We’ve talked about it for a while, and at last Claire and I are moving to Michigan!
This past weekend was the big move, so maybe I should say we already moved to Michigan. At least our stuff is there. Thanks to John and Peggy and Jason (and Renny!) for helping- our stuff went from our house to inside theirs in record time.
This Friday we’ll hit the road for Michigan and wake up Saturday Michigan residents. There is a lot of water to learn!
To that end I was out at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning… Actually an hour before dawn. There is so much water in Michigan (they say you’re never more than 8 miles from a body of water). I’ve fished some of it, but I have a feeling I could spend the rest of my life exploring the water around Grand Rapids and never fish it all.
I rolled through the country, fog rising from fields, deer enjoying breakfast in the roadside foliage, the sun just starting to show in the distance. My first stop was the Coldwater River, which was new water to me. I’ve been poring over USGS and MI DNR maps, reading fishing reports, and following rivers and streams in Google Maps to create my own “fishing map” of spots. One of the places I’d never fished was the Coldwater, which apparently has a large population of resident trout.
When I got to my destination, I took my time finishing my coffee and suiting up. It was so cold I could see my breath, and I wasn’t too eager to get into even colder water. Before getting in, I walked over to the bank and watched the water as I sipped my coffee, trying to read the water and learn its secrets. There was a long stretch of flat, slow water followed by a series of riffles.
I started fishing the flat water downstream with a wet fly. The other weekend in the Rogue I found fish in the tails of pools and wondered if they might be in the same spots here. The water was very cold (no big surprise for a river called the Coldwater) but I was unable to find fish. It was still too dark to see into the water, and although I picked the entire set of riffles apart with my flies, I never found any fish. After two other fisherman showed up I decided to leave and fish another spot.
I hopped back into the car and started scanning my maps app for my next destination. I decided to drive downstream and look for some spots closer to where the Coldwater meets the Thornapple.
Driving through rural Michigan around sunrise, even fishless, was an amazingly great way to start the day. Rolling hills, trees, tons of wildlife; it was like a “Pure Michigan” commercial just for me- as if I needed any convincing it’s a great place.
I found the mouth of the Coldwater, but it was wide, slow, and probably deep. I kept driving, now headed north following the Thornapple. In this stretch it was wide and slow, I supposed because of some dam downstream. Stopped at the side of the road squinting at my phone, I found it- just a few miles north was the tell-tale sign of a dam- a thin river suddenly exploding into something resembling a lake. Zooming in I saw the aerial shot of the dam and found my destination.
Although there seem to be very few “no parking” signs in Michigan, the bridge near the dam was full of them. Clearly folks like to park near the bridge for easy access to the dam. After a few u-turns, I ended up parking a half mile away from the bridge and hiked back. I carefully made my way down to the water, which was lined on both sides with tons of boulders. Sure seemed like smallmouth bass water to me.
As I stripped a white clouser minnow by the rocks I saw a dark shape dart out and attack it, but it immediately let go. I was sure it was a smallie, and I was elated to know I was doing something right. A giant fish jumped near a bridge piling, and I was fairly positive it was a monster smallie.
I hiked toward the dam, which was spewing out a frightening amount of water and creating a giant pair of eddies. The noise was deafening, but the water looked very fishy. I noticed many footprints in the wet sand, which suggested I wasn’t the only one who thought this would be a good fishing spot.
I decided to fish as close to the dam as possible and work my way back to my starting point. In my limited experience fishing dams, it seems the fish congregate right under the boils, so perhaps I’d have the best chance of catching a fish there.
It wasn’t too long before another dark shape darted out from the boulders to take a swipe at my fly, but again I missed it. After loosing more streamers than I care to admit, I started working my way down the shoreline away from the dam.
I came to some interesting looking water, the edge of one of the giant eddies. Looking into the stained water I could see the bottom slowly slope down and suddenly drop off into darkness. Certainly seemed like the kind of place fish would hang out. I carefully picked apart the entire shoreline, taking a step downstream after every cast.
Snapped out of my daze, I realized a fish had taken my fly!
My rod doubled over, pulsing, I felt a large fish on the end of my line. I couldn’t keep the pressure and it threw the hook, but again I knew I was doing something right. Not too long after my profanity echoed throughout the early morning air I had another fish on, and this time I was determined to bring it in.
Most of the fish I’ve caught with a fly rod have been small- this fish felt like a monster. I wondered if I had a catfish! As I fought for line I caught a glimpse of the bronze fish and knew it was a nice smallmouth; its size amplified by my light rod and line. I fumbled for my net, and quickly netted my first nice smallmouth on the fly! I probably giggled, but nobody could hear it over the roar of the dam.
Not a monster by any means, but one of the nicer fish I’ve had at the end of my tippet. I was ecstatic.
Now that I was beginning to see a pattern, I very carefully fished the dropoff, retrieving my clouser minnow near the bottom and parallel to the shore. Soon I had another fish!
This was great. There is nothing quite like discovering a new spot and catching fish there. This was one of those times I felt like maybe, just maybe, I knew what I was doing.
Casting into a very rocky set of boulders near the main current, I was into another fish. I chuckled when I saw it, because it felt so much bigger.
I worked my way back to my starting point, but couldn’t hook any more fish. I tried wading, but the water quickly got too deep. I’d hooked 5 and caught 3, not bad.
Back in the car, I headed downstream to a spot I’d fished before. I explored it thoroughly, picking apart all the likely spots- especially slower current near rocks, which seemed to be the pattern of the morning. I was constantly amazed at the clarity of the water; stained for sure, but not completely opaque like much of the water I fish in Illinois. Looking into the water and actually being able to see what’s down there is such a luxury. I like it.
I found a shallow backwater I thought might have panfish or even carp, but as far as I could tell it was fishless. Very pretty; perhaps they saw me coming and fled to deeper, safer water. I made a mental note to mark this spot on my master map. It seemed far too fishy to forget.
I headed back home for a while, but the embarrassment of riches in the form of places to fish had me back out later that day, about an hour before sunset. This time I was fishing a small creek closer to home- a small tributary of the Grand River. I’d fished it before and knew it held fish, but wondered if it might have even more fish closer to the big river.
I was shocked when I saw it; it had a very fishy series of riffles and pools, an almost textbook small creek. I was sure there were fish.
When I first got to the bank and dropped a small fly in the water, I watched it carefully. I saw tiny flashes of fish investigating. I tried the smallest flies I had; bright ones, dark ones, thick ones, thin ones, but couldn’t hook any of the small fish. After twenty minutes trying to catch them- just to learn what they were- I concluded they were probably creek chubs. Fun to catch, and also good food for bigger fish.
I started fishing the tail of a nice pool, and quickly realized it was a lot deeper than the surrounding water. The fairly clear water became dark, which dissuaded me from trying to wade it. The creek was small enough I could cast everywhere I needed without wading, so I stood near the shore and fished.
There too were what I assumed were creek chubs, near the bottom around the rocks. I still couldn’t catch them, but now I had a white and chartreuse wooly bugger that I was working through the riffles and into the pool. I’d tied this one unweighted, so I used the force of the riffles to help get it deeper.
And then, just at the end of the retrieve, as the fly made its way toward the shore, I saw a smallmouth bass quickly swim up and eat my fly! It immediately turned around and headed for the deeper water, and I thought I’d lost it… Until it started taking line!
It was a short battle, but a strong one. I’ve been trying to catch smallies with a fly rod for months, and finally I’d had some success. It was everything I’d hoped- those fighting fish were even more fighting with a floppy rod and light line. The fish was no monster, but a lot larger than I’d expect from such a small body of water.
To me, a prize.
That I saw the fish actually take the fly made it all the more exciting.
I kept fishing, and although I tried plenty of spots I didn’t hook any more fish. My excuse was “I was just exploring”- which was half-true I suppose. I saw a nice carp swimming in the same pool, and I was positive there were other fish down there in the dark depths. I made a mental note that would soon be an actual note on my master map.
As I walked the path headed to the next spot, a family walked by in the other direction.
“You ever catch anything in there?” said a man, perhaps questioning my sanity.
“Yeah! Actually I just did- a chunky smallmouth!”
“Really!? All I ever saw in there were suckers.” he said.
As I headed back to the car, I made a mental note to learn how to catch suckers.
We’ve talked about it for a while, and at last Claire and I are moving to Michigan!