A Fish Truck in Northern Michigan

A story about more than just a fish truck, this essay was originally published in the March 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

Traver’s was a Jeep. An old one, some ancient precursor to the modern day SUV. But his was littered with fishing gear, not soccer balls. I suppose you can claim that the fishing author Robert Traver started the entire notion that owning a fish truck was an absolute requirement for any fly fisherman who claimed to share any trout fishing DNA with him.

I fell into this weird spiral of fish truck psychosis years ago when, on a whim, I bought a 1952 Willys Overland. It was in January of 1985, after I had scooped up my retirement funds from a public school teaching job. I bought an Apple II-C computer with part of the $3,200 I walked out of Grayling with and spent the rest on the beast.

I remember all too well the day I found it, driving along a snow-filled driveway in Grawn, pulling up to a remote house and seeing the Willys barely visible in the poorly lit garage. It was freezing cold. My wife and 3-year-old daughter were in the car as they watched the owner and me talk. I never even asked if the Willys ran. My wife saw me say, “I’ll take it,” and I thought she might need to be resuscitated when I retrieved the rig the next day and drove it home. I thought of myself as a fledgling fish bum … another craze you could probably attribute to Traver, or some would say John Gierach.

I drove the Willys back and forth to Grayling for a couple of summers, blasting down Conner’s Flat Road on my way to a hex hatch. The Willys had no heater, per se, and the wipers ran off the engine vacuum, but the ’52 was made of quarter-inch steel, and I spent one summer attaching real wood to the sides so it would look more native. Then, my Willys became too much to bear, and I sold it to Rusty Gates, a former student in Grayling and the son of Cal Gates, then-owner of Gates Lodge on the Au Sable River. Rusty drove my ex-fish car around, and eventually a valve found its way into the engine proper, and he decided to fix it and drive it a bit more.

I had a chance to buy the Willys back, but declined, a decision I still regret. Years passed, and I drove all kinds of vehicles to go fishing: Subarus and Toyota pickups, and even had a VW Thing for a year or so, but nothing could come close to the Willys for panache and the patina of abuse.

But one night, driving home from the Boardman River about 10 years ago, in a fancy Volvo no less, I spotted what has now become a legend … the Fish Truck: 1992 Mazda B2600, extended cab. Black. Snow tires all around and 4-wheel drive. I bought it on the spot, drove home and gave my wife the news. Again. 1,200 bucks. A steal.
My first task: stickers. No fish truck is worthy of such a designation without an ample supply of stickers. The next day I drove into a local Patagonia dealer and bought every Patagonia trout sticker they had—20 in all—and then spent about an hour and half putting them on each side from front to back in a kind of arc … as if the fish were swimming with me as I wove through traffic.

I drove the B2600 for several years. It died many times, but I always found someone to revive it. But, I made another nearly fatal mistake and sold it to my good friend Jim Olson. He drove it and nursed it back to better health for two years, with new brakes, some electrical work and at least four batteries. I borrowed it on a regular basis, but missed it so much that I asked to buy back in. Jim, in all his graciousness, promptly set me up simply by agreeing to pay half the insurance and half the repairs. That was three years ago.

The B2600 travels back and forth between the Platte and the Boardman these days, mostly for fishing, but also hauling manure for gardens and wood for sheds and decks. The interior is barely intact, and the jump seats in the extended cab are too full of “road necessities” to be of any use, but it still hauls fly rods and waders and boats.

Occasionally, the fish truck will drop 
a piece of sheet metal from one of its 
wheel wells, or a chunk of rust will tumble down the road behind us. The front 
bumper is about to fall off. The tailgate is 4
gone, given over to a custom-made wooden one. Most of the finish has dulled to matte black, pitted with stone chips and scars from tree encounters.

Two weeks ago, our B2600 was resting at the Neahtawanta Inn because it failed to start, yet again. But now it has a new coil, a new heart really. It’s back on the road and will now spend most of the winter gathering snow. The fish truck is something to behold in either of our driveways. It is an icon. But the best part … I fixed the CD player after it was silent for two years. Dylan is always on. Always.

The original speakers were blown out years ago, so the new/old ones, bought at a garage sale for a dollar, are jammed under each seat. You see, with this fish truck you get it all … road noise, “Tangled Up In Blue” resonating from down under, maybe the left-over scent of a manure haul or the smell of wood chips, and you get the rich experience of seeing people stopping in their tracks to count those trout stickers.

No, our Mazda B2600 is not for sale. Never will be. When it goes, it will perch by one of our rivers as a monument to a life purposefully lived in pursuit of fishing: we will shoot out the tires, let the truck rest. Use it for that cold beer after fishing, sitting up high in the cab, listening to Bob, or maybe the rain dripping through one of the holes I punched in the roof, because it once had a Yakima rack on top, “removed” one day when I was moving a bit too fast, not seeing a low branch when rushing to get my waders wet and my line in the water.

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