Have Fly Rod, Will Time Travel

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.

6 Tips for Planning a Memorable Fly Fishing Trip

Many of us do not live within an hour of pristine trout waters. Steve and I live in the Chicago suburbs, and while the Driftless in southwestern Wisconsin and the streams of Michigan are in striking distance, we can’t simply hop in the truck for an afternoon of fly fishing and be back an hour after dark. We need to plan our trips and make the most of our time away from our families.

With some simple preparation and forethought, you can create a memorable fly fishing trip. Here are just six tips to make 2016 your best fly fishing year ever:

    1. Try some new waters.

    Steve and I often feel pressure to make the most of every moment on a trip. We often think “We have only a few days. We don’t want to waste an afternoon or evening trying something that is a long shot.”

    Last summer, we took an afternoon off from fishing our standbys (the Yellowstone in the Park, for example) and fished Fan Creek, which is also in Yellowstone National Park. We had heard of it before but had never took the time to fish it. This time we did.

    For the most part, it was a bust, if you measure success purely by the number you catch. I caught a couple smaller West Slope cutthroats (12 to 13 inches), but that was about it.

    Would we do it again? Absolutely. The stream was gorgeous, and we could have fished for days, jumping from run to run and losing ourselves in the back country of Yellowstone Park.

    We now have another place to go at another time. We will be back.

    2. Avoid the Two Worst Seasons.

    If you are fishing in the American West, and fishing the freestone rivers, you’ll want to keep in mind two seasons to avoid: Blown Out Season and the Tourist Season.

    The Blown Out Season runs from late April to July (or earlier or later). This is when the rivers swell and bloat from all the snow melt. You won’t want to risk the trip, unless you like worm fishing.

    Tourist Season runs from late July into the third week of August, some of the best days for hoppers. Steve and I often take a trip in mid August to the Bozeman, MT, area – we love floating the big bugs. But we never fish the Gallatin in July or early August. It is always elbow to elbow with fly fishers, all decked out with their latest gear and $1,000 fly rods purchased for the two or three days in Montana. And often the Lower Madison is too low (as well as packed with folks on float tubes, a whole ‘nuther kind of late summer “hatch”).

    3. Fish the Spawning Season.

    You’ll need to be extra careful catching and releasing the fish, but two great times in the West are spring rainbows before the rivers blow out and the big browns in October. There are no tourists, and hotel rates tend to be a bit less.

    4. Stay Long Enough for a Banner Day.

    Through the years, Steve and I have generally fished for three or four days at a shot. That’s a long time to be away from family, and since my wife and I hover over four kids, the trip puts stress on the family system.

    But we often find that one out of the three or four days ends up being a banner day – a 15 (or more) fish day. The other two or three days tend to be more typical – three or four, if that.

    5. Hire a Guide for One of the Days.

    Just budget it for it – and do it. You’ll improve your skills, perhaps discover new water, and look back at the day as one of the highlights of the trip.

    6. Build Flexibility into Your Plan.

    There’s is nothing like a best laid fly fishing plan that goes sideways with the weather. Especially if you are fishing in early spring or mid to late fall. If the river colors overnight or a foot of snow makes your 2-mile hike impossible or the wind gusts make all kind of casts an Olympic feat – you’ll want options.

    Several years ago, after a dump of overnight snow, Steve and I spent much of the next day hitting the coffee shops and restaurants, waiting for a break in the weather. We should have had another option – maybe a river 50 or more miles away, outside of the snow zone. Maybe have two options for each day on the trip.

There are a thousand other ideas for planning for a memorable fly fishing trip. What are yours?