I fly fish for one reason: to catch fish. Of course, I love the opportunity to be outdoors and experience nature. But I could accomplish that without fly fishing. I could simply hike or camp or take up outdoor photography.
I fly fish because I love the thrill of catching trout.
However, this does not mean that I’m unappreciative of the side benefits that come with fly fishing. One of them is the opportunity to do some time travel. Yes, the fly rod in your hand also serves as a time machine, transporting you to some places in the past.
Brookies on the Au Sable
Recently, my son, Luke, and I drove to Grayling, Michigan, to fish for trout on the Au Sable River. We spent a day on the North Branch of the Au Sable and caught our share of brookies.
What stands out to me most, though, was the opportunity to drift the river in an Au Sauble River boat. These beauties look and feel much different than the drift boats from which I’ve fished the Yellowstone and Madison Rivers in Montana. They typically run 23- or 24-feet long and only two-and-a-half feet wide, resembling the shape of a dugout canoe.
The Au Sable River boat has been used on the Au Sable and Manistee Rivers in northern Michigan since the early 1870s. Lumber companies used this flat-bottomed craft to move tools and supplies to their logging camps. Loggers used them to maneuver between the logs as they floated down the rivers and to separate the inevitable log jams.
In the early 1880s, someone got the idea to modify the design a bit to use this craft for fishing.
Drifting the North Branch of the Au Sable with my son, Luke (pictured above to the left), and our guide, Justin, took me back in time to the days when the Grayling thrived in these rivers and the camp cooks used these boats to shuttle staples to their camps to feed hungry lumberjacks.
Fly Rod under the Trestle
I had a similar feeling of nostalgia last summer when I fished 16 Mile Creek in the north reaches of Montana’s Gallatin Valley. I caught a couple of nice browns under a railroad trestle on an old railroad grade used by the Ringling Brothers. Every off-season, they used to ship their circus equipment to their ranch.
More recently, a scene from A River Runs Through It was filmed on the same trestle—the scene where Jessie Burns drives wide-eyed Norman Maclean onto the tracks, over the trestle, and into a tunnel. What struck me was how this remote mountain valley had remained untouched and undeveloped. There were no power lines, roads, or highway sounds to remind me that I was fishing in the twenty-first century.
More than a decade ago, I remember the chill I felt when fishing the East Gallatin River about a mile from my where my house. I had read enough of Lewis and Clark’s journals to know that Captain William Clark and his Indian guide, Sacagawea, walked somewhere nearby the spot where I fished as they traveled east from the Three Forks of the Missouri to meet up with the Yellowstone River.
More recently, local resident Jim Doig was killed when thrown from his saddle horse in a pasture adjacent to the stretch of the East Gallatin I fished. His nephew, Ivan, tells the story in his memoir, This House of Sky.
Something stirs me about the history that swirls around the places I fish. To be sure, it cannot make up for a lack of catching fish. But when the fish are sipping my flies off the surface, the historical dimension of the waters I fly fish enriches my experience.
So what happened a hundred years ago in and around the rivers you are fly fishing?
Knowing the history may not make a bad day on the river good. But it is sure to make a good day even more meaningful.