The Pere Marquette was a lesson in the art of disciplined optimism. This is not sunshine-and-puppies optimism. This is not a-bad-day-on-the-river-is-better-than-a-great-day-at-the-office optimism, which we all know is bullshit anyhow. This is optimism that punches back instead of turning the other cheek. Rugged and backboned, half-mad and unwilling to holler Uncle. Disciplined optimism.
Alex Landeen and I touched down in Grand Rapids Thursday afternoon for a couple full days of fishing and god-knows-what with our host, writer/guide/beer guru Matt Dunn. While this was our first time meeting in person, the three of us have known each other (or of each other) through our blogs and social media shenanigans for a while now, and are all contributors to the recently published eBook – Pulp Fly.
After exchanging handshakes, the usual dude-this-is-gonna-be-a-good-time and grabbing luggage, we elected to pick up Matt’s loaner boat (since his new Stealthcraft was still in the works) and boogie to the river to sneak in a couple bonus late-day hours—even with the prospect of a handle of Evan Williams and two cases of low-fills courtesy of Shorts Brewing Co. waiting at Matt’s place.
We were warned about already-high-and-still-rising flows, loose debris and leaning trees that might not have yet met a chainsaw. Of course, we all know warnings tend to be a bit exaggerated. When we arrived at Green Cottage for put-in however, there was nothing but a whole lot of truth—the launch was a glorious combo of skating rink and Special Forces obstacle course, and the current howled below.
The 14” of snow from the previous weekend had all melted, and as a result, the river had elected to explore new territory in the woods. The water was brown and just north of freezing. It was 20-something degrees and gusting and we had measly airplane clothes on under a couple layers. But we cared not about these things. Alex and I had traveled from Tucson, AZ and Upstate NY respectively to tangle with PM chrome, and that is what we aimed to do.
Now, at this point, and in spite of all other Mother Nature-divined evidence, I suppose I could’ve taken the fact that I packed the wrong boots for a float-trip as some sort of omen. But disciplined optimism does not allow for superstition. The studded felt stayed in the Subaru and I stood in the stern, bootless and totally un-dude-like, firing streamers at slack water and flooded banks in my stocking-foot waders. Not exactly the first on-the-water impression I was hoping to make with two respected blog-writing/fly fishing colleagues. Of course, unless you’re a total dick, guys and first impressions are generally not found in the same sentence, so the boots didn’t rightly matter. I was served a small ration of shit, Alex took pictures, and we pushed on.
The guides stayed iced and the fish stayed home, and two-hours later, we trailered the boat and turned our minds toward Ludington, Evan Williams and a hot meal. We knew the next day was going to be a bear. But that’s what fuels the passion for those that live and breathe fly fishing, isn’t it. Especially as writers and photographers. As Kirk Deeter puts it: good, bad or indifferent, you have to put in the time—roll the miles. Otherwise, your perspective is limited. Hard work, son.
That evening, we had dinner at a pub in Ludington. We ate meat and fried food and drank PBR while the rest of the bar competed for trivia-night bragging-rights. We talked about our personal blog-philosophies and vocations and the value (if any) of pro-staff status, selling ad-space and writing reviews. We solved a couple of the world’s lesser-known problems and started to realize that Alex’s effortless ability to recite movie dialog (in character) is probably the closest we’d ever come to knowing a genius. Later on, back at Matt’s place I discovered his bookshelves held a number of the same authors that mine did – Denis Johnson, John McPhee, Harrison, McGuane, Thomas Pynchon, Whitman. Familiar, comfortable company.
While the next day did not improve weather- or river-wise, we did start the morning with Dunn-made bacon and egg breakfast wrap goodness and coffee. And I did get a new pair of Korkers at Baldwin Bait and Tackle on the way to the launch to put my stocking feet in. Throw in some thermals and I felt whole again. Strong. Knuckled-up and ready for another round.
We got to Green Cottage, but it was not the same Green Cottage. The river was up at least a foot and a half from the evening before. And still rising. With an entire day ahead of us, we started with streamers along likely banks and far seams. Nada. We switched to egg/bead set-ups. We worked every foot of the bottom from the boat to the opposite bank, cleared ice from our guides, coaxed the boat downstream 10 yards and worked it again till the run was spent—tick-tick-tick, no boom. Well, except for a smolt that Alex caught accidentally on a backcast.
We recited rap lyrics, movie quotes and tried cursing the fish into a bite. We pulled our hats down and collars up and worked the frozen bends out of our metacarpals and phalanges. Matt pulled, pushed and slid us through winding miles of unreasonable current that was seemingly hell-bent on running us into head-hunting trees, brush and submerged stumps.
The high of 28 degrees and locomotive wind-gusts added insult to injury. Around 1:00 we grabbed some shore and broke out the propane grill for lunch—sausage, chips, Oreos and some Shorts brew. While Matt turned the sausage and rolls, Alex caught a nice native brown accidentally mid-way through a roll cast. Between that fish, the stream-side sustenance and some sun, we rallied. We only need one, boys. Disciplined optimism.
And the rally almost paid-off. I had come tight against (and broke off) probably thirty to a hundred rocks, logs and sundry other invisible pieces of bottom-structure over the course of the morning. Matt can attest. I’ve never seen a dude re-tie rigs faster. Tempting fate along the far bank, below a branch lodged against a gnarly stump, I came tight against yet another hunk of something.
Matt: Another log?
Me: Yea, dammit.
Then the log turned shook its head a few times and got nice and heavy in the current.
Me: Nope, I guess it’s a fish. A good fish.
Matt got out and stood downstream of the boat, trying to ignore frozen hands on a metal net. I worked the steelhead out of the fast far current toward him. We got a couple muddy looks as he flashed near the boat. He wasn’t bright, but he wore some decent color. The fight lasted, maybe, five minutes. I got him close. Matt dipped the net right as the fish came un-buttoned and disappeared.
We reached Gleason’s Landing by 5. The river had climbed another 2+ feet putting almost the entire launch underwater. Alex and I did some half-assed jumping jacks and hopped from one foot to the other to get some blood flowing while we waited for Matt to bring the Subaru down from where the spotter parked it. With stiff legs and hands and necks and everything aching from the long cold day, we pulled the boat out, packed our gear and called it a day.
On the way back to the house, we took a loop by Stearns Park to get a look at Lake Michigan, the lighthouse at the end of the pier and one hell of a sunset. In spite of having just finally thawed out, Alex suggested a walk out to the lighthouse – a half-mile jaunt, one-way. We made it about 150 yards out before ice, gale-force winds, crashing lake spray and the prospect of taking a death-inducing header into the water gave us enough reason to turn back. Of course, Evan Williams, low-fills and a hot meal were calling again as well.
Flow reports Saturday morning had the river actually coming down some. And the 7 a.m. temperature was already 28 degrees. Things were looking up. We decided to start at the upper fly water and run down to Gleason’s again. The first 100 yards of the float had us on the deck as Matt navigated a low bridge and two low trees. We could see ghosts of where the river had peaked in the wet banks and shelf ice stranded a good 2 feet above the surface. As temps increased, ice sheets covering now-empty pools back in the woods started to cave—sounding like trees crashing to the ground. We kept an eye over our shoulders. Water visibility had improved from inches to a few feet and we could actually see intermittent sections of clean gravel as we drifted.
It didn’t take long before Alex hooked and landed a nice brown. On purpose. We were sure it was the sign of a productive day ahead. An hour later my line came tight against a big brown of my own as we rode some crazy swirling current through a deep bend. He rolled to show off just how much of a toad he was, took a nose-dive, added a couple head-shakes and parted ways with the hook. Just before we decided to break for lunch, Alex landed a good-looking native rainbow—a fish you don’t find, according to Matt, but in a few select places on the PM.
After lunch, I connected with a boss steelhead that exploded tail-first out of the water, got really heavy in the current, swung-swung-swung and came un-buttoned. We were a boat-full of holy-shit and laughs. I couldn’t stop smiling at how big a fish that could’ve been.
Then along came Full Metal Jacket. Right after Alex had laid a cast along the far bank, realizing that his leader was not, in fact, tangled on his indicator, he genuflected. This was not lost on Matt and I. So we asked if he was Catholic. This led to a conversation about spirituality, which, of course, led to a perfectly delivered rendition of the dialogue between Private Joker and Gunny Hartman about his lack of belief in the Virgin Mary—after which Alex laid out another cast, immediately stuck a steelhead and hollered Thank you, Jesus! We didn’t land that one either.
On the last stretch of the day however, I did manage to get a small steelie in the net. An 11th hour save from the skunk.
When we got back to Matt’s that evening, I had to take a nap and more than the prescribed amount of pain relievers to get rid of a pounding headache I picked up on the river. My head was clear within a half-hour. Alex spoiled us with home-made Greek meatballs in a yogurt sauce with bruschetta-style diced tomatoes and pasta. We had beers and whiskey and walked a block-and-a-half to a local watering hole for some more beers and whiskey. We planned on walking-in to fish another stretch for a few hours in the morning before my flight out. In the end, I suppose this too was disciplined optimism. The next morning was plenty of hours away, we had just out-lasted a couple hard-fought days of fishing and finally connected the dots between Arizona, Michigan and New York. All that really mattered right then was celebrating a successful trip.
***Many thanks to Matt Dunn for the invite, making his futon available and rowing my non-fish-catching ass around for three days. You can read him at fishbeer.com