As a guide, sometimes I get jealous of the trout fishing that can be had in the western states. There truly are 30-fish-days to be had out there, and the trout can run in the 12-16 inch range. Let's face it. That's a fun day of fishing, and it's tough to beat here in Michigan. But what Michigan lacks in quantity of catchable daytime trout, it makes up for in diversity of fishing experiences. Given the chance, I wouldn't trade the former for the latter. Or let me put it another way. If all you ate was cake, after a while cake doesn't taste so good. I'd rather dine at a one-star motel buffet than eat cake for every meal.
Michigan's fly fishing IS a buffet, and it's one of the finest in the country. Being a teacher who guides all summer, you'd think I've sampled everything on the buffet, but I haven't. Not even close. Every March I begin my summer guiding to-do list. This summer I'm going to explore... I'm going to learn all those places so well I can add them to my guiding repertoire. I'm going to fish with my daughter at... I usually hit about a third of the places on my list. Between guiding anglers at the places I know well, doing home improvement projects that I can't get to while teaching school, and trying to get away for some family time, I never feel like I master all the fishing opportunities that exist in my little stretch of heaven from the Straits to Sharon Bridge. It's an awesome problem to have!
Most of you know trout. You can visualize the experience. Crystal clear waters. Sweeping cedars, shaded rivers, cool water in even the hottest and muggiest of days. But let's just list the trout locations in Boyne Country: Maple, Pigeon, Sturgeon, Black, Boyne, Jordan, Manistee. But what you may not know is the diversity within those rivers alone.
Take the Jordan for one. In my mind, it's three entirely different fishing experiences. Start with the upper Jordan upstream of Grave's Crossing. We're talking 15 miles of two-track touching, paralleling, leaving and returning to braided cold-water channels. At first glance, one might think the water is too shallow, too small to hold big trout, but look carefully and you'll see three-foot deep undercut banks with enough crisscrossed timber in the river that it looks like an underwater tornado zone. Sometimes I actually have to pause and mentally wrestle with what piece of cover to cast to first. You're as likely to catch good fish on dries as you are on streamers in the upper Jordan.
Then there's the middle Jordan - Graves to the Weir. The river widens, building in volume and depth. Streamers rule here, sweeping them under big log jams, into holes. You've got space, but not much. Watch your backcast or your fly box will leave the river with a lot less flies in it than when you came. Cedars dominate the banks, keeping the river cool and the trout safe.
Finally, there's the lower Jordan - Rogers to the mouth. Here we enter a different world. The riffles disappear and the river widens, slows, calms. Willows hang over the river, their branches tickling your shoulders as you drift beneath them. Shoulder-high weeds and marsh grasses blanket the plain cut by the river. Look at the lower Jordan during the day, and you'd swear this is rock bass and bluegill water. It's slow, sandy and exposed. But at night big browns own this section of river.
Trout, however beautiful they may be, are only one stop on the buffet. There are pike and musky to be had, too. Big pike. Toothy pike. Explosive pike. You can find them on many inland waters - Burt, Mullet, Walloon, Crooked, Pickerel, Douglas, and countless smaller lakes in the region. The musky...well those places we'll keep a secret for now. Grab a stout 8-9 weight rod, load it with a sinking line of one sort or another, and tip it with half a chicken (or at least the feathers from half a chicken). Master your casting stroke or you'll never catch a fish. Line control is the rule of the day. Powerful backcasts to lift all that line and fly from the water, long pauses as the rod loads, and shoot the whole mess as far as you possibly can. Then tuck the rod under your armpit and two-hand strip as fast as you can or do the same thing one-handed. You might wear a glove because one-handed traditional stripping this fast can (and will) give you line-burn if you're stripping across your finger. The casting is tiring, but the anticipation keeps you at it. Prepare for a strike that attempts to blow the rod out of your hands and a fight like you've never had with a trout. But catch an esox on a fly, and you've truly accomplished something.
If that sounds like too much work, you can always head up to the Straits of Mackinaw to Wilderness State Park. There you will find smallmouth bass, and lots of them, as well as carp (yeah, really big ones). Floating lines are fine as are 6 and 7 weight rods. Granted, you're not likely to land a carp on a 6 weight, but you either carry a rod that can handle a carp but spoil most of the enjoyment of fighting a bass, or carry a rod that will make casting and fighting bass enjoyable while hosing yourself if you hook a carp. If you're a practical generalist, and you want to be able to fish for both, go for the bass rod option because the bass outnumber the carp 10-1. But if you're a tried and true carp guy, gear up for them and target them exclusively.
The actual fishing is done on the northwest tip of the park, specifically called Waugoshance Point. This place itself is as diverse as the region as a whole. Cedars dot the rocky south shoreline of the peninsula. Indian paintbrush gives the plateau a beautiful orange tint in June, and the strange whooping sound, reminiscent of a 70s Martian movie, are snipe, making their annual mating calls. You wade among the bulrushes and reeds, casting streamers to open pockets in the weeds and to solitary boulders, all home to bright green smallmouth bass in the 10-20 inch range. They slam your fly, jump in the air like their largemouth cousins, and are released to live on and fight again.
But wait, there's more. Waugoshance reads like an infomercial. Fish your way west until you are ready for a change, and then work your way to the northern edge of the bay. Climb up out of the mucky, reed-filled, wader-sucking carp water reminiscent of a flooded rice paddy, and head north. You'll climb through a line of cedars to emerge into a totally different dune ecosystem. Junipers dot the crests and valleys of sand dune ridges, and crystal clear big water from the Straits of Mackinac laps a firm sand beach. The carp are in the weedy bay on the south side of the point, but they also live in the big, open water. They cruise like wolf packs, and you can see them coming. Drop a leechy woolly bugger or a brown crayfish-like crustacean a full four feet in front of them. Give the fly a twitch or two and wait for the take. Your heart will be racing, so remember to breathe or you might pass out. Yeah, it's that cool! These fish are super spooky and takes are rare. But if you get tired of it, just hop back across the point and grab a smallmouth. After all, this is a fish buffet. Nobody can tell you what you should enjoy most.
We haven't talked about panfish, but they're in Boyne Country, too. They live in the weed beds of the big inland lakes as well as the countless puddle lakes that no one wants to tell you about. They're fun and easy to catch on their beds, when sight fishing is the name of the game, but they can be had all summer simply by dropping a nymphy, rubber-legged beadhead down into their weed-infested living room. Though it's never been scientifically measured, ounce for ounce I'm pretty sure a bluegill fights harder than any fish in the region, including the fearsome pike that eat them. And they can be caught all season long.
True, I have western trout quantity envy, but not a day goes by when I don't appreciate the smorgasbord of fly fishing experiences we have here in northern Michigan.