Michigan Chinook on the Hook

In October, Larry and I went to Michigan for a return salmon fishing trip, hosted by Heintze, an old college friend of his. Heintze met us at the Grand Rapids airport, where we loaded our gear in his truck and headed northwest to White Cloud, Michigan, to fish the Pere Marquette and Muskegon rivers.

In late September and early October, salmon enter the rivers from the Great Lakes to spawn and die. At this time the salmon's stomach atrophies and the fish do not feed again. If a fly is presented so that it appears to threaten the spawning bed, the fish may strike to protect the nest. It is difficult to get a drift that will keep a fly in the nest and not have it swept past by the current. Many casts are made to fish that can be seen slashing at the fly, but not taking it. The fish are so crowded in many of the pools that it is hard to avoid foul-hooking a fish. Michigan regulations prohibit keeping a foul-hooked fish, so they must be netted and released immediately or broken off.

On the trip to camp we stopped to watch the people fishing the salmon steps on the Grand River. Several people hooked fish and a few even managed to land them. Then we were off. The trip was pleasant, up rural Michigan, through the apple orchard country. The leaves had begun to change colors the week before we arrived, and the greens, reds, and yellows gave an impressionistic appearance to the countryside. Arriving at our trailer, Larry and I got settled while Heintze rested up. We soon had the martinis flowing and were ready for a great time.

I had spent several weeks on the Internet researching fly patterns and techniques to catch Michigan salmon. I had tied several dozen flies and was prepared to purchase more at the Michigan fly shops. I took four dozen egg patterns in various colors, over three dozen gold-ribbed hare's ear nymphs, four dozen egg sucking leeches in various colors, and a variety of other flies. I took an 8-weight fast action rod with floating, sink-tip, fast-sinking, and intermediate-sinking lines. I used the floating line with a strike indicator in the deep pools and the slow-sinking line in the shallower pools and riffles.

Monday morning we headed north to Baldwin and the Pere Marquette River. After breakfast, we stopped at the local fly shop, purchased our licenses and some flies, and were ready to go fishing.

The upper Pere Marquette, which we would be fishing, is catch and release, flies only. We went to a public access spot, got our waders on, and strung up the rods. It was still cold, but the walking and wading warmed me to the point of fogging my sunglasses. As a result, I had a hard time locating the fish in the river. Heintze, from his vantage point on the bank, was able to direct me to places where the fish were holding. I made a couple of casts and connected with my first salmon of the trip. I got to play the fish almost a minute before it broke me off. This was repeated for two or three more times with the same results. There were too many snags in this part of the river to land a fish before breaking the leader, so we decided to move to another location.

We walked the bank and found a beautiful oxbow with fish waiting to spawn and be caught. The water was about knee deep and the salmon looked like huge stacks of black cordwood. I hooked a fish on my third cast and the fight was on. These fish are great jumpers and when they jump, they roll like a tarpon. After several jumps and long runs, the fish broke off. Larry, an accomplished bass fisherman, had not fished with a fly rod since he had visited me in Colorado many years ago. Once he saw how much fun I was having, he had to give it a try. After a few not-so-perfect casts he managed to get a good presentation and a hook-up. I netted the fish for him after it had made several hard runs. Now, he was really excited. He caught several more fish before he would give me my rod back.

With the rod back in my hands, I hooked a fish that put on a spectacular show. It made a run about 30 yards upstream and then decided that downstream was the place to be. After a long, hard run downstream, I was able to fight it back almost to my feet when it took off upstream again. Then it was back downstream. Just as I thought I was winning, the fish decided that it was going back to Lake Michigan. It went downstream, around the bend, and was headed for a big snag well over 50 yards down the river. I decided that if I could not turn it, I would at least save my fly line. I pointed my rod straight at the fish, grabbed the line, and heard the crack of a 20# tippet breaking as my line went slack. It was disappointing, but just another fight in a day full of great fights with fish so strong that they can and do straighten a saltwater hook. We still had the Muskegon River to fish.

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday we fished the Muskegon. The fish move up the Muskegon later than the Pere Marquette and there were many more fish. Since it is not a catch and release river, there are also many more people. To get away from the crowds, a boat is needed. We launched our boat and ran three miles upstream where we had the river to ourselves, with the exception of the occasional drift boat. The fishing and catching was even better than Monday. I had a vicious strike on a size 2 egg-sucking leech and was connected to a fish that had to be over 30 pounds. It took me deep into my backing three times and made numerous jumps. This fish also decided to return to Lake Michigan, and on the fourth run into my backing, a loop in the backing was found. I could not remove it while the fish was on. I tried my best to turn the fish, but it was no use. In our group, when someone hooks a fish, everyone else reels in to watch the fight. It keeps lines from getting tangled and also provides a chance to rest. I had fought the fish for about 30 fun-filled minutes in front of an audience of my friends and was tired, disappointed, yet happy. We kept 10 of the fish on Tuesday and Wednesday, enjoyed fresh salmon for two nights, and had plenty left to bring home.

Thursday we did not go to the river until 4 p.m. In two hours of fishing, three of us caught and released over 20 salmon. We were tired and ready to come home, but also are looking forward to our next trip to Michigan.

Harold Pate, Austin