Much has been written about how to fly fish, how to tie flies, what equipment to purchase, how to cast a fly; fish with nymphs, identify the bugs, ad infinitum. Writers wax eloquent over this fly or that rod; they describe how they caught the big one with a blow by blow account of the battle, and they make us salivate with eye popping pictures. However, at the end of the day, when the rods are cased, the waders are hung to dry, and the anglers are kicked back on the porch digesting their evening meal its less about the gear or even the fish, it's really about the memories of the time and the place that remain.
I remember when I was a boy growing up on my parent's dairy farm in upstate New York that the biggest event each month was when the hunting and fishing magazines showed up on the magazine rack of the local grocery story. This was the early 50's and writers like Joe Brooks, Ted Trueblood, A.J McClane, Tom McNally, Erwin Bauer, Norm Strung, and Corey Ford filled the pages of the outdoor sporting magazines with stories about places that a New York farm boy. Many of these stories were the "Joe and me went fishing/hunting/camping, etc." type stories that were short on details but long on entertainment value. They were stories that were more about places, people and camaraderie among good friends.
I have been blessed with an abundance of memories. Like most individuals that have been blessed with a goodly number of years the memories are a mixture of bitter and sweet, but I don't regret having experienced any of them.
There's a small brook that still runs through my memory; a brook that ran through a meadow on my parents dairy farm in upstate New York when I was a child. Over the years I'm certain that my picture of that brook and the experiences that I had there have become somewhat distorted but I still remember the bejeweled brook trout that resided under the undercut banks and how much fun I had trying to fool them with a wiggly red worm that I had dug out of the manure pile behind the barn. For me, those were idyllic days without any concern about tomorrow, days unfettered with the cares of the world.
Time drew me and my family away from that dairy farm to an urban residence in Michigan. The brook was gone but it was replaced by a plethora of lakes that dot the countryside of southern-lower Michigan, and, in time, I discovered the trout streams that are found further north. Early on this was a time of sassy bluegills, black and white crappies, large mouthed bass hiding beneath the lily pads, yellow perch, and the occasional northern pike that lunged out of hiding to attack my minnow that I hoped a crappie would find appetizing. Those were lazy days floating around in an aluminum rowboat casting live minnows with an old bait casting rig equipped with a level wind reel that required a talented thumb to keep it from developing a world-class backlash. All eyes were fixed on the red and white bobber as it floated on the tranquil surface of one of the many lakes that I frequented during those days. There was one lake, more of a big pond really, where my friends and I spent many summer days chasing fish and many fall and early winter days hiding in the cattails that lined the shoreline hoping that ducks would drop into our decoys. This piece of water was surrounded by a swamp and we had to drag our boat for several hundred yards to get it to the edge of the water. Despite the fact that this piece of water was less than 35 miles from downtown Detroit, when we were on the water we could have been in the middle of a vast wilderness. Over the years that I fished that place I never saw another angler or hunter. I don't recall all the fish that I caught there or the ducks that I shot, but I still have a vivid memory of all the great times I had there.
When I discovered fly fishing and trout streams I had come full circle from my boyhood home in New York. Michigan's Au Sable River was a long way from that brook that ran through the meadow but the things that I learned while trying to fool brook trout with a worm easily translated to my earliest attempts to catch the brown trout that I discovered on the Au Sable. The memories from those bygone days are some of my most treasured possessions.
For several years, along with my wife, our daughter and one of my older brothers, we camped along the South Branch at Canoe Harbor and at Keystone Landing on the main stream. It was early on, while camping at Canoe Harbor, that I first became acquainted with Jim Birkholm, the late JC of FAOL fame. This period of my life is filled with memories of special places that now exist only in my memory. I lived in the northern suburbs of Detroit, 200+ miles south of the Au Sable, and my weekly routine from late April until mid-September was to hit the road as soon as I got off work on Friday and drive non-stop to the Au Sable for a weekend of fishing. When I think back about how fast I drove in those days, on a good day I could make the trip in 3 hours, I know that God loves and watches over fools.
There was a long deep run on the South Branch that you could only reach by driving down a long sandy two-track road that was barely discernible among the jack pines. Over the years that I fished there I never encountered another angler unless they were with our party. On one memorable night during the famous Hex hatch I landed 5 noteworthy brown trout in less than an hour on a new Orvis bamboo fly rod.
Then there's Green Cabin Pool on the main stream. It was here, sitting on a big log waiting for the evening rise to start, that the late JC and I cemented our friendship and put into motion events that ultimately took us both far from Michigan and our beloved Au Sable River. We were part of an amazing cast of characters that plied the waters of the Au Sable, characters that, on occasion, still fill my dreams.
These are but a few of the places that are interwoven into the fabric of my life. Each one, in its own way, has contributed to the person that I am today. While much of the modern world of fly fishing is obsessed with the latest must have piece of fly fishing paraphernalia, the latest fly pattern, or the most exotic destination, when the final assessment is made it's really about the experience, the people, and the memories.