If ever a man loved a landscape; if ever a man was transfixed—we might even say bewitched—by fishing his favorite water, then the late John Donaldson Voelker, pen name Robert Traver, was that man, and his fabled “Frenchman’s Pond”—a private brook trout backwater somewhere in Michigan’s rugged Upper Peninsula—was the place.
To readers of 1950’s best sellers, fly-fishing literature and classic film buffs, Robert Traver, the author, may need no introduction, but others may not know his real name, John Voelker, the man Charles Kuralt befriended after profiling him at Frenchman’s Pond for his On The Road series, and who in the end said Voelker was “about the nearest thing to a great man [he’d] ever known.”
Unlike most fly-fishing luminaries, Voelker did not invent new fly patterns (“Far from being able to tie a fly, I am barely able to unzip one,” he wrote); he did not host casting clinics, design innovative equipment, write where-to how-to when-to exposés about exotic rivers or conduct empirical studies of entomology designed to help the uninitiated catch fish. His contributions, in fact, contradict the current trends in the sport. Rather than directing and instructing fishermen, mapping the way to the best water, he shrouded his favorite place with magic and mystery. He emphasized fishing’s joyous unpredictability, its difficulty, and the pleasure of the pursuit—not of ever-larger species in the far reaches of the globe—but of small, wild brook trout in his local waters. He spun stories he called “yarns” that retain the mythological status of the secretive creatures inhabiting his fisherman’s Shangri-la. And unlike the authoritative bravado of some outdoor writers, he reminded us by his example to be humble, to move slowly, to appreciate the wonders of the landscape, and without saying so directly, instructed us to find peace with the world through the patient act of casting.
On his pond, he erected a short bridge on which he placed two church pews: invitations for weary fishermen to take solace. He was what outdoor writer Nick Lyons called, “a poet of the near at hand,” a man in love with his native land, the Upper Peninsula’s rough-hewn waterways. In his introduction to the posthumous collection of Voelker’s favorites, Traver on Fishing, Lyons explains that Voelker’s writing “reminds us of his enduring values … makes us laugh a bit more at ourselves and our fellow fly fishers, and invites us not to turn this happy pastime into a jargon-ridden cult.”
Voelker’s grandparents emigrated from Germany in 1843 to establish breweries in the tough and remote western U.P. mining towns of Ontonagon and Negaunee. Voelker’s father would eventually operate a tavern in Negaunee when he was not hunting or fishing. Born in 1903 in Ishpeming—the town adjacent—Voelker learned early what he later called the fishing “sins” of his father, which included a lack of restraint, a bamboo pole and live bait. As a boy, he’d assail local streams, returning home with 20 or 30 trout at a time.
“When I was a young man there were trout everywhere,” he said. “You could hardly drop a bucket in a well without coming up with a trout.” Though he never gave up on eating his big fish, something the age of catch and release does not condone, the sins he learned from his father would find special dispensation once he took up the rod and pen.
After high school and two years at Marquette’s Northern Normal College, Voelker made his way from this distant region of the state to Ann Arbor—nearly 500 miles south—where at first he failed out, then in 1928 earned a University of Michigan law degree. There he met and later married Grace Taylor from Oak Park, Illinois, Hemingway’s hometown, and soon after took a position in a large firm in Chicago. But he could not stand the oppressive, entry-level job or urban life, so returned with his family to the U.P. There he was elected district attorney, the first Democrat elected there since the age of dirt, and he began writing under the name Robert Traver, a combination of his mother’s maiden name and the name of his older brother lost to World War I.
Voelker was re-elected six times as prosecutor, finally losing a race and returning to private practice in 1951. Then in 1952 he defended an Army lieutenant accused of murdering the owner of a bar in Big Bay, just north of Marquette. The case would change his life forever, becoming the basis of his novel, Anatomy of a Murder. In December 1956 Anatomy of a Murder was accepted for publication and in the same weekend Voelker was called to the Michigan Supreme Court, becoming officially appointed in January 1957 by Governor G. Mennen Williams. Voelker would write over 100 decisions in his short stay, and all the while, his novel climbed the best seller list, where it remained for two years, and was soon turned into an Academy Award–winning film directed by Otto Preminger and starring Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remmick and George C. Scott.
Impressive as they were, his political, legal and literary successes did not immortalize him in the world of fly fishing; rather, it was his willingness to abandon them. At the height of his power, of fame as an author and influence in the highest court in Michigan, he chose to flee the “baying hounds of success” by stepping down, returning to his simple home in the U.P. and to Frenchman’s Pond, devoting the rest of his life to his passions: fishing from spring to fall and writing about fishing all winter, a routine that produced the fly fishing classics Trout Madness, Trout Magic and Anatomy of a Fisherman. For his writing, over the years, he was selected for The Arnold Gingrich Award, the Theodore Gordon Fly Fishing Award, the Cranbrook Writers Guild Medal of Honor and was named Angler of the Year in 1986 by Rod and Reel Magazine.
Power and fame did not appeal to Voelker, who loved the pursuit of reclusive brook trout precisely because, as he observes in his famous passage, “Testament of a Fisherman,” trout “cannot be bought or bribed or impressed by power, but respond only to quietude and humility and endless patience.”
To this day, Frenchman’s has retained what Traverse City writer Jerry Dennis calls a “semi-mythical” status, seen first-hand only by Voelker, his family, friends and a few invitees, many of whom have, like the judge himself, passed on. Voelker fans have only had glimpses of the legendary water—a few frames in “Anatomy of a Fisherman,” the brief Kuralt profile from his CBS series and two short and rare films, one about the man as writer, the other as fisherman. For most of his readers, Frenchman’s has been conjured up in the mind from the deft descriptions handed down in prose.
Through the years many of his fans have searched fruitlessly for his pond. Like all great fishermen, Voelker would not “kiss and tell” on his favorite waters. He wrote often and at length about the pond, but through the years he only divulged its proximity to the Escanaba River, a sprawling watershed whose tributaries amble from a crow’s flight below Lake Superior through thousands of acres of dense forest and impenetrable swamp before ending in Lake Michigan. Still, to be sure, Voelker named his hallowed water “Frenchman’s … for that is not its name.”