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  • March 6th, 2020


By Joel M. Vance


Rivers have voices. Sure they do. You know they do. If ever you camp on a gravel bar at night beside a stretch of fast water, you have heard the whisper of the river. Maybe it’s the gurgle of water pushing at a snag or the murmur of water piling up at the rocks downstream, but the voice is there. There are stories to be heard and retold in the sounds of the river—at the very least memories to be played again and again in the minds of tomorrow.


The Couderay River is a small stream in Northwest Wisconsin. Once I stopped at Billy Boy dam, allegedly named for a long ago Ojibway chief, and cast into the wash below the dam and presently a fish hit hard and fought fiercely for a few minutes until I landed it. It was a sub legal muskellunge and I released it.  Across from me on the far bank was a tarpaper shack.  A couple of Native American children played in the yard and I wondered how the family could endure the sometimes brutal cold of winter in such a ramshackle setting.   I continued on to another, larger river to the north, the Bois Brule, known as the River of presidents because several of our nation’s leaders fished in it at one time or another.


Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, and Dwight Eisenhower all wet a line in the Brule at one time or another. One of the guides was rumored to have dallied with Coolidge’s wife while the notoriously taciturn Silent Cal was occupied on the stream.  But Cal was before my time, so I chose Mr. Eisenhower, among my most favorite presidents, to be featured in one of my fictional stories translated from river conversation.


The Brule is a storied river and the stories are there if you listen to the whisper.  The story I heard became the final story in my book, “Billy Barnstorm, the Birch Lake Bomber.”  My often hapless hero, Bobby, heads for the Brule in his decrepit pickup, Rocinante, (named for the addled would be knight Don Quixote’s spavined horse) and stops at Billy Boy dam en route where he meets a beautiful teenage Native American girl who invites herself along on his trip. They float the Brule in Bobby’s canoe and she seduces him and then abandons him. For her it is an insignificant incident; for him it is a transcendent moment. He runs after her, but she has vanished, and he stumbles onto the bank of the Brule, totally disoriented, only to encounter the president of the United States and a surly Secret Service agent, fully prepared to shoot him on the spot. You’ll have to buy the book to get the details, but that’s the bare-bones of a story whispered to me by two Wisconsin rivers.

It just takes a little imagination to fill the gaps and, for the record, there were no beautiful Indian maidens at Billy Boy the day I stopped and no presidents fishing on the Brule when I continued on. But imagination is a wonderful thing and all it takes is a few rivers whispering untold stories.

The Couderay is a sweet little river, not very long and totally without daunting rapids, unlike the Brule which has a couple of class III rapids interspersed among its many tranquil pools where the good angler can find brown and rainbow trout and, in season, spawning coho salmon fresh in from Lake Superior.


The Couderay was the last place I fished with George Mattis. George was considerably older than I, a high school classmate of my mother in Birchwood. George had written a book the first time I met him, and was trying to peddle it to a publisher. He was a journalism graduate and had newspaper experience and was writing an outdoor column for couple of local newspapers. I was dubious about the possibility he would find a publisher for his book about white tailed deer hunting since there already were countless other books on the same subject. On our next fishing trip together George told me that the Outdoor Life book club had accepted his book.  It turned out to be the best-selling book they ever published and I’m quite sure George made a mint of money from it.


We went fishing on a local lake for trout and George accidentally dropped his Wheatley fly box into the Lake where it promptly sank out of sight. George moaned as if someone had dropped a towering oak tree on his brand-new Mercedes (which I suspect he could afford from the royalties on his deer hunting book, except that he continued to drive a tiny compact, years old and without power windows steering or any other accessory you find on the lowest end Mercedes). “A friend in England gave that fly box to me during the war,” George said. He was a World War II vet, proud of his service so much that his rank and time of service are inscribed on his tombstone.


George largely was the inspiration for a story I wrote about trout fishing on Thirty Three Creek. Bobby goes fishing with his uncle Al, a combination of George Mattis and my Missouri uncle Roy Finney. Uncle Al is featured in many of my stories of the fictional town of Birch Lake which, in reality, is Birchwood, my mother’s home town. It’s a ghost story and appeared in my book “Autumn Shadows” and perhaps someday on a stream, not unlike Thirty Three, I will glimpse the ghosts of George Mattis and Roy Finnell, both of whom have faded into the autumn shadows.  Once again a body of running water inspired a story.


It was late in the evening when Foster Sadler and I eased our canoe to an inviting gravel bar on one of the many rivers that we shared together—so many that I have forgotten the name of this particular one, but not what happened and how it inspired yet another ghost story from “Autumn Shadows.”


I was wrangling cooking gear up the gravel bar where we were going to set up our camp tent while Foster bent over the gunwale of the canoe. I heard a cracking sound and turned to see a sizable tree that had chosen that instant in time to topple, beginning to fall directly toward Foster and I had just an instant to yell a warning. Foster straightened and the tree grazed his back as it landed with a thud and splashed partly in the river. Aside from a scrape and a bruise, Foster was uninjured.  If he hadn’t reacted to my shout, the tree could have broken his back or even killed him.


That was one half of a story but I needed a gimmick to flesh it out. I remembered that John Voelker, the author of “Anatomy of a Murder” and an avid trout fisherman had referred to his favorite fly as “a little bitty brown thing.” I incorporated that favorite fly with Foster’s near fatal encounter with a falling tree and the result is another autumn shadow from the ghost book.


If it seems that I create stories from adversity and misfortune, it goes back a long way to when my wife, Marty, went to our family doctor during her first pregnancy for a routine checkup. She was sitting next to a woman in the waiting room who was cradling an injured arm. Marty asked what had happened and the woman mumbled something unintelligible. Marty asked again and the woman shamefacedly confessed that she had been shooting a game of pool in the family rec room with no one home when the cue ball became lodged in a ball channel. She fished for it, couldn’t quite reach it, pushed her hand further into the channel and her elbow dropped into the pocket and she was trapped, as effectively as a raccoon reaching for bait in a coon trap. She had to wait all day until someone came home and called paramedics to rescue her. They had to dismantle the pool table to free her.


When Marty told me the story and I quit laughing I realized that for a short story writer, the situation was pure gold. It became one of the stories in my first book “Grandma And The Buck Deer” after first being published for some nice money in Field and Stream magazine.


Once I was stuck for an idea for a humor column (the operative word here as it turned out was “stuck”). I remembered that once I had hooked myself while fly fishing for bluegills with a popping bug in the skin over the breast bone. I remembered the trick of looping monofilament over the shank of the embedded hook, giving a backward jerk of the loop, at which the hook is supposed to slip loose without leaving a mark or a bloody wound. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see what I was doing—try it some time looking at your mid chest without eyestrain. I found a mirror and tried the idea hoping to avoid self-mutilation. But everything is backward in a mirror and after imitating all of the vintage Three Stooges, I gave a hopeful pull and, miracle of miracles, it worked!


So I had the foundation of a humor column, but more in the nature of a how to—nothing there to form the basis of humor. So I polled some of my outdoor writer friends for funny experiences they had had with hooks. Every angler at one time or another has barbed himself or someone else. Sure enough, my dear friend the late Mike Levy, outdoor editor of the Buffalo New York newspaper came up with an incomparable anecdote.


He had taken his small son bluegill fishing and it was getting late and almost dark, time to go home. The youngster was fooling with a large fishing plug, bristling with treble hooks, and got his line tangled. Mike, good daddy that he was, began to straighten out the mess when the youngster somehow jerked his fishing rod and one of the treble hooks on the plug neatly impaled Mike’s right thumb. In pain, he reflexively pulled away with his left hand, neatly impaling his left thumb on a treble hook at the other end of the plug. A unique dilemma. “Have you ever tried to drive with both hands hooked to a fishing plug?” Mike asked rhetorically.


The rest of the story, equally funny, if you’re not the hooked angler, is grist for another blog, but the incident obviously was grist for a short story, featuring my eternally beleaguered hero, Bobby. But I needed a hook, so to speak, on which to hang the story as well as Bobby so I remembered an incident when I was fishing on the Chippewa River and glimpsed a muskellunge rising from a pool like a Polaris missile only to sink silently back into the deep. The story is a chapter in my book “the Exploding Elephant.”


I wrote it, first using the original Mike Levy anecdote in my humor column, then I sold the subsequent short story for an impressive sum, then entered the short story in a contest and took first place for $500 prize money, then included the story as a chapter in the book.


When I told Mike, having the grace to be somewhat ashamed about how much money I had gleaned from his misfortune, he grumbled, “I’m never going to tell you anything again.”


So listen to the murmur from the river. There are stories in those mutterings. But be wary of fishhooks, especially if attached to little bitty brown things or great big Pikie Minnow plugs, and of letting your significant other shoot pool with no one else around.


On the other hand, the one not attached to a fish hook, you might miss some wonderful stories.



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