Monday, November 11, 2013

Lake Effect - Part IV

Give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he'll eat gas station food for a lifetime.

We'd planned on fishing Michigan's Pere Marquette on Thursday, but nearly every river in the state blew out. So we took aim at a tailwater and drove to the Boardman River in Traverse City—or TC as it's called by locals.

Navigating a busy Front Street we walked under the awnings of trendy shops and restaurants, dodging shoppers who seemed accustomed to a couple guys in waders carrying 11-foot fly rods. At the river we fished to the mouth at Grand Traverse Bay, with nothing to show for our efforts except for some killer cheese fries from a street vendor.

Arriving in Pennsylvania eight hours later, I introduced Jason to the group of guys assembling for the Rustbelt Bake. Jason doesn't participate on The Drake message boards, but had heard rumblings about how rowdy it and its users can be, and was unsure of what to expect.

I likened our group to a biker gang. Sure, someone might tell you to go die in a fire—and mean it—but they'll also be the first to lend support to someone who needs it. We stood around a blazing fire through sporadic bands of lake effect snow with guys from all over the country from all walks of life. Each had little in common except a deep passion for fly fishing.

And that's enough.

We woke early Friday and drove over the blown out Catt to search for steelhead on the lower Niagara. We stopped into the Oak Orchard Fly Shop outside of Buffalo and got some of the best service I've ever experienced. If all fly shops took care of their customers the way Nick took care of us, big boxes would crumble.

At the Niagara Gorge the river's size and demonic currents are mind-blowing. You fish at the base of a steep canyon wall and don't dare wade more than knee deep or risk being sucked into a vortex to the bottom of the river's 180-foot depth. We fished a huge eddy. Upstream was downstream, then it was upstream again, and then it stood still as glass. Fish crashed baitfish on the surface as Bonaparte's Gulls came at them from above.

I got my first fish on the swing, a lake trout. After landing it, I reflected upon being a Great Lakes guy and my first two-handed fish being one of the Great Lakes' only native species. I love steelhead. I have one tattooed on my left shoulder. But that laker was supposed to be my first fish on the swing.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Lake Effect - Part III

Sometimes rain is your best friend, and sometimes it's your worst enemy. Today was the latter. Our first stop was near the mouth of a mid-size Lake Huron trib. We were soaked before our rods were strung. Jason went upstream with an indicator rig while I stayed low to swing down to the mouth. A few hours later we regrouped and decided to head farther north, to the Two Hearted River.

Google Maps walked us through a maze of washed-out logging and snowmobile trails, which is fine if you've got four-wheel drive. But not so much in a Grand Am. We drove through the remnants of a huge 2012 forest fire and into a barren wasteland. At the mouth of the Two Hearted River, Lake Superior crashed against the rock-covered beach and had me wishing for a surfboard. We dinked around the sand dunes at the mouth, and decided to head upstream to escape the 40mph winds coming out of Canada.

Nick Adams fished the Fox in Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted", and we couldn't help but take photos of each other standing in the Two Hearted, drinking Two Hearted Ale, while reading the classic. We parked upstream and bushwhacked to the river to find the water was black and high. But the whole scene was still gorgeous. Jason headed downstream, and I found a horseshoe bend that dumped into a greasy run.

Let me preface this by saying I'm still figuring out the whole two-handed thing. I've had a few suspicious bumps, but have never hooked a real live swimming fish on the swing. The fly came through and was just about to dangle, and there was a sudden tension that turned into a subtle pull. I lifted and immediately felt head-shaking.

And I suddenly forgot everything I knew about catching a fish.

I pointed the rod up and backpedaled. A huge Coho slashed on the surface. And then the line just went limp. For about two milliseconds, I was heartbroken. Then I screamed a sound that was a blend of Howard Dean's concession speech howl and a wolf howling over a fresh kill.

A fish really ate, and 5 hours later... I'm still smiling.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Lake Effect - Part II

As a fisherman, I'm inherently superstitious.

"Whatever you do, don't get laid tomorrow or it'll wipe out our beard mojo."

"Now you've gone too far!"

"I'm serious. There's nothing more unlucky than getting some ass the day before a trip."

"That's bullshit."

"They call it getting lucky for a reason, and you only get so much luck. If you use your luck up on a girl, I'll know why the Catt gets blown out the day before we get there."

"I thought you were a science major?"

I'm writing this from a small tavern near Cecil Bay at the tip of Michigan's northern lower peninsula.

Other than a couple guys at the bar giving me funny looks, I have the place to myself.

I skipped out of work a few hours early to hit a small Lake Michigan trib before meeting up with Jason later tonight. There were a couple old guys fishing at the base of a small dam near the parking lot. I tried making small talk before getting geared up, but they just nodded and went about their business.

While tying an intruder-style baitfish pattern, I realized they were taking turns fishing a single rod. One of them hooked and landed a chrome fish shortly after. A good sign as I wasn't sure if there were fish in this stream right now or not. Photos were taken, and the fish—still in the net—was transported above the dam and released.

"They quit stocking this stream over 20 years ago, so I like to let 'em go above the dam to help 'em get to the spawning ground and preserve the fish of the future," the old guy said, brandishing a proud smile.

I was tempted to remind him that steelhead spawn in the spring, but I let it go.

"Nice fish," I said. "What'd you catch it on?" He showed me something that would make most tyers cringe. But it had a guide-fly vibe to it.

"Looks like a fish catcher, you tie it?"
"Yeah, it's one of my best patterns."

They left after we checked out each other's fly boxes—grandkids needed picking up from school soon. I fished down to the mouth and didn't touch a fish. There were rotting salmon swimming around here and there, and the air smelled like death.

I waded out into the Straits of Mackinac from the mouth of the river and just stood there, staring out at the Upper Penninsula, while the waves lapped into my waist. The fact that I didn't have to go back to the office for six days was starting to sink in, and it felt so right to be fishing.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Lake Effect - Part I

I'm rolling into my mid-30s and everything is going just fine. Got a nine-to-five with a nice corner office, a house back in the woods, two amazing children and, after a dozen years, I still love my wife.

But I need this trip.

Why? Because nine-to-five is really seven-to-seven, and that smartphone my prick of a boss bought me is really a tether to an endless parade of emails and conference calls. Having a nice house back in the woods means having to rake an endless supply of leaves every fall. And because there are bills to pay and mouths to feed, and homework to help with, and kids to pick up here and drop off there, and honey-do lists, and bills, and, and... fuck, man!

It's time to have a pre-mid-life crisis, grow a beard, grab a buddy, and hit the road for a few days. It's time to live off gas station food and drink whiskey, tie it in with a Drake Bake, and do what needs to be done in November, and that's roadtrip for steelhead.

This is a condensed version of a trip I've been dreaming about for more than five years. The full-blown plan would take five weeks to do right, and hopefully that day will come. But this year, it's at least one trib to each of the five great lakes. Five and a half days, four states, seven'ish rivers, 1,800 miles on the road, 40 or 50 hours of available daylight on the water, and evenings standing next to fire.

"All this rain has me worried the Catt will be blown out."

"Assuming it doesn't rain between Saturday and when we get there, we'll pull into perfect swinging water."

"Besides, there's no need to worry, we've got beards."

Rod, reel, tippet... check.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


It's been one of those weeks when you forget to pace yourself. You hop around, fishing a different stretch of a different river every night, chasing bugs that were supposed to be here a week earlier. You can't take a night off, because if you do, you might miss it.

The hatch lasts a couple weeks on most rivers. And here in northern Michigan, you can follow it north from one river to another, and make it last over a month. But, it's that first night on a stretch of river when the fish go insane. The second and third nights aren't bad either, but after that, it's like the fish just get full.

You've been standing in the river for two hours waiting, when your wife calls at 10 p.m.

"You on your way home yet? We need milk."
"Babe, it's not dark. I haven't even started fishing."

The sun falls, the moon rises through a pink sky, and you start to wonder if you picked the wrong beat. You scan the water flowing around your legs with your headlamp and there's nothing but midges and the occasional clump of sulphurs.

You text a buddy who is fishing somewhere else.

"Seeing bugs?"
"Sky is full of em, nothing on the water yet."
"Nothing here yet. Shoulda went down to... holy shit...."

They're here. One. Then two. Then 80,000. A stretch of river you'd swear only held dinks starts making sounds that can, and do, visibly shake most anglers. Long after the hatch is over, you can still hear the sounds on trips into the fall and through winter. They're the sounds of big, happy fish.

For the fish it's like Super Bowl, Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving all mashed into one. It's like their mom got a job as a cook at their favorite restaurant. They just lose it. And if you've never experienced it, you have to.

More texting after three days on and no more than three hours of sleep.

"Dude, I'm afraid to drive home from work. I can't keep my eyes open."
"How long is your drive?"
"40 minutes."
"Roll all the windows down and sing."
"I will."
"You wanna go again tomorrow?"

The fish you're about to cast to sounds like it's at least 30-inches long. It doesn't sip, it sucks. And if you manage to get a drag free drift in pitch black and have your 3XL #2 parachute float by at just the right time, you're going to get an opportunity to set the hook. Even if you know it's about to happen, it still surprises the hell out of you. You won't believe it's happening until you lost it in a log jam or felt it slither out of your hands. Even after all that, it still won't set in until tomorrow, when you're at work, running on two or three hours of sleep, wondering which stretch of which river you should fish tomorrow.

Somewhere, on some stretch of river, it's gonna be night No. 1 all over again. And if you take a night off, you'll miss it.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


It was early-June and Donny had just finished rigging his rod up at the end of one of the countless sandy parking areas off of Canoe Harbor Rd.  He figured instead of cutting straight down to the water from the Mason Tract Pathway, he would follow the trail downstream for a little ways below the bend, then slowly work his way up to the deep pool where he could sit on an old cedar sweeper and wait for the evening rise.

When he broke through the brush and reached the water, he was surprised to see he had gone a little off course and landed right at the pool.  He was even more surprised, and disappointed, to see another angler just above the head of the pool, casting a small wet fly down and across.  Hoping he didn't see him, Donny was about to slink back into the tag alder when the angler shouted, "How you doing?" He reeled up and slowly waded across and then down to where Donny was standing.

The old man wore old rubber hip boots, an olive vest with a large chunk of yellowed wool on his left breast.  He was fishing bamboo-- old bamboo, too, by the looks of it.  Peeking out from underneath his vest was a green and black flannel shirt, held together in it’s center by small, pearl white buttons. His greasy, slicked-back hair was dark brown mixed with streaks of black and silver. It was like he had walked straight out of the 1950s.

Donny wondered if in 30 years, some kid would look at him and think he'd walked out of the early 2000's?

“How’s it going?” the stranger asked.

“Not bad, better than a day at work.” Donny said

The old man laid the vintage looking bamboo fly rod across an overhanging bush, just feet downstream of where Donny had watched a small deer fully submerge it’s head to eat aquatic vegetation a few years earlier.  The old man pulled a pipe out of his pocket and mentioned that he fished the same spot the night before.

“Oh yeah?” Donny asked, trying to seem genuinely friendly and not show that he really wasn't interested in what the old man had to say.  

Sometimes you fish to embrace the company of others, but if the company isn't planned, you probably fish to escape it.

“Yeah. There was a big brown feeding on the seam that flows around that log. I threw everything I had at him, and then finally got him to take, but he spit it before I could set the hook. After that, he was gone.  I'm hoping he'll be feeding again tonight.”

Donny didn’t really hear what he said as he was too busy not really giving a damn, but the old man's voice quickly came back into focus as the words, “I’m hoping he'll be feeding again tonight,” rolled off his tongue.  Donny realized they were both jockeying to fish the same water.  Instantly, Donny hated him.

“You fish The South often?” the old man asked.

“Its been a while."  Donny said,  stopping himself from telling him that this was his favorite spot.  He didn't want him to know how much he wanted to fish it.  He used to spend a lot of time there before he moved out to New York a few years before, after the plant shut down. This was his first time back. 

Perhaps finally getting the point, the old man said, "Well, I better head downstream. I’m parked a ways north.”

He was lying, no surprise there, all fishermen are liars, but the old man was a particularly bad liar.  There were no cars between them and M-72, and Donny knew it.

“I’m heading another couple bends upstream, why don’t you fish here and see if that big brown comes out again?” Donny couldn't believe the words came out of his mouth.

“You sure?” the old man asked.

“Yeah!” Donny said, trying to sound genuine and altruistic all at the same time.

“Thanks, nice talking to you!  I’ll just go sit on this cedar tree and wait for that nice brown to come back out!”

“Good luck!” Donny said as he started to wade towards the next bend. "What a douchebag,"  he whispered to himself.

“You, too! Hey, what was your name again?” the old man asked


“It was a pleasure to meet you, Donny.”

“Nice to meet you too, uhh, what was your name?”

“George.” He said.

“Nice to meet you, George. Maybe we’ll bump into one another again someday. I better hear your drag screaming when you hook that brown tonight.” Donny said with his best impression of a friendly smile.

Donny could hear George whispering to himself as he waded around the bend. Just as Donny made it to the top of the riffle above the bend pool, a good fish rose somewhere between them.  Donny turned back to locate the source of the sound and to see if George had heard it, too, but George was gone.

Donny sat on the bank at the next bend up for a little while until the bugs were thick and it seemed like every fish in the river was rising.  He didn't see anything on the water, and suspected a spinnerfall somewhere up stream had started.  He could hear the big fish gulping down near George all the way up where he was sitting.  The brown gulped again, and then again, and Donny wondered what George was waiting for. 

Donny crept downstream, letting his legs drift down with the current with each step so as not to make a wake, and realized that George was still gone.  The fish rose again, creating a vortex as it sucked a bug into the black water.  He put a short reach cast out from just upstream and the big trout sucked the fly down on the first drift-- only Donny set the hook too early! 

Donny had actually watched the fly get pulled below the surface of the water.  The fish rose again in rhythm, but paid no attention to Donny's fly on the next attempt.  Not wanting to spook the fish, Donny turned away from it, and while there was still a little bit of light left, he had to use the red beam on his headlamp to see the tippet as he tied the fly on; a hackle stacker brown drake. 

Donny turned the light off and faced the fish again.  The first two drifts with the new fly were ignored, but three large, white bubbles bobbed to the surface just after a loud gloop on the third pass.  He didn't know if the rise was to a natural or his fly, but he lifted the rod high to set the hook anyway, and the fish and angler went through the same motions all fish and anglers do when fighting.

The cedars along the bank sat motionless as Donny steered the fish into his aluminum net under the red light of his headlamp.  It was easily the biggest brown he had ever caught- lake runs excluded. 
During all of the commotion, Donny had failed to notice that another angler had waded up to the pool.  It was George. Donny flinched when he saw him.

"Hey George, check out this fish!"  he yelled.  By now the hook was free and he had the fish cradled in both hands facing upstream waiting for it to slip away. 

"Hey, George, you mind taking a picture of me and this fish?  Here's my phone, its ready to go, just touch the white button!"

"That's a pretty shitty thing to do to someone, you high holing asshole!"  George sneered, letting go of the lump that had built up in his throat..

"I thought the hole was empty."  Donny replied

As George spoke, his voice turned into more of a growl, his frailing voice grew louder and more clear with each word.  He shoved his pipe into his chest pocket.

"I was right there below the tail the whole time, you little prick!"

The insult took Donny by surprise, he hadn't heard anyone use the word prick since he was a kid.

"I couldn't believe how you just waltzed right in on my spot-- on my fish, just before I was about to go after him!  I've been chasing that fish all season you selfish asshole!"  

George clenched his fists.

The fish pulsed its head back and forth, almost revived from the fight.  Donny kept his head pointed down so the red light stayed on the fish, but his eyes were pointed at George who was inching closer as he vented.  Donny fantasized about lifting the fish out of the water and taking George's head off with it.

The trout burst free of Donny's hand, disappearing into the black just past the reach of his headlamp.  He stayed bent over and swished both hands back and forth through the water to get the fish slime off of them, and quietly celebrated.  This was what he came home for.

George was within just a few feet and still cursing and scolding Donny for fishing the bend pool.  Donny struggled to restrain his growing anger with George.  He was bigger, in better shape and would have his way with the old man in a fight.  Whatever this angling version of road rage was that had taken control of George, Donny had enough of it.

Donny turned and started wading up to the riffle so he could cross the river.  George was still ranting, but his voice grew fainter, dissolving with each step as it was drowned out by the river.  When he reached the shallow gravel bar to cross, he looked back downstream at the pool to look back at George who the river had finally silenced.  The moon had crested the treeline and now fully illuminated the bend with tones that were part sepia, part black and white. George was gone, maybe he was never there.  

June Recap

And just like that, its July.  June 2018 was everything a northern Michigan trout angler could ask for.  The bugs showed up and the fish ...