A regular update of my experiences and random thoughts about fishing the Manistee River and other rivers and places in Michigan and elsewhere. Part fishing report, part recommendation on fishing techniques, and part fly pattern recipe book. Also, part simply reflections of a fisherman.
FLY TYING ON A BUDGET
November 21, 2018
Tying one’s own flies rather than buying them at a fly shop has a couple significant upsides. Instead of paying more than a couple bucks for a single fly, you can tie your own for a faction of that amount. Second, there is the satisfaction in catching wily trout on a fly you’ve tied yourself.
There is an initial investment that needs to be made if you don’t already tie flies. A good fly tying vise is the most significant cost. But you don’t need to break the bank. My first vise that lasted for years and tied thousands of flies before the jaw wore out was a Thompson “A” vise that cost less than $20. My current vise is a bottom of the line Regal vise that will set you back about $150. It’s the second Regal I’ve owned. I always opted to include a solid metal base with my vise rather than rely upon a clamp-on model. A base offers much more versatility in where you can tie flies. The Regal base is over-priced. You can buy a cheaper version for $20.
The second most important items are the fly tying tools. A good pair of scissors is imperative. Dr. Slick makes some of the best for under $20. I break all the rules with my scissors and cut lead wire and all other sorts of materials that will dull most scissors, but the Dr. Slicks maintain their sharpness for years and hundreds and hundreds of flies
Bobbins (which hold your thread), bodkins (the fine needle to pick out hackle and apply glue), and threaders (to feed the fly tying thread through the bobbin) are pretty much interchangeable so go with the cheapest. Speaking of glue, I don’t use any on the head of my fly except for some parachute style patterns. If you want to use some, go to the dollar store and buy some fingernail polish. You’ll save a couple bucks and it won’t dry up as fast.
In terms of fly tying materials, a good hook designed for fly tying is the foundation on which the fly will stand. But there is no need to get carried away with a top of the line hook. I’ve always defaulted to Mustad hooks which are the industry standard and the most reasonably priced. You’ll not catch more fish or tie better flies with more expensive hooks. You can usually buy a pack of 50 Mustads for under $7. Hook and Hackle Fly Tying sells their own versions for less than that. You’ll usually pay twice as much for other brands of hooks. Start off buying only the type of hook (dry, wet, nymph, scud, streamer, etc.) in the size (#10, #12, etc.) you want to tie of a particular fly rather than going crazy with all shapes and sizes of hooks
The most important fly tying material is a good grade of hackle. If there is any one thing that improves your fly tying and the look and effectiveness of your flies, it’s a good grade of hackle. Unfortunately, it can get expensive. Whiting Hackle (formerly Hoffman) is the top of the line. The best way to beat the high cost is to limit the initial hackle purchase to the size and color you want to tie. For example, if you want to tie some Hendricksons, dun colored hackle for a size 10 or 12 hook is all you need. Rather than spend anywhere from $45-$90 for a neck (which does offer a number of different sizes of hackle), Whiting offers “100 Packs” in specific sizes and colors. For $20, you’ll be able to tie at least a hundred flies.
For a Hendrickson fly, you will need longer hackle for the tail. Cheap Chinese rooster necks for that purpose can be bought for $15 and will last forever. Wood duck feathers for wings and muskrat fur for the body of a Hendrickson will set you back $5 and tie hundreds of flies. Thus, excluding your original investment in equipment, tying your own flies will cost about 50 cents each. Shop Amazon or eBay for materials and save even more.
From my description of the tremendous day of fishing with J-Rod, it should come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of fishing in Alaska. Just as I have a rating system for guides, I also classify the quality of trout fishing in general terms by region. For instance, I consider the quality of fishing in Michigan to be very good. In fact, I’ve caught some of my biggest Brown trout in Michigan at night during the Hex hatch with the help of some of my fly creations already described. I include Michigan in what I call the east of the Mississippi region. Like Michigan, trout fishing in this region can be classified as very good, which includes having flipped flies in Pennsylvania, New York, Wisconsin, and New England.
That being said, the fly fishing west of the Mississippi, which is referred to in a shorthand manner as Out West, is clearly one step up from east of the Mississippi. Having fished in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, California, Arizona, and New Mexico, I am confident in saying that the trout are generally bigger, more plentiful, and more aggressive. Also, the West offers more varieties of trout that you don’t have east of the Mississippi or in Alaska for that matter. Most notably, there are several varieties of Cutthroat trout that provide excellent fishing opportunities. We have caught a good many of those varieties, including Greenbacks (my favorite and probably the most beautiful), Yellowstone, Colorado, Snake River, and Westslope. The Cutthroat reputation is that they are easier to fool with a fly than Rainbows and Browns, which I would generally agree with, putting them on a par with Brookies, which have been transplanted to the West just to augment the types of trout available to catch.
The fighting ability of Cutthroats is often denigrated. True, after an initial vigorous fight, Cutthroats have a tendency to call it quits and roll over and say, “Okay, let’s get this over with. Catch me and let me go, please.” Add to the variety of trout the different types of Rainbows that are available, most notably, Golden and Redbands, and you have a whole cornucopia of trout to catch. Golden trout, although generally not nearly as big as most Rainbows, partly due to the small streams and alpine lakes they are found, are the most gorgeous trout hands down. They seem to glow even as they swim in the water.
Then there is the Grayling. Although not considered a trout as such, it still fits the category of a trout-like fish that is incomparable to anything that can be caught in Michigan. Of course, Michigan used to have its own variety of Grayling, which because of their gullibility were fished to extinction. Their unique dorsal fin, which looks like a sail, and unique hues and colors make them one of my favorite fish to catch even though they too aren’t particularly hard fighters. Add in Kokanee salmon, which travel up several of the streams Out West from reservoirs during the summer months and you are challenged to catch as many varieties as possible.
As far as I know, Michigan hasn’t tried to introduce any of the many varieties of Cutthroats to our streams and I wonder why. The owner of a private fish hatchery in Michigan that raised Browns, Rainbows, and Brookies was intrigued by that question and didn’t have an answer, although it got him thinking about it. Cutthroats often are found in the same western streams as Rainbows, which sometimes results in Cuttbows, still another variety of trout that can be caught if you’re lucky. Consequently, their habitat requirements would seem to be similar to Rainbows, which as everybody knows are not native to Michigan. For that matter, Brown trout are immigrants (or an invasive species if you ask a Brook trout) to Michigan rivers. Consequently, the thought that introducing non-native Cutthroats is inconsistent with maintaining “Pure Michigan” trout streams doesn’t hold water. To its credit, the Department of Natural Resources has tried unsuccessfully to introduce Grayling and Redbands to Michigan. There are various theories why they were unsuccessful, from using the wrong strains, to putting them in the wrong locations with too much competition. I applaud the effort and doubt that budgetary considerations will ever allow them to experiment with stocking exotic species again. Too bad, because I’m sure the thought of catching Cutthroats or Grayling east of the Mississippi would be appealing and would bring many more fishermen to Michigan from outside the state. Well, maybe that’s not such a good idea after all since we’re talking about my home waters.
As much as I’m infatuated with the fishing is Out West, Alaska is another step above that. While the variety of trout is not as great as the Lower 48, you are not going to find bigger, more aggressive, or more trout and salmon, than in Alaska. No question about it. The guided trip with J-Rod that I’ve already described is evidence enough of that. The dozens of Rainbows and Dolly Vardens ranging anywhere from 18 to 22 inches on that float can’t be duplicated anywhere outside of Alaska. But there are plenty of streams in Alaska that can come close. The giant Rainbows on the Naknek River, which I talked about “boondoggling” in the Rusty Spinner chapter, are an example.
Sight fishing for fat Rainbows on the famous Brooks River in Katmai National Park, at the opposite side of Naknek Lake that can be seen marauding in crystal clear water behind gangs of spawning salmon can make anyone’s knees quiver. Add to that dozens of the world’s largest grizzly bears splashing around you as they try to catch these same spawning salmon and there is all the more reason to have quivering knees. In fact, if bears make you squeamish, you might have second thoughts about Alaska. Grizzly bears are pretty much ubiquitous to Alaska, no matter where you’re at and you have to be alert. Literally, eyes in the back of your head would serve you well. The Brooks River is famous for viewing the biggest of all the grizzlies in Alaska, known as the brown bear. They grow bigger than their cousins on the mainland because of their rich diet of salmon. Such a high protein diet makes for some very large bears. The iconic photos or videos of bears standing in the river snatching salmon out of the air as they try to ascend the falls are taken on the Brooks River near where some of the best trout fishing is located. Some of the photos of snapped of brown bears on the Brooks and its sister river, the Margot, have sent chills up the spine of people I’ve shown them to. No telephoto lens was necessary. The bears were close up and personal, sometimes within 20-30 feet. This was not by design, but by happenstance. The first words out of the gape of their mouths upon seeing these photos are “weren’t you afraid?” Truthfully, I can answer no, I was not really afraid, although I was very respectful of the bears’ space, especially if it was a mother with cubs.
The irony of these close encounters is that upon stepping foot on the beach in Katmai National Park, having arrived by boat or float plane, you are met by a ranger who herds you into a small, rustic room with wooden benches to hear a lecture and view a video on brown bears in the park. You are reminded these are wild animals and try to avoid any encounters. At one point during the presentation, the ranger points out the window to a wooden cutout of a bear. “That bear is located 100 feet from the ranger station,” he exclaims. “You never want to be any closer than that. If you find yourself closer than that, slowly back away, do not look them in the eye.” Of course, if that doesn’t work and the bear decides to make a snack out of you, the ranger’s sage advice is to roll up into a ball, hands covering the back of your neck, and play dead. Fortunately, salmon taste a lot better than humans. Bear attacks are relatively rare even with the high concentration of bears and the number of close encounters that take place, especially with fishermen. Rangers don’t carry guns. In fact, guns are prohibited in the park. Bear spray, a/k/a pepper spray, a/k/a human seasoning, is the only defense allowed, as much good as that would do you if a brown bear really had a hankering for you.
It certainly is not easy to stay more than 100 feet away from the bears in Katmai. On a typical day in the no-road and no-vehicle park, there are more bear watchers than fish catchers. The number of bears compared to the number of people is at least two to one. Bear watchers are typically led by a ranger or tour guide and take advantage of a couple elevated, gated platforms both at the mouth of the Brooks River and at the falls to view the bears chasing and chewing on salmon. The foot bridge across the mouth of the river where one of the platforms is located is monitored by a ranger to prevent people from crossing if a bear is anywhere close to 100 feet away. It can be a little perturbing and unnerving if you’re stuck on the far side of the bridge for a half hour or more while a bear casually meanders near the bridge or the along the foot path leading to it.
Fishermen don’t have the luxury of rangers spotting bears. That’s left up to you or your guide when he is not busy netting fish. Fishing in a group is pretty much a requirement. On the Brooks River, it’s a little easier keeping your distance from bears since the river is quite wide, although generally uncrossable unless you want to take a swim over the top of your waders, which is not advisable considering the bone-chilling water temperature and swift current. You can generally see quite a distance up and down the river. A bear coming along the bank can be avoided by continuing to move away from the oncoming bear, not uncommonly a mother and cubs, while making a couple casts, looking over your shoulder, and moving a little further if the bear keeps coming your way.
A problem is posed when you find yourself sandwiched between two bears coming from opposite directions on the same side of the river. On the last occasion that happened on a recent trip to the Brooks River, we had moved around the bend of the river to put distance between us and a mother brown bear and her two cubs. As we started fishing again just out of sight of the bear family, the guide spotted another bear coming around the bend of the river towards us. We weren’t of a mind to get out of the river and move away from the approaching bear through the tall grass adjourning the river since that was the direction we had last seen the mother and cubs. The last thing we wanted to do was surprise them in the weeds. So the guide suggested Swankee and I, along with him, huddle together as far out into the river as we could safely wade. The heavy current made our footing precarious as the gravel and stones shifted under our feet.
“This will make us look bigger to the bear.” I caught a hint of nervousness in the guide’s voice as we huddled together.
Even with the three us basically arm and arm in the middle of the river, we were no match in size to the grizzly. It was huge. And it was on a mission. As the bear neared, I reached for my iPhone and took a video of it passing within 30 feet of us, heading along the bank toward the mother and cubs.
“If that bear reaches the mother and cubs all hell is going to break loose,” the guide commented.
As the beast disappeared around the corner, I banked my iPhone back in my pocket and we moved out of the swift current and down the river in the opposite direction of the bear. We continued fishing, but within 10 minutes the same big bear came swimming down the river in the heavy current on the opposite side, snorkeling with its head under the surface looking for salmon to snag as it floated by. We respected its space and backed out of the river as the bear passed, not far from where we had been huddled together when the bear lumbered by us the first time.
We didn’t realize that our encounter could be viewed from the platform at the mouth of the river. When we finished fishing that day we were approached by a couple bear watchers inquiring about the bear that had charged us in the river. At first we didn’t understand what they were talking about. Then we figured out that from their vantage point it looked like the big bear that had passed us while we were huddled in the middle of the river had stopped at least once while it approached us to lurch at a salmon without success before proceeding up the stream. Makes for a good story that we were “charged” by a 1,000 pound grizzly, but that would have been too much of a fish story even for me.
After the number of salmon on the Brooks River begins fading, the bears follow the buffet line to the Margot River, a much smaller stream a few miles up the coast on Naknek Lake. Its darker waters flow in the shadow of an imposing mountain and is about as remote as you can get. The only access is again by boat or float plane. On our last trip to Margot, from a distance approaching by boat we spotted two wolves at the mouth of the river, partaking in the river’s bounty. Our guides commented that seeing wolves, especially in mid-morning, was extremely rare. As we beached the boat on a sand bar, a third wolf peered out of the tall grass on the beach in front of us, no more than a 100 feet away—an even rarer encounter.
I suppose we should have been concerned about a pack of wolves in the vicinity as we disembarked and waded towards the rocky shore. However, we were eager to again fish the Margot, one of our favorite rivers in Alaska. Besides, what are a few wolves when we’re surrounded by bears to protect us? And it must have worked because we never saw any wolves for the rest of the day.
Although the current is swift, at normal flows the Margot provides more opportunities to crisscross to access deeper channels along the outside banks as it cambers through the dense underbrush. Rest assured that each channel will hold more than a few aggressive Rainbows and Arctic Char measuring anywhere from 16 to 22 inches. Trees as Michiganders know them are pretty much nonexistent. Instead, what amounts to large shrubs serve to shroud the river and make traveling up and down it pretty much limited to wading the stream, which is advisable in any event. Although rudimentary paths parallel the river, the chances of surprising a grizzly, or worse yet a grizzly surprising you, are much greater out of the water. And bears galore there are. The smaller nature of Margot concentrates the bears much more so than the Brooks, especially at its mouth, where much of the best fishing can be found. A couple of our closest encounters with grizzlies have occurred on the Margot, both because neither we nor the bears were paying close enough attention. Although we give bears the right-of-way, they are oftentimes so focused on chasing and pouncing on salmon that before we know it we have found ourselves within rock throwing distance of a feeding bear. Or should I say water throwing distance. On one occasion a bear showed up unexpectedly directly behind us from a side channel. We didn’t see it and it didn’t see us until it was close enough that our guide rather calmly kicked water at the bear. The bear looked at us, realized where it was as we stood motionless, and decided to turn around and head back up the channel. Although the guides have assured us they have bear spray, we’ve never once witnessed them draw their guns, or sprayers I mean. Just as well, since it’s probably not a good idea to piss off a grizzly by squirting it with pepper.
Another unique feature of the Margot River that oftentimes makes the travel films are the bears that swim in the lake at the mouth of the river. Dead and dying salmon are washed out into the lake by the stream and it’s easy pickings for bears that don’t want to expend energy chasing trout. They can simply dive below the surface and pick up a salmon carcass. The sight of a bear head bobbing above the surface just off the beach is something you will remember for a long time.
It was these unique bear features of the Brooks and Margot Rivers that got us a couple extra trips. Usually the outfitter at Naknek River Camp
schedules each group for a single trip to each river. When we returned from one of our trips, we showed a group that was scheduled to go there the next day the “great” photos of bears we had taken
during our close encounters. That was enough for them to say they really didn’t like the idea of going there, despite our rave reviews about the fishing. Of course, we volunteered to take their place
and they readily agreed. They might have played it safe, but we enjoyed some great scenery and fantastic fishing, and got to hobnob with the local inhabitants; bears.
May 16, 2016
Building the Gold Antron Caddis is probably the simplest of all the ties in this book. Although for the sake of clarity I’ve broken it down into five easy to follow steps, really only three fly tying operations are necessary.
STEP 1. Begin your brown thread wrap at the front of the hook. No need to form a thread base anywhere other than on roughly the front third of the hook near the eye. Tie in the gold Antron poly yarn. You can also use gold Antron dubbing, which is available. I like the poly because it absorbs less water and floats better than dubbing. However, dubbing will give the body a little bushier look, imitating legs of a caddis to an extent. The original Gold Antron Caddis from the North Branch River had a dubbed body. If using dubbing, you do want to have a thread base the entire length of the hook and you would start the dubbing from the back of the fly rather than the front.
Joe Swantek was caught a little off guard when Al Woody and I asked him if he was game to get up early the next morning after a night of Hex fishing to chase carp in Grand Traverse Bay. He’d brought his trout gear and flies, but hadn’t anticipated more heavyweight fishing. But when’s the last time you heard Swanky turn down a fishing opportunity?
Al and I had been on a dry run in the west arm of the bay the day before looking for carp. Dry in the sense we saw few carp and had even fewer opportunities to cast to them.
But we had been trolling around the bay at a most inopportune time, the middle of the day on a bright, sunny day. That made spotting cruising fish easy, which is exactly why we didn’t see very many of them. They are sagacious enough to not be in shallow water when they are more vulnerable.
The urge to spawn though is a strong. Like teenagers at a drive-in theatre (you have to be old enough to remember those), they’ll risk getting caught to satiate their appetite for lovin. The morning is when they’ll more readily roam into the shallow water and reed beds; the males chasing a fecund female.
So despite a late night of fishing for Hex, we decided to impede the desires of the carp to seed in the reeds in the hope they might feed. It was already late in the season for finding carp frolicking in the shallows, being almost mid-July. But like the Hex this season, everything was late. Steady rains and cold nights had delayed the call of nature.
The three of us cast off from Bower’s Harbor in my 17½ foot Princecraft ski/bass boat and successfully fired up the 115-horse Evinrude after a few coughs and sputters. The weather conditions were perfect. There was barely a breeze, making for only a ripple on the water. The sun peeked over the tree tops producing a slight glare that Polaroid sunglasses helped neutralize.
Our first stop on the flats at the tip of the harbor was not encouraging. Al and Joe were much more familiar with the spot than I was, having used a fishing guide to track down carp there previously. Standing on the bow of the boat operating the trolling motor, we quietly cruised over the rock strewn bottom in two to four feet of water. But there was nothing to be seen. Dark shadows on the bottom turned out to be ghosts of large boulders.
We fired up the motor and made a dash across the bay to Tower Island, which is a quiet wilderness reserve, where Al and I had been a couple days before. Typically, the carp will be found on the flats of the windward side, taking advantage of the warmer water being blown towards land. But where we had seen a few fish the day before, there was vacant water now.
Our optimism was fading as we trolled around the northern point of the island and cruised through deeper water tinted green, blue, and beige with rocks silhouetting the sandy bottom. It was then we spotted the first dark shadows that actually coasted along the bottom. They weren’t particularly shy of the trolling motor in the six to eight feet of water, but getting a fly down to them proved difficult.
The more we trolled, the more fish we spotted, and the longer we trolled, the closer to shore the carp began to swim. Sometimes it was only a single fish, other times a pair, once in a while a pod of four to six fish. We cast to a number of fish, using a Killer Crayfish pattern that sported orange spotted rubber legs and bronze barbell eyes. Often though, if we were able to cast 40 feet, the fish would make sure to cruise 50 feet away.
We dropped Al off on the shore of the island to pursue the fish in the shallows and reeds where they were occasionally making a commotion sowing their wild oats. Swanky and I stuck to chasing fish in deeper water, although we were no more successful than Al in convincing love-struck carp to slow down and take a look at our flies.
That is until Swanky, using my 7 weight steelhead rod, with a nice Orvis reel, and a Killer Crayfish from my fishing vest tied to the leader, was alerted to a carp that seemed to actually be poking around the bottom not far from the boat.
“Swanky, there’s a fish checking out my fly. See him? Keep your fly in the water.” The words were no sooner out of my mouth than the fish stuck it nose up at my fly, swam over to Swanky’s, and inhaled it. Swanky set the hook and away the carp went, stripping line off his reel as it made a beeline for downtown Traverse City.
I stepped on the trolling motor, trying my best not to throw myself overboard as I stood on the bow, and gave chase. The carp zigged and we zagged in pursuit. The carp dove into deeper water and Swanky strained to pull him to the surface.
After about a 10-minute spirited fight, the five pound bronze, broad carp called it a day and rolled to the surface. I slipped the landing net under him, took a couple photos, and allowed him and Swanky to catch their breaths before releasing the carp (not Swanky) back into the water.
“Nice job, Swanky, you get credit for reeling in the fish that I saw, pointed out to you, chased, and loaned you my rod, reel, and fly to catch!”
"Thanks, Barker. I think I'll drink one of your beers now too."
Although the weather was sunny and the temperature hovered in the mid-50s for Opening Day
of the trout season in Michigan, the water was still chilled. It barely reached the upper 40s on the Manistee River below the CR 612 bridge.
The result was predictable. In fact, it could be called the weekend of the vanishing fish. Even though there were sporadic hatches of Hendricksons, Black Stoneflies, and Blue-wing Olives, there were no fish to be found.
The water level was only a tad high and ran rather clear. Even though the bugs surfed and danced on the surface after the mid-day warm up on both Saturday and Sunday, not a single trout raised its nose to intercept them.
The Vanguard Trout Fishing Team, consisting of Joe Swantek, John Sabina, Al Woody, James Singer, and myself were skunked even though we relentlessly tossed everything in our vest at them. Fishing every conceivable type of nymph and streamer underwater seemed like the best way of tempting a fish. But it didn’t seem that even hand grenades would have worked.
The clarity of the water allowed for easy viewing of some of the favorite holes and trout hiding places, but in each case no one was home.
Some in the group attributed it to the Common Merganser that has nested in the tree across the river for the past couple years. But last year’s fishing hadn’t been affected by the bird setting up
shop and it seemed unlikely that one bird could clean out an entire half-mile of river.
No, the trout were there some-where. They were simply hunkered down under logs and overhanging banks, waiting for warming weather to stir their cold blood. Overnight temperatures still dove into the low 20s at night, negating any warming effect the sun had during the day. The last of the snow had just melted on Friday.
Despite, the lack the fish, there was still plenty of good food, cold beer, and lively conversation at the Barker cabin. Many world problems were solved.
As part of my continuing expansion of flies available on the Vanguard Fly Tying website and at future shows, check out my version of the Mercer's Beadhead PMD (Pale Morning Dun). The original pattern, created by Umpqua fly designer Mike Mercer, comes from a recent fishing trip to Wyoming and Colorado. What makes this pattern unique is the CDC (Cul De Canard, French for duck bottom) "gills" protruding from the side of the fly just behind the thorax.
CDC naturally traps air bubbles, which on the duck adds insulation and buoyancy, but on the fly is meant to add life-like qualities of a real mayfly nymph. Adding to the fly's effectiveness is the wing case made of synthetic Thin Skin patterned after Florican Bustard. Thin Skin provides a shiny, translucence to the wing case covering the thorax. The fly is weighted not only by a brass bead, but by lead wire which anchors the bead in place. Dark tan dubbing, gold ribbing, and partridge feathers round out the materials on the fly.
This is the promised follow up to my post on fishing in Alaska for giant Rainbows. If you've already read the Summer edition of Trout Times, you'll recognize this as a reprint.
With the plentiful supply of salmon runs throughout the summer in Alaska, the most common form of fly fishing for trout is with egg imitations. Almost exclusively that means fishing with plastic beads of various sizes and colors to match the particular salmon spawn taking place. The use of glow bug yarn to imitate salmon eggs is almost unheard of in Alaska.
Slowly, the use of plastic beads for fishing steelhead and trout in Michigan is catching on, and for good reason. They are highly effective. Bead sizes run from 6 mm to imitate Sockeye eggs to 10 mm to resemble King Salmon spawn. The colors of beads run the gambit from pale pink to brighter reds and tangerine. These colors can also be shaded or clouded to make them appear fertilized. It is not uncommon for guides and fishermen to use different colors of fingernail polish to achieve this effect.
Beads are typically attached to 5 to 8 pound fluorocarbon tippets (2x to 4x) with a toothpick through their pre-drilled holes and then trimmed. Although bare hooks can be used below the bead in most streams in Alaska, on other streams, such as the Brooks River in Katmai National Park, the use of bare hooks is prohibited. That requirement can be satisfied by attaching a tiny piece of material to the hook, or better yet, simply use a #10 or #12 soft hackle fly below the bead. On the Brooks River, trout sometimes are as eager to grab the soft hackle as the egg. Michigan also prohibits the use of a bare hook trailing a bead egg. In Alaska, the hook can be no further away from the bead than two inches. As a practical matter, putting the hook much closer to the bead lessens the likelihood that a trout will take the imitation and more than two inches makes getting a hook up more difficult.
Hookups occur when a trout picks up the bead as it floats down the river. Some takes are rather subtle while others can be quite violent. Upon a take, a firm set is required to pull the bead out of the trout’s mouth and set the hook, usually on the outside of the trout’s jaw. This method eliminates deeper hook sets inside a trout’s mouth and no doubt reduces mortality rates for the catch-and-release fisherman, which is the norm in Alaska.
The amount of weight added above the bead/hook combination varies on the speed and depth of the water. On some occasions a single large size split shot attached 18” or so directly to the leader can be all that is necessary to keep the bead bouncing on the bottom, which is essential. On other occasions in deeper water with fast currents a slinky containing 3-4 split shots can be effective. The rig can be fished with or without a strike indicator based on one’s preference.
On the Naknek River in Alaska, it’s not uncommon to drift from boats in 10-20 feet of water dragging beads down the river. Called boondoggling in Alaska, the method has similarities to the chuck and duck method in Michigan, and dredging with nymphs in Western rivers. If the rig can’t be felt ticking regularly on the bottom you either don’t have enough weight on the line or haven’t fed out enough line. Using this method, floating fly lines can be used as well as sink tip or even shooting lines. Fly rods from 5 weights to 8 weights work fine.
Don’t wait for a trip to Alaska to give fishing with beads a try on your next steelhead/trout excursion during a salmon run on your favorite stream.
In Alaska, salmon is king, but in King Salmon, Rainbow trout are treated as royalty. This September’s visit to Naknek River Camp by Joe Swantek and me was our second, while Larry and Jeff Walla joined us for their inaugural trip. There is little doubt they’d return in a heartbeat.
Naknek River Camp is operated four-months a year by Jim Johnson, the former owner of Johnson’s Pere Marquette Lodge in Baldwin. The Camp is on the banks of its namesake river, just down from where Naknek Lake empties in within the confines of Katmai National Park, one of the most remote national parks in the country. The Naknek is a big, brawling river with all the typical salmon runs, such as Silver, Sockeye, King, and Pinks. The smorgasbord of eggs left by the salmon as they migrate up the river is feasted on by the substantial population of Rainbows and Arctic Char. Anglers from across the country fly into the small airport at King Salmon from Anchorage to stay at the Camp, which by far is the most economical of the fishing lodges in Alaska. The cabins contain only the bare essentials with unadorned plywood floors and homemade 2 x 4 furniture. If you’re lucky you may get a cabin with both a bathroom and a shower, otherwise you’ll be share your bathing needs with others in the shower hut. Food is included as part of the weekly package and is tastefully prepared by Jim’s wife, Phyllis.
While I’m speaking of bare essentials, there are plenty of bears too. They frequent the banks of the river a respectful distance from the cabins, but are in close proximity to fishermen on the Brooks and Margot Rivers, which are prime destinations for guests at the Camp. Anyone who has seen photos of Alaska with a bear standing at a waterfall catching a salmon in its mouth is familiar with the Brooks River in Katmai National Park. Fishermen and bear observers who visit the park by boat or air are required to take a bear safety class before venturing past the ranger station and upon graduation are awarded a pin. While the rangers at Brooks keep a close eye on the bears and try to steer people away from within 50 yards of bears feeding on the ample supply of salmon in the river, on many occasions closer encounters are unavoidable for fishermen. Rightfully so, 1,000+ pound brown bears believe they have the right-of-way, which everyone is more than willing to cede. Brown bears are a larger form of grizzly because of their highly nutritional salmon diet.
Because many sections of the river cannot be safely crossed, fishermen sometimes find themselves huddled together in the middle of the river to make themselves look less vulnerable as bears approaching from both downstream and upstream squeeze them in-between like a fish sandwich. As everyone who has attended the bear class has been told, the worst thing that someone can do is turn their back on an approaching bear and make any fast movements or attempt to run. They can cover 30 feet in a second. The best course is to slowly back away out of the bear’s path while calmly talking to it. Something like “hey bear, how about not eating me? Larry over there would make a tasty morsel” seems to work just fine. It is not uncommon to see a bear “snorkeling” down the river, which amounts to swimming down the river in deeper sections with its head underwater looking for fish. Make sure not to try casting a fly line over them since even a heavy tippet won’t hold them.
On the Margot River, also in Katmai Park, encounters with bears can be at even closer range since the river is at least half the size of the Brooks with fewer people and no rangers to provide spotting. In both places, it is your fishing guide, provided every day by the Camp as part of their full-service package, that gives some sense of safety with their canisters of pepper spray that have rarely been used. Bear encounters add spice to fantastic fishing rewards on both rivers. On the Brooks River, 16-20 inch Rainbows are relatively common but are schooled at avoiding being caught in the crystal clear water because of heavy fishing pressure. Arctic Char on the Margot River outnumber Rainbows 5 to 1 and are far less selective and offer no less of a fight, especially in the fast, shallow water. It’s not uncommon to lose two fish for every one that is caught, but that still means 20+ fish days. several of which will exceed 20 inches.
It’s the boat ride over to Katmai National Park from the Camp that can be the most unpredictable and challenging. Some days it can be a smooth, flat ride on one of the six to eight passenger aluminum boats, while other days it can be a bone jarring and kidney pounding jaunt if the winds pick up. There is usually no way to accurately predict what will happen and what can start off as a smooth ride can turn ugly halfway across during the hour and a half trip, and visa-versa.
Far safer and less bear-filled fishing takes place on the Naknek River in front of and down from the Camp. September was chosen for our trip on the promise of big, hungry Rainbows during the height of the Sockeye spawn. It didn’t disappoint. Four trout approaching the 30 inch mark were landed by the group, two in one day in front of the Camp. Each day of fishing the Naknek resulted in at least a few Rainbows in the 20-25 inch range, with as many as 30-40 fish, including Dolly Varden and Grayling mixed in.
On all the rivers, the method of fishing during this time of year is with plastic beads of various colors to match the egg hatch. Rather remarkably, the color of the eggs can change from day to day and from hour to hour based on how long the eggs have been in the water. Finding the right matching bead can be a matter of trial and error. In the next few days I'll post something about fishing with beads.
It was not a fishing trip, but rather a wedding anniversary sojourn as part of our bucket list to visit all of the beautiful national parks we have yet to discover. But my wife was kind enough to let me dip a line momentarily a few times in its waters to give me a taste of fishing in Glacier National Park. It just so happens that my fishing buddies had already talked about making Glacier our destination for next year’s fishing adventure so the timing was perfect. I was able to do some reconnoitering of potential fishing rivers and lakes, talk to a couple fishermen and guides, and check out some suitable accommodations.
In a nutshell, I would give it a thumbs up, if for no other reason than the incredible scenery. The waters are clear and cold, with lots of big and small rivers, creeks, and lakes to choice from. However, in the Park, where no fishing license is required, which itself is good enough reason to go there, don’t expect big fish, which we are used to on our other trips out west or on our trip next week to Alaska. There is a reason the waters in Glacier are so transparent and sparkling. There are few nutrients to feed aquatic insects or vegetation, making some waters sterile and others a tough go for fish to find enough food. But despite many of the streams being fed by snow melt and dwindling glaciers, they have none of the chalky cloudiness this time of year found in Alaska or elsewhere.
That means where fish are present in a stream, they are eager to take any offering made available to them. But it also means the fish will usually be rather small, but they can be plentiful and potentially exotic. On the two streams I fished for about 15 minutes each (the clock was running as Monika looked on), I caught 6 to 10 Westslope Cutthroat trout. But the total length of all those fish was probably 32 inches. That means some were 3 inches long while the “lunkers” were 6 inches at best. But it was fish on the first cast each time.
The first stream, Snyder Creek, which tumbled and tripped over rocks and boulders into Lake McDonald on the west side of the Park at McDonald Lodge where we stayed, offered limited fishing opportunities beyond the Going-to-the-Sun Road crossing and the lodge property. The stream hid in a deep, heavily forested ravine until it was crossed two-miles up the trailhead from McDonald Lodge. At the footbridge crossing the stream only a couple pools were accessible before the creek disappeared again behind car-sized rocks and dense pines. But fishing one of those bathtub-sized pools gave me all the action I could handle in 15 minutes before we started our hike back down the mountain.
I should note it was a true hike, not merely a stroll in the park so to speak. Although one of the hiking guides had rated the two-mile trek as “easy,” it was not easy in comparison to any of the other easy trails that we hiked. It was almost a 1,000 foot elevation climb on a fairly consistent ascent along the rocky trail and heavy forest. A few stops were required in the walk that took us a little over an hour with a few moments here and there to catch our breath at this 3,000 to 4,000 foot elevation. However, a few glimpses down at McDonald Lake from the trail as evening descended made it all worthwhile even if there hadn’t been any fish in the equation.
Another footnote about McDonald Lodge: awesome. It was celebrating its 100-year anniversary during our stay. The mammoth fireplace in the center of the large log lodge attracted a crowd each evening trying to access the hotel’s rather slow and frustrating Wi-Fi, which was the only means of communication with the outside world other than a pay phone near the workers’ quarters across from the lodge. When is the last time you’ve used a pay phone? The rooms were small, sparse, and well-worn, but had been retrofitted so as to allow you take care of your morning business on the toilet, brush your teeth in the sink, and get a few dribbles from the shower without having to move more than a step or two. Of course, there is a significant cost to such luxury so most people stay only a night or two, but the tradeoff is beautiful scenery and its convenient location.
The views of mountains, canyons, and streams along the Going-to-the-Sun Road through the center of the Park are everything they are cracked up to be. Although road construction slowed down the day long journey, one would be remiss to make the trip too fast and not stop at most every scenic turnout. The trail to Avalanche Lake is a must see, and in fact most people do see it as evident by the heavy foot traffic along the two-mile hike. Although it is another hike rated as easy, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s level and even terrain. You are gaining altitude rather consistently, albeit not as drastic as our experience along Snyder Creek. If we are rather ambitious next year on our fishing trip we might consider hauling our float tubes with us because the lake itself is something to behold. The first glimpse of the lake from the trail is breathtaking. At least three steep waterfalls drop off the mountainside on the far end and trickle into the rather significant lake. The lake is jammed with logs on the near side as Avalanche Creek exits the lake and cascades down canyons and waterfalls making much of it unfishable. Sandy shallows along the rocky shoreline quickly drop off into deep blue waters, which reputedly hold some bigger cutthroat, although that will have to remain to be seen since the fly rod didn’t make this trip. Walking the half-mile to the creek mouths flowing into the far end of the lake provided a great place to sit on a log and have a snack while enjoying the view.
There are several opportunities to stop along the very photogenic McDonald Creek as it careens down the canyon toward Lake McDonald along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The creek is misnamed in the sense that it is anything but a creek. It is a true river by anyone’s definition with few, if any, places to traverse that I could see, and lots of fast, white water, and slippery rocks. Although my guidebook for fishing in the Park didn’t give very encouraging reviews for the quality of the fishing along this stretch, as we stopped for another snack after returning from Avalanche Lake I noticed fish scurrying between the blue, green, and red rocks on the stream bottom. Another 15-20 minutes of hastily rigged fishing, again using a small rubber-legged, Green Wulff attractor pattern, yielded a Westslope Cutthroat almost each minute in the 3-6 inch range. Nothing big, but fun nonetheless as they nudged, tickled, and jumped over the fly until they finally made the mistake of giving it a taste.
The third abbreviated fishing opportunity was on Howe Lake on the west side of the Park, far off the beaten track. A five-mile, stone-strewn, winding, two-track road along mountain ridges tested our all-wheel drive rented Subaru Outback. It passed the test, although fortunately we passed no other vehicles along the way since the road was barely big enough for one vehicle. The lack of any other vehicles was not particularly reassuring as we found ourselves truly in the wilderness with nothing but our bear bells and a sign at the trailhead warning us that we were in grizzly country, which is true of just about anywhere in the Park. As we embarked on the two-mile trek during a light, misting rain, I grabbed an improvised walking stick that someone had left leaning against the sign for the next bold adventurer. I was hopeful that it might provide a little added bear protection, which is rather optimistic since at best it was only big enough to tickle its underarms. The trail is easy in the sense there is little elevation climb, but unnerving because the path, being only lightly used, nearly disappears in the thick underbrush and young trees that have taken the opportunity to grow in this mostly burnt over section of the Park. This is the very type of terrain where it is all too easy to surprise a bear in the thickets since you can’t see them and they can’t see you. All the more reason to bounce the bells on my backpack with each step and jump over fallen, charred trees. Loud conversations, whistling, and chants of “stay away bear, bear, bear,” apparently paid off because we didn’t see any on our journey, or any other animals for that matter. But apparently we also scared away the fish because a few casts from the shoreline where we could gain access to the first of the two small, loon occupied lakes yielded nothing.
Trekking through the even thicker underbrush along the side of the lakes in trying to reach the supposedly more fishy upper section was even more unnerving and risky and was finally halted by watery bogs across the trail; a factor not alluded to in the guide book. There was no direct access to the lake from the trail that seemed to fade further and further away from its shoreline, which is itself boggy and overgrown with Lilli pads close to shore. A float tube would seem to be the only solution to reach its more open parts if one is willing to bushwhack across fallen timber and overgrown flatlands descending to the lake. The question is whether the cutthroats are big enough to make the effort worthwhile. With all the easier opportunities that abound in the Park, it’s unlikely I’ll answer that question next year on our fishing trip.
I’ve resigned myself to the reality that the Hexes are done for the year. On the upper Manistee River, it’s probably more accurate to say they never really happened. At least not for me. On only one warm night in mid-July the Hexes could be seen falling into the water in front of our cabin with the hum of their wings noticeable in the darkness as they made their way upstream. I was certain it was the start of a something good. What I wait for in anticipation each year. Everything else from Opening Day of the regular trout season is just a warm-up. An appetizer for this main course. But on this one night, the Hexes were here and gone all too quickly. A few fish fed, but it was not anything close to a feeding frenzy. Within a half hour everything was quiet and steam from my breath announced the end to an evening of fishing.
But I was optimistic that this was only the beginning. The week before I had been fishing a few miles downstream, just above the Logger’s Landing access site, when I had encountered a heavy spinner fall of Hexes. Droves of Hexes could be seen flying overhead well before dark and started falling shortly thereafter, earlier than I would have otherwise expected. I was somewhat surprised by both the lack of fishermen and feeding trout. For all the bugs performing their last dance on the water, there seemed to be neither man nor fish to witness it as they shook and shimmed. The few fish that were feeding didn’t impress me as being very big, as verified by a couple 8-9 inchers that fell for a Madam Hex. I reasoned that maybe when it became darker the big boys would come out to play, but as the light continued to fade my usually reliable spot behind the expansive mud flat remained an empty dance floor.
I started moving downstream when the sound of a bigger fish repeatedly dunking Hexes under the surface became apparent. This fish was certainly worthy, so I passed a couple smaller feeding fish. It quickly became apparent that this fish was going to take some coaxing. The Madam Hex passed over the fish’s head over and over again without any reaction. I tried to time the floating fly with the trout’s feeding rhythm, but it didn’t seem to make a difference. The light was still good enough that I could see the trout was taking naturals off the surfaces within inches from the white parachute post of my Madam Hex, sometimes causing a wake for my fly to ride. Normally, the solution is to change flies. The extended foam body and natural looking wings of the CDC Spinner floated enticingly over the fish. It certainly looked real enough to eat, but not for this guy. After about 10 minutes of repeated casts along the bank where the fish took up for its feeding station, I switched to the B-52 Hex. Its larger silhouette and hackle wings offered a bigger meal to a hungry trout when it became darker, which this trout evidently was since it maintained a regular feeding rhythm. Still nothing. This was really getting to be a challenge. There were no other fish of apparent significance feeding so this was the only game in town. What next. I switched back to the Madam Hex with its tried-and-true rubber legs dangling below the parachute hackle.
I was determined to keep tossing to this fish until it shut down for the night, which I was afraid was going to happen all too soon as the rises became less frequent. Shining my light on the water only an occasional Hex could be seen still floating downstream. I may have missed my window of opportunity, but I kept on casting even though it was now too dark to see my fly. I could only guess where it might be by timing the drift based on how far upstream I had cast my fly. Once I hooked a log lying just upstream from the trout’s holding place and thought that was the end of it, but it pulled free with a firm tuck. I got lucky. I reeled in a little line and kept casting. And then it happened, the sixth sense kicked it. Without seeing the fly or knowing if the trout had risen to it, I had the feeling that indeed the big fish had inhaled the fly when I heard a distinct slurp. A stern jerk of the rod tip confirmed it. Fish on, and it indeed was a big one. A run by the trout upstream, a release of some fly line from my free hand, and the fish took up most of the slack. The fish was fighting the drag on the reel as it turned and headed downstream. I cradled the fly line of my left index finger wanting to feel the strength of the fish. After a few more minutes of fighting the fish in the pitch darkness, I could tell I had played the fish almost to the point of my leader reaching the rod tip. I turned on the headlamp to confirm my hopes. A nice 18-inch Brown, its eyes reflecting the lamp light and its orange spots aglow on its golden flanks. I netted the fish and easily slipped the hook out of the fish’s toothy jaw. Snapping a couple pictures with my iPhone, I slide the fish out my net and let it rest in the shallow water along the bank.
This is what one expects during the Hex hatch. And not just once or twice. It becomes addictive. More Hexes, more big fish feeding and succumbing to temptation. But it wasn’t to be. The next night on the same stretch of water there were more fishermen than Hexes or fish despite what seemed to be ideal conditions. The weather cooled and it rained the following day, which made leaving for home less disappointing. I was sure things would pick up where they left off when I returned the following week with the warmer weather forecast. If only it had. Despite the tease of a few Hexes that night the following week in front of the cabin, there would be no more Hexes the entire week I fished even though pleasant evenings were interspersed with some cooler ones. Where had the Hexes gone? Were they upstream? Had they passed by the cabin so quickly without me knowing? I was determined to wait them out at the cabin if need be, but now it is August and despite warm days and evenings, the realization has set in that another Hex season is over. Now I cast over small rings of feeding fish with a size 18 parachute to imitate little mahogany colored flies lying prostrate on the water. A few little Brookies and an occasional small Brown oblige. After dark I long for the sounds of a big slurping fish, but it doesn’t happen. After the feeding has stopped I can’t resist the urge to put on a Madam Hex even though there are no Hexes to be found. A couple modest fish long for the Hexes as much as I do and slap at the fly, inadvertently hooking themselves. It’s clear that I must break the spell of the Hex and move on to terrestrials during the heat of the day or tiny Tricos in the morning. But it won’t be the same. I might get lucky and catch a few nice fish, but there will be no lunkers. It distresses me to think it will be another year of anticipation for Michigan’s greatest hatch with the hope that it will be a memorable one. I am haunted by Hexes.