Thursday, May 30, 2013

Home Waters

We all have our home waters. It's that place where we grew up in the context of fishing, and eventually fly fishing. They could be the great waters like the Au Sable, the Madison, or the Beaverkill, or it could be a local pond, some random creek, or some fantastic unsung system that birthed your love of the outdoors and love of all things wild.

I have home waters. They are the Maple and Sturgeon rivers in Northern Michigan.

My grandfather retired from GM and moved to northern Michigan. A local land owner wanted someone to keep poachers out of his back forty and made them an offer they couldn't refuse, with exclusive access to over a mile of the Maple river.

I learned to fly fish there.

My father bought a homestead east of Wolverine Michigan when the road got widened and the power poles and party line went in. It was a four mile bike ride to the Sturgeon river.

I learned to spinner fish there.

The idea of home waters is so much deeper than my experience. We all have that notion of the waters we call "home". It is innate, natural, and deep. It is a profound sense of place and context. We know those lies, those fish, these flies, and the nuances of weather, water level and insects.

So my home waters are the Maple and Sturgeon rivers. Both are tributaries to Burt Lake, home to the Sturgeon River strain of brown trout. These fish are special, and should be named Burt Lake strain brown trout, as they range throughout all the streams in this system. They are equally at home in lakes or rivers, bounce in and out of both, and are more like steelhead than browns in that they jump repeatedly and have more endurance than most browns. They regularly reach 10 to 15 pounds, and will break your spirit.

Sturgeon River brown

In case you're going to come here and fish for these fish- these are mean, narrow, choked, fast, unpredictable mean bitches of streams. Hatches are spotty, access is spottier, and catches are lean. Good luck with the hex hatch, it already happened or won't happen at all.

But let me get to my point. I love my home waters, but what do I know about them? I have often claimed that there are over 300 miles of trout stream within an hour of where I live. Is this true? When I look at Michigan's coloring book map of trout streams I see that there is a lot of water I've overlooked.

Here's what I'm proposing. I live in Emmet County. It is the far north-western-most county in lower Michigan. According to Michigan's Coloring Book 'o' Trout Streams there are 21 different trout streams. I want to find out what my home waters are all about.

 I'm going to fish them all.

Mind you that this won't be easy. Some of the streams are marginal at best. Some can only be accessed by kayak. I'll have to seek scarce permission to fish some. Most I will have to fish from culverts. There are only two fishable rivers- the Bear and the Maple. The rest are creeks. I do not plan to fish every branch of every stream, but to treat streams as systems. The Maple is a system. I won't fish the East Branch, West Branch and Main stream to count, plus all its creeks. Once I've fished the Maple at any point it's done. Minnehaha and Silver Creeks are a system. There are seven creeks that feed Crooked River, but since Crooked isn't a trout stream I'll have to fish them all separately. Some creeks dump directly into Lake Michigan, and I'm especially excited to see what fish I can pull from them.

The end result is that I want to get know my home waters, truly, honestly bull-headedly, and the only way I know how- as a Northern Michigan boy who is used to breaking brush, swatting bugs, enduring the sun and catching fish. I want to crash 5 Mile creek and catch some 'bows; I want to fish Wycamp creek and understand what it is like to stand there as a native, spear in hand, and land some non-native steelhead. I want to catch a Coaster in the Straits.

In short, I want to fish my home water.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Memorial Day Fly Fishing Forecast

Memorial Day is hard upon us and I know a lot of you will be headed to Northern Michigan this weekend and will at some point  limber up your fly rod and cast it about. Personally I'll be fishing the Au Sable river on Sunday with Isle Royale Coaster Tour alumni Chris Reister and Brett Watson. I'll toss you all a bone here and give you the local local.

The Weather

We've had a cold and late spring here, with snow in the forecast and on the ground until the beginning of May. Because of this the rivers are still high and stained, and there's even a few steelhead lingering in the rivers. Numbers were pretty steady, but they've tapered off a lot in the last week.

Here's the 5 day forecast for the weekend.

With frost advisories in effect for Friday and Saturday mornings you can expect a slow start to the weekend with gradually improving conditions.

The other weather story is all the rain we got this week. The rivers were already high and we got 3-4 inches of rain this week. All of the rivers are outside their banks right now. For instance, here is the latest graph (as of this posting) of the Sturgeon River.

I can tell you that at that level the Sturgeon is flowing through the fields. It is flowing at two and a half times its normal rate. All of the rivers north of M-72 are blown out, so don't plan on wading much.

The Strategy

Here are my recommendations for the weekend.

If you have access to a drift boat and one of Michigan's classic trout streams- the Au Sable, Pere Marquette or Manistee- use it. The water is high everywhere. Word on the street is that the Hendrickson hatch is on. Bring some Adams, BWO's and those pale flies and you'll have your bases covered. Alternatively consider doing a streamer float, as the water levels, clarity and temperature are ideal right now, and you have a real shot at a two foot long brown.

now is the time

If you're coming further North and want to fish the Sturgeon, Pigeon, Maple, Black, or Jordan, just know that all these rivers are out of their banks, cold, and the fishing will be tough. They've been getting good Hendrickson hatches, a few BWO's and a few caddis. If you asked me I'd say fish streamers, especially white. Temps are perfect and the fish are aggressive. River conditions WILL BE TOUGH. If you're hell-bent for trout try finding smaller creeks and fishing for brook trout.

brook trout are your friend

The Alternate Strategy

If you want to avoid crowds and don't want to fight the tough river conditions, consider fishing the lakes. The trout lakes should be fishable, and the warm water species are on fire right now. Pike, smallmouth and largemouth bass and bluegills are all on the prowl, up shallow, and will readily take a fly. Strap a canoe, kayak or float tube on your car and hit some stillwater. The smallmouth are cruising the shallows and very aggressive right now. The "chain" of lakes including Elk, Clam, Bellaire, Torch, Intermediate, Six Mile, Charlevoix and Walloon all have large populations of smallmouth and little pressure (add to this Grand Traverse Bay). Four to five pound fish are common, and 20-30 fish days are normal. They also have healthy populations of pike and muskie if those are your game. Lake Bellaire gave up the world record muskie last fall. Fish the smaller no-name lakes (they're all named, but you know what I mean) to get into some big bluegills. Use a 3 weight rod and white foam and rubber legged spiders. When a 12 inch bluegill tows your kayak in a circle your smile will visible from space.

You bet my kayak spun

lots of these available
pike are aggressive and in shallow water now. Get some.

Whatever you do, come North and enjoy yourself this weekend. Don't let high water or cold mornings prevent you from getting out the and finding some fish. Be creative, try something different, have some fun.

Alright. I'm going fishing.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Monday Morning Coffee- Smelt Run Edition

Yawawwwwnnn, stretch, scratch repeat. After ten hours of much needed sleep I'd say I'm ready to face another Monday, hope you are too.

I didn't do MMC last week because nothing notable had happened. The winter weather has continued right up until last Friday (we had snow Thursday), and the fishing has continued to stink. Friday it warmed a bit, but Saturday it got close to 70 degrees. Suddenly everything was sunshine, birdsong, flowers and love. It is finally spring.

And I had to work Saturday.

You would think this would be the end of my weekend, but no, I called Alex Cerveniak and Ethan Winchester to see if they would like to go on a little adventure. I wrapped up work at around 5 and went home and packed my camping and fishing gear. Alex and Ethan picked me up at around 9 and we headed north after the required stop for gas, jerky, donuts, coffee, trail mix, and gas station subs. We were going smelt dipping.

For those of you who have never heard of this- rainbow smelt (osmerous mordax) are an invasive species introduced to the Great Lakes from the West Coast. When they were introduced here their numbers exploded until they began to crowd out native species. Their spring spawning runs clogged every river and stream, often to the point of actually raising the water level, and after a few years this over-population led to the spread of a fungus that caused them to die off en-masse, fouling the beaches with tons of rotting fish, hundreds of miles of stinking unusable shoreline.

Smelt are actually quite tasty, so Michigan put its faltering commercial fishery to work to help contain the smelt, and worked to promote smelt dipping among outdoors people. It quickly became a popular springtime activity, one of the first fun things you could do here once the snow melted and the weather broke. All you needed was a dip net and a bucket to put them in. Because smelt typically run at night people built bonfires on the shore while they waited for the run to start and to warm themselves between stints spent standing in the icy water. Whole families would turn out for this- moms, kids, grandparents and a whole lot of people who don't normally fish. Some people barbecue or cook hot dogs, and some people clean and cook their catch right there ala fresca. A lot of alcohol gets consumed, and there's often the faint smell of weed on the air if the law enforcement presence is sparse. Communities hosted smelt festivals with competitions for largest smelt caught, pot-luck dinners and so on. Smelt Queens were crowned. In the late 80's the runs began to falter, and in most places they are just a lingering memory. There's still smelt in the lakes, but the DNR has told me that most of those spawn on offshore reefs instead of running the rivers. There's now a two gallon limit on smelt.

Two years ago I heard that some smelt were being taken at Carp river just across the Mackinaw bridge. I went and dipped my limit before 11 pm a couple nights. Last years crazy warm weather messed up the run timing and most people missed it, though some locals in the know got fish. This last week I heard a couple of rumors about fish being taken, and with the burgeoning spring weather I knew that Saturday would be prime, and a good excuse to relive some good memories.

We got there around 11. There's a giant parking lot at the mouth of the Carp built back in the heyday of the smelt runs. I expected people to be there. If you think I'm giving away your secret smelt dipping spot think again- the secret is out. There were over 200 vehicles there and well over 500 people. A small city had sprang up overnight. Campfires lined the riverbanks, generators hummed, and everywhere people in waders carrying dip nets. There was so much smoke from the campfires that it hung like fog over the river. The murmur of the river was drowned by the constant swish of hundreds of nets through water, raucous laughter, Roman candles going off with a whistle and bang, and the myriad sounds of happy people who have converged on a river to observe a rite of spring, a great impromptu party on the banks.

Alex and Ethan just stood on the shore by a fire while I dipped. It was slow going, and I only got about a gallon of fish. We called it a night around 3 a.m. and drove to a backwoods campsite I know about. The road was covered in snow still, and just before we reached the site the car bottomed out, hopelessly stuck. We piled out of the car and howled at the moon, wild men in a wild place. We were immediately answered by a pack of coyotes on the banks of the river not 200 yards distant. We howled them down.

As for the rest- how we packed our gear in, cooked our smelt, dug our car out with sticks, picked ticks, and otherwise put the "grrrrrhhhggghh" in "Michigan Man" I'll never tell, but suffice it to say that it was a perfect, perfect weekend.