It has been a cool, wet spring in northern Michigan. The rivers have been running high, and the bug hatches are off by about a week or so. Even the black flies and mosquitoes have been tempered in their typical early June attack.
After we fished the Yellow Dog River, Woody and I stopped in at Down Wind Sports in Marquette (a delightful port town on Lake Superior with a hip vibe much like Portland, ME or Portsmouth, NH) to check out their fly fishing section. There we chatted with Bill (didn’t get his last name) who happened to mention that the steelhead were still running in local rivers because of the late spring.
Bill reported that someone had just caught one in the Carp River, right near the edge of town.
“Hmm,” I thought, “I wouldn’t mind hooking into a steelhead. Something I have never done.” And catching a steelhead in the Carp River had a nice ring to it.
The next morning (Wednesday) on my way out of town, I parked in a lot across from “the ski hill,” as Woody instructed. The water was fast and broken into rapids and plunge pools. I could imagine a 10 pound steelhead sitting in one of those holes waiting to slam my fly.
I tried some streamers, some high stick nymphing (as suggested by Bill), and a big fluffy Royal Wulff with a nymph dropper, anticipating a wild ride at any minute.
I am sad to report that I didn’t hook a super-sized steelhead, but I did catch a seven inch rainbow on a red nymph dropper in a tiny pool. I guess I was a little relieved, given that all the downed trees and sunken logs in the stream would surely have defeated any effort to land that little fellow’s much larger mom or dad. Anyway, at least I caught something to start my day.
Nick Adams and the Big Two-Hearted River
My next stop was Seney, where Nick Adams, Ernest Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical character, disembarked on his cathartic journey in the classic short story ‘Big Two-Hearted River.’
On my way to Seney, I passed through the Ottawa and the Hiawatha National Forests, the third and fourth National Forests respectively of this trip so far. The land here is flat as flat can be and the “Seney stretch” of Highway 28 is straight as an arrow, crossing multiple rivers and streams, which were running high. I spotted a sandhill crane on the side of the road, but if flew off gracefully when I stopped to try to get a photo.
In Seney, I found the train depot, now a museum, at which Nick Adams watched the train go “up the track out of sight” and he looked out over the burned out town and country before heading into the forest to fish for trout and recover from his wounds and the war (that are never mentioned in the story, a classic example of Hemingway’s “theory of omission”).
According to Carlos Baker’s biography of Hemingway (which I just pulled, conveniently, off the shelf in the Westport, NY Library where I am writing on a rainy day), the story 'Big Two-Hearted River' is based on a real trip Ernest made in 1919 with companions Al Walker and Jack Pentecost to the Fox River that flows through Seney near the train station. During the week that those three young men spent on the Fox, they caught nearly two hundred trout. Or so they said.
The river was high and fast and cold, up into the alders on both banks. There were no trout rising. I did not catch two hundred trout. Nor even a single trout. But then, I didn’t use live grasshoppers caught in the cool morning dew, like Nick.
After a couple hours of trying nymphs, dries and streamers, I decided to leave the Fox behind, preferring to remember the version captured in Hemingway’s story, where trout were rising with so many rings it looked like rain, and where Nick broke off the biggest trout he had ever seen.
That is the Fox (the Big Two-Hearted) I would rather remember. But it was quite a feeling to follow in Hemingway’s footsteps along the bank, and see the river that gave Nick Adams a new start on life after the war.
Petoskey and the Sturgeon River
Leaving Seney behind, I headed for the Mackinac Bridge and the lakeside town of Petoskey, which Hemingway frequented during summers until he married Hadley Richardson in nearby Horton Bay in 1921. There is a picture of him over the bar at the City Park Grill in Petoskey, where I enjoyed a fine whitefish sandwich and a Short’s Hangin’ Frank brew.
In the days before his wedding, Ernest fished the Sturgeon River about 30 miles east near Vanderbilt for three days with two friends in a “final bachelor’s splurge,” according to Baker. Had I known Hemingway had fished in Vanderbilt, I wouldn’t have stopped to try my luck at a boat launch in Rondo, several miles north of there.
Like all the rivers lately, the Sturgeon was running high but clear. I found a fabulous pool and eddy above a huge gnarly tree leaning into the river. Perfect cover for trout. I managed to get a small one to short-hit my fly a few times, but again had no luck catching fish in these storied waters. Clearly, I am no Hemingway.
I guess, at least on this day, it would not be the fish for whom the bell tolls.