I'm driving north in my little car in the chill and fog, eyeing the spreading crack in my windshield. I've stuffed a ratty pair of wool gloves onto the defroster vents hoping to get them dry before I have to wear them again. They smell of yesterdays fish, an aroma which fills my car. I find comfort in this, it reminds me of my success. I hope today is just as good. I love this little car- it gets 32 mpg, and despite its age and hints of rust, it's a tight little machine. I'm out to do a little dirtbag fishing- fast food breakfast, smelly wet gear and no real itinerary.
I've always thought of myself as a dirtbag fisherman. I don't mean a hick or a low-life, but someone who loves the sport and always finds a way to get out there. When I moved back north after having been gone for ten years, and after having been through an ugly separation and custody battle, I was pretty much broke and on the mend. I managed to fish about 5 days a week that year, squeezing it in after work and on weekends. Even while I still lived in the soulless hell of Detroit I managed some dirtbag fishing- catching pike off the jetty at Nine Mile road on Lake St. Clair, or catching perch on a Saturday morning at the Coast Guard Station with my daughter. She was only 3 then, and very cute. She helped me reel in some fish before curling up inside my oversized parka and napping in the warming April sun. I was catching jumbos that day. It is one of my favorite memories of her.
I took a dirtbag trip that summer, driving from Detroit to Baldwin to fish the Pere Marquette river. I stopped at Dragonmead near Roseville and got a couple of growlers of beer and then headed it west, stopping at an Outback steakhouse near Lansing and getting into Baldwin at nearly 10 pm. I looked around and finally found a launch, parked my truck and got into the passenger seat. The beer in my growler was still cool and went down with a slickness. I drifted off to sleep with my seat reclined as far as it would go.
I woke two hours later to the sound of thunder and the hot flash of lightning. It had been so hot that I cracked a window, and now rain was pouring in on my face. I rolled up the window, and the humidity was stifling. The storms lasted for hours, but I finally got some uncomfortable sleep.
I woke in the gray light of dawn. All was quiet, no one was at the launch, and I had the river to myself. As I first waded into the river, a large dark, snaky figure swam up past me- it was a Skamania, a big summer run steelhead. I would see quite a few this weekend, but I was spinner fishing for trout and didn't have a chance at them.
The rest of this trip- the driving through endless fields of asparagus (who knew Michigan was the asparagus capitol?), the girls at the bridge on the Little Manistee, my nap on the beach at Arcadia, and a second night spent in a road-side park are all dirtbag gold to me. It was a rough trip, and still one of my favorites.
After I moved back up north I did a similar trip, this time in an old nasty Ford work van. I removed all the tools and paint buckets, loaded it full of my camping gear and headed north. I crossed the Mackinaw Bridge in this creaking behemoth, pointed it west down US 2 and made it as far as Black River State Forest campground. As I turned off of 2 and made my way down the winding road I kept seeing this sparkle in the air like glitter. "I really hope that's not..." Yes it was- mosquitoes, and they nearly ate me alive. I got my fire started, which put an end to the bugs- they were attracted to the heat and CO2 of the fire, and I could see them falling in faint curlicues as they were sucked into the flames and shot skyward. I didn't get bit from that point on.
The next morning the bugs weren't as bad. I fished the river for a short time, coming up with a couple of small brookies, before packing it up and heading north and west. My goal was the Fox river, a goal I made in no short order. When I got there, the mosquitoes were even fiercer. I fished for a time, and even caught a couple of fish, but the clouds of bugs were downright menacing. They were for some reason drawn to my neoprene waders, and I was killing them fifty at a swipe. It was disgusting. The bugs, and thunder in the distance made me get back in the van and head further west. My goal was the Keewenaw.
I never made it. I had researched the Sturgeon river and believed it held fish. I drove for over three hours before reaching Sturgeon river campground. It was beautiful. The river is set in a deep gorge and you drive down in under a high bridge that crosses it. I fished as soon as I got there, and even got one decent fish to follow, but it had been raining, and now it was starting to rain in earnest again. The river got noticeably dirtier and began to rise. I went back to camp, set up my cot in the van and napped through the rain. I don't know what I had for dinner, I only know that it rained all night, and that the next morning the river was threatening my camp and was the color of chocolate milk. I moved on to Emily Lake, where I caught jumbo bluegills, a trout or two and a couple of bass. This trip was a dirtbag classic- lot's of unknowns, sleeping in my vehicle, bad food, bad weather, rivers blown out, and fish where I least expected them.
My dirtbagging hasn't been as dramatic since. Sure, there was the San Juan river with Tim- lot's of burned meals and beer, broken off fish, snow and sleet, and the occasional fish landed. I've spent weeks on the rivers at night, in hopes of the sound of the rivers surface erupting under the assault of a big brown. I love to drive around in my work clothes, paint on my hands, the smell of work sweat hanging heavily around me, on my way to a river after work, but it's not the same.
My fortunes have risen and fallen with the economy. I had some good years and made a lot of money. My business tanked with the economy and I've been scraping by the last four years. I don't care. I live in Northern Michigan, the rest is window dressing. I went fishing today and hooked up on four steelhead, landing two. I'm back to dirtbagging, and I love it. My expensive Simms boots are falling apart, my car is a piece of crap, all but one of my rods are broken and repaired as cheaply as possible. I'm going to do at least one trip this year where I sleep in my crappy little car. It will be fantastic, my best trip ever. I may stay at one of the upper Fox river campgrounds, or Pretty Lake, or who knows, cross the border and fish the Algoma district. I just want to go, I don't care about food, or comfort, or the niceties of life. I just want to be out there.