Written by: Chris Raines
Spring has dug its heels in deeply to the woods and waters of Northern Michigan, and the lure of the river cries out stronger than ever. With the weather change comes a new season, bringing hopes of eager trout feeding on bugs riding precariously on the water’s surface.
As the air warms, the trees and flowers bloom. The grass grows tall and green. The river and its surroundings take on an entirely different look. New growth is evident wherever you look. The birds chirp, the frogs croak, even the turtles have emerged from their muddy lairs. The river is alive with activity. Bugs are active now, and you can sense with great anticipation that the fish understand all of this.
Many of the anglers who relentlessly pursue steelhead in the early spring have returned to their jobs, families, and homes. All that is left are the locals, a handful of hardcore trout bums, and guys like me. . .fly fishing guides with time on their hands. The Pere Marquette river is peaceful, quiet, and serene once again, a place where you can get lost in your thoughts. The setting is perfect for long, introspective reveries, or pondering which bugs will hit the surface tonight. It is a great time to get in touch with the simple beauty of the river.
Evenings begin to show promise of dry-fly fishing fantasies realized. As the afternoon sun loosens its grip on the day, and the shadows begin to fall from the trees, bugs that have been waiting all year begin to materialize overhead. It begins slowly, with a bug here and the one there. Eventually the air is filled with bugs of all shapes sizes and colors.
On any given evening, we will see caddisflies, stoneflies, and mayflies. With so many to choose from, the trout make their decision of which to eat and which to pass on. It happens in the blink of an eye. There on the water’s surface—which has been nothing more than a glassy mirrored sheet—a dimple appears. . .then another. Your eyes strain to focus on that spot, until he feeds again, and then he does.
Now is the moment of truth, the point at which you will find out if you have tied on the right bug. Fish at this point in the season are eager, but not suicidal. They will only take what they want, and then only if it is presented properly. The puzzle pieces are laid out in front of you, and it now rests squarely on your shoulders to find the right pieces and to make them fit.
You study the sky, watching the bugs in flight, determining which fly to use. Mesmerized by the sight and sound of rising fish around you, your focus settles on the one that sounds, or seems the biggest. Like an eagle, you stare intently at the water’s surface waiting for it to eat again.
Suddenly it feeds: right there in the frothy seam, it takes a bug from the surface and slides back down to wait for another. Your eyes intuitively scan the surface of the water just ahead of the fish, where you spot a struggling sulpher. Trapped on the water’s surface, the tiny bug struggles to take to the air. Seeing this from beneath, the giant brown trout quickly rises up from the depths and takes yet another bug right in front of you.
Your heart beat quickens, your eyes strain more than ever, and your focus is unmatched. Instinctively, you move into position, quietly, like a heron stalking its prey. Your body goes into a series of motions without you even giving them conscious thought. You strip line, begin your casting motion. The entire time, you are reminding yourself mentally: reach cast, don’t land the fly right on his head, be ready to mend. Then as your cast lays out perfectly in front of you, and the fly quietly drops to the water’s surface, your heart starts to pound and you KNOW that there is no way he will be able to resist.
As your fly rides perfectly down that water, you start to anticipate the take. Your mind again swirls with thoughts: let him take it before you set, don’t set to hard it’s 6X, is this the right fly? Then suddenly your thoughts are brought back into reality with the sudden form of a fish lurking beneath your fly. The water is broken by the fish opening his mouth as he reaches the surface. It happens in the blink of an eye, but time stands still as his mouth engulfs your fly. He closes and begins to sink down into the dark depths of the river.
With a quick strip and a sudden crack of your wrist, the hook is set. The water explodes with a violent force, and the big brown quickly sets off toward his underwater lair. Your rod bends, the line comes tight, and your knots are tested. You feel the sheer bulk of the fish, and the bend in the rod tells you it’s a good one. Your mind races, and you can imagine the fish wrapping you around a log.
If he gets too deep, you will surely lose him. If you pull to hard, you risk breaking the light tippet. You must engage in a dance of will. It is now that experience and patience are your greatest allies.
As you gently pry and pull, the fight is beginning to favor you. The fish is tired and swims easily toward the net. Looking down, you see for the first time the beauty of your catch. His head comes to the surface, and the bright yellow sides reflect the last of the evening’s light.
A sense of accomplishment rushes through you, and with a twist of your hemostat, the fly is out and he drifts back into his watery home. Holding your fly in your hands you smile knowing that you have put the last piece of the puzzle together.