My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

A long strange trip, the journey continues

Let’s see, where did I leave off? My girlfriend had just left me, my best friend and fishing buddy had moved out of the area, and I was fed up with the lengths some people would go to in order to take home fish. If you think I am exaggerating about what people will do for a fish or two, ponder how many people fall through the ice every year at both ends of the ice fishing season, some people will risk their live’s for a few measly fish.

Actually, I lost track of several friends during that period of time, some just drifted out of my life, like my best buddy in high school. Dave had joined the Marines after we graduated, and we started losing touch while he was in, but after he finished his stint in the corp, he moved back to his original hometown near Chicago to take advantage of his GI Bill benefits to attend college. I cut off contact with some people I had considered to be friends for reasons I won’t go into here, other than to say that they did things I don’t think any one should do, ever.

But, there was even more. I had only been fly fishing for a few years, and I knew that fly fishermen tended to be an arrogant bunch, but I didn’t fully understand why, I am not sure I totally understand it now, but I do have a better idea of why they are the way they are. Spud and I used to joke about their arrogance, even though we were just as arrogant in our own way. I’ll explain that in a later post. There were big changes taking place in the sport of fly fishing as well, or maybe because I was fairly new to the sport I was just becoming aware of the changes. When I started, I picked up a copy of the book “Trout” by Ray Bergman, which I think is still the best book for a beginner to read if they want to fish for trout. I say that, even though the book is getting close to 100 years old now, and it isn’t a fly fishing only book, he covers every lawful method of catching trout. After reading that book, I was able to go out and catch fish, and have a good time doing so.

Always wanting to be better at everything I do, I read more books, and subscribed to several magazines as well. There was a revolution of sorts going on in the world of fly fishing, it was becoming more scientific, which I thought was a good thing at first. Being new to the sport, I knew the common names for most of the mayflies, and when they hatched. For example, one of the first hatches in the spring are the Hendricksons, followed by the Brown Drakes, and so on. But, the common names that had been in place for hundreds of years suddenly weren’t good enough any more, the new books and articles coming out called them by their “proper” latin scientific names, like Ephemerella subvaria followed by the Ephemera simulans. I was reading books that detailed how trout see, including charts on their field of vision, depth perception, and the way water reflects and refracts light so that trout can see above the water’s surface. It was more like a college biology course than fishing, and what I needed at the time was simple fun to pull me out of the funk that I was in due to the things happening in my personal life, not trying to cram for the next exam. The new scientific approach to fly fishing fueled the already existing arrogance common to way too many fly fishermen, and I spent so much time on the river trying recall my last “lesson” that I didn’t fish the same way anymore, and I didn’t catch as many fish.

I loved trout, and I loved fly fishing. For one thing, fly fishing made it easy to practice catch and release. 99.9% of the trout you catch on a fly are hooked in the lip, all it takes is a quick flip of the hook, and the trout is free to fight another day. Fishing with spinners or other artificial lures was OK, but the survival rates for trout hooked with them is much less, although still better than when bait fishing, where nearly all the trout you catch are hooked deep, and will likely die if try to release them. Since I had already decided that I had killed enough fish in my life, catch and release was, and still is, very important to me.  In short, it just wasn’t fun anymore. I was devoting more time to studying fish than catching them.

I didn’t fish much at all for a couple of years, I needed a break. It was talking to my youngest brother that got me back into fishing big time, only this time it was for bass. He is several years younger than I am, so we didn’t fish together a lot when he was a kid. By then, he was all grown up, and tired of going along with my dad in search of the big ones, and had begun fishing with his buddies. I had fallen in love with trout, and forgotten all about bass. Of course most trout fishermen look down their noses at bass and bass fishermen anyway, part of that arrogance I am talking about.

I started going with my brother Jim, and his buddy Donnie, and had a great time, fishing was fun again. No need to learn latin, no fish eye charts, no snobs, no snaggers, just fun. I went out and bought myself one of those big shiny bass boats with all the goodies, including the over-sized engine. I didn’t really need it, but it made fishing a lot more comfortable than sitting in a rowboat. Besides, I needed lots of room for all the tackle I bought. Trout fishing is a world apart from bass fishing. For trout fishing I used two rods, “Bigstick”, a custom-built spinning rod Doug made for me, and a fly rod for fly fishing. I could carry all the tackle I needed to bait fish, flyfish, and the few spinners and other lures for trout fishing in just a fishing vest, and be ready for anything. Bass fishing however, requires many different rod and reel combos, and boxes and boxes of tackle, or at least it seems like it.

I had more rods and reels than I can remember, and they all served a purpose. One minute I would be throwing a unweighted rubber crawler that weighed next to nothing, and the next minute, a 3/4 ounce monstrosity that was as large as many of the trout I had been used to catching. That was one of my biggest adjustments when I switched to bass fishing, how big the lures were that you used. When it came to trout, even salmon and steelhead, I used light tackle and small spinners mostly, like size 0 and 2 Mepps. The flies are tiny, seldom more than 1/2 an inch long, unless you are fishing with streamers, even then, 2 inches is big. But for bass, it seems like the bigger the better, on most days. There are times when smaller works better, and I would often fish for bass with what were to be panfish lures, but for the most part, lures 4 to 8 inches long worked best.

Then there is color, sure, the late Dr. Carl Richards from Rockford, Michigan wrote the book “Selective Trout“, along with Doug Swisher, and trout can be selective in the way they feed, but bass seem to be more color sensitive, at least to me. I carried rubber worms in just about every color there is, and thought it was a joke at first. But the more I fished for bass, the more I learned there was a reason they came in all those colors. There was a day on Gun Lake when I had been shut out, not a single fish. I was willing to try anything, and tried a green crawler just for the heck of it, and I started catching fish. After that, I found green was a good color to use on Gun Lake, even though it didn’t seem to work that well anywhere else I fished. Some colors seem to work almost everywhere, like white and yellow, but they never worked well for me on Gun Lake. I don’t know why that is, it doesn’t seem like the forage fish would be that different from one lake to the next, and Gun Lake has about the same clarity of water as my favorite bass lake, which will go un-named, and green never worked in that lake. Color doesn’t apply just to rubber crawlers, but to everything for bass fishing. Often switching to a different color of the same lure drew strikes that hadn’t happened before.

Bass may not be as big as a salmon, and nothing compares to a steelhead, but bass fishing can be very, very exciting. I learned that when I learned to “walk the dog” with a Zara Spook. Any kind of topwater fishing where you can see the fish hit is exciting to me, but there is something about walking the dog with a spook that sends bass into a frenzy if they’re of a mind to feed at all. This is where a bass boat helps as well, because to walk the dog well, you should be standing with the rod pointed down at the water. There are plenty of places on the web that describe the exact way to walk the dog, I’ll just say that it seems to be like a dinner bell to hungry bass. It isn’t unusual to see a wake from a fish forming 20 yards away from a spook, as the fish gains speed to attack it, that is, if a fish from below doesn’t rocket straight up from below and hit it first. Or try to anyway, walking the dog imparts such an erratic movement to a spook that bass have a hard time hitting it, maybe that’s what drives them into such a frenzy. You’ll often have a fish come straight up out of the water where the spook had just been, then the fish will turn and hit the spook on the way down, or not. And it isn’t unusual to have 2 or 3 bass fighting for a spook, I have landed two bass at a time more than a few times when fishing a spook. Either they both hit about the same time, or one takes the spook, and another one tries to take it away from the first fish. The hardest thing about walking the dog is not setting the hook until you actually feel the fish. With all the commotion going on, between the action of the spook and fish trying to hit it, it is easy to set the hook too soon. If a fish misses, or you miss the fish, you let the spook rest a few seconds, if no hit, you start walking the dog again, if you still don’t get a hit, grab another rod rigged up with something like a unweighted crawler, and throw it to the spot where the fish missed the spook, and 90% of the time you’ll hook a fish.

That’s why it paid to have more than one rod rigged up and ready to go at all times. That’s the way with bass fishing, it often takes a combination of approaches to catch them. Bass fishing is almost like hunting, bass school up a lot more that trout do in a river, so to catch bass, you need to keep moving if you’re not catching fish, using a lure that lets you cover a lot of water in a hurry. Then when you do catch one, or at least get a strike, you switch over to something slower to catch as many fish in the school as you can.

There were many things I liked about bass fishing, one was that the weather was more pleasant. It is summer fishing here in Michigan. Trout fishing is OK as far as the weather, but salmon fishing in the fall can be chilly, steelhead fishing in the winter and early spring is usually darn right cold! Spud and I always took a thermos of hot coffee along while we were steelheading, if just to thaw our frozen fingers out holding the cup while we drank the coffee. And we fished in some pretty miserable weather. There was one time on the Betsie when we spent an entire day fishing in freezing rain. We would have to stop fishing on a regular basis to break the ice off from our rods, and stick the line guides in our mouth’s to get rid of the ice build up that prevented the line from playing out through the guides. Then there was the day I’ll never forget, going in over my waders while fishing the Platte River in January. Doug had given us a call to tell us that their were steelhead in the river, so of course Spud and I went up there Friday night after work. We fished the area near the M 22 bridge on Saturday morning, as that’s where Doug had seen the fish. The fish often held under the bridge in the deep water there, and the bridge itself blocked the sunlight, making it even more inviting to the fish. The water is too deep under the bridge to wade, except that there is a ledge on the bridge abutments that you can walk on to stay dry. But, your back is right up against the abutment, and it is hard or impossible to cast. The old wooden pilings for the old bridge are still there in the water, just over a step away from the abutment. So we would wade out to the abutment, work our way under the bridge, then sort of jump out to one of the old pilings and stand on it to fish, if one can be said to jump while wearing waders. So it was that day in January, it was cold, like in the teens, and there were chunks of ice floating down the river that made it that much harder to fish. I worked my way along the ledge of the abutment, and as I made my leap to the piling, a chunk of that ice hit me just hard enough so I missed landing on the piling, and went into water 6 inches deeper than the top of my waders. The water flowing into my waders didn’t even have time to make it all the way to my feet before I had turned around and started running the best that I could towards the bank. I was moving! Leaving a wake behind me as I made for shore. Of course Doug and Spud thought the whole episode to be hilarious, and Spud nearly went in from laughing so hard. By that time there was a good deal of water in my waders, and I spent the next hour sitting in the truck with the heater on high the entire time trying to get warmed back up.

Compared to that, bass fishing is luxurious. My boat had a built-in cooler, and I’d throw in a bag of ice, some soft drinks, and sandwiches for lunch and be set to go for the day. If it started to rain, I had a rain jacket stored under the seat, no big deal, unless there was lightning. If an unexpected thunderstorm rolled in, I could blast across the lake and be in a sheltered place in no time. That probably explains why it is a lot easier to find friends to go bass fishing with than it is to find some one hardcore enough to spend a day in the river freezing while fishing for steelhead. I’d hook my boat to the truck and take it to work with me, and leave right from work to spend the evening fishing. There were a lot of guys I worked with that would vie to go along with me. Greg, Kevin, Jeff, and Duane went with me the most, they were all pretty good fishermen, and it was Greg who showed me how to fish the bayous of the Grand River well. But the people who went along with me the most were my wife, Shirl, and stepson, David.

By then, several years had passed since the break up with my last girlfriend, and I had met Shirl at work. I didn’t even know she liked to fish until we had dated for a while. She was a good fisherman, very good in fact. She loved it, even if the fish weren’t biting. At such times, she would nap on the back of the boat, just enjoying the peace and quiet. If she heard me catching fish, then she’d start fishing again too. Speaking of peace and quiet, she was good at interrupting it as well. It was an early spring morning, a Sunday, and we went to Gun Lake to fish. We were working the shallow water in one of the channels that had been dredged out so more people had a place to dock their boats on the water. We were using the lightest tackle I had, casting tiny spinner baits alongside the docks, when a pike, close to 36 inches long hit her spinner bait. She set the hook, and that pike went berserk! I had never seen a pike fight like that before, it was all over the place. Shirl was good, but she had never hooked a fish anywhere near as big as that one, so she was screaming for help. I don’t know if the people who lived in the cottages thought I was trying to kill her or what, but several of them came out to see what all the fuss was about. They saw the fish she had on, and soon there were half a dozen or so people on the bank shouting instructions to Shirl on how to play the fish. By then, I was laughing till I was in tears, the fish was still going nuts, with Shirl still yelling for help, and the audience on the bank trying to help her. It is a shame she didn’t land that fish, it was no fault of hers, pike have lots of razor-sharp teeth, and that one eventually bit through the line as they often do, and she lost it. I know, I should have been using wire leaders, but we weren’t fishing for pike, until then. I did tie on wire leaders after that, but we never even saw another pike.

Her son David liked to go fishing as well, sometimes the three of us went together, but that made for a crowded boat, so it was usually one or another. Once in a great while one of the girls would come along, but they weren’t into fishing at all. Mary, maybe a little bit, but not Amy, the beauty queen. And I don’t say that to put her down, Amy is a beauty, even more beautiful than her mother, and is a girly girl through and through.

David became a very good fishermen as well, we had many great days on the water together, and caught lots of fish. Once in a while if the weather was just right, we would take my bass boat out on Lake Michigan and troll for some big fish. It may sound shallow, even silly to some, but I think the day that I stopped thinking of David as a kid and starting thinking of him as a young man was the day he landed a 10 pound steelhead with no help from me, other than running the net. It wasn’t the species or the size of the fish that mattered, it was the fact that he did something difficult to do by himself, he didn’t need me any more, which is sad in a way. On the other hand, I felt very proud of him that day, it was the turning point in our live’s were he was growing up to be a fine young man, who didn’t need me, but wanted to hang out with me anyway. I don’t think women understand that at a time in a young man’s life, he needs to strike out on his own, to find his own way in the world. It was from that point on that I started giving David the room he needed to become his own man. Like any young man, he made some wrong turns, and we had some rough times, but I would like to think that all those days fishing together gave him the solid foundation for life that every man needs. I know I couldn’t be more proud of him if he were my own flesh and blood.

Looking back, those were without a doubt some of the happiest times in my life. My years together with Shirl and the kids I wouldn’t trade for anything, even knowing as I do now, that it was all about to come apart in the worst of ways. For that story, you’ll have to tune in to part 3, coming soon!

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