Wishing Tree: Flyfishing Michigan’s Au Sable River

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The final time I drove between the spires of jack pines that line the highway to Wa Wa Sum, I had simply turned 20 and was working summers for the Michigan Division of Pure Sources. It was a dream job for a fisherman, residing on the river in a tent, constructing logjams, stump covers, islands, and financial institution riprap to enhance habitat for trout within the Au Sable River. This was the stretch often called the Holy Water, the primary ­flyfishing-only trout stream within the nation. It was a tea-​­coloured present over a backside of sand that was a clean spot on the map into the early 19th century, and for the reason that days of my childhood had been extra of a church to me than any constructed of stone.

The footpath wound upriver by means of a cedar swamp the place night time had staked its declare, and within the beam of my headlamp the roots bulked out of the bottom. I remembered my dad telling me that the roots had been the arms of giants banished to the swamp, who lived underneath the bottom and had been attempting to climb out of the muck so they might hunt at night time. I requested what they had been looking and he mentioned little boys who tripped on them. If he was attempting to scare me, he succeeded. Greater than 5 a long time had handed since I’d first adopted the glow of my father’s pipe alongside this path, and I nonetheless whistled in an try and idiot a coronary heart that was beating quicker than it needed to.

My father was a locomotive engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad, whose personal dad had little interest in the outside, and who had come to fishing by means of the writing of Ray Bergman and Al McClane within the pages of Discipline & Stream. Each summer time, our household made the drive from Ohio to Michigan to pitch a tent on the Au ­Sable. There we’d keep for a month or extra, occasionally buying and selling our campsite for one on one other river if the mayfly hatch was peaking there, however by no means for various days and at all times coming again. One among my earliest reminiscences, definitely essentially the most indelible, was made right here.

Simply down the hill from the campground, which was a discipline of grass studded with pines and purple oaks, the river ran in opposition to a financial institution that was braced in opposition to erosion by a log riprap. The riprap was mossy and rotted, held along with tenpenny nails that had turn into uncovered because the log sections shrank, and at some point after I was four or 5 I crawled out onto it on palms and knees. Peering down between the logs, I noticed a child trout hovering over the underside the place an underwater spring made the sand spurt like a miniature geyser. I introduced my face right down to see by means of the floor reflection, and the trout and I stared at one another. It had parr markings and its fins had been so clear that solely their stirring registered. The trout was there, then gone. It needed to be my secret as a result of the riprap was harmful and strictly out of bounds.

Style one thing scrumptious, be instructed that it’s forbidden, and also you journey the set off of obsession. The subsequent summer time I’d dangle a Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear on a size of chief tied round my finger between the logs of that riprap and catch my first squirming trout. After I was slightly taller, I’d comply with my father sporting too-big waders that accordioned round my legs.

The time would come when who was holding whose hand throughout the deep half modified. I’d add my very own phrases to these of Dad’s literary heroes. I’d fish all over the world. It was like driving on a magic broom, with the fly rod as my broom. An arc of life. All of it had began right here.

Following the path, I discovered myself on the water’s edge a half mile up the river. Wa Wa Sum, the previous fishing lodge that lent its title to this stretch of the Au ­Sable, means “plain view” within the Ojibwa language. When Chief Shoppenagon christened it within the early 1900s, the encompassing countryside had been logged of its sentinel white pines, creating huge vistas. However the nation had grown again in black spruce and mushy maples, jack pines and white cedars. Now the world was lowered to a slot of sky, the river a sequence of hourglasses necked down by cedar sweepers that reached towards each other from the alternative banks. In locations the guidelines of the branches had been practically shaking palms. Witches’ fingers, my dad had known as them. It was heart-in-your-throat wading, even in daytime. After I stepped into the river, all however one whip-poor-will had quieted for the night time.

I tugged up my waders and crossed, the river rising inside a few inches of the wader tops. I might have chosen much less intimidating water, the shallows of Dogtown on the South Department or the light flows beneath Chase Bridge. However it was Wa Wa Sum that known as to me. I’d caught my largest trout right here, a brown of 22 inches. In reality, in the event you went up or down a number of miles in both course, so much had occurred right here. First massive trout, first beer, first beer too many, first kiss, first massasauga rattlesnake. Different firsts.

The rattlesnake I’d admired because it warmed itself on the shoulder of a highway. Apprehensive that somebody would run it over, I pinned its head and carried it right into a discipline to launch it. As I carried it, its mouth was open, venom dripping from the erect fangs, and its tail buzzed like a hornet within the palm of my left hand. Trying again, I’m fairly positive that snake was the least harmful of the temptations I’d first succumb to on the Au Sable River.

Reaching the far financial institution, I turned my again to the present and switched on my headlamp. The mouse fly had regarded mischievous after I tied it to the chief; now it solely regarded ridiculous, with its muskrat-strip tail and beady eyes. However I left it on.

Fly choice was voodoo after I started fishing this river. My father’s workingman’s fingers had been so blunt they made a multitude of fur and feathers; the flies he tied regarded like an electroshock experiment. I quickly took over the vise and by 7 had turn into the designated fly-tier for the campground. Most afternoons would see me tying at a card desk unfolded underneath an oak tree fisherman named Bic, who ran an Arthur Murray dance studio in Lansing, known as the Wishing Tree. I’d take orders and hook the completed flies into the bark of the tree to let the pinnacle cement dry. A fly that produced trout would discover a everlasting house on the tree if the angler was keen to half with it. Over time dozens of flies had taken a place of honor, from big Michigan mayfly imitations to lime inexperienced inchworms. Moreover a number of corroded hooks, there was by no means any hint of them left by the next summer time.

Dad’s contribution was a easy bucktail with a physique striped purple and white like a barber pole, typically with the addition of a band of inexperienced. Jerry Derring fished a black woolly worm with a purple tail. When he returned it to the tree, all the fabric had been chewed off however the physique. Mason Bradley was a hillbilly from West Virginia who had seven daughters and a weary-looking spouse—no marvel. He’d caught a trout with an undistinguished rodent in its stomach and refused to eat it, leaving his portion for the women to share; he needed me to tie a fly that regarded like a vole. The size of the tail was too lengthy and I reduce it shorter, 1 / 4 inch at a time, till he nodded. One other angler we merely known as the German had discovered feathers within the abdomen of a brown trout he’d caught on a run named the Citadel, the place the muse of an previous spoil stood on the financial institution of the South Department. He requested me for a child grouse, which I tied by lashing feathers to a wine cork. He wore spectacles and drank martinis that he combined in a mason jar. I can bear in mind my father speaking quietly to him, the lads off to themselves, and puzzled in the event that they had been speaking concerning the conflict. A lot of the males who fished out of the campground had been veterans of World Warfare II or the Korean Warfare. They had been islands to themselves, informal pals who struck off in numerous instructions to fish, every distinctive by his gait and the way in which his flashlight shone. They’d seen issues to concern. They weren’t afraid of a river at the hours of darkness.

I dragged the hook level of the mouse fly throughout my thumbnail to check for sharpness and switched the sunshine off. It took some time to dial in to casting by the texture of the rod loading and the sawing sound of the road. However I labored again into the rhythm and with the half-hearted effort the moon was placing out, I might see slightly. Nonetheless, the fishing was a hope and a prayer. The Au Sable was not a river to surrender its secrets and techniques with out lots of asking. I’d fished all night time lengthy many nights with out a fish. I hadn’t come 1,500 miles for the fishing, anyway.

Why had I, then?

The quick reply was I’d been dreaming about coming again for years. The ghosts of my previous had been right here within the timber alongside the river. I’d chase them as I sought the solutions to questions that had been no much less related for sounding prosaic and mawkish. Are you able to go house once more? Or will there be nothing however an echoing hollowness behind partitions of previous canvas, a rustic modified, a river singing in minor key? Boats in opposition to the present, as Scott Fitzgerald wrote.

A kind of ghosts of an earlier life was Invoice Buc. A former Navy fighter pilot, Invoice had spearheaded the habitat restoration program and employed me throughout the summers of my faculty years. I hadn’t seen Invoice in 40 years, however he had gotten in contact, promising that if I ever got here again to Michigan, he would float me down the river in a basic Au Sable River boat. We’d drift previous the Masterpiece, the title Invoice had given a construction I’d inbuilt 1974. I’d been given a free hand and constructed an island, sodded it, and planted timber. Invoice thought there was a good likelihood it was nonetheless there. The Au Sable, fed by hundreds of seepage springs, is without doubt one of the most steady rivers on the earth.

Fighter pilots age higher than most of us. Invoice was effectively up in his 80s however he had these clear sharp pilot’s eyes, and his face was tanned and wholesome wanting underneath his white hair. His good friend Steve Sendek, who had constructed the elegant stealth craft along with his sons, took the pole, and we floated by means of the guts of the Holy Water. The habitat undertaking had taken form as a result of the summer time canoe site visitors banged on the cedar sweepers that supplied cowl for the trout. However it was the primary of October now, the maples all gone up in flame, and ours was the one boat on the river.

I flopped a marabou right here and there, going by means of the motions. Any individual needed to sit on the bow and do the laborious work. To my shock, a number of brook trout took challenge with the fly’s intrusion. They had been courageous, however small. Between casts, Invoice and I reminisced concerning the river crews I’d labored on, the tough younger males who took seasonal work the place they might discover it, the extra bold piecing collectively a school training, a course right here and a course there, others working simply sufficient to gather unemployment over the winter. Jack-pine savages, they known as themselves, a clan during which I used to be an honorary member. John Hirvela, Bruce Milnes, Joe Kuck, Huge Dave Myer, Johnny Hale, Doug Surprise, Dino McNeal. Quick pals who’d shared the river and the again roads with me throughout one of the best summers a younger man might ever have, the form of summers that folks simply pray their children get by means of alive. All however Dave had been misplaced now to distance and time.

Then we turned a bend and there was my island. I used to be ready for it to look smaller than the reminiscence, however it was massive, simply 60 toes lengthy, treed over in tag alders with a lonely tamarack on the downstream finish. I remembered planting the tree, or the tree that had supplied the seed for the one which grew as we speak, largely as a result of it was the place I had kissed a lady who’d possessed the ability to vary the way in which the river sounded, simply because the island had completed after I’d constructed it, however with none want for hammer and nail.

On the time I met her, Vicki was residing on the Au Sable along with her mom, who was Chippewa, her father, who’d discovered work as an itinerant carpenter in close by Grayling, and her bothersome little brother, who appeared to at all times be underfoot and actually was, for they had been all crammed collectively in a truck camper. Vicki’s father was a person of few phrases, most of these expended to tease her mercilessly about her infatuation with Johnny Mathis, whose ballads of romantic love, performed on a battery-operated cassette participant, supplied Vicki her solely escape from the confines of her life.

Just a few days after the household pulled into the campground, Vicki’s mom approached my hearth. She struck up a dialog and I instructed her about my work on the river. She mentioned to attend proper there whereas she bought her daughter. They had been camped far away, with a display of timber between, and I might hear Vicki’s voice pleading “Please don’t make me,” and her mom telling her I used to be a school boy. She got here into sight dragging Vicki by the hand. Vicki checked out her tennis sneakers.

“I’ll go away you two younger individuals to get acquainted,” her mom mentioned.

What this has to do with the Au Sable being the lodestone to which I’ve returned, fishing by means of my fears within the deep water at Wa Wa Sum—all I can say is that a few of the wonders a river can disclose to you don’t have anything to do with water. Earlier than Vicki’s mom walked as much as my hearth, I used to be going to go fishing. My rod was rigged, leaning in opposition to a tree the place my waders hung from a nail. I took one take a look at the younger girl standing within the firelight, along with her excessive cheekbones dusted with freckles and her hair down previous her waist, and I didn’t go fishing for the remainder of the summer time.

Time is a highwayman, a thief who robs you of some reminiscences whereas leaving others. I can bear in mind Vicki’s eyes as a result of they had been dreamer’s eyes and all her hopes and sorrows had been in them, and I keep in mind that her lengthy hair was at all times damp as a result of she washed it every day with a bucket of water she toted up from the river. I can bear in mind kissing her underneath the Wishing Tree. I can bear in mind “Probabilities Are,” “Misty,” “It’s Not for Me to Say” enjoying on her scratchy cassette participant. However I can’t bear in mind how our personal track ended that summer time, and why I didn’t do extra to remain in contact. I used to be older and had one other life a thousand miles away, I assume, met somebody there who was extra refined and fewer memorable.

After the idyll of that August, I’d see Vicki solely as soon as once more, after I was in graduate faculty on the College of Michigan. I tracked her right down to the place the household was residing in a trailer park and stunned her with tickets to a Johnny Mathis live performance. It was an outside venue—girls with country-club tans wore breezy summer time clothes, their males in brass-button blazers. A white-wine-and-sailboats world that neither Vicki nor I had ever recognized.

For 2 hours that night she squeezed my hand and touched at tears that tracked down her cheeks with a tissue I bought from a lady sitting subsequent to us. By the point Mathis sang “Maria,” his encore, it had turn into a mushy night time with stars overhead. Vicki’s eyes lifted from Mathis and had been in these stars, after which they got here again to him, and I believe it will need to have appeared that he was singing for her alone. We drove the hour or so again to the trailer park in full silence. I believed I’d mentioned one thing fallacious, however she shook her head no. She was just so moved that she was unable to talk. After I tried to get in contact not lengthy after, the supervisor of the trailer park mentioned the household had pushed away within the night time. He thought they is perhaps headed for Arizona. In that case, I by no means discovered her.

So perhaps you may’t return. The river could also be as the attention remembers it, however those that sang its chorus have floated downstream by means of time. That’s the place a river goes. You had been in it collectively for some time, then you definately weren’t. Hearken to a present too lengthy and what you hear are the notes it’s lacking.

“Do you bear in mind it?” Invoice requested.

“Sure, I bear in mind.”


The strike jerked me out of my reverie. The trout walloped on the floor, then bored deep. The road thrummed with the burden and I knew it was the one I’d come for.

“I bought one, Dad,” I mentioned aloud, “I bought fish.” He would have pulled at his pipe, a cherry winking within the night time. He would have introduced out his much-mended teardrop web to face beside me. I’d have been enveloped within the odor of the pipe tobacco and the 6-12 he’d rubbed on his face to maintain the mosquitoes at bay. “It’s an enormous feesh, Kam,” he’d say in his Appalachian accent. “Convey it in cautious.”

I wish to say that his ghost was with me, however it wasn’t. It was simply me, a father myself now, and a pulling on my arm and no web. The trout got here thumping up, silvered the water, and bored again down. When it drained, I flipped the swap of my headlamp and noticed it, the trout refracting in bends of colours and shapes by means of the smoke of the present. I wasn’t seeing one trout a lot as a sequence of trout turning into one because it drew nearer to the floor.

I jammed the rod underneath my arm and cupped my hand beneath the fish’s stomach, not lifting it from the water. I attempted to maintain it calm whereas I fingered the digicam from a pocket of my vest. I bought the digicam, fumbled it, and the trout twisted in my grip, and I reached for it because the digicam fell into the river. I moved my head round, the sunshine dancing wildly. The digicam was gone. The trout was gone. I’ll give myself this a lot credit score: I didn’t swear and I wasn’t going to surrender on a water-proof point-and-shoot with out a combat. I broke the rod down and lashed the mouse fly to the tip part and fished with it round my toes till the hook caught on the digicam strap.

However that was the night time, so far as the catching went. The clouds that had been driving the moon settled right down to brood and it was as black an evening as I had ever recognized. My casting went to hell, after which two boar raccoons began combating within the swamp. I had heard coons combat earlier than, and in the event you didn’t know what was causing all these bloodcurdling sounds, you’d swear it was bears. It was an extended wade right down to the highway finish the place I’d left the automobile, however frankly, I used to be extra comfy within the water, as fathomless because it was, than within the nightmare of the swamp with the raccoons and the arms of the giants my father had warned me about. Already the night time was turning into a narrative. Within the telling the trout would develop from 18 to 20 inches.


The campground the place my journey started all these years in the past isn’t any extra. It isn’t gone however moved again into the soulless jack pines, so removed from the river that the present is each unseen and unheard. Invoice had instructed me that each one the riverside camps had been relocated, and I used to be ready for it. On the morning I needed to go away, I parked on the river and walked onto the grassy flat studded with oak timber. Our tents used to make yellow patches of grass, however it was like a stupendous glen now, uneroded by human presence, and I walked round, searching for my initials that I’d carved right into a fence put up with my first penknife, conjuring all of the ghosts who’d left their footprints within the morning dews.

The riprap was amazingly little modified from after I was a toddler. Mossy previous log ends, protruding nails, water the colour of Darjeeling tea. I made a idiot of myself balancing on it and practically falling in, introduced my face right down to the cracks the place the spring nonetheless spurted little eruptions of sand from the underside. However there have been no trout in proof. Maybe a toddler’s eyes had been wanted to see them.

I’d purchased a garden chair at a storage sale and unfolded it on the financial institution the place I might watch the water. It’s good to have locations to fish the place a river’s forex is counted by the flashing cash of its trout, the place size and weight could be assigned a denomination. However what a couple of river whose worth can’t be calculated by arithmetic? In the event you catch 100 ’ value of trout in a single river, and one other yields however a number of coppers, which is of the higher worth?

Thomas Wolfe was proper: You may’t go house once more, not within the sense of repeating the previous. That river has gone to sea. However then, after I consider the Au Sable, it’s the house of the guts to which I return. I don’t have to shut my eyes to listen to my mom’s and father’s voices after I wake from a nap on the again bench seat of the automobile. I do know we’ve pushed all night time and we’re within the North now. I can odor the pines and really feel the cool morning breeze out the automobile window. Then we’re turning down the sandy highway, and I can hardly breathe. For the river is there, and I’m out the door and working towards it, and the sound of it grows and flows by means of me. And with a number of extra steps I don’t must go house, as a result of I’m already there.

I would depart the chair for another person to take a seat and marvel. The mouse fly was in my pocket, and I buried the hook into the bark of the Wishing Tree.


The sixth novel in Keith McCafferty’s Sean Stranahan thriller sequence, Chilly Hearted River, will likely be printed on July four. A part of it takes place on the Au Sable River.

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