Fishing the Au Sable 1998

Man in his arrogance believes that because he has walked on the Moon and has flown in the sky and has journeyed to the bottom of the ocean that he (man) has conquered the forces of nature. I can attest that this is not so, for I have (in my arrogance) fought with the forces of nature and have been laid low.

Linda’s cousin, Shirley, and her husband Clem bought a lovely cabin on the North Branch of the Au Sable River, not far from Grayling. Ever since I first saw it, I’ve been planning to come there in the Spring of the year to try my hand at trout fishing. It’s not that I haven’t caught trout before. I have had my share of luck fishing for trout on rivers and lakes. I even caught a good size Lake Trout on a Lake Michigan charter. This would be different, however. The North Branch of the Au Sable River only allows fly fishing, something that I have not done with much success.

I really geared up for this. I made a date for the second weekend of the trout season (Saturday, May 2nd) and bought some chest waders. I downloaded some fishing advice from the “Trout Bums” on the internet and went to MacGregor’s Outdoor Shop (a local hotbed of fly fishermen) in Ann Arbor to buy the suggested flies. I had a used fly rod that Linda’s brother in law (Don) found in the new house he bought. I had used it for a couple of years, but never on a real trout stream. I got the full species fishing license. Then, the day before I left for the river, I caught a cold.

The weather didn’t look that good either. All the reports spoke of rain when I left Ann Arbor for the cabin on Friday evening. It didn’t actually rain until I was within an hour of arrival. But it didn’t rain very hard. I saw a bunch of deer along the roadside. There were about 10 of them in this one guy’s yard. I arrived at the cabin just before dark. Shirley wasn’t going to be there this weekend, but her husband, Clem, would be my host.

Clem is a wonderful ex-Navy guy with a big tattoo on his right arm. The tattoo is scribbled out, and I’ve never felt comfortable asking what it originally said. He and Shirley had sailed a boat all the way down to Florida along the inter-coastal waterway and I’ve always admired his enthusiasm for life. He was more than game to help me “do” the river, rain or shine, in the morning.

It wasn’t rain. But is wasn’t exactly shine either. It looked more like overcast with fog, about 50 degrees. After breakfast, I unpacked my brand new waders and slipped them on. I threw anything I thought I would need into a shoulder bag I had. That included my camera, just in case something exciting happened, as I hoped it would. I had my rain gear and Chicago Cubs baseball cap. I had my clip on sunglasses, but I wouldn’t need them. Clem encouraged me to go ahead while he got ready, so I grabbed my fly rod and headed for the river.

Now, I’ve never owned a pair of chest waders before and have never used any either. It was very spooky stepping into the river for the first time. I really expected to get a “soaker” when I felt that water rise above my ankles. But amazingly the silly things appeared to work and I was dry and standing in the Au Sable River. Moving was another story. The banks of the river are an amazing tangle of fallen logs and brush both on the shore and under the water. The water was murky enough that I couldn’t quite make out what I was walking on. I kept bumping into logs buried in the sand on the bottom or stepping on moss covered stones.

Worse than the branches and logs was the water itself. Clem later volunteered that he had heard that the North Branch of the Au Sable River was the fastest moving river in Michigan. I could easily believe it. It was Spring and the water level wasn’t really that high, but it was certainly full. The water rushed by me like a freight train, trying to pull my feet from under me and push me down to Oscoda on the shores of Lake Huron like some pile of brush. The deeper I got, the worse it got. Luckily, I had planned on moving downstream, and so I did. I just moved more quickly than I had planned.

The moving water was more intense than I had imagined. I knew how to throw a fly using the sweeping cast of the fly rod, so I could place the fly pretty well. However, as soon as the fly hit the water, it was sucked down in the passing surge of water and quickly pushed downstream to the length of the line. I couldn’t understand how fish could possibly see the fly rushing by, let alone snap it into their mouths. Clem arrived, but he kept much closer to shore than I did. He is much shorter than I am, so I didn’t blame him at all.

I finally got some action. One of my casts was swept into a sunken branch near the opposite shore and caught fast. Hey, being in waders, I just sauntered up to the branch, expecting to simply pick off my lure and start again. Instead, the rushing water had scoured out a hole in the gravel under the branch and I stepped in unawares, right up to my chest. After carefully working my lure loose with my rod at a safe distance, I noticed that the bag under my arm was soaking wet. Inside was my camera. It had exposed film in it and was completely electronic. It now showed no sign of life and had water dripping out of it. This was an early casualty. There would be more.

I was now wading on the opposite side of the river from Clem. The river had narrowed some and was now a deep, raging torrent in the center. I would need to get back upstream to cross over again, but there was plenty of interesting water over on this side. The river took a sharp, ninety degree turn to the right and had carved a steep cliff on my side. Clem had a gently sloping beach of sand where the water slowed down on the inner curve of the bend. But the closer I got to the curve, the deeper the water became. Soon I was nearly chest deep.

So, of course, I got snagged on another sunken branch. This time I put my shoulder bag on the shore before approaching the branch. I could tell that it too had carved out a hole. I approached as far as I could until I was up to the top of my waders and I still had to reach with my fly rod to free the lure. It was about then that I saw my first fish. I didn’t really see a fish, but something had snapped something off the surface of the water just beyond the snag where my lure had been. Naturally, I began to cast in that area with the fly and I was rewarded with getting caught on the same branch as before. I did this three times before I gave up.

My side of the river was much too deep at this point for me to wade. I climbed out altogether and began fishing from the shore beneath the cliffs. I even saw another swirl of a feeding fish. After several casts I managed to find yet another sunken branch. I needed to get closer so I carefully stepped into the river just at the edge. “How deep could it be?” I thought. Well, right there on the edge of the shore, I sank up to my chest. I would have tumbled down the sloping bottom into even deeper water if I hadn’t caught ahold of a bush growing along the shore. I managed to free my lure one more time and I quickly retreated back onto the shore.

I was tired and hungry and I could see that Clem was having his share of problems with snags on his side. I decided to move over to his side. To get back across I needed to wade upstream to the area where the river was wider and the water more shallow in the center. This proved to be quite a task. As I have described before, the current was very powerful. Moving in the water upstream was like dragging cinder blocks tied to each foot. In addition, any slip and the current would try to push you over. It was pretty scary. I also noted that when you set your foot down on gravel, the rushing water would scour out a hole where your foot was, undercutting your grip on the bottom. It took me about 15 minutes to work my way upstream and across. I’m out of shape enough to be breathing hard at this point. I suggested we break for lunch. It was only about 10 a.m., but I was done for the time being.

Clem and Shirley have a couple of canoes at the cabin and Clem’s brother lives just upstream a couple of miles from them on the river. Clem suggested that we could float down the river from his brother’s place and fish as we went. That sounded easier to do than our wading, so I agreed that we should try it after lunch.

We drove Clem’s van up to his brother’s place with the canoe. We would then drive back up with my car to retrieve his van when we arrived back at the cabin. A good plan. His brother wasn’t there this weekend, so we didn’t get to see him. We didn’t have any problems launching the canoe. Clem offered to steer while I fished and away we went.

Almost immediately we noticed that the water moved pretty fast up here too. In fact, the water moved fast everywhere. We were zipping downstream about as fast as can be in a canoe, with me flipping my fly back and forth in the current. I’m not sure how effective I was being, because I didn’t get a bite. I did, however, manage to snag another sunken branch.

You must realize the situation. We are rushing downstream in a canoe and I have just snagged my line. By the time Clem can stop the canoe, all of my line and most of my backing has spun off my reel and we are quite a ways downstream of the snag. Then, while I reel in, poor Clem is frantically paddling against the raging torrent to move us inch by inch closer to the snag upstream. The rushing water makes it very difficult to hold steady and I couldn’t get the lure off the branch. Finally, we’re free. I’ve just snapped the end off my fly rod and lost the lure (and the end of my rod). What could be worse? It begins to rain. Hard.

I stopped fishing at that point and began to paddle with Clem. We zipped down the river pretty fast. It was actually a lovely bit of river. Lots of interesting cabins and scenery. At one place someone had set up a basket strung across the river on a cable so that you could cross the river by pulling yourself in the basket. There were a few places where low branches were a problem, but most of the trip went pretty smoothly. I’m guessing we had to paddle another half an hour or so before we get to Clem’s place. Docking at Clem’s cabin presented a little bit of a problem. He doesn’t have a dock or anything and there is lots of brush along the shore. The current is very hard, so we missed a likely docking point and had to paddle back upstream to finally work our way in. Home at last. It’s still raining.

Clem doesn’t exactly have a way to bring a canoe from the river up the bluff to his cabin. In fact, the trees and brush are so dense he goes up and gets some trimmers to make a path. The ground is soaked and muddy and by the time we get the canoe in the yard we are both soaked and muddy too. We weren’t wearing boots, of course. Clem asked if I would prefer to change before we go to pick up his van. I point out that once I get dry, I’m not coming out here right away, so we go ahead and get his van without changing.

Back at the cabin Clem makes us some cocoa. I’m now quite sick, coughing and hugging a box of tissues. I decide that I need a nap and go off to sleep until dinner. When I wake up, Clem says, “Good morning!” and when I look at the clock it says 6 o’clock. But he’s kidding, it’s still Saturday. It’s also still raining. Hard. After dinner we watch one of the movies he has up there. Broadcast TV is terrible, since they only get three stations. Come to think of it, TV is terrible in Ann Arbor, and we get over 60 channels. Anyway, the day is done and I haven’t caught a trout yet. Sniffling, I stumble off to bed.

Clem always seems to wake up before me. But he always makes coffee, so it’s ok with me. The sun is rising (the sun!) and it’s *not* raining. I feel awful. I am undeterred. After breakfast I suit up and wander down to the river. Clem begs off. I thinks he knows I won’t last long. It is overcast, but the sun peeks out sporadically. At least it’s not cold. It’s about 60 degrees.

This time, I take off upstream, pushing against the current. There are some likely spots up there and I’m casting well. After about an hour, though, I haven’t seen any sign of a fish. I’m convinced that my best shot is to fish down at the bend in the river where I saw swirls. When I work my way down there, I can’t bring myself to brave the river crossing and I decide to fish the sandy inward side of the river bend on this side. I spend quite a bit of time casting over and over, but there is no sign of any fish. Finally, I snag a sunken branch. It’s deep and I can’t get close enough and the line snaps off so I lose the lure. I can’t bring myself to tie another fly onto my broken rod so I pack up and leave for the cabin.

It was actually a pleasant trip. We saw a bunch of birds at the bird feeder. We even saw one of those huge red-crested pileated woodpeckers. I’d never actually seen one in the wild before. We saw a couple of wild turkeys and heard a lot more. The river is spectacular scenery and their cabin is very comfortable and quiet. Clem is a lot of fun to talk politics and philosophy with and I don’t think we clash too much.

By noon I was ready to leave for home. As I left, I crossed the main branch of the Au Sable River and I stopped at the public access there. There were several people in waders fishing along with one dad and his two sons.(about 10 and 12). I asked him if he ever caught any fish. He said he did sometimes. He felt he caught as many as any other fishermen. Of course, while I was there no one caught or had caught any fish.

I think the river has won this round. I’m disheartened and disappointed. This fly fishing is a lot more work than I like and fighting with the river directly is an additional headache. Fly fishing is an elegant art, but I may not be quite ready for it. I’ve slunk back to my home in Ann Arbor with my broken fly rod and soaked camera with nothing to show for my investment in chest waders. I may need to work myself up to another confrontation with the Au Sable. Until then, I’m sure I will be much more humble.

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