Chasing memories in the North Woods of Michigan


This column is Part one of a three-part series.

One of the great traditions of fly fishing is to travel to the great angling locations throughout the country and indeed the world. Just as the avid baseball fan wishes to take in the game at all the major league parks the dedicated trout man (and woman) has a bucket list of great waters to fish. For me, one of those great waters is the Au Sable River in the northern part of Michigan's Lower Peninsula.

Many anglers associate particular rivers with one or two signature mayfly hatches and the Au Sable is best known for its intense hatches and spinner falls of "Michigan Caddis." The "Hex" is a mayfly so out of proportion to the typical image of the dainty ephemera that anglers typically imitate that a whole culture has developed around chasing this hatch.

Secretive anglers haunt mud laden stretches of the Au Sable main-stem and South Branch in the dead of night (and sometimes until sun up) in search of giant trout on giant flies — size 6x long, or 1 inch to 1 inches long depending on how you tie the flies. That is a lot of bug!

Like many mayfly hatches the Hex is a difficult one to nail just right but I have been lucky enough to encounter the enormous bugs on both late June visits I made to the area. I had the pleasure of seeing my son land a 22-inch brown trout on his first night trying (and his third time fly fishing overall).

I have sat in an elegant Au Sable riverboat and seen friends land trout that one dreams about. I have lucked into spinner falls of this fly in places one might have expected to be crowded with anglers and had it to myself along with my son and a friend. Only to be elbowed out of position for the choice fish by my friend (he is still a friend) when he was so overwhelmed with Hex fever that my son and I could only watch as he horded the water and caught fish after fish.

And I have yet to catch a fish on a hex! Which is surprisingly common.

I have also been on the Au Sable when the winds blew for four straight days out of the east and temperatures barely saw 55 degrees in the middle of the day (sound familiar).

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And on that occasion I caught enough little brook trout to thoroughly saturate my fly, that instead of changing due to frozen fingers, I tried to dry off with excessive false casts that were witnessed by a shore bound fellow who later in the evening at the legendary Spikes Keg O' Nails commented on seeing a guy who false cast more than he fished. That was certainly me and I restrained myself from the temptation of suggesting that rather than standing on the shore drinking a whiskey perhaps he should stand in the freezing gale for a couple hours and see how his fingers felt. But alas, my bar room brawling days were well behind me so I simply nodded and headed back to camp.

And so with the desire to see the great Au Sable once again plans were made over the winter to visit the river not during the time of the Hex but to chase the mercurial Brown Drake — a large mayfly (imitated on a #10 2 XL hook); a significant hatch in and of itself but an unpredictable one at best.

I selected early June under the assumption that if the Brown Drakes were late we would at least catch the spinner falls and if the hatch was running early then perhaps so to would the famous Hex.

Bases covered. And then 2019 happened!

Just as we have experienced a miserable run of weather so too has northern Michigan. The Au Sable is considered one of the most stable watersheds in the country. The river flows through great pine forests that are largely federally or state owned land.

Privately owned property has restrictions that allow for a healthy riparian area; the numerous camps are neat and tidy and blend well with the serenity of the woods. The soil is largely sand and the copious snow and rain filter through the sand rather than running off; emerging throughout the watershed via numerous springs. Even this water absorbing land can only take so much, so my wife Deanna, son Clayton and I found ourselves facing high water that we knew there would be a challenge to negotiate. More importantly, however, the hatch schedule was out the window and whether we would successfully find the drakes was mere speculation. But we had a plan!

While there are many miles of glorious wading water on the Au Sable there are also long stretches of river that are perfect for fishing out of a boat — either the common dory like drift boat we even see around these parts or the more pleasant and stylish Au Sable riverboat; essentially a flat bottomed john boat perhaps 24 feet long and 3 feet wide. Stable, maneuverable in the silken Au Sable flows and immensely comfortable, these boats are a wonderful way to fish a river. And so it was that the Lyons family found itself with a pair of guides to take us down the river; me in the Au Sable riverboat and the better part of the family in a drift boat.

And the adventure began, which I will share in the next installment.

Doug Lyons is a long-time angler who splits his time between greater Boston and fishing, hiking and relaxing in Southwestern Vermont. Doug maintains a camp in Shushan, N.Y., along with his wife, Deanna and dog Maya.


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