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Gettiní away from it all in Michigan

by Jim Stuard

I am by no means a great fisherman. I donít have mad skills that make other fishermen stop in their tracks to watch me perform. I donít tie flies that make me the envy of the tying community. But, and itís a big BUT, every once in a while all the stars align and I turn out a decent fishing trip where Iím not ashamed to say I caught a lot of fish. Thatís how Iíd describe my last trip up to the Au Sable River in Michigan last July. Iíd been to my friend Paulís place once a year for the last two years. Weíd found a common bond in woodworking, a former trade of mine, and fly fishing. Fly fishing is something at which heís exceedingly good. When you get used catching fish which under any other circumstances would be considered fish of a lifetime, you should be able to wear the badge of ďgood.Ē Iím talking about steelhead and the other star quarry that Paul has angled for over the years. At this stage of early retirement heís into catching the wild trout of the Au Sable river. They consist of Brook trout, brown trout, and Rainbows that glow like a gem in your hand when you catch them. Theyíre mostly smaller than the lunkers he caught in his headhunting days, but the fight is shorter and there are more of them. I think it may be all about the strike to Paul. More on that later. 

The Au Sable presents itself as the model of a classic trout stream. Itís a spring creek with incredibly stable, moderate flows and wading is very easy. It doesnít suffer the fate of other trout rivers that are subject to those damn, dam releases, or being too far south where the river temperature invariably rises to the point where itís dangerous for trout to live. Iím not here to romanticize trout. There are better writers who can and do deify that fish to the point that it would be swimming around with a big freakiní halo on itís head. I like to fish, and the quarry is incidental to the surroundings, company and current inventory of decent liquor and cigars. I can say that, on the weekend that is the subject of this article, alcohol and tobacco were in good supply. Such is the price of admission to fishiní paradise. 

On the two previous trips Iíd made to Michigan you could count the fish I caught on one hand. Paul, and for that matter all of his friends, would say; ďThe Au Sable is full of wild fish. Theyíre hard to catch and theyíve seen every fly that youíre gonna throw at themÖĒ Well, the Au Sable IS full of wild fish, but either dumb luck or sympathetic fish conspired to let me catch a few during my first forays up north. I emphasize Ė only a few.  I went there this year with no expectations beyond driving by Dundee and stopping in the humungous Cabelaís to see what there was to see and go fishing, drinking and smoking with friends. Not necessarily in that order. I brought some really nice maduro cigars and some tasty small-batch bourbon. With my admission paid my plan was simple; get mosquito bit and catch a good buzz after enjoying fruitless walks down the middle of beautiful streams. My modest expectations failed to prepare me for what lay ahead. 

I arrived on Friday evening and, as is the custom, the really serious fishing started after 8:00 p.m. It can get too toasty for fishing during the heat of the day. July evenings in Michigan can get comfortably chilly and thatís when a decent spinner fall of either Grey Drakes or Mahogany Duns comes off. You donít want a cloud of bugs. You want just enough so the fish can start picking them off the surface in a regular rhythm. Thatís what happened on this trip. I totally get dry fly fishing now. Iíd seen little snippets of it in past trips but this was the Big Kahuna of experiences. In my heart, I know that nymphing and streamers would probably yield more and bigger fish, but to see any fish rise to dry flies youíve tied is a sublime experience.


The previous year Iíd tied a box full of grey and mahogany spinners that didnít receive a lot of use. I just didnít catch that many fish. I also time my trip to try to catch the, sometimes huge Hexagenia Limbata hatch. These mayflies are like caterpillars with wings; they can come off like a cloud Ė or not at all Ė purely based on the weather conditions. A proper Hex hatch will make an otherwise cautious, law-abiding trout as dumb as a box of rocks. They come out in the dark during the hex spinner fall and start carelessly gulping spinners off the surface. Itís the trout fishing equivalent of a bums rush and is not to be missed. There are guys that will go just for the Hex hatch and sit on a stream bank for hours till dark. You see them there smoking pipes and chatting, waiting for the eventual spinner fall that occurs around 10 p.m. I only had one good hit on a Hex fly and it was last year during the same time. It was pitch black out. I was thigh deep in a run that had held big fish in the past and I was gently floating a foam Hex spinner down a run when I hear the tell-tale Ďgalloupí of my fly being eaten. My (at that time) brand new, self-made Scott rod bent till the tip touched the water for a blissful five seconds before the fish did a couple of really good head shakes and threw the hook. No fishing story is complete without telling about the one that got away. 

 

Well, over three years of trips Iíve never actually seen a real Hex fly other than the gigantor spinners that I tied, which now collect dust in my fly box. We hope beyond hope sometimes and the whole group I fished with was using them, even though nary a Hex came off. Without the big bugs I knew Iíd have to satisfy myself with teasing the big fishís little brothers Ė and catch them I did! Iím not going to brag. Iíll simply say this; outside of some ludicrously good days bluegill fishing with a cane pole when I was a kid, and a recent trip to the Ohio river where I caught 25 fish of 5 different species under some insane conditions, this was the best fishing trip Iíve ever had!

 

That weekend I had my game on. I started catching fish from the git-go. I really didnít think anything of the first night. I fished a nice Scott A2, 9í 5wt that Iíd built the year before. Itís the best trout rod I own, and makes me look good casting. I canít really ask more than that of a fly rod. That night I brought 8 or 9 fish to the net. Most were brook trout in the 9 to 12-inch range. Thatís considered a good fish on the Au Sable since a brookie grows at 25% the rate of a brown. Brookies tend to be smaller, but are just as shy and can be spooked by the wrong presentation. 

 

The Scott was more rod than the diminutive brook trout required. The next morning, during a short wade in front of the house, I used a Bass Pro White River 6í9Ē 4wt. Casting this is like shooting a bb gun; itís that accurate. I won the outfit at a Buckeye United Fly Fishers meeting a couple years back and finally had a chance to fish it to its potential. Itís accurate, even for a caster of my limited skill. It will easily turn over a #10 streamer, though that wouldnít be necessary this trip as the Fishing Gods had smiled upon me, and I started catching fish. A lot of fish. I stopped counting after 25. Iíd never been that much into fish counting anywayÖ


This is technical, spring-creek fishing at its finest and I came prepared. I brought five rods. Semper paratus (always prepared). Not all the rods would see use, but it occasionally pays to play the part of boy scout. In addition to the aforementioned Scott and White River rods, I brought an 8í6Ē 4wt Orvis Trident TLS with the accompanying Battenkill large arbor reel. I also brought a 6wt Pflueger that is better suited to bass fishing near home, but what the hey. It was my first ever fly rod and Iíve only recently learned how good a fishing tool it really can be. Finally, I brought my Redington 10í 6/7wt. Itís a purpose-built steelhead rod, but itís supremely easy to cast from a float tube. Iíll tell you about the lake fishing I did in a later blog post.

 

Iíd never been able to fish the Orvis rod comfortably, and I asked Paul to take a look at it. In the space of five minutes heíd fixed the problem. The reel had a 4wt Orvis Wonderline spooled up, and it cast like a brick. I thought it was my poor technique, but when Paul suggested a heavier line I loaded up the 5wt reel off the Scott.  That Orvis fires casts like bullets. Go figure.

 

Overlining the rod didnít make it a delicate casting tool, but I had learned a valuable lesson. Gone are the days when I buy outfits that donít immediately feel comfortable in my hands. In my defense it was my first really good fly rod. I had no idea how to cast it or whether it was set up correctly. I traded four fly tying desks for the outfit, and I still consider it a great deal. Iím sure some line experimentation down the road will be apropos. That said, the 5wt reel stayed on the 4 wt rod for the remainder of the weekend. Iím still trying to figure out what to do with a 4wt Wonderline that casts more like a 3 wt. But thatís what the trips to Cabelaís are for!


One of the nicer things about fishing those stretches of the Au Sable was that I really didnít share the water with too many people. Thatís the nice part about fishing private water. You can boat and wade through, but since the land on both sides is privately owned itís easy to find yourself completely alone.  My last night of fishing, I was out with Paul desperately seeking Hex flies after a very good evening of fishing. It was nearing 11 p.m. and we werenít in the mood to miss out on any of the superlative liquor waiting upstream, so we decided to hump it out of the river. Thatís when I made a supremely stupid mistake. I unstrung my rod and started hiking out of the woods. Unbeknownst to me, Iíd snagged the tip section of my Orvis rod on a tree and left it out there in the dark. I donít have a lot of expensive equipment but this was, by far, my most expensive rod. It was a serious bummer, requiring some major consoling and several fingers of bourbon from my fishing buddies. On a happy note, the owner of the property went out the next morning and found the tip section decoratively hanging in a tree. Strike one up for Ďmore luck than brainsí. From now on I never unstring a rod unless Iím standing next to the rod tube it came out of. 

 

This trip was also my first opportunity to fish a Trico (pronounced Try-ko) hatch. In comparison to the possible nighttime blitz of aircraft sized Hex flies, the Tricorythodes hatch that comes off in the mornings consists of flies that you can barely see. At best youíll notice cloudy formations at a distance. Up close, they look like dirty specks on your hand. The only fly I can tie for that hatch is a Griffiths Gnat. Anything else, I leave to the tiers with better eyes and more patience. I fish a size 18 and it looks huge compared to the actual Tricos, but the fish didnít seem to mind. The Griffiths Gnat is supposed to imitate a cluster of Tricos, something any self-respecting trout would see as more economical than picking off individual flies. Youíre not going to bring in a lunker during a Trico hatch, but if you use light tackle, in the 2-4wt range you can have a blast. 

 

When I started fly fishing fifteen years ago. All bright eyes and a bucketful of wild optimism, this weekend is what Iíd expected of the sport. Back then, I tied on my first wooly bugger and tried catching fish on a local stream to absolutely no effect. The older, more experienced Au Sable fishermen didnít really focus on the smaller fish like I did. I concentrated on the strike. I couldnít get enough of it. I didnít care if the fish was a dink the size of my hand, or something bigger. I just wanted to fool the fish. I just wanted the strike.
Iíve caught steelhead that fought for five or ten minutes and left me with a sore arm for a few days. Iíve proudly worn the bruises inflicted by the fighting butt. One day Iíll start serious headhunting and, God willing, Iíll get it out of my system. But that weekend, in that state, in that river, it was all about the strike.

 

Joe Cornwall calls the moment of the strike a supremely Zen moment - one where you think about nothing else. It has the complete focus of your attention and nothing else matters. Maybe.  Or maybe I just like the rush of seeing the fish hitting something you tied that morning with no expectation of it being hit at all. I fished exactly the way I was supposed to. I hit all the right pockets and seams, the classic cover that the books define as ďfishy.Ē And I hooked fish after fish.  Iíd started out the trip with grim determination. Iíd become comfortable with being someone who wasnít going to accomplish what theyíd set out to do, but they do it anyway. I compare it to changing a diaper without getting any of the contents on you. Thatís where being a Zen, Stay at Home Dad comes into play.

 

In the end it got to the point where I caught myself laughing out loud when I got a strike. Call it me being incredulous. Or maybe it was just the enjoyment of the perfect, Zen moment. Either way, thatís whatís going to keep me out there on whatever river I can find, in whatever time I have left on this planet.

 


 

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