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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.

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 ...