Early Saturday morning I got out of my car into the cold, quiet air. Surrounded by very tall trees, I could hear the faint sound of a nearby stream. As I walked to to the water the sand and gravel crunched under my boots.
I hiked along a bridle path that followed the stream, staring at the water like a stalker, trying to find the fishy water. It was a very small stream- you might even call it a creek (the maps did) but I’d found fish in tiny waters before. The problem was the depth. I couldn’t find anything deeper than six inches.
I don’t know much about brook trout, but I imagine they would be fine swimming around in six inches- until they got scared or wanted to take a break from chowing down. That’s when they would need the deeper water, I supposed, so that’s what I was looking for.
I found plenty of shallow riffles, lots of timber and grassy banks- but if there were fish in the skinny water I didn’t see them. I hiked along the trail, slowly and quietly, hoping to find a perfect pool around each bend. I didn’t, but I did hear a sound I thought was a nice set of riffles.
Around the next bend, I found out I was right! I pieced together my rod and got myself into a position to cast. As I got closer I realized the water was even shallower- it barely covered the tops of my boots.
After an hour long hike, I found myself far upstream and faced with even smaller water. I passed a sign that proclaimed the trickle as a classic brook trout stream. I didn’t doubt that, I just had no idea where to find the fish or how to catch them in such a small water.
I hiked back to the car and drove around the countryside looking for bridges.
I’ve never driven on as many dirt roads as I did that morning. Around each bend was more farmland, at the top of each hill was a view of trees and fields that went on forever. The roads were empty.
Farther downstream I found a “bridge” (a big culvert that allowed the stream passage under the dirt road). I parked, and noticed the “no trespassing and “no fishing- private property” signs as I walked to the edge. The water was much fishier here- it looked deeper with more cover.
I considered trespassing until I heard a tractor coming. I hopped back in the car just in time to wave to a farmer driving by. I waved, hoping he wouldn’t notice my fishing gear.
With no signal on my phone, I suddenly realized the usefulness of handheld GPS devices. It was tough to navigate the back roads looking for water with less than a bar of signal.
Again I was on the road, deer jumping in the dew-covered fields on either side of the road, farmers getting busy growing food. I stopped at every crossing and looked at the water. Every larger stream seemed high and muddy, so I kept driving.
Eventually I found myself in a small town, looking for a different small stream. After many u-turns, dirt roads, and unmarked street names, I found some water that looked fishable. I parked, put my rod together again, and got into the water.
The internet said there were fish here, but maybe I shouldn’t believe everything I read on the internet. I fished for more than an hour, and all I found were tiny minnows, uncooperative fly line, and an old Mountain Dew bottle.
I was having one of those days. Being outside in the fresh air is great, but I’d always rather be catching fish. Like a consolation prize, I grabbed the bottle and stuck it in my vest.
I returned home fish-less, but not surprisingly was back out Sunday morning to avenge my brutal skunking.
This time I waded into a bigger water- the kind where you can actually cast- and immediately found fish. At first I thought my problems were solved, until I realized they wouldn’t take my flies.
They were rising sporadically all over the place, but I couldn’t tell what they were taking. I didn’t see many bugs in the air, so I wondered if they were grabbing bugs just below the surface. I threw dry flies, wet flies, and even nymphs under an indicator (which I rarely use) but couldn’t get any fish on my line.
I was frustrated. I tied on a Beckstrom Special soft hackle and let it drift downstream. As I watched rises upstream, I ignored my fly as it drifted into riffles 30 feet below me. Went I went to pull the line back in, there was a fish on! Once again, the Beckstrom Special saved the day.
I continued fishing, thinking I’d cracked the code, but I was wrong. The water was swift and uncomfortably deep, and the fish were uncooperative. I hiked back to the car and again went searching for new water.
Again I drove through the countryside, stopping at bridges, taking note of excessive “no trespassing” signs. At one particularly great looking stretch, the bridge was surrounded by “no fishing access: private property” signs. When a pack of six dogs came running toward me from a neighboring yard, I decided to get back in the car and keep driving.
Struggling to get a signal on my phone, somehow I managed to track the tiny stream to public land. It took a few minutes to load the PDF map of the property, but once I saw it I knew my next stop.
I hiked through the woods on a skinny path, noting the many bootprints already in the mud. Clearly this place was no secret.
I waded up the stream, looking for fishy spots. This time I found them, although the water was still pretty shallow. I knew there were brook trout farther upstream, but would have been happy with any kind of fish. Even just seeing a fish would have made my day.
Two hours later I’d explored a long stretch of the creek, lost many flies, hooked into almost every tree along the bank, and only seen a few small minnows. The water was one of the most picturesque streams I’d ever been in- crystal-clear water, small multi-colored rocks, and plenty of scum lines and cover for fish.
They must have been somewhere else, because I certainly couldn’t find them. Every time I drifted my flies through the perfect spots, totally sure if a fish were there they would attack, my little feathery creations completed the drift without so much as a wiggle.
Despondent, I made my way back to the path. I stopped to answer the call of nature and collect my thoughts. Picking up my fly rod again, I heard the sound of fish feeding at the surface. Finally! Fish! I wasn’t going to let them get away, not after all my efforts.
So I got down on my hands and knees and crawled through the mud. I inched my way to the water, my hands and elbows and knees covered in mud, but the fish were still feeding. I wanted to watch them, learn from them, figure out what they were eating and how I could catch them.
I sat on the bank perfectly still for five minutes, watching trout quickly rise to the surface and take things from the drift. Sometimes they ate them, sometimes they changed their mind and returned to the deeper darker water. After five minutes my eyes adjusted to the water and I could see them swimming in the clear water. This was almost enough for me, even better would be catching them.
Back on my hands and knees, I crawled into the water, hiding behind a log. I was slightly downstream of the feeding fish, and the log seemed to do a good job of hiding me. They kept feeding, and I kept watching. I tied on a simple soft hackle fly- heavily hackled with partridge feather and nothing else- and tried to figure out how to cast.
There was a low-hanging tree, bushes, a tiny metal bridge, and they all conspired against me. They reached out and stopped the path of my flies, each time I swore silently as I tried to free the hooks.
Finally I was able to make a nice cast; the fly landed in the water quietly, and I watched it drift downstream perfectly until a trout came up and ate it. Fish on!!
After a perfectly silent and short battle, I had a colorful prize in my hand, and was happier than anybody has ever been to catch a six inch trout. I was bursting with pride, the fly I tied hanging out of its mouth.
I carefully slipped the fish back into the water and watched the still-feeding fish. They now ignored my wet fly; then they ignored my dry flies (especially when they immediately became waterlogged and sank, which was hard to remedy due to the close quarters). I decided to change positions.
On my hands and knees, over the course of five minutes I crawled onto a tiny metal bridge that crossed the creek and happened to be just downstream of the feeding fish. The water in my wading boots dripped through the grates and plopped in the water, but the fish didn’t seem to care.
Almost directly above the fish, I saw them in the water. They were in the deepest part of the stretch, very close to the bottom. I counted three- no, four- aha! five or six! There was one that was larger, and he was in the best spot. Just like the books say.
I tied on a bead-head pheasant tail nymph, attached my indicator, and cast directly into a tree.
I got the line out, cast again, and my rig went back into the tree.
When I tried to pull it out, the entire tree branch came loose, and I realized it was not connected to anything- it was a giant fallen tree branch, precariously perched over feeding fish! If it fell I knew I’d never catch any more fish. Like a surgeon, I steadied my hands and managed to extricate my fly and prepared to cast.
The fish swarmed the nymph as soon as it hit the water, and followed it down as it sank. I was on to something.
The next cast was better, and it had more time to sink before it reached the fish. They seemed less interested this time, but as the line became taut and the fly rose downstream, a fish hammered it! I saw the flash in the water, and knew it was the bigger fish I’d seen in the water. It was tough to land from directly above, but I did it! I was even happier with this fish than the last. A beauty, and my first trout on a nymph.
Those were the last fish I’d catch that morning. Perhaps the others got spooked, perhaps they knew it was really time for me to leave.
On my way out I met an angler coming in, and we talked for at least ten minutes. I told him I caught a few, he told me about the sulfurs; I told him I just moved here, he told me I should join Trout Unlimited. I told him how much I love Michigan, all the water, all the fish, the land, the scenery.
As we parted ways he said “Welcome to God’s country.”