A literary look at Michigan’s fishing scene as the Michigan History Museum shows off a new exhibit
A new exhibit at the Michigan History Museum will make fly fishermen and women itchy to get their gear on. Called “The River that Changed the World,” it takes an in-depth look at one of America’s most famous fly fishing rivers — the Au Sable.
And the exhibit isn’t just about fishing itself, but the people who help make it happen. For instance, it covers Trout Unlimited, which became a national organization dedicated to preserving trout habitats. Visitors will also get a glimpse of an original 24-foot flat bottom river boat, a recreated northern Michigan rod shop and a chance to tie a fly or take a virtual reality paddle down the Au Sable.
Visitors can also look back in time to Michigan fishing history with the Arctic grayling. The state’s chief librarian Randy Riley loaned a stuffed grayling caught by his father, a rare view of one of Michigan’s most popular fish until it was overfished in the 1930s. In fact, fishing has been such an important piece of Michigan’s culture for so long, that it’s attracted some of the nation’s top literary figures to our peninsula.
Here are a few authors who have either been influenced by Michigan’s fishing scene or helped to influence its perception.
One of the earliest photographs of Ernest Hemingway shows him at Michigan’s Walloon Lake as a young boy holding a fly fishing pole and a creel. He would go on to spend 21 summers in northern Michigan, and he was often seen with a pole in his hand, holding up a stringer of fish.
He once wrote a friend about fly fishing in Michigan. He said it was “absolutely the best fly fishing in the country. No exaggeration.”
Hemingway became a master of the short story often featuring his youthful alter-ego Nick Adams who, like Hemingway, was an ardent fly fisherman. One of his most famous short stories, “The Big Two Hearted River,” is rife with fishing tales.
Hemingway wasn’t the only writer whose passion extended to fly fishing. This includes the likes of Michigan’s own Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane and former Michigan Supreme Court Justice John Voelker who wrote under the pseudonym Robert Traver. Traver is perhaps best known for his book “Anatomy of a Murder,” but he was a genius writer about fly fishing.
His short stories on fly fishing were collected in his book “Trout Madness,” and they are witty and entertaining; not relying on the technical aspects of trout fishing. After reading about the “madness” you can understand how Voelker so easily turned in his seat on the bench for the banks of Frenchman’s Pond.
“The Longest Silence” by MSU graduate Thomas McGuane is considered a classic among fly fishermen. The collection of 33 essays takes fly fishing to a religious experience — the equivalent of a five-pounder.
But writing about fly fishing is no longer a man’s game either; writer Holly Morris, for example, has edited two books of women writing about fly fishing “Uncommon Waters” and “A Different Angle.” Author Pam Houston, celebrated author of “Cowboys are My Weakness,” has discovered a new weakness in writing about fly fishing herself.
East Lansing’s own Chris Dombrowski recently wrote a book on fly fishing, “Body of Water,” and is greatly admired by those who know how to tie a wet fly. Dombrowski, who supplements his college teaching as a river guide in Montana, was good enough to land Jim Harrison as one of his frequent customers.
Dombrowski is included in the recent collection of American writers writing about fly fishing, “Astream” that boasts essays by McGuane, Harrison, Pam Houston, Russell Chatham and Guy de la Valdene. The collection is edited by Robert DeMott.
Harrison contributed a beautiful piece about his four-decade angling life. He writes that “fishing is a mental beast” and that “fishing is the activity that ensures my sanity.”
He claims in his essay that “I suspect that a sense of humor is the most valuable thing an angler can own.”
Writers who fly fish will tell you the comparisons between fly fishing and writing run deep. Both are a lonely act, and both require massive discipline often staring at nothing until something hits you.
And of course — in both writing and fishing, one can make a lot mistakes that can look clumsy, yet the love of both disciplines runs deep in these authors.
Voelker once wrote, “I fish because I love to. Because I love the environs where trout are found, which are invariably beautiful, and hate the environs where crowds of people are found, which are invariably ugly.”
“The River That Changed the World” Through July 29, 2018 $6/ $4 Seniors/ $2 Youth/ FREE children 5 and under Mon., - Fri., 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sun., 1-5 p.m.
Michigan History Museum 702 W. Kalamazoo St., Lansing (517) 373-3559 ow.ly/FFWJ30fLYZv