Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Season Two - Part IV

Borchers, hennies, mattress thrashers, and the odd mahogany

"You're such a bass fisherman," I shot at Matt after seeing his approach on a late afternoon riser. His silence hinted that the joke didn't register. Matt is one of the best bass flyfishers I know, and fishes for trout with a bit of a heavy hand.

We went through a series of quick presentation fixes to help him out—subtle stuff that makes a difference in the world of pressured trout. As I watched him work on each new technique, I realized that I probably fish for bass like a trout angler.

Evening air temps finally fell below 70-degrees F., and I parked the boat to wait for the evening rise on a stretch of river that should have had more bugs by then. There were groups of hennie spinners here and there, some borchers, mattress thrashers, and the odd mahogany.

Matt laughed at the trout culture lingo as we drifted downstream to another spot.

"We need to find a donko-corno-saurus-rex-dot-com," he said.
"A what?" I asked.
"A big trout."

I pulled anchor and moved to a different hole; one that I'd never experienced during the evening rise, but one I always suspected held a good fish or two. Just as we drifted into the zone, I spotted a large trout sipping mayfly spinners. Going back to his bass-y roots, Matt was up and casting before the boat stopped. His first shot sailed about eight feet too far with his fly line splatting just about where the fish rose.

"Shorten up by about ten feet," I said, expecting his next cast to be about two feet farther than where I wanted it. But he hit the mark, with no response from the fish.

"Wait for it to rise again before you cast," I said

Matt stood at the bow while I stared at the water trying to figure out the best way to offer the trout a better drift. As I watched, I realized that this fish was sitting in a vault that even John Dillinger would have found tough to crack. I pulled anchor and drifted down and away from the fish before rowing back up the opposite bank and parking almost in the exact same spot, but just slightly upstream.

Twenty minutes later we started seeing borcher spinners on the water and the fish rose again... then again, and again.

But the current speeds and directions were too funky to get a good drift even at close range. After several failed attempts, we decided to switch positions. I pulled anchor, drifted downstream and across from the fish, and stealthily walked the boat back up the opposite bank. We crossed at the top, anchored above the fish, and then I released the brake hoping the current would push us into prime position.

Matt made several great casts but it was too late. The bugs, and what I'm sure was a monster trout, stopped. We tried one more angle and several more shots to coax the fish to the top. No go. On this day, the trout won.

"Trout are bitches," I said. Matt laughed as he swiveled the front seat around and stuck his fist out. I bumped my fist into it and he seemed genuine when he thanked me for trying hard to help him figure out that fish. A little later, as we rowed out in the dark, I said, "That was your donko-corno-saurus-rex."

"Dot-com," he added.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Season Two - Part III

Sucker spawn, teenage spawn, and first mouse attack of the year

My toughest client is my teenage son, Coleman—his friends call him Cole. Now, you might say taking a kid fishing doesn't count as guiding, but you couldn't be more wrong. Taking a kid fishing is the best practice a guide can get, especially when it's your teenager, because they know pretty much everything and don't need your help.

I don't know what the biological mechanism responsible for this is called, but my parents call it karma.

The spring sucker run is going in full force, and I figured it would be a great way for Cole to have some fun catching fish while I practiced teaching a new nymphing technique I'd learned from John. Cole picked it up quick and put a half-dozen suckers in the net. There was a group of bait fishermen walking down the bank, and Cole took his sweet ass time over-dramatically releasing his last sucker to make sure they knew he'd just caught a fish. Smirking, I asked, "What the hell are you doing?" He knew he was busted and laughed.

On the drive home he said, "Dad?"
"Can I bring a friend fishing with us sometime?"
"Sure! Just make sure they think we're fishing the Au Sable."
"I know, all my friends at school already think that's always where we go."

(Insert proud-dad emoticon face here.)

The arrival of bugs means I'm on the water every day now. I started out the other morning getting skunked chasing steelhead. After losing a couple dozen flies to submerged timber, I reeled in and swung over to the Au Sable to see if the brook trout had finished hibernating. They had, and despite no significant bug activity, they were looking up. Sometimes they'd take on a dead drift, but most fish would chase the fly down after I gave it more cowbell—a small twitch, or a big twitch that would actually pull the fly under before the Albolene floatant made it slowly resurface.

I took my daughter's prom pictures that evening, went grocery shopping with my wife, and then launched the boat on the mainstream for the first mousing trip of the year with Chad. Mousing is best in late summer, and other than the current date on the calendar, it felt exactly like a summer night... minus the mosquitoes. Air temps rose above 50-degrees and you could smell campfire smoke, possibly from the forest fire north of St. Helen.

We drank summer micro-brews and listened to spring peepers. Every now and then, I'd hear what sounded like a nice fish rise. So I'd drop anchor and we'd sit and wait for the fish to reveal its location. But there just weren't many bugs on the water for fish to feed on, and that second rise never came.

Chad missed a fish blind casting a stimulator, then had another fish just below a log jam go after his mouse. "Go after" is an understatement, that fish just plain blew that mouse up. Every time a fish takes a mouse is an adrenaline rush, but the first mouse attack of the year is always the best. We've been waiting 8 months for that fish. Under the light of the full moon, I watched Chad's eyes explode open as he set the hook and yelled, "Holy shit!"

"I never felt him," he said.
"I'm gonna bring you back around for another shot," I said, while circling the boat away from the fish and maneuvering it back upstream.
"You ever get them to go again?" he asked.
"Usually no, but sometimes."

But not this time.

We finished out the float and I got home at about 3:30 a.m., wide-awake and simultaneously so tired I felt drunk.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Season Two - Part II

Swisher Sweets, venison tacos, and the savage traditions of Michigan's annual trout opener

With so many miles of special regs water open year-round, you'd think Michigan's trout opener would have become largely insignificant by 2015. Yet most anglers still consider the last Saturday a holiday—including myself. In fact, as I walked out of a party store with celebratory provisions on a Friday night, a local fly shop owner on his way in for some of the same greeted me with a, "Happy New Year!" Like singing Auld Lang Syne at midnight on January 1, northern Michigan trout fishermen practice various opening day traditions that border on religious rituals to celebrate a fresh crack at another trout season.

Saturday morning we slept in on purpose, ate a big breakfast, cleaned up camp, and finally got around to getting the boats in the water just before lunch. After launching, I dropped anchor and played Mozart on my phone while we smoked swisher sweets and passed a three-dollar pint of blackberry brandy back and forth. This annual tradition purposely gets more corny from one year to the next, and is more about making fun of ourselves than celebrating our status as masters of the universe.

On Sunday we launched John's Au Sable Riverboat. These boats have been running the Au Sable since they were designed here in the 1870s for lumberjacks to quickly move supplies up and down the river system. Originally constructed of cedar and white pine, they have no keel and are controlled by a push pole at the stern, or by paddling between fishing spots. Most are about 24-feet long and have minimal draft, even when loaded with gear and fishermen.

Rube Babbit was one of the first fishing guides on the Au Sable, and in the 1880s someone from the Babbit family modified the boat's design to include a livewell where water flowed into and out of a box built into the boat to keep fish fresh. Fun fact: Rube is credited with being the guy who first planted brook trout in the river's East Branch.

Au Sable Riverboats are great for stealthily approaching rising fish, but would be the last boat you'd want for running Class IV rapids. They're more stable than a canoe, but are very capable of tipping if you're not careful. With a good guide on the push pole, you can fish while standing, but generally fishing is done from a seated position at the bow. I have no regrets about going with a drift boat for guiding, they're more versatile and more comfortable for the client. That said, building an Au Sable Riverboat is at the top of my bucket list, and will hopefully kick off this winter. I don't have a lot of carpentry experience, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express once. Should be a piece of cake, right?

John is one of the best nymphers I know, but he is an even better cook. When the fishing gods hand you lemons, you give them to John and he'll squeeze them into the homemade guacamole he's making on a rock under some tag alders to go on venison tacos.

John missed a couple nymphing, nothing showed any interest in streamers, and I blew a shot at a brown trout sighted under a cedar bough. I saw a lot of BWOs hatching both days, a smattering of Hendricksons, and never saw a rise. At one point during lunch with John I thought I saw a surface eat, and then we both stood and stared at that spot on the water for a solid 15-minutes, letting our minds play tricks on us without any type of affirmation.

At the end of the day, it just felt good to be chasing bugs again.

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 ...