October 23rd, 2006

Going Back in Time
By James Castwell


When I first got into fly-fishing I was fascinated with the mystery of everything about it. All was new and exciting. The gear, the lore of it all and the fish that were available within a short drive. A few years passed and I started to realize that the rivers and fish I was enjoying were not as good as they had once been. By that I mean, the streams were not as wild and natural. They had been repaired and fixed up by well intentioned folks, much like myself at the time, but they were not as pristine as I thought they may have once been.

There were signs of, well camouflaged, but nonetheless evident, stream repair. Rip-wrap on some fast water bends on rivers. Big logs, holding water things, held in place by new posts driven into the stream-bed and other such works of man. These were good things though. Good for the stream and the fish. Good for me too, as it gave a home to the fish I sought.

It wasn't that something was missing. It was more a longing and tugging at me. I wondered about how 'things' had really been 'way back then,' when ever 'way back then' was.

I read as much as I could fairly easily find on the background of what had become my favorite place, the Au Sable river in Michigan. This system was a collection of three streams really, the North, the South and the Main branches. The whole river system had been very important 'way back' in the logging days of Michigan. Hard to believe, but most every tree in the whole state was cut and floated down one of the convenient rivers. Floated down to some place on the edge of the Great Lakes to be harvested from there.

The Au Sable was one of the roadways of the logging industry. The town of Grayling was a central point of the industry. And that industry killed every last fish that they named the town after, the fish named Grayling. Funny thing, that is. To name a town after a fish that is so thick in the river that the town is built on it and then kill off the fish. But, that was 'way back then.' So I wonder, how it was really back then. What did I miss. Did I miss anything?

Along the river there are cedar trees, which as they grow, have their roots washed out by spring floods and eventually the trees lean in the direction of the river, often even falling into it. Sweepers they were named. I was never quite sure why they were called exactly that, make up your own thoughts on it, you're probably as right as anyone else. One thing though, when they lean or fall, they do hold back waters, and those big root masses are great for the remaining fish, the brookie and browns.

There were no sweepers 'way back then.' Oh, once sure, but sending rafts and rafts of logs down the river over the years tore everything out along the edges; it looked in some places like a canal. Did I miss anything there? Nope, those were the years when the lumber barons had a perfect and legal right to ram the wood down the stream, grinding up the bark to aquatic sawdust choking the fragile gills of the Grayling and dooming it to extinction on all waters so used. I might have liked to fish for the Grayling, but in a ravaged canal? No thank you.

But, how about before they lumbered it off? Now there you go. That might have been where I would have had a good time. But, the browns had not been introduced yet, there was no sewage dumping into the river from the town (Grayling) yet and no great abundance of stream vegetation growing to be homes for evolving insects. Nothing to choke the stream flow and keep the river bends slow enough to hold mud necessary for the big mayflies that live in the stuff to survive.

Sometimes I get confused as to which conditions I like and or want and which ones do exist and what might have been and when. Sometimes when I try to figure how it might have been, or must have been, or could have been I can't seem to get it right. Perhaps, just maybe, just maybe what I had back about fifty years ago may have been not so bad; might have been the best mixture of all of the parts.

When I fished there we had browns and brookies. We had mud and riffles and pools and runs and gravel and lots of bugs. Not too many folks were wading it. A few classic river boats floated it and some canoes, but nothing we couldn't work around. We managed to catch enough fish to keep us interested and ate a few back when it was allowed. We put most back anyhow. We caught mostly modest fish but a few big ones.

It was good, as I remember it and I tried to help it stay that way. We did clean-ups every time we went 'up north' as we called it. We joined organizations, even started a couple. Donated time and dollars to help the stream stay stable and the laws enforced. We even taught a judge to flyfish. The reason for that was obvious, I'm sure. It was not a good idea to 'worn dunk' in the 'Flies Only' section.

But, I still do it. I still picture a place of pristine forests with the beautiful river gently winding it's way through the sweepers, bubbling along, held in bounds by the stunted 'jack pines' as they are called, one of few, maybe the only one which grows with it's branches angling down. The area rich with delicate trailing arbutus and log-drumming ruffed grouse and thyme scented Grayling fish and the secretive Kirkland warblers. Was it really like that?

When I was in Quebec this past summer it was a little like that. The environmental foot-print of Man had not yet changed things much. The huge Atlantic salmon still do live in the rivers there. Brook trout grow to full size, for the most part unmolested except by natural forces. Normal predators like fish ducks, loons, herons, otters, mink, osprey. Just the natural way of control. The systematic selection of the fittest and fastest. All is in balance and I was there to see it. For the first time in my life I had a tine peek back into history; how it might have been, 'way back then'. I liked what I saw. It was indeed, very good. I highly recommend it. ~ JC

Till next week, remember . . .

Keepest Thynne Baakast Upeth

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