In memoriam Tata Fredy, my grandfather
The team arrived at Yellow Dog River - in the French Lowlands - to film on June 20th; it was on that 20th of June that they discovered the structures. Two events always have everything and nothing to do with each other. That's why when Voelker showed up, I knew there would be a story. He wore a fishing shirt with many pockets and zippers, underneath a striped t-shirt reminiscent of a classic French sailor. He seemed to have lived his whole life by the riverside, or at least he looked at you as if you were a trout.
We set up camp on the edge of the Yellow Dog River. Someone told Voelker about the discovery of the structures; at first, he asked many questions, then nodded and said:
"Hopefully, my trout won't find out. But since they can't be bought or bribed, I don't think they'd be interested in any palaces underwater."
Later, he showed us the flies, as the evening fell in Michigan and we set up the tents for filming: slim Jim, small Adams, Nymph, Candy Striper, Jassid, and Betty McNault. He named them with a smile, as if he knew what each of the flies saw when it landed on the water to tempt a trout. He said that Jassid was special for rainy days. Someone asked him how it could be that after so many years of fishing, the trout didn't realize the trick they were being played. He said that the trick was patience, and that even sirens came with patience. Someone asked what sirens were; Voelker smiled and said patience, that we would see one soon.
The next day we shot some scenes with Voelker and Louie Benetti on the Ipsheming River fishing, and later with the two of them drinking bourbon from an old brass bowl in the forest, sitting on logs, as they used to do. While we filmed, Voelker recounted that he hadn't lasted a week as a lawyer in Chicago without being able to fish, just before publishing "Anatomy of a Murder." He continued:
"I understood that in a world where most men seem to spend their lives doing things they hate, my fishing was a source of endless pleasure and a small act of rebellion."
It was fascinating to listen to him. That day he didn't catch a single trout, and we feared he wouldn't catch any all week because of us. I heard Voelker saying as we passed by that the trout already knew we were there to watch them. That night we ate canned sardines with the crew, and before we got into our sleeping bags, Voelker came very calmly to ask us to dream of trout: that you could also fish in dreams. I didn't think it was a metaphor, and I believe we all followed his advice.
I don't remember what I dreamed, but I do remember that it rained a little at dawn, then cleared up, and we got a masterful shot of Voelker casting the fly with very green trees reflecting in the river. He didn't catch a trout either. By noon, the crew pretended to be unconcerned, but we all knew that our time on the river was limited, and Voelker's luck was twisted. He had lunch with us and told us about a time when he was fishing with Lou Benetti and two others, and he saw his friends catch eight trout each while he went home empty-handed.
"It's the best feeling," he said, "because then you think you'll never catch another fish in your life..."
But the director was not calm because he knew how much money the investors had put in to see trout. He didn't want to talk about the structures anymore with anyone; I think he thought the discovery had been a bad omen. Voelker, on the other hand, seemed more interested in the topic than ever. He wanted precise descriptions of the structures, asked if they resembled those of Khubla Klan, Coleridge's dream. No one knew how to answer him. He said that the night before he had dreamed of constructions underwater; then, that he had never gone three days straight without catching a trout. There was silence. Voelker smiled and went back to his spot on the river bend to keep fishing.
So the damp afternoon passed in silence, and the whole crew watched him out of the corner of their eyes. You could feel the trout in the river; there was a feeling that they saw Voelker's fly and avoided it, in mockery, like a bullfighter to the bull. Or I thought, looking at the calm old Voelker, that between him and the trout, they had made an agreement and wouldn't show themselves in any film. Because night fell, we ate some lentils, got into our sleeping bags, and ended the third day without a bite.
In the morning, after some general shots, the director gathered us to say that if Voelker didn't catch anything that day, then we would have to leave because there was no budget; the discovery of the shitty structures had played us a trick, he said. I know it sounds absurd now, but at the time, we were all very sensitive. Besides, just like in a movie where scenes in different places and times have an effect on the viewer, why not suppose that in the world, events in different places of space (the discoveries were in the middle of the Atlantic) influence and converge among themselves. Like I said, we all believed in luck.
At noon, Voelker's wife brought fresh meat with potatoes for the whole crew. While we were having lunch, he kept fishing; we could see him there on the river bend, his eyes fixed on the fly and the flowing water. Louie Benetti came over to talk about hunting and fishing, and he asked us if we really understood that Voelker, "Michigan's Mightiest Piscator," was a legend; he said he had never seen him so worried. The director mentioned the discovery of the structures again. Louie Benetti said that trout only responded to stillness and humility; the director explained that if Voelker didn't catch anything, we would pack up camp at night. I suggested that maybe we could make a movie about a film crew that goes to film the world's best fisherman and he, with his luck twisted by a trivial event like the discovery of some structures at the bottom of the Atlantic, doesn't catch a single trout for the rest of his life; I mentioned the names of Herzog and Besson. Everyone laughed, especially Louie Benetti, and the director gave me a scathing look.
With the last light of the afternoon, we took one last shot, perhaps the best one: authentic Michigan light on Voelker and the river. Then the director applauded and said we had finished the job. Voelker, dazed, without having moved all day from his fishing spot, approached and said:
"It's a pity: they'll come soon, I'm sure. I can keep waiting, but I sense you won't."
He exchanged a few words with the director, thanked him, and said goodbye. Then Voelker came to say goodbye to the entire crew. Smiling, he explained that most likely, as soon as we left the forest, the trout would start jumping as if in a circus, but that was life, and he had already gotten used to it.
When we left the Yellow Dog forest, it was already nighttime, and we used flashlights to avoid damaging the filming equipment. We had arranged to spend the night at a hotel in Ipsheming, a few kilometers away, because our flight to New York was the next day. Upon reaching the hotel, everyone went straight to bed, exhausted from sleeping few hours on the ground, a common practice among fishermen. However, I didn't want to give in to sleep, so I left my things and returned to the Yellow Dog forest, following the path we had taken. I was as certain of Voelker's words as I was that he had made a deal with the trout because he had never gone four days without fishing in his life.
After a long walk in the dark, using the flashlight sparingly, I finally found the Yellow Dog River again. There was no wind, no voices, just the sound of flowing water. It took me a while to orient myself until I realized I was downstream from Voelker's bend. I walked cautiously along the water until I heard muffled voices. Over at the bend, a figure against the trees was Voelker standing at his spot, as he had been all day, with the fishing rod in hand. The moon illuminated the river. I noticed there were more fishermen upstream: Lou Benetti, one by his voice, and I think two more shadows. One of them was smoking. I stopped and watched the scene for a long time. No one spoke, no one moved, only the water continued to flow.
I almost fell asleep on a log until something woke me up. Voelker grunted or cleared his throat, and something in the water shook, while the old man took a strong step toward his spot. The rod was tense, perhaps too much, bent towards the river. The others had turned their heads to see what was happening. The catch continued to shake the water as Voelker brought it in slowly. I couldn't understand how the rod didn't break in half with such force, and I thought a fish couldn't shake the water so much, but I wasn't sure. When Voelker finally pulled it out, the moon illuminated it, and I saw clearly...
The others left their spots and approached Voelker, surrounding him. I couldn't see what they were doing, but I heard them talking and laughing. Then they separated, and I saw, I saw clearly again: I saw Voelker return it to the river, I saw that as it fell, it splashed as much water as if it had been a horse, and it slowly floated away, upside down, looking at the moon and downstream...
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