When mayflies are hatching, it’s not just the trout that take notice. Swallows (during the day) and bats (at dusk) divebomb from above while the trout assault the bugs from below. Sadly, we see far fewer bats these days than in years past.
I noticed for the first time on this trip that common grackles also feast on mayflies, hopping along the shore to pick the bugs off the vegetation, sometimes flitting out over the water to take an emerging mayfly right off the water, practically taking food out of the trout's mouth.
Grackles have been my constant companions on the many rivers I have fished on this trip. I don’t recall seeing grackles as frequently on my home waters in Maine and New Hampshire over the years, but I began to notice them working the shoreline on the Battenkill in Vermont. Then again on the West Branch of the Delaware, on Spruce Creek and the Yellow Breeches in PA, and on virtually every stop in Wisconsin and Michigan.
Maybe I am hitting their peak time, or I just woke up to the obvious. But I have been in close company with the grackles almost everyday of the Storied Waters tour.
And so it was on my next stop: the the AuSable River (pronounced aw SAH-bull here), which flows through the sandy jack pine barrens of northeastern part of the lower Michigan peninsula, emptying into Lake Huron. Grackles were working the river banks everyday while I was here.
As an aside: This area of Michigan is also the primary home of Kirtland’s Warbler, a rare songbird that lives only in small jack pines and open grasslands, which are maintained for their benefit near the Au Sable River. Unfortunately, I didn’t see one (or if I did, I didn’t identify it as such). I wish I had brought binoculars. Silly me.
The Trout Unlimited Story
The Au Sable area is also where Trout Unlimited (TU) was founded in 1959 to promote the conservation of wild trout populations. As the Au Sable watershed recovered from the abuses of heavy logging and log drives in the 1800s, fisheries management was heavily slanted toward stocking hatchery raised trout. The TU founders, including George Griffith and Art Neumann, believed (as did Aldo Leopold) that stocking was simply a way of side-stepping the problem of a damaged ecosystem. They advocated that habitat management to support wild, native populations would produce better results for less cost than "put and take" stocking with factory fish. And they were right.
To complement the efforts of TU in protecting and improving river habitat over the years, much of the land in the Au Sable basin is now protected as federal or state land, including portions of the Huron National Forest. In 1984, President Reagan signed legislation designating the Au Sable as a federal Wild and Scenic River. On the South Branch, the Mason Tract, donated to the state by George Mason, was preserved as forever wild to protect the water quality and habitat in the region.
Mason, who made large piles of money in the automobile industry, bought this large tract of land on the South Branch in the 1930s from another wealthy auto executive, Clifford Durant of the Durant Motor Car Company.
This area of undeveloped woods and clean water became Mason's private wilderness retreat, where he fly-fished as an escape from the auto business in Detroit. When he died in 1954, Mason bequeathed the land to the state of Michigan as a permanent game reserve, never to be sold. Even camping is prohibited. The original 1,500 acre gift was eventually enlarged to 4,493 acres on both sides of the South Branch giving anglers access to eleven miles of blue ribbon trout water.
The wild trout – browns and brookies – have been the beneficiaries of all this land protection, as have the fly fishermen. And the grackles. What benefits the trout, benefits the grackles, and myriad other species.
Gates AuSable Lodge Woody had set me up to stay at Gates Au Sable Lodge, just east of Grayling, comfortable accommodations right on the main stem without being too fancy-shmancy with a great fly shop, a top notch restaurant, and friendly, very knowledgeable folks who quickly got me pointed in the right direction.
Alex, who was tying flies when I came in to the shop, set me up with some brown drakes which were starting to come off, as well as sulfurs. A friendly, energetic young woman (whose name I failed to note) showed me on the map where to park and fish on the North Branch. Some other folks in the shop told me to bring a headlamp and fish until well after dark, as that was when the monster browns come out, especially during a brown drake hatch. This was going to be interesting.
I plopped my luggage in my room, enjoyed an early dinner at a table looking out at the main stem of the Au Sable, and got out onto the North Branch, 10 miles away, by 6:30. When I got to Dam Four, I waded downstream a few hundred yards and tied on a big brown drake emerger (having seen a few of the big mayflies in the air) and set up next to a deep glide with a log along the bank.
A grackle hopped down onto the log, which I took as a good sign. A splashy rise in the foam line was another good sign. It took me two tries to get a good drift line with my emerger. I was rewarded for my frantic line mending with a very fat, very energetic 12 inch brown trout. I call that a great start!
I caught another stout brownie from the same run before heading downstream in search of new water to try. The drake hatch was steady but not heavy and ended before dark, unfortunately. I stayed until 10 anyway, dreaming of a brown trout the size of a Clydesdale dragging me up and down the river until dawn.
Didn’t happen. Even so, a half-dozen browns and one brookie were a pretty good outing, especially after the almost fishless result the day before.
Twin Trout at Twin Bridges
The next morning, I was in the fly shop at 7:00 (as instructed by my good pal, Woody). There I met Josh Greenberg, the owner, and Colin Campbell, not the former NHL player and coach but a soccer playing guide. Josh and Colin gave me more tips for the day. After swapping books with Josh (his is called Rivers of Sand – about the Au Sable River watershed and fishing experience), I mentioned that I wanted to see Lovells Museum. He suggested I fish near Twin Bridges, a few miles upstream from where I had fished the night before on the North Branch, until the museum opened at 11:00.
Standing on the upper of the Twin Bridges, I could see a fish rising regularly in the smooth water under some huge overhanging trees. I waded quietly up from below and took two energetic brookies from that pool. The second one ignored my brown drake spinner pattern, but, as soon as I switched to the emerger, it slammed it on the first cast. Having determined that I had now spooked every fish within 200 yards, I made a few more half-hearted casts before heading to the museum, a few miles down the road.
Lovells Museum Quite literally in the middle of nowhere is Lovells Museum. There I saw the impressive plaque commemorating the founding of Trout Unlimited, and chatted with Chase Lohr, a delightful young man working the museum on a sunny spring day. Chase was quick to share stories of Art Neumann and other local characters, while also sharing his own stories of growing up fishing in the Au Sable and nearby waters.
The Spectacular Mason Tract Josh and Colin had also given me directions for exploring the scenic and remote Mason Tract on the South Branch. Except for the sandy roads, this area had much the same feel as the Dartmouth Grant. The river itself reminded me of the Dead Diamond river, as did the four brook trout I took from some lovely pools with crystal clear water.
After a couple hours enjoying the scenery and sounds of this wild river, I finally trudged back up the hill to my car, and said my goodbyes to the Au Sable and the fine fishing of northern Michigan. It was time to head back east, across southern Ontario, to the Adirondacks in upstate New York.
After a long, long, long drive on Saturday starting in Port Huron, MI, I finally entered the Adirondack Park at about 3:30. This was familiar country, as I grew up near the Adirondack and spent many weeks in the summer enjoying the lakes and mountains in this 6.5 million acre preserve.
And, wouldn’t you know it, but the first bird I saw upon entering the park? You guessed it: a grackle flying low along a lake shore, looking for bugs.
I took that as a good sign.