Pere Marquette River

I can only use superlatives when speaking of the Pere Marquette. Its cool, spring-fed waters soak up every drop of ground water percolating through bogs and second-growth hardwood foresting, creating a smooth flowing river that abounds with life. The current is ever-present yet gentle enough to caress a wading angler or glide a canoeist to his or her distination. Debris: small branches, vegetation and the aquatic biological drift of nymphs and fish eggs, spin and turn against a background of fine glacial sand. Watching the river bottom is very tranquil - nature's hypnotism at work. [See map, click here.]

LadyFisher and winner from P.M.
To the fly fisher the Pere Marquette, or P.M. as it is locally known, is a world class trout and salmon river. It can provide the ultimate sporting challenge and enjoyment. Whether you're matching minutiae with delicate size 4 Tricos to selective August trout; fishing early summer big bugs like gray drakes and Hexeganias to night feeding lunker browns, or chasing wild steelhead and Chinook salmon in the 30 pound range, the Pere Marquette has something for everyone. Many anglers are called to this river each year. But few allow this gentle lady to reveal herself. She gives patiently and selectively to those willing to learn her ways and pay their dues to understand her.

The watershed was inhabited as early as 10,000 B.C. Paleo Indians wandered north in search of game fish, wild fruit and vegetables. . . Around 1000 A.D., the Great Lakes Indian population was dominated by the Ottawa, Ojjbwan (Chippewa) and Pottawatomi . . . these Indians named Lake Michigan after their word for "great water" - Kitchigami.

In the spirit of manifest destiny, the French government assigned Louis Jolliet to explore the Great Lakes and head waters of the Mississippi. Jesuit missionaries provided spiritaul bonding with Indian tribes and established settlements. It was during this westward migration the Father Jacques Marquette joined Jolliet and began to work his magic with the natives. He was a very kind, knowledgable and charismatic man . . . The indian natives of this area who were immensely dedicated to him and loved him dearly named the river, "The River of the Black Robe," after the Jesuit garment that he wore.

Early P.M. Stocking

Aside from the beneficial impact that Jacques and Marquette had on the entire area, perhaps no other man influenced the river as indirectly as Fred Mather. As an angler, fish culturist, and U.S. delegate to the 1880 International Fisheries Exposition in Berlin, he met Baron Von Behr, President of the German Fishing Society. After taking Mather to fish for Black Forest brown trout, Mather was amazed by their cunning tenacity and beauty. Von Behr promised to send Mather some eggs. In February of 1883, a batch of eggs arrived in New York where they were divided between the New York State hatcheries in Cold Spring, Caledonia and the U.S. Fish Commissions's hatchery at Northville, Michigan. The U.S. Fish commission hoping to restore raped watersheds [from timbering] were eager to embark on a new and prosperous era. New hatched fry were transported to the Pere Marquette in 1884, thus giving it the honor of the first brown trout stocking in the United States. The fish adapted to the slowly healing watershed and the rest is history.

Dean of the P.M. the late Zimmie Nolph By the early 1920s, the river had become a haven for corporate Midwest businessmen in pursuit of trout. The Pere Marquette Railroad established access to the river and soon many prestigious fishing clubs emerged, similar to the Catskills. With fishermen came guides who quickly took advantage of the 25 fish creel limits and hammered the river. Yet the bounty of fish increased with the return of the second growth forest. Early P.M. guide boats were about 15 feet long and steered by poles made of ash or maple. Weathly corporate clients used Garrison bamboo rods and custom tied flies in search of sassy and selective wild browns. The Pere Marquette was back - healthy, beautiful and full of trout.

The Tributaries

It is to the Wisconsin glaciation and other glacial upheavals that occured over the past 130 million years, that the Pere Marquette watershed spreading over 494,000 acres and 762 square miles owes its primordail character and origins . . . Deep glacial sands dominate the entire geography and nourish every drop of water and assure the P.M. watershed a consistent flow of cool, clear water. Each springtime, when the woods are still barren and the snows have long melted, I revel in driving the backroads near the Little South Branch, Middle Branch and Baldwin Rivers to see springs and tiny rivulets gushing forth next to roadside ditches, peoples' backyards and flowing from marl swamps and bogs. Watercress and other alkaline loving plants flourish in these springs along with the seasons's first wildflowers and mushrooms. These tiny veins and capilaries form complex networks that make the P.M. watershed a diverse and great trout and salmon rookery. Fry, fingerlings and smolts abound in nursery waters flowing over fine gravel. The dense forest provides downed trees and stumps (known as sweepers) that harbor excellent native populations of three species of trout. For the small stream fly rodder, the tributaries of the P.M. can take a lifetime to explore. From wet fishing for wild brook trout, grasshopper action for plump browns, or battling large migrating steelhead and salmon in close and challenging quarters, the tributaries provide peace and solitude for the exploring angler. Even the locals know suprising little about the abundance and diversity that these waters possess. [Tributaries include: The Little South Branch, The Middle Branch, The Baldwin River, and The Big South Branch.]

The Steelhead

P.M. Steelhead
Natural dynasties rarely are induced, the story of the wild Pere Marquette steelhead is an exception to the rule. Few would have thought that a small planting of 25,000 McCloud River, California strain fingerlings in 1883 on the Little South Branch would signal the start of a world-class steelhead fishery. But the renaissance of the West Coast steelhead plantings throughout Michigan's Great Lakes between 1880 and 1893 including Klamath and other West Coast strains which fused genetically with each other, found the cool, gravely waters of the P.M. to their liking. The river was poised to create an empire for the migrating rainbow.

P.M. Steelhead

By 1914 runs of steelhead were so thick on the Pere Marquette that laws were being considered to allow for spearing or netting. As a result of modern sport fishing technology benefiting charter captians and stream fly fishers, angling pressure and the stress it puts on a watershed have kept the annual run in a state of balance, with both good and bad years running in a cyclical fashion. P.M. steelhead are here to stay. Leo Mroziski, District Biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resorces says, "the runs are in excellent shape. Good spawning gravel and holding water are found in the entire watershed including the tributaries. With the lack of dams and obstacles to movement, steelhead trickle up every inch of the Pere Marquette system."

Wild Chinook

Author with wild chinook

Last fall while wading the P.M. with its grand display of radiant fall foliage as my backdrop, I hooked 10 to 15 Chinook, [King Salmon], some over 20 pounds, each day. Landing them was another matter. Fresh in the river, they aggressively took my flies and provided me with crashing leaps and freight-train runs, pummeling my shoulders, back and knees. These fish had the tenacity and muscle of a fresh Atlantic salmon or steelhead. As far as this fly angler is concerned, Michigan never had it so good. Wild Chinook are here to stay on the P.M.


The aquatic and terrestrial insect life of the Pere Marquette is astonishingly rich and diverse. Perhaps second only to the AuSable River near Graying [Michigan] in terms of insect numbers and diversity, the P.M. can easily be labeled one of the finest hatch-matching rivers in the country. From its ice-cold tributaries with aquatic vegetation and gravelly riffles it provides ideal habitat for free swimming and clinging mayflies and stonefilies. The main rivers diverse structure of pool, riffle and silt-ridden eddies provide excellent habitat for the above mentioned species in addition to caddis and the large burrowing drakes like the Hexgenia and Siphlonurus . . .

Though Pere Marquette trout are usually very opportunistic feeders, having to brave bitterly cold winters and the onslaught of migrating salmon and steelhead, the dense hatching period can find them selective about imitation and presentation. There are times during the gray drake and Isonychia hatches when there are a ridiculous amount of insects on the water - blanketing every square inch.

P.M. Winter

On warm winters day in January and February tiny winter black stoneflies (Allocapnia and Nemouridae) hatch during sunny afternoon periods.

It is the early black stone (Taeniopteryx) that makes it's heaviest impack on the trout and steelhead in March and April. The early brown or olive stone (Brachyptera), medium brown stone (Periodidae), and little yellow and green stone (Alloperia) are intermittently scattered from April through October. . . The Pere Marquette is notorious for complex hatches. Close inspection is required especially with stonefly and caddis hatching.

The giant Pteronarcys dorsata, or Midwest salmonfly averaging about size 2 to 6, stir up a lot of feeding commotion when they hatch during evening and early morning hours of May through early July.

The first mayfly of prominence to emerge in spring is the Hendrickson (Ephemerella subvaria). The hatch is very predictable on the P.M. with the afternoon period from noon to three showing the greatest emergence of these pinkish-gray flies from late April through May. Hatching simultaneously with the Hendricksons are blue-winged olives (Baetis vegans) and slate-winged mahoganys (Paraleptophebia adoptiva) .

The marl-bogged and tea-colored Pere Marquette, with its sluggish silted eddies and tributaries produce some of the most amazing black quill (Leptophlebia cupida) hatches in the country.

Perhaps the most spectacular and unique hatch of the Pere Marquette is the emergence of the gray drakes Siphlonurus quebencensis, rapidus and alternatus.) Beginning about the third week in May and lasting until mid June, spinners blanket the entire system at dusk, creating black clouds above the riffles.. .the brown drake (Ephemera simulans) has a brief but important hatch period near the middle to late June. . .

Though the sulphurs Ephemerella dorothea and lighter stenonemas) are pleasant hatches to fish, they tend to be unpredictable from year to year. Memorial Day weekend to the middle of June will see the greatest numbers.

P.M. Hex Fly The lower P.M. has excellent, if not unpredictable hatches of the giant Michigan mayfly Hexagenia limbata. This fabled hatch that stirs up visions of 10 pound browns slashing at giant patterns in the wee hours of the night . . . usually starts around the second week in June and can go well into July.

Night fishing on the P.M.

Late summer fishing is a hodgepodge of minutae and terrestrials with reliable nightly caddis hatches. The Trico hatch is very heavy on the P.M. and often overlooked by anglers chasing summer steelhead. Terrestrials such as grasshoppers . . . crickets, ants and beetles are abundant and relished by summer trout. Since the P.M. usually has water temperatures comfortable for daytime trout activity even during the hottest summers, terrestrials are playing a more important role on this classic hatch-matching river.

Pere Marquette River

When not hatch-matching, P.M. anglers hammer the under-cut banks, log jams and deep pools with "chuck-and-duck" streamers . . .and any other large uglies that spell food or agression to lunker brown, salmon or steelhead. Using lead-head patterns or sink-tips, it's important to fish close to bank structure to smack the big one.

The choice is yours on the Pere Marquette. It offers the anglers delicate dry fly fishing or "chuck-and-duck' bombardiering. The P.M. allows our fly fishing personality to develop and demands that we know our bugs. She's a tough river for those who take her lightly. Her tea-colored waters flow bitter-sweet - giving and punishing. ~ Matthew A. Supinski

For a MAP of The Pere Marquette River, click here.
For the FLIES for The Pere Marquette River, click here.
To ORDER The Pere Marquette River direct from the publisher, click HERE.

Credits: From Pere Marquette part of the River Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission. Photos of the LadyFisher and Castwell from FAOL file photos.

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