University of Michigan Biological Station: The Season

January 1, 2011

            It was around 2:00 in the afternoon when I pulled my car into the gravel parking area alongside the road. Snow fell lightly from the gray sky and the thermometer read 25 degrees Fahrenheit. My car rested alone along the narrow gravel strip that ran parallel to the road until the bridge. I walked out of the car and crunched through the thin layer of snow dusting the ground to take a look at the river running under the bridge. The water level was a little high and was stained a brown tea color. I returned to my car and gathered my fishing gear.

            I slowly eased myself into the ice cold waters of the stream, feeling the heat leave my waders and dissipate into the river. I waded carefully across the stream through the soft, silty, and leaf covered bottom to the path on the other side. As I climbed out at the other bank, I tucked my fly rod under my arm and stuck my partially gloved hands into my wader pockets. They were already starting to go numb. The path followed the river, winding upstream through the lichen covered trunks and branches of willow and alder. I walked fast along the path, trying to work my muscles to warm my frigid legs. The bridge was now out of sight behind the gray and white landscape of the trees. I rounded a bend and then walked off the path to have another look at the river. In this location the river flowed in between many rocks and boulders, creating plenty of little pockets for trout to hide. I sat on the edge of the clay bank and opened up my fly box, thinking about which flies to use given the conditions of the day.

            Aquatic invertebrate populations in this section of the stream grow best all through the winter months. Most of the invertebrates here are dependent on energy sources that come in from outside the stream; in this case, leaves that fell into the river in autumn.  Invertebrates such as caddis fly larva, mayfly nymphs and stonefly nymphs grow in the stream in the winter and then emerge as adults to reproduce in the spring and summer. The trout are dependent on these invertebrates as a food source. The fly fishermen in the winter months uses a technique known as nymphing, which uses weighted flies that imitate the natural aquatic invertebrates found in the stream. The nymph flies are presented drifting downstream like a nymph that has been dislodged from the bottom substrate. A small float known as an indicator is used to help keep the nymph at the correct depth and to detect strikes.

            I picked out two flies from my box: one small size 22 midge larva pattern and a size 16 pheasant tail nymph. My numb figures fumbled with the tiny flies trying to string the thin leader line through the eye of the hooks. After tying on the flies, I stepped into the river off to the side of a long deep run by two large boulders. Two current channels merged just behind one of the boulders and I knew it was a good feeding lie for a trout. The snow started to increase as I made my first cast to the top of the run just past the boulders. I watched as the indicator drifted perfectly along the edge of the current convergence.  When the indicator began to drag at the end of the run, I roll casted the rig back to the start. On my fifth drift through the current convergence, the indicator abruptly stopped. I lifted the rod and felt the weight of a good fish.

            The fish swam downstream, pulling the loose fly line from my hand. I tightened my grip on the line and felt the fish shaking its head in a deeper section of the run. I put more pressure on the fish and pulled its head up to the surface. I unhooked my net from my vest and pulled the fish in. I held the net in the water and looked at the beautiful brown trout that now rested in it. I took out my pliers, pulled the fly out of the corner of the fish’s mouth,  wetted my hand in the icy water and then gently lifted the fish out of the net and back into to the stream. I watched as its ruby red spots disappeared into the black waters.

            I waded back to the bank and tried to warm my hands for a moment. I listened to the sound of the river rushing over boulders and cobble. The snow had really picked up and the cold was getting unbearable. My mind drifted to thoughts of the heater and thermos of hot chocolate waiting in my car. I looked across the river at the run, barely visible now in the white of the snow. Not a bad start to the New Year.


April 30 2011

            The sun was shining and the air was a pleasant 65 degrees. I walked behind my fishing partner, Jared, through the flourishing forest toward the river. Cardinals and Robins were happily calling in the tree tops above us and Rue Anemones blanketed the once dead forest floor. Many of the speckled alders and willows were beginning to open their light green buds. I could see the river sparkling through the tree branches in the distance and my heart tightened.

            The river was running low for this time of year and the waters were clear. Jared and I paused on the river’s edge to investigate the insect activity. Caddis flies were emerging fairly consistently and the trout were actively feeding on them. I watched a good fish rise three times in a bubble line in a deeper run behind a fallen log just upstream. Jared and I looked at each other both of us beaming with excitement. He said he was going to fish downstream and we parted ways. I stepped into the river and got myself into position to fish for the riser.

            Water temperature is one of the most important factors that provide aquatic invertebrates the cue to emerge from the stream to live out their brief adult lives to reproduce.  Every species of aquatic invertebrate has a specific stream temperature that, combined with water level and sunlight, tells them when spring has arrived and it is time to leave the stream. For example, one of the first mayfly species to emerge in the spring, Ephemerella subvaria (commonly known as the Hendricksons), is signaled to emerge at a water temperature range of 50 to 55 degrees. When the insects begin to emerge in the spring, trout begin to change their behavior. They start to look up and feed on the insects as they move from the bottom substrates to the surface and when they rest in the surface film. A rising trout is a trout that has consumed one of these emerging or reproducing aquatic invertebrates. When the fish are looking up, fly fishermen use dry flies that imitate these emerging insects. Spring is one of the best times to fish dry flies.

            Standing in position on the fish feeding in the bubble line, I pause to tie on a size 16 elk hair caddis which floats well and does a great job imitating an emerging caddis resting in the surface film as it dries its wings. I observe the rising trout to get the timing down. It is important to land the fly right before a fish is about to feed and not right as it eats or right after. The timing of my first cast is perfect and the fish takes immediately. The fish jumped clear of the water as soon as he felt the hook, a larger rainbow trout. I brought the energetic fish in quickly, resting it in my mesh landing net. I briefly admired its pink and blue painted gill plates and the dark spots that covered its body. I faced its head upstream in the clear waters of the stream and gently released it.

 I spotted another fish rising just ahead of the first one. Without hesitation, I dried my fly and moved upstream into position on the next fish. My first cast was just to the left of the fish’s feeding lane and I quickly corrected the positioning on my next cast. I got three good drifts without a take. On my fourth cast the fish took but I was late on the hook set and lost it. I moved upstream to find more fish.

            I made my way back downstream after catching seven good trout. As I made my way around a bend I saw Jared standing among the shimmering waters of the late afternoon, his rod doubled over as he battled a fish. I walked over to him and sat on the bank as I watched him release the trout.  He waved at me and walked over taking a seat next to me. We watched and listened to the stream for a long time.  

June 25, 2011

            The sun had almost set behind the large grove of white pines in front of the car. The heat outside was unbearable and I was roasting in my waders as I waited for Jared to finish rigging up. “I’ll meet you by the river,” I told him, unable to stand any longer in the steaming waders. I moved quickly down the overgrown path, sweating profusely. I ran into the stream and waded into a deep pool. I splashed my face with the cool clear water and waited for Jared. It was one of those hot June days with 100% humidity when all most people wanted to do was sit inside and drink cold lemonade—perfect conditions for Hex.

            The Hexagenia limbata is the largest mayfly to hatch on Midwestern Rivers. It begins to appear right around the beginning of the summer solstice and the hatch occurs only at night. Hexes are a burrowing mayfly and the nymphs bury themselves in homes in the dark silt that builds up throughout the river system. Their emergence is dependent more on the temperature of the silt as opposed to the water. After several days of high hot sun the silt becomes sufficiently heated to signal the large mayflies to emerge. When the conditions are just right the hex will completely blanket the stream near their emergence site. The trout go crazy. The hexes provide a huge source of energy for the trout and almost all the trout in a stretch of Hex water will feed carelessly at the surface throughout the hatch.  The hex hatch offers the fly fishermen the best opportunity to catch a large trout on a dry fly in Michigan.

            Jared soon came running down the path and into the river next to me. He enjoyed a brief cool off as we discussed tactics for the evening.

            “I think we should head upstream to the power line hole,” Jared stated, “last year John got two 18 inch browns there. He said the hex funnel right through the run after hatching in the silt banks upstream.”

            “If you think it will be good let’s do it. The highway hole was a bust last year anyway.” I responded.

            “Sweet, well let’s head up the path and wait the pool then,” Jared said walking out of the river and back onto the path. We made our way carefully through the overgrown trail, avoiding brambles and downed tree branches. The darkness in the dense forest was growing as the glow of the sun slowly disappeared. I turned my head light on and continued to follow Jared down the path. The forest is a strange place at night, the brain not knowing what to do with the lack of sensory input makes up movement and sounds that can create feelings of fear. I am always a little more on edge when I fish at night.

            When we arrived at the pool, Jared sat on the bank overlooking the pool and lit a cigar. I sat next to him, dangling my feet into the stream and smelling a mixture of the river and tobacco. We waited to hear the first fish rise. Due to the darkness, fishing the hex hatch is done almost entirely by ear. You hear a fish rise, you make a blind cast into the darkness and you set the hook when you hear the fish rise in general area of your fly. Ninety percent of the time the fish is not rising to your fly but every so often you set the hook and feel resistance. It is more a matter of luck than skill.

            At around 11pm, we heard the first splash on the far side of the pool. I shined my light on the water and sure enough the big hexes were bobbing along through the channel into the pool. “Get out there man,” Jared urged me still sitting on the bank puffing the cigar.

            “Here goes nothing,” I said as I stepped into the river and cautiously moved out into the current. I heard the fish rise again; I suspected he was holding just to the right of the channel upstream of me. Another rise. I tested the knot on my fly, stripped out some line and made my first cast. No sound. I cast again and I heard the fish rise. I instinctively set the hook but the fly came shooting back behind me. I reeled in the line and checked for wind knots. I heard another splashy rise from the fish. I made about 10 casts but the fish didn’t rise. One more cast to the right head of the pool, I heard a splash and again set the hook. This time, I felt the fish alive at the end of my line, one powerful shake of its head and then slack. I stood in the stream gazing blindly into the darkness at the spot the fish had been. The fish was the biggest I had ever hooked in the river. I swore I would redeem myself.

October 12, 2011

            The chilly breeze rustled the yellow leaves of the aspens above dropping some of them into the river. I watched as they slowly meandered their way downstream, picking up speed as they hit a shallow riffle. I was sitting in the back of my car pulling my waders on. The sky was a brilliant blue and the air was in the low 50’s. A perfect day to spend on the river in Autumn.

            I walked alone up the path crunching through the fallen leaves colored in bright hues of red, orange, purple and yellow. The river was again visible through the now partially bare trees. I heard a flock of geese honking loudly a ways downstream. The river provided them with a brief a moment of rest during their long journey south.

            Fall is all about preparation for winter. The trout in the river are gorging themselves on whatever food items they can find to help them survive the bitter cold of winter. The aquatic invertebrate communities in the fall are low, with most of the nymphs already departed from the stream as adults and many of the eggs laid throughout the spring and summer not yet hatched. The trout often shift their attention onto larger sources of energy such as sculpin and crayfish. Fly fishermen use flies known as streamers to mimic these large food items and to draw aggressive strikes from larger trout.

            The trees in their brilliant colors were reflecting off the gleaming surface of the river. I couldn’t help but to pause and look as the path ran along an outcropping on the river’s bank. I decided that this is where I would start fishing today. The water of the river was very lightly stained after a rainstorm two days ago. I hoped that the fish would be on the move looking for larger prey moved downstream with the high water. I would fish a smaller muddler minnow that imitates a sculpin baitfish. The best technique for fishing a streamer is to let it swing with the current in a downstream presentation. I sat briefly on the bank, tied on my fly, and moved downstream to a fish a long run.

            I cast my fly about 30 yards downstream of my position at a 20 degree angle to the run. I left slack in the line and allowed the current to straighten out the angle and swing the fly up and out through the current. The action made the fly look like a disoriented baitfish trying to escape the heavy flow. I made three casts into this run and then moved on downstream. The key to this technique is to keep moving and cover a lot of water. It is a searching technique that will not get large numbers of fish but will attract some of the biggest fish in the river.

            I covered three more pools downstream without a strike. I was now about halfway to the bridge where my car was parked. I moved farther down to one of the last good runs before the bridge. It was fast at the top flowing next to a fallen tree and emptying into a very deep slow pool. I made my first cast just to the top of the run and watched as the fly swung out as it neared the fallen log. I saw the flash of a fish below the water’s surface and suddenly felt energy pulse through my line. I set the hook hard and felt the fish run downstream. It didn’t feel very large. I brought it quickly to the surface and started bringing it in. Just as the fish swam through the run again there was another larger flash and I watched as a massive brown trout torpedoed toward the fish at the end of my line. The water in front of me exploded as the hooked fish fled for its life. Soon, all I felt was slack at the end of my line. I reeled in the loose line standing in awe of the event that had just taken place.

            I made my way back towards the bridge, casting into a few likely spots without any strikes. I couldn’t get the thought of the big brown chasing down the other trout out of my head. I had only ever dreamed of trout that big. I stood in the waters next to the bridge and looked upstream at the colorful river dancing in the disappearing sunlight. This would be my last day on the river for the rest of the year. With all the memories of the season on the river vivid in my mind, I felt strangely ready for the winter ahead.

One of many beautiful trout caught during the 2011 season.

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