Weekly, I was thumbing through the issues that were published while I was gone. I turned a page and stopped cold.

Staring out from the page was a picture of the old gentleman who gave my son a fishing lesson.

His picture was coupled with a story about the
John D. Voelker Foundation’s
republication of two of his fishing books. The paper was partnering with the Foundation at the up-coming State Bar of Michigan Annual Meeting, where the books would be sold to fund the Foundation’s activities.

My son had the privilege of a fishing lesson from the great man himself, John D. Voelker, former Michigan Supreme Court justice, author and outdoorsman, whose memory and literary achievements are being celebrated over the next several weeks.

I shared this story with Michigan Supreme Court Commissioner Fred Baker last week. He’s the secretary-treasurer of the Voelker Foundation.

“What about the way he drove the Jeep?” I asked. A driving performance like that anywhere else would have been worthy of a ticket or worse.

Baker told me that in Voelker’s final years, his eyesight was very bad. He would actually use the road’s fog line to make sure he was going in a straight path. He was so beloved in the Marquette area that when the police came upon him on the road, they’d leave him alone and just follow him to make sure he got where he was going.

Things are different in the U.P.