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Song of the South Branch

2009 June 18
by Jim Enger

Every Michigander knows that the lower half of his state is shaped like the back of a left-handed mitten. If you were to draw a line from the tip of the thumb on Lake Huron, straight west to the City of Ludington on Lake Michigan, you’d more or less divide the Lower Peninsula in half. You get the bottom half; I get the top half. Now take the index finger of your right hand and put it at the exact center of my part. If you missed the town of Grayling by more than half an inch I’ll buy you lunch. At any rate, your intruding finger is also smack in the middle of Michigan’s most famous trout country.

Named after Thymallus arcticus, the arctic grayling, the town sits astride the main branch of the Au Sable River. The river was once loaded with this lovely and too-easy-to-catch fish. They are long gone, thanks mainly to the logging boom of the late 1800’s, which stripped the banks of Michigan’s rivers, warming and fouling them. But overfishing didn’t help either. The grayling were caught literally by the barrelful and shipped off to commercial markets.

Flowers in the River

Flowers in the River

Now the river is full of trout: browns, brookies, and some rainbows. And Grayling is Michigan’s trout capital.

Never mind that Kalkaska, twenty-five miles to the west, hosts the annual Michigan Trout Festival. Although it has a statue of a giant brook trout – I would guess fifteen feet tall – in the center of town, it doesn’t have the equivalent of an Au Sable River in the center of town, or anywhere nearby for that matter. So, sorry Kalkaska, you’re a nice town and all, and I think it’s hilarious and wonderful that you put on the trout festival – and I love the towering brookie – but you’re not the epicenter of trout fishing in Michigan. Close, but not nearly close enough.

No, if you want to stand in the middle of Michigan’s true trout fishing capital, stand at the corner of M-72 and Main Street in downtown Grayling. You’re there. (And as long as you’re standing there, you might as well walk up the street to Spike’s for a cold one or three. The river flows right behind the bar.)

If you leave Grayling and head east on M-72, you’ll run parallel to the main branch of the Au Sable, just to the north. And in a matter of minutes you’ll begin passing access roads to the river, each of them holding special memories for generations of fly fishermen: Burton’s Landing, Louie’s Landing, Keystone, Thendara, Stephan Bridge, Wakely Bridge. It’s a stretch of the river rich in the history of trout angling.

Not long after you pass Wakeley Bridge Road, perhaps ten miles out of town, the highway drops slightly. Suddenly you find yourself, as though a curtain opened, on the lip of a broad, shallow valley, lush green hills rising in the distance. A few miles more, down in the valley, turn right on Canoe Harbor Road, a dirt road running off to the south. A mile or so down the road you’ll come around a bend and discover a large sign in the woods to the left. I wish I would have written the words on that sign:

SPORTSMAN, SLOW YOUR PACE…AHEAD LIES THE FABLED LAND OF THE SOUTH BRANCH. HERE GENERATIONS OF FISHERMEN HAVE CAST A FLY ON ONE OF THE GREAT TROUT STREAMS OF AMERICA. HUNTERS, TOO, HAVE ROAMED THESE HILLS IN THE SOLITUDE SO BOUNTIFULLY OFFERED. THE LAND IS RICH IN TRADITION AND STANDS READY TO RENEW YOUR SOUL. TREAD LIGHTLY AS YOU PASS AND LEAVE NO MARK. GO FORTH IN THE SPIRIT OF GEORGE W. MASON WHOSE GENEROUS GIFT HAS MADE THIS FOREVER POSSIBLE.

Deep In the wild area, high on a wooded bluff above the South Branch of the Au Sable, is a small chapel. It sits there in the forest, overlooking the river, on the east bank about midway between Chase Bridge and Smith Bridge. The river sparkles along for roughly twelve river miles between the two bridges. About five river miles below Smith Bridge it empties into the main branch of the Au Sable.

The little chapel is an unimposing thing, rough-hewn, open in the front. But there is something extraordinary about this structure, something unique, and that is this: In all those twelve miles of river, it is very nearly the only man-made structure on either bank. Upstream there is one large dock, a rest area for canoeists. Beyond that, near Chase Bridge, there is a cabin on the east bank. Downstream, at Smith Bridge, there are a few houses and cabins on the upstream side of the bridge. But essentially, here’s the better part of a trout stream – a great trout stream – that’s just four hours north of one of the biggest cities in the nation, and its banks are still wild. How can this be?

This modern-day trout stream miracle – and it is exactly that – is with us because of George Mason, the saint mentioned on the sign. Mason was an early Detroit industrialist and a passionate trout fisherman. The river of his passion was South Branch.

Trout in Hand

Trout in Hand

In the early 1900s a chap by the name of Downey, along with several others, had a hunting and fishing club on the west bank of the river (just downstream from the present-day chapel). Downey ended up owning most of the forty-acre tracts that fronted the river for miles in each direction. He died in 1921 and the property passed through several hands, but Mason, who was often at the Downey camp, eventually acquired the land. He gave it to the state – and to trout fishermen forever – upon his death. As a condition of his bequest, he directed that the land never be developed. He also requested that the state maintain the little chapel he had built up on that bluff over the river.

Those twelve miles of woods and water are named in his honor, The Mason Tract.

If you follow the dirt road south, past the sign, you’ll play tag with the river for many miles. Ten minutes or so past the sign and you’ll come to a wire fence, a turn-in, and a big meadow sweeping down to the river. About halfway down the path to the river, in the meadow to the left, you’ll find what remains of the foundation of Mr. Downey’s old hunting and fishing club. Stone steps still lead to the river. A cement-and-rock seawall, though crumbing, still runs along the bank.

There’s a little piece of shallow, fast water next to the meadow that is worth a few casts just before dusk on hot summer evenings. An occasional biggie will move into that oxygen-rich water to feed. I was standing just at the top edge of the riffle one hot August evening, changing flies, when I heard a deer walk into the quite water upstream. Then I heard a tremendous splash. I turned and looked. The deer had collapsed in the center of the river. Only its head and neck showed, like a furry periscope. The deer lay there for a few moments, then rolled over on one side and began kicking its legs. Then it rolled over on the other side and did the same thing. It was certainly a commotion, water spraying everywhere. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing there – a deer having some sort of attack? But the deer finally hopped to its feet, shook itself, and ambled upstream, drinking and pulling weeds from the river. It wasn’t hard to figure out – the deer did what I wished I could have done. It cooled off and got away from the bugs.

Dogtown, Downey’s, the Chapel, Baldwin’s, Lower High Banks, High Banks, the Castle, the Hangar, Daisy Bend, Forest Rest. I’ve conducted business with the residents of all these historic pools and places.

One evening at Baldwin’s, standing on the broad gravel bar where the creek comes into the river, I took two brook trout under the sweeper on the far side. The first fish measured exactly fifteen inches, the second 14-1/4, very big for Michigan stream brookies. Both fish took a Brown Drake. When the first fish lay at my feet in just inches of clear water, and I saw that it was a brook trout and not a brown, I had a sudden and overpowering urge to kill that fish and mount it. It was incredibly beautiful, as brookies are, the white slashes on the fins gleaming in the evening light, the spots glistening. It was the only time I’ve ever had that urge and it lasted but a moment.

However, I do kill some trout from time to time, especially brook trout. I love to eat them, but I stick mainly to the pan-size variety. Those two large brookies I caught that eve3ning were monarchs in the fiefdom of brook trout. And even though I had a momentary vision of that fifteen-incher hanging on the wall, I let them both swim away.

• • •

Any pilgrimage through the Mason Tract is not complete without a stop at the Castle, or what little is left of it. So one rainy afternoon I walked down to the old foundations with a friend from out of state. My friend Steve is not a fisherman, but he’s a camper, hiker, birder, and all-around outdoor enthusiast, so a romp through the woods was just fine by him. He enjoyed the DNR’s modest signboard, which shows old photos of the Castle and tells some of its story. And then we paced off the still-visible foundation, marveling that something so large could rise on the South Branch.

The Castle was built in 1930 by an early trout crazy named Durant. It was a monstrous fifty-room structure, standing there in a huge clearing by the river. Durant imported workers from Europe to help build this castle in the middle of nowhere. The workers lived in temporary cabins right on the property. Supplies were hauled in from Roscommon. Durant even carved an airstrip out of the woods so he could fly up from Detroit on weekends.

Strangely, the castle burned to the ground shortly after it was completed. No one knows exactly how it caught fire and all sorts of legends abound. But I once talked to a wonderful old fellow in Roscommon. Rollie, whose father worked on the project, told me he had been told that turpentine-soaked rags in a closet caught fire by spontaneous combustion. It was never rebuilt.

The foundations of the castle and hangar Durant built at the end of the landing strip are still there. Because it is such a popular stopping place for canoeists, the DNR build a large dock in the river there. The idea is to keep the idiots from destroying the bank and to keep the trash more or less centralized.

But there I was with my friend Steve, who was enjoying the tour, despite an on-again, off-again drizzle. We walked down to the canoe dock to check out the river and, lo and behold, a trout was rising directly across the stream. We watched and it continued to feed. It appeared to be a decent fish. So I skipped up to the path to my truck and returned a few minutes later with my fly rod.

“He’s still eating,” said Steve.

I stripped out some line and popped a cast toward the opposite bank. Short.

“How do you know what bug it’s eating?” asked Steve, getting into the swing of things.

I explained that I had a couple of good guesses, but didn’t really know for sure. I also explained about generic flies like the #14 parachute Adams fixed to the end of my tippet.

Standing on the edge of the platform, I shot another cast across the river – narrow there – and the fly landed above the trout, floated down, and was promptly inhaled. Just like that.

There was a big splash as the surprised trout bolted for the overhanging brush on the far side. I knew right away it was a good fish. We managed to keep it out of brush, but things got a big dicey when the trout made a frantic run downstream. Thankfully it didn’t go far, because I was stuck on the dock and couldn’t chase it.

The trout tired and we worked it back upstream. Steve was pretty excited and went for the fish.

“Gently,” I said.

River Moss

River Moss

He was flat on his belly and a moment later came up with a still-wriggling handful of brown trout that turned out to be an honest sixteen inches. A lovely South Branch brown.

Steve gushed over it while I removed the fly. Then I lay on my belly and held the fish in the current and shortly it scampered away.

“Wow, that was exciting!” Steve exclaimed. “There’s nothing to it! It’s so easy!”

I must have a dozen “favorite” places on this storied river. My son Jeff and I call one of our favorite spots simply “The Pool.” It has no hallowed name, but it’s a special place to us.

The river makes an S turn in a deep pine woods. At the bottom of the S there’s a picture-perfect pool, one of those pools that looks trouty the moment you see it. The current pushes in against the bank and runs under a large cedar sweeper. The sweeper is just high enough over the water that you can actually get a fly in there. Just below the sweeper there’s a marvelous back-eddy. A trout could lie there with his yap open and simply let the bugs pour down the hatch. And sometimes one does. When the little Olives come off, the pool lights up. I’ve counted as many as two dozen trout feeding in there and, during one magic afternoon, caught about that many without moving more than ten yards.

• • •

The South Branch can cough up some big brown trout. The largest brown I’ve caught on the South Branch didn’t come from the Tract. I caught it below Smith Bridge, well out of the Tract, upstream from a friend’s cabin. It was 22-1/2 inches of brown trout, taken on a Brown Drake, just at dusk.

But my second-largest trout did come from the Tract, and I’ll tell you exactly where.

Just south of the Castle you’ll find the old foundation of the Hangar, where Durant would park his plane during visits to the little construction project. Park there and follow the trail down the hill to the river. When you get to the river, you’ll be right at or near a small island. Wade upstream about fifty yards, two or three bends, and where the river necks down, you’ll see a logjam and a fairly deep pool on the west bank. On the east bank there’s a handy tree trunk lying in the river, about love-seat size, where two fishermen can sit. That’s the spot. You can’t miss it, as they say.

I was there one June evening with a client. I was guiding then and this was a wading trip. The client was sort of a fussy old dude who didn’t take direction very well but was okay once you got to know him.

That prettiest of mayflies, the Sulphur Dun, had been hatching every evening for about a week. They were really coming off on the mainstream, but I wanted to find some less crowded water. So there we were, in the hangar stretch of the South Branch.

The two of us were sitting on the lot waiting for something to happen. I had floated through this pool many times, and several clients had taken some decent fish, but nothing spectacular.

I wasn’t sure what would happen, but there are several different kinds of water there. If nothing happened in our pool, we would quickly move to a couple of other spots downstream.

The client was drinking a beer and smoking cigarettes and asking every five minutes if I thought this was a good spot. It is a silly question, really, to ask a guide. It’s amazing how many people ask that question. Guides don’t build a loyal following by taking their clients to crummy spots.

Lady Luck was on our side that evening. I had guessed well, and as dusk began to settle, little yellow Sulphurs made their appearance. Fish began to work immediately. I had the client wait for a few minutes but a couple of good fish were rising and he was antsy. So we quietly worked out way into position and he began to fish.

It wasn’t an easy place to throw a fly and he began having problems. He’d done all right earlier in the day, but some people seem to come unglued when they fish to specific trout and darkness is settling.

He lost two flies, one on the jam in the pool and the other in the brush behind us. I could have recovered the fly to our rear, but I didn’t want to move.

There were now five or six fish working. My man finally got his act together and nailed a ten-incher in the tail-end of the pool. He was very pleased and surprised me by saying that he’d like to call it a day. I pointed across the way where a few fish were already rising again. He shrugged his shoulders and told me to give them a try if I wanted to.

What the hell. Although I never fish when I’m working, I always carry a rod. It’s a spare really. And I do feel a little odd walking around in a trout stream without one.

One riser was sipping at the exact edge of a log. That fish made a big bubble every time he fed. Of the trout working there, that was the one that looked most interesting to me.

I made several dozen casts, but there was some goofy little current thing going on, and I had a hell of a time getting the fly to the edge of the log. Yet naturals were obviously floating in there.

Streamside Cigar

Streamside Cigar

I moved slowly upstream and my client moved over to our handy log and sat down. The pool shut down in a heartbeat, but I waited.

“You sure you don’t want to try this?” I asked the client.

“Seriously, I’m done. I’m going to smoke a cigarette and watch you.”

Sulphurs swarmed over the river and trout were feeding everywhere. They started again in our pool, including that interesting fellow tight against the log.

I worked out line and let a cast fall, checking it at the last second to give me some slack. The little Sulphur floated right in there, bumped the log, and – sip – disappeared.

The trout was very big and came boiling out from beneath that log and bolted downstream. I was right behind it and my client, Howard, was right behind me.

“This is a good fish! Do you want to play it?” I shouted.

“Hell no! You caught it, you play it!”

The fish made run after run, all downstream. The reel sang, that greatest of fishing music.

Initially there wasn’t much I could do except hang on. The current runs pretty well there, especially in the straight stretch below the island.

That trout seemed to know his way around. The fish hightailed it for every piece of cover there was, first the logjam across from the island. I managed to put a stop to that. Then the trout headed straight for a submerged tangle of cedar logs just down from the island. By some miracle we got through there. Now there was a dash for that big old jam at the left at the bend. That’s very still water there and I stayed well back, hoping the fish might stay there.

All this time my client was right behind me. Right then he decided to tell me that he’d left his rod back upstream. I had guided him five or six times and I’d never seen him as excited as he was now.

It was just dusk, a beautiful time on any trout stream, but particularly so on your favorite. A couple of whippoorwills started up somewhere; there were cedar waxwings dipping and soaring overhead.

The trout elected to stay in the quite water near the big logjam. Eventually it became a question of who was going to wear out whom. This time, I won. I pumped the spent fish to the edge of the current where, sensing the faster water, it tried one last dash. But it was feeble effort and I got my hand under its belly.

Howard put his flashlight on it even though it wasn’t quite dark yet. It was a big, hook-jawed brown that measured just a shade over twenty inches. Howard had a point-and-shoot in his vest and insisted on a photo session. I held the trout in the water, out of the main current. A minute or two later it swam way.

“I must say, that was pretty damned exciting,” said my client. “Well done.” He extended his hand and I shook it. He was a pretty good dude after all.

I temporarily left him at the foot of the trail while I waded back up for his rod.

• • •

That was my biggest fish from the Tract. But a tiny fish, a couple of inches long, was just as special, if not more so.

For a couple of years I worked as a volunteer with the DNR’s Au Sable system electro-shocking crew. Each year the Fisheries Division electro-shocked certain stretches of the various branches of the system. They surveyed the same areas from year to year, obviously for comparison purposes. The crew was glad to have a guide along as a volunteer. They found it interesting – I think – to get my view of the resource and the overall impression of my clients. (One thing I learned after working on the crew is that the Au Sable has plenty of good fish. But if you hang around in fly shops and eavesdrop, you’ll know that fly fishermen have very active imaginations when it comes to the size of trout caught.)

By helping out, I felt I was giving a little something back to the ting that helped me earned a living. Since I was guiding, it didn’t hurt of course to actually see where…but anyway.

We were shocking the river just above Chase Bridge. The three technicians on the electrodes were turning up a great number of fish and the action was fast and furious. Behind the three technicians with the probes were two guys with nets. They’d capture the stunned trout and pass them to the two guys wearing harnesses with a sort of mesh creel and a measuring board. Those two guys would measure the trout and toss them into a tub in the wooden barge that held the generator. The barge was guided by yet another technician. I was the tally man. The biologists with the measuring boards, would shout a constant and rapid stream of “brown 10”, “brook 6,” “brook 5,” “brown 13,” “brown 8,” “brook 4,” and so on. Knowing that I guided, I think they made me the tally man because at that position there’s almost no opportunity to watch what’s going on. It’s all you can do to keep up. The crew, of course, thought it was hilarious to shout “brown 29!” I fell for that just once.

But one afternoon, one of the crew, crusty old John Norcross, yelled “Hold it!” Everybody stopped. He turned and looked at me. I thought I was going to catch it again. Earlier in the day, when I was the barge man, I had inadvertently let the boat bump him when he was running one of the probes. He had chewed my ass in no uncertain terms. Later one of the techs told me, “You’re not one of the crew until John chews you out for something. Welcome aboard.”

But the veteran biologist wiggled his finger and said, “Come look at this.” I waded over, as did the others, and there, in the fine mesh of his harness, was gorgeous little fish, not three inches long, its back all the colors of a rainbow. “Do you know what this is?” he asked. I said no.

“It’s a darter,” he said. “We call it a rainbow darter.”

We all looked. I couldn’t believe the brilliance of its colors.

He held it up in the palm of his hand for me to see. “They’re here in the river, but you’ll never see one unless you do this kind of work,” he said. And then he was very gently let the gaudy little fish go. “Let’s get back to work,” he said.

I like to go to the South Branch in the evening. Up on the main stream and the North Branch cabin lights are coming on, telephones ring, televisions echo up and down the river. But on the South ranch, on Mr. Mason’s’ stretch, the only sound is the river gurgling past my waders. It is the song of the South Branch.

Jim Enger has been writing about trout fishing and other topics for more than thirty years. His stories have appeared in Fly Rod & Reel, Fly Fisherman, Esquire, Country Journal, and in other publications. He is an award-winning advertising creative director, and the founding publisher and editor for the Au Sable News and Notes — the forerunner of The Riverwatch (published by Anglers of the Au Sable). He is currently serving as the marketing director at Kirtland Community College.

“Song of the South Branch” appeared in Jim’s book, The Incompleat Angler: A Fly Fishing Odyssey (1986).

All photographs in this essay by Matt Burden.

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