drop down menu by Css3Menu.com
Trout fishing on Michigan's pristine Au Sable River
Gary Garth, Special for USA TODAY Published 8:21 a.m. ET June 22, 2017
LOVELLS TOWNSHIP, Mich. - Sunrise under a cloudless sky and from an open second-floor window of the North Branch Outing Club - whose century-old client list includes Henry and Edsel Ford, Horace and John Dodge, Thomas Edison, Charles Nash and Harvey Firestone - the North Branch of the Au Sable River can be heard gurgling through the north woods, quietly lulling guests asleep, gently rousing them awake.
For many trout anglers, the Au Sable is the lodestone trout fishing destination. The Au Sable rises northwest of Grayling, Mich., and, flowing eastward, eventually feeds Lake Huron. The entire river system is trouty, but the prime waters center on the main stem, which forms just west of Grayling, and the south and north branches, which join the main stem 11 and 15 miles, respectively, east of town. Grayling (population 1,838) is the unofficial epicenter.
The river and region's history, however, hinged on timber, not trout. As the vast forests yielded their treasures, the Au Sable served as the avenue to move the timber to mills. Some of the timber men, like North Branch Outing Club founder Thomas E. Douglas, grew rich. But as the timber resources dwindled, a few turned their attention to sporting interests. Douglas opened the North Branch Outing Club in 1916.
Downstairs, current NBOC owner Judy Fuller is preparing pancakes and bacon. Coffee has been brewed, fruit sliced and plated, juice poured. Fuller, who purchased the property with her late husband in 1996, mainly caters to sportsmen, mostly fishermen but some hunters, too.
Today the North Branch Outing Club is a full-service bed and breakfast with enough historic pedigree and 1916 style and charm that the Douglas House, (which houses the B&B and adjoining fly shop), earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Over breakfast I inquire about the fishing. Fuller, who lives next door and probably knows as much about the river's rhythms as anyone, recognized an anxious angler when she saw one.
The club property includes 400 feet of river frontage that is "all good fishing," she says.
"And there are a couple of spots upstream," she adds, glancing at the clock but offering no details. "John will be in at 9. He manages the fly shop." Then she says, "there's really no hurry."
Hurry or no, I'm on the water in 20 minutes. The access directly across from the lodge is marked by a long, narrow island. The near shore is boggy, but footing in the river bed is sand and gravel solid. The water is nearly waist-deep and surprisingly swift.
I work my way downstream to the point of the island and make a down and across cast to work a strip of seam water. The regulations for the North Branch are "artificial fly only" and I am armed with an Orvis full flex 8-foot, 5-weight fly rod that ends with a 5-foot leader and 3-foot, 6x tippet tipped with a No. 16 general attractor pattern that's about the color of my hair (brown with shades of gray). I connect with a fish on the second cast - a cigar-length brown trout that splashes wildly before throwing the hook. I don't see another fish for two hours, when the three cups of morning coffee force me from the water.
It's better in the afternoon.
The North Branch was once marked by two dams, which helped move the timber downstream. They have been long since removed. The native fish were grayling, from which the nearby town took its name. Brown trout were introduced in 1889, brook trout a year later. Rainbows were soon added. Brook trout, which, like the river's native grayling population, are actually char. All salmonids need clear, cold water but brook trout and grayling demand near-pristine water and habitat conditions. While the grayling slowly vanished, almost certainly a victim of unregulated fishing pressure, the brook, brown and rainbow trout thrived. The creel limit at the turn of the 20th century for brook trout was 50 fish a day.
I wander into the fly shop where John Nagel is finishing with a customer. Nagel is in his 20s and neat in both appearance and demeanor. The conversation quickly turns to fishing.
"Are you fishing this morning?" he asks, failing to mask his surprise. "It's usually better in the afternoon. But if I were going this morning I'd try this." He hands me a brown and olive wooly bugger, size 12. It's the Walmart of fly patterns - found everywhere; fished everywhere. I probably have two dozen such flies tucked in various fly boxes. I buy four (two brown and two olive) and head upstream to what Fuller and Nagel refer to as the "power easement access," which is a walk-in that follows a power line right-of-way. Here the river is gin-clear over a gravel and sand bottom, knee to mid-thigh deep, braided with several small grass flats, easy to wade and postcard pretty. I again hook a fish early (another small brown) then go fishless for two hours. No one else is on the water. >
Back at the fly shop, Nagel isn't surprised.
"It's usually better in the afternoon. Sometimes the later the better."
Classic lodge fronts world-class waters
About 10 miles east of Grayling on the south bank of the main stem of the Au Sable, Josh Greenberg is seated at a desk in the cluttered corner of a building that resembles a barn but is actually a storage building/garage/office. Checking his email, Greenberg wants to get as much work as possible out of the way. He promised his son an evening fishing trip.
Greenberg is the owner/operator of Gates of Au Sable Lodge, a piece of real estate that arguably fronts one of the finest stretches of some of the best trout water in the world. Gates Lodge is also completely without pretense. It's comfortable and efficient, totally focused on the fishing, surprisingly affordable and extremely popular. The fly shop is superb. So is the restaurant. Make reservations early.
The lodge straddles the Au Sable's "Holy Water," a stretch from Burton's Landing to the Wakeley Bridge, just upstream from where the south branch enters the main stem. The Au Sable's Holy Water is catch-and-release, fly fishing only.
Greenberg says this stretch can harbor up to 4,000 fish per mile. Mostly brook and brown trout with a health population of rainbows, too. All wild fish. All well educated.
Pressured, wild trout rarely give a fisherman a second chance on a missed strike or bungled cast.
"We have intense fishing pressure. We do," Greenberg acknowledges. "It's also probably one of the best places to catch lots of wild trout.
"This river makes you be good," he adds. "There are no easy trout out here. You learn pretty quickly what works and what doesn't."
The Au Sable is largely spring-fed and while some stretches are accessible only by boat and others best fished by boat, much of the main stem including and surrounding the Holy Water and the north and south forks are wadeable. Public access is surprisingly good.
"There are fisherman trails along these banks that are 100 years old," Greenberg notes. "And they're shared by landowners. There's a sense of communal health. That, to me, is unique."
The Au Sable also produces tremendous bug hatches. Dry fly fishing can be, and often is, phenomenal.
"The river being shallow, and the bug hatches being what they are, you have fish that are very used to just rising throughout the day to bugs," Greenberg says. "For six months of the year the Au Sable is one of the very best dry fly rivers in the country. That usually starts in (late) April and it really does go into October. A lot of our fly fishers don't bring anything with them but dry flies. And in June you can wade out and catch a trout on a dry fly 24 hours a day."
The other half of the year, many Au Sable anglers beef up both their tackle and approach, switching to large streamers and sinking tip line. It's a technique successfully approach employed on many tailwater trout fisheries, and Greenberg said it started on the Au Sable.
"This is one of the birthplaces for modern streamer technique - that approach originated here and has spread throughout the country."
Streamer action isn't the only thing the Au Sable launched. Conservation stalwart Trout Unlimited was founded here.
In July 1959, a dozen skilled, conservation-minded anglers, having seen the success of Ducks Unlimited, repackaged those ideals for trout and aquatic conservation. Trout Unlimited was born. The founding 12 members included: Lon B. Adams, Casey E. Westell Jr., Arthur C. Neumann, Victor C. Beresford, George A. Griffith, Cornelius M. Schrems, Kenneth M. Putnam, C. R. Evenson, Pierce Stocking, Harry S. Busbee, John N. Keen and D. Earl Kimble.
Looks like raindrops, but it's not raining
Late afternoon and upstream from the Thendara Road access, the Au Sable is dimpling as though being tattered with raindrops. Only it's not raining. The dimples are fish rising to a fog-like insect hatch. Likely Hendrickson spinners, according to the clerk at the fly shop. I tie on the smallest Adams in my box, a generic, general-use dry fly imitator and a pattern that came out of Michigan nearly a century ago. A size 18. Two casts. Two fish. Both brook trout. One about the size of a TV remote control. One about that big plus a couple of inches. I wade upstream cautiously, staying close to the south shore and lobbing roll casts upstream, toward the heart of the river. It's not a fish every cast or every other cast but action is steady. Then the bugs vanish nearly as quickly as they appeared and it becomes cast, cast, cast, cast, cast ... occasional strike. Then the bugs reappear. You take what the river gives you.
I later relay this to Greenberg, who nods knowingly.
"There's a way that the river makes you go about your fishing that reflects the river's character," he says. "You have to wade quietly. It's a quiet river. You have to fish in the evening because our fish live under the wood covers and come out and rise in the evening. There's a river full of trout that's hard to catch. And in order to catch them you have to learn the ways of the river."
Gary Garth writes a monthly outdoors column for USA TODAY.