Ladyfisher
Outdoor Writers Association of America
Northwest Outdoor Writers Association
This Week's View

by Deanna Birkholm

The Ladyfisher

June 8th, 1998

Fish Story


This really is a fish story, and a big fish story at that. And I have the pictures to prove it. It all happened a long time ago - but it could have happened yesterday! The fish are still there.

Back somewhere after the wagontrains, and slightly before the cyberspace generations, the fish population in the Great Lakes was ziltch. Opening of the St. Lawrence seaway introduced sea lamprey to the great waters and deciminated the fish populations. Once the sea lamprey problem was solved, (no small task) another problem popped up.

Anglers in the Northeast know the fish . . . called an Alewife. But they had never been seen in the Great Lakes. The other fish species gone, alewive populations exploded. To the point that following big storms, alewifes were stacked up on the shores in drifts several feet deep. And they rotted and stunk. A very nice business grew out of the need to bulldoze or otherwise dispose of the mess.

So, at some point, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources brought in a fish expert to do something. His name was Dr. Martin Tanner. And he took command. He persuaded a group on the Columbia River to sell Michigan salmon eggs. Michigan began planting Pacific salmon in the Great Lakes. It was a long haul, and while the details are interesting, I'll save that for another time.

Four years later, I'm on my dad's 24 foot boat off Frankfort, on Lake Michigan, headed for the mouth of the Platte River where some of the eggs had been planted. There are boats everywhere. This is Coho Fever!

People and boats are lined up though the nights at the local boat launchs. Up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline the story is the same. After years of no fish, the truth is out! The "Run is On!" In some towns the beer supply was gone. The supply of plugs and lures for salmon was gone. Although one enterprising sports shop would RENT you a lure by the hour. Yo Ho Coho!

Anything that floated was on the water. Duck boats, rubber life rafts, canoes - hey this is big water! Yachts, and row boats, and everything in between . . . anything that floated! A big storm did hit a week or two later, and several died. Even though the Coast Guard ordered boats to get off the water, they didn't leave. There might be a fish to be caught. Pure madness.

So here I am on dad's boat. With my old Heddon Black Beauty fly rod. And a few blue and white polar bear streamers. Fishing off a down-rigger, about 20 feet down. Coho, (silver salmon) are porpoising all around. By today's standards, pretty crude.

Here is the rest of the story. My dad had been a commercial fisherman, with trap nets in the Great Lakes. Over the years he became acquainted with a lot of fishers, boaters, and a couple of the big boys in the Department of Natural Resources (Michigan's name for Fish and Game Department.) Two of the head honchos were on the boat with us. Along with another friend who dad had fished with over the years.

I'm getting a lecture from the DNR guys about how salmon don't take a fly, how you can't catch them with anything while they are porpoising, as I reel off flyline. Plain old SA double taper as I recall.

The guys get their plugs and lures into the water. And bang, fish on. Mine! On the flyrod. I had never caught a salmon in my life. There was no backing on my crummy reel. It was a 6 weight rod. Oopps. But I managed to land the fish. After one heck of a battle, seemed like more, but must have been at least 20 minutes, and that's with dad backing up the boat to keep me within fighting range. Hey the guys on the big sports shows on Saturday mornings don't have anything more exciting that this. What a thrill!

Well, I've got a nice fish onboard. The big honchos don't. But it obviously must have been some kind of a fluke. Then I hit another one. This is late August, the weather is blue-sky butterfly day. As the day wears on it is getting pretty warm. The big guys are getting thirsty. But the boat rule is you can't have an adult beverage unless you have caught a fish. And, captain's rules, only one then. Tongues are hanging out. I don't care to have anything other than some pop . . . heck, I'm catching fish! Eventually the captain gives in, and allows the guys to "mortgage" a drink against their probable catch. And I've got another fish on.

Dad is trying to manipulate a 24 -foot Carver to keep me and the fish connected, while avoiding other boats, and guys trying to drag the bottom with trolling gear in hopes of snagging something, crossing over whomevers lines.. People are yelling, and swearing. Shaking their fists. And a few hollering over, "what 'ya gitt 'em on?"

Finally it was downright embarassing. Here the big guys are, fishless. I've caught four. On flies. And oh gosh, in a very small voice, "Fish On." The total that lovely, grand day was six Coho. The so-called experts are right there, explaining until even they knew it was fruitless, "Salmon don't take a fly." Ya right!

Yes, they really are Coho's!
So why did it work? Any fly fisher worth his salt knows match the fly to what the fish eat. Could it possibly be these salmon, who were huge from gorging themselves on alewives might take a fly that looked like an alewife? Of course it makes sense. But some 30 years ago it was not the accepted practice on the Great Lakes. At least not until that day.

What is fly fishing all about? Maybe it is thinking for yourself. Making your own decisions, and judgement calls. Maybe the "accepted" fly for whatever fish is not the best. Maybe all the "known" stuff can be improved on in some way. As I recall Zonker Strips were not exactly an accepted thing either.

It is as much about the adventure as it is about the fish. If you have an idea, a brainstorm, go for it. Whether it works perfectly the first time or not, it is all part of the adventure. Don't take all of the "expert" advice so seriously.

It's your adventure. Enjoy it!

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