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A PLASTER TROUT IN WORM HEAVEN
Jim Harrison
May 10, 1971
I admit I woke up grousing; a lick from my Airedale pup Hud, named Hud to offend all people of good taste, did little to improve my mood. I reached up to the radio from the floor where I must sleep forever, since a thousand-yard tumble while bird hunting savaged my spine. A newsman was reporting the accidental death of Herb Shriner, my favorite boyhood comedian. A girl in New York City once told me I talked like Herb Shriner. It takes many generations of rural indigence to make a Herb Shriner voice, long evenings of pinochle around a kerosene stove trying to pick up Chicago on a $10 radio. There was a light rain against the windows, and I thought of a statement once made by a statistics nut to the effect that Michigan receives less sunlight than any other state.
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May 10, 1971

A Plaster Trout In Worm Heaven

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I reflect on the pioneer spirit and how it made our country what it is, and the odious Bumppoism that emerges for events like the National Trout Festival. The slogan of this year's festival, the 34th annual, is "This Land Is Your Land—This Is My Country," which is typical of the sort of hysterical chauvinism and contradictory rhetoric one finds in rural hard hats. At Jack's Sport-shop, where the fish in the contest are to be weighed in, flag decals are for sale. It brings back all those articles I've read in the past 20 years celebrating the sportsman as a modern conquistador:

WE FIST-FOUGHT HITLER'S LUST-MAD LUNKLR TROUT

"It seems that I was asked to go up in the High Lonesome with Bob, Bob Sr. and Bob Jr., partners in a Dairy Whip-Insurance-Real Estate-Kapok Flailing operation in a little town next to the Big Woods in our state. We left at dawn after a hearty breakfast of fresh country eggs, country flapjacks, country bacon and country toast, all washed down with many cups of hot black Java. I sat in the back of the nifty camper with the three white police dogs that would be used to guard us against those terrors of the local wood-lots, porcupines. The dogs were named Rin and Rin Tin and Rin Tin Tin to keep things simple. Next to a holstered .375, Bob Jr. wore a machete that he claimed made an excellent fish priest. We were towing a boat and an all-terrain vehicle and in addition had brought along four trail bikes, a dozen varmint rifles of various calibers, fishing gear and a case of good old snake bite medicine...yuk yuk yuk...."

This might be called the brown-shoe-white-sock syndrome and is, I fear, the predominant attitude of fishing- and hunting-license buyers.

In what might be called the town square of Kalkaska, except that nearly all of the town is on one side and the railroad tracks are on the other, there is a statue. Not a Confederate general, a Union general, an Indian chief, a bronzed howitzer or a limp tank. It is a trout. I am told that it is a brook trout, and it is nearly 20 feet high. Curled and flexed, its enraged plaster strikes out of the smallish fountain at an imaginary giant fly, or more likely a worm dangling from worm heaven. Actually the fish looks like a cross between a smelt and a moray eel, or a sick alewife with a tinge of green creeping along the dorsal and the dread death spots beginning to appear.

But that is not the point. People passing on Route 131 may glance to the right and see the fish and muse aloud, "This is fishing country." The trout is continually bathed by water jets, but today there is a malfunction in the fountain. I cross the street with Cliff and Clint to see what's wrong. Clint Walter is to receive the Citizen of the Year award and is a benign and dedicated conservationist. Cliff Kimball is the president of both the festival and the chamber of commerce and is an unabashed booster. It seems the pump hole for the fountain is filling with water and if something is not done immediately the electric motor will short out. Cliff says it took a lot of pancake suppers to build this trout shrine. In small towns in Michigan, and probably elsewhere, pancake suppers, perch fries, ox roasts, chicken gizzard barbecues, square dances and raffles are used to raise money for statues, PTA tea services, bank uniforms and school trips, like sending the senior class to Chicago or to Milwaukee on the Clipper. Anyway, the fountain is fixed after some tinkering. Emergency ended. The fountain will spray throughout the festival.

The fire whistle blows and Cliff and Clint hasten off, both members of the volunteer fire department. The bandstand, with its red, white and blue bunting, is deserted. I climb up the steps and walk to the microphone. My chance! There is a crowd slowly assembling for what the program calls Youth on Parade, with floats, pets, clowns, bands and attractions. I feel like the dictator of British Honduras and have a dark desire to bray some nonsense, such as, "The trout on my left is rabid" or "The war is over!" But I recognize my urge as literary and blush.

I spot a man I watched a week ago in Leland snagging steelhead with gang hooks, a custom a bit more stealthy and subtle—and popular—than old-fashioned dynamite or gillnetting. I could yell at the oaf and expose him, but then the point would be missed on the gathering crowd, which now numbers at least 200. Cliff mentioned that approximately 70,000 people would be here or "in the area," as many as attend the Shenandoah Apple Festival but not nearly as many as are said to attend the Traverse City Cherry Festival. There are fibbers afoot in the heartland.

It is a glorious day, the mildest opening of the trout season to come to mind. A few years ago I sat huddled on the banks of the Manistee with a mixture of snow and sleet flying in my face, my hands red and numb from tying on streamers and the guides on the rod icing up every few casts. The first day always seems to involve resolute masochism; if it isn't unbearably cold, then the combination of rain and warmth manages to provide maximal breeding conditions for mosquitos, and they cloud and swarm around your head, crawl up your sleeves and down your neck despite the most potent and modern chemicals. Early in the season the water is rarely clear, making wading adventuresome. The snags and deeper holes become invisible to a fisherman. You tend to forget that stretches of familiar water can change character within a year's time—last season's safe eddy below a pool measures a foot above the wader tops this spring, surely the coldest, wettest foot conceivable.

I walk over to the chamber of commerce office and have coffee with Cliff. He is pleased pink about the weather. Questioned about the crowd possibilities, he replies obliquely. He says that Kalkaska is the smallest town in Michigan with a full-time chamber president. He allows as how his duties are so pressing, he does not have time for trout fishing—perhaps a little pike fishing later in the season in the Upper Peninsula when "things slow down." I reflect on this. It would be hard to create a slower village. Driving around Kalkaska County, you are reminded of those Jonathan Winters routines involving a hound with a bald tail sleeping near a gas pump and chickens scratching in a bare yard. But such places have an undeniable charm nowadays. Much of the popularity of country music is, surely, due to nostalgia for those drowsy days when "We didn't have much, but we had fun."

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