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Tommy Lynch: The T|N|T Interview (Part II)

2010 March 13

True North Trout is pleased to publish Part II of the most extensive interview that we’ve done — with angler and fly guide Tommy Lynch (“The Fish Whisperer”). Tommy guides as part of the Hawkins Outfitters guiding team, and specializes in the Pere Marquette River, though he fishes all over the state. Tommy is an Orvis-Endorsed Fly Fishing Guide, and has been at the guiding game for about 15 years.

In this second part of the interview Tommy talks about the Pere Marquette watershed, the lure of trout fishing, fishing with kids, and what makes for a good guide. Look for Part III of the interview in the next week.

More information about Tommy is available at his website and at Hawkins Outfitters. Tommy is one of the top guides working in Michigan and the information he has to share is quite valuable.

T|N|T: Having fished the P.M. for over ten years myself, I have noticed that it seems like about ninety percent of the anglers who come to fish it fish only about ten percent of the publicly-accessible water. Without giving any actual spots away, what stretches or sections of the river would you say are most underutilized?

T|L: The middle and lower sections are overlooked most months of the year because the upper sections are just easier to wade and more accessable per mile of river. From the point of view of fall steelheading, the lower three-quarters of the river are under-utilized because, again, people believe that seeing more fish equates to catching more fish. But when the bite is on that couldn’t be further from the truth. In a similar way, the upper sections are under-utilized when salmon enter river system in the late summer.

Tommy Lynch and a Monster Brown Trout

In my view, trout fishing is best in September, with the possible exception of June on a good year of Hex. September is often overlooked because those Tuna-like Kings move up in September, and everyone just gets that deer-in-the-headlights look once they see all that girth moving against the current. Kings don’t eat well, or really turn me on, for that matter, and I just as soon fish trout and steelhead, even in September. I even fish to trout for most of the spring steelhead run because the bite really is the best in the fall and winter when it comes to fishing steelhead.

There are certain bug hatches and migrations of fish that are rarely noticed or even discussed, particularly in the middle-to-low sections of the river. On the right week steelhead may push up the river only a few miles – maybe as far as twenty — but if your fishing all fall or spring thirty miles or more upstream, you may never be aware that particular migration is even going on. This isn’t the Manistee or the Muskegon — or the Betsie for the matter – on the P.M. the fish don’t have a concrete barrier to bump their heads on, and they can go beyond even the 150 miles of open steelhead water and all the way into the upper trout and spawning sections. Between the Big South, the mainstream and the various feeder streams attached to the P.M., it isn’t hard to understand why the DNR doesn’t stock the P.M. It is already a sustainable hatchery, without the help of the DNR.

Natural reproduction on the P.M. is greater than most rivers just because the river runs free throughout the entire length. Trout and steelhead can, and do, roam in-and-out of fishable sections all the time. There are literally hundreds of miles to navigate, if you’re a finned-critter living in the Pere Marquette watershed. It is because of this that the P.M. gets returning and naturally reproducing wild fish in such huge numbers – it is of all those miles of open, quality water.

It really is quite amazing just how small a piece of water a spawning steelhead can choose to use, if given the access. I have found steelhead in creeks that weren’t half as wide as my fly rod is long, and this is where quality reproduction is taking place in the P.M. watershed — contrast that with “The Fly Water” where the fish are constantly harassed throughout their spawning ritual. Big difference.

You know, there really aren’t any bad sections on the P.M. If you get blanked in a given section, it is really more a matter of being there at the wrong time. Every section has its “moment in the sun” at some point in each year. Developing an understanding of good timing in fishing is a big piece of the puzzle of the P.M., and with added miles of water to consider and understand, the puzzle just has more pieces … but the more pieces you find, the clearer the total picture starts to look.

T|N|T: The vast bulk of the angling pressure on the P.M. seems to occur during the fall salmon and spring steelhead runs, but it’s also a tremendous producer of large brown trout (the best in the state, in my opinion). Which do you enjoy guiding folks for most: trout or steelhead, and why?

T|L: Well, I am not sure if I would say that the P.M. is the best big fish river in the state. That honor would go to a toss-up between the Manistee River and the Au Sable River, or maybe even a couple of other watersheds that I know that will remain anonymous. I will say that from the standpoint of looking at it as a full-year watershed, that, for its size, it is a very good piece of water. And from a hopper or egg standpoint, in particular, is second-in-line to only a couple of other streams in the state.

For myself, my favorite adversary is, no doubt, trout — because of the variety that they bring to the game, especially when it comes to looking at the variety of habitat, diversity of flies, angling techniques, rod and gear selection, etc. As you know, hundreds and hundreds of miles of water are opened-up on that last Saturday in April, and that means that I can get off the P.M. and travel around a bit looking for the next “best” happening — whether it is streamers here or a Sulfur hatch there, a good trout angler will stay mobile and travel to “tame the toads” or to “tango with a bunch of ‘teeners.”

There is no other fish I have ever fished that has kept me up at night thinking up new ways to persuade them to take a fly than brown trout. It’s as bad as thinking up novel “one liners” to toss at gals at the bar, and it will mess with your head — just as bad as that girl who turns you down or who looks at you as if your missing the boat in some way. Trout — especially brown trout — are very personal that way. They will cause you to lose sleep and, like woman, are very good at “refusals.”

In contrast, steelhead are more like “the best ride in the park.” They pull and run harder than any other freshwater fish, and they do it with flashy style — jumping, rolling, and running as hard, pound-for-pound, as Alaska ‘bows during the fall months of the year before water temperatures fall off. Larger fish are caught in the winter when cold water dowse their fire a bit, but they can also be fun again in the spring.

We catch steelhead quite often fishing for trout during our Hex hatches up and down the river, and though many are spring drop-back fish, every once in awhile you will hook a true Skamania while mousing in August on trout gear. It has happened to me a couple of times, and, as I said, there is simply no better ride on a dry fly of in Michigan.

T|N|T: I’ve got a son and a daughter, both age eight, and they are showing some interest in learning to fly fish. I’ve read that Hawkins Outfitters – the company for which you guide — is one of the only outfits in Michigan who will take-on the task of working with kids that young. What’s your personal viewpoint on when and how to bring kids into fly-fishing?

T|L: In my boat, a kid is really never too young to try – all they really need is an attention span lasting at least a few minutes. Sometimes I see a parent try to force it a little too early, and that can cause a poor experience, and that child may not want to re-engage at a later age because of that negative event. But others will shine to it right away, kind of like me, and then it never seems too early.

As far as Hawkins being one of only a few guiding outfits to take out young kids, I didn’t know that was the case. Why wouldn’t you want to take a little kid out? Have you ever seen the face of some little guy out on his first salmon trip with “chuck & duck” gear and he hooks up with a fish that is half his weight? Wow. If you could bottle the sensation that little boy gets the first time that rod almost gets pulled out of his hands, and that sense of awe that is written across his face, and that grin from ear-to-ear … Well, let’s just say that, if you could sell it, Starbucks would be going out of business.

When I watch a young boy or girl hook up with whatever we might be fishing, I get to relive my first years of angling just by seeing their faces light-up with that same sense of mystery and awe I once had. The mystery was always what was on the end of the line, and the awe always comes just the grand event of getting to go where those trout and salmon take us.

Actually, the biggest smiles I see in my boat don’t come from guys hooking-up on their tenth steelhead — it comes from the ten year-old boy that hasn’t seen a fly rod before and has his father’s hand gripping his suspenders so he isn’t pulled from the boat by the big King he is playing tug-of-war with. Those really are the biggest smiles.

Like many others, I was young, dumb, and full of spunk once — and when you’re at that point in your life you never really can see that far ahead. But as I get older I realize I am not going to live forever, and I have been trying to re-live some of the best years of my life in fishing. And many of those years were when I was a little guy myself, and I could barely fill-out a pair of waders.

Since “little” Tommy’s arrival just six months ago, I can think of no other event that gets me as geeked and teary-eyed as that first time I get to walk down to the river with my son. There may be nothing else quite like it, and I count the days!

T|N|T: One of your clients commented in his testimonial that your boat was “organized by a guy with OCD.” Besides being highly organized, what makes you a good guide, and what qualities should someone who’s not gone out with a guide before look for?

T|L: Yep, I am a neat freak. The funny thing is that I used to be a complete slob until I had to clean up after myself, but then I just ran with it.

What makes me a good guide? Well, for one thing, I am always trying to make myself into a better and better trout angler; I do believe if your going to do something well, you have to give it everything you’ve got. I am not into bowling, hunting, biking, skiing, ice fishing, scrapbooking, or even warmwater fishing. I basically just fish for trout – all the time.

Although this may be a little obsessive/compulsive, or even repetitive, because I am so one-tracked, you will never find yourself question whether I am at least trying to steer you in the right way. There are a number of very good guides in this state, some with much longer fuses, with larger boats that fish bigger rivers and catch more fish — and sometimes even bigger fish — but I dare say you will not meet but a handful of guys like me that do nothing but eat, sleep, ****, and fish. It’s an obsession.

Lots of guides will tell you that you don’t have to catch fish to have a great day, and this is true, but you had better be a guide that at least knows how to catch fish, or it will be tough to insure that your clients will regularly be able to say that they have had a great day with you on the river. Another thing: Having confidence in your gear, strong rowing skills, tying skills, and even “lunch skills” are all components of being a great gillie; but if you don’t have good people skills you can never be a good guide no matter how many fish you can put them on.

All good guides are somewhat cocky — almost arrogant — because of their self-proclaimed expertise or knowledge on a particular section of river or a particular type of fly fishing. This really isn’t all bad as it can add a little color and character to a trip, and in turn clients shine to it, and they will frequently take advice without second-guessing it, which can help to make for a quality guide trip. Guides that are cocky and arrogant but that lack strong angling skills often also lack the needed confidence. They will become frustrated and this, too, is something that clients notice, and they will retract, second-guess, and slowly slip through a guide’s “professional” fingers. That is a big difference between professional guides and amateur guides.

All I am saying is that you have to “walk the walk” as good as you “talk the talk” or, in particular, the better-skilled clients will see right through you. As a guide, as much as you love new clients or little ones out for their first time, you really get to be a guide instead of an instructor when your client for the day turns out to already have the basic skills down before hopping in the boat. And they are looking to spend the day with a really qualified, knowledgeable expert who is willing to share their years of experience on that particular watershed.

There are no savants in this sport — you are only as good as the time that you have put into it, and I can tell you there is a great deal of “new meat” out there.

Here are some hints: Watch your guide’s knot-tying speed, his comfortableness when it comes to carrying-out his lunch duties, and how he manages when someone doesn’t understand the directions he is giving. If he starts yelling or belittling in anyway, he is likely a rookie. If in the same situation you see a guide who reacts with a more fun or humorous direction to fixing or discussing the cast, he is more likely a seasoned oarsman.

If he says nothing at all and goes and sits in the back of the boat, ask him to take you to the launch because you hired a guide that day and we get paid pretty good to take people out on the river and teach them something about fishing. If he doesn’t see the opportunity in each guide trip he gets to make it a fun day instead of a tough one, he needs to go look for other line of work because there are a thousand other guys that would trade spots with him in a second.

There are many good guides in the state that have diversified their interests to include biking, snowmobiling, skiing, and even guiding other venues like fishing in the salt, but a great guide is the guide that not only knows how deep the pool is, but even the size of the rocks and how they are spaced out on the bottom of it, and you will only learn that if your guide is living where their guiding year around.

Confidence it what makes a guide know there is a fish over there, and a seasonal or unseasoned guide in the same situation will be unsure and second-guessing even himself. Clients can sense that and it leads to awkward questions, and then a loss of trust, and no matter how talented a client is, he can’t learn from you if he doesn’t believe in your skills as a guide, just as he will rise up and listen and respond when he does.

One good rule to live by as a guide is this — no matter how much you want that client to cast a certain way, no matter how good of a fly caster you are, or think you are, or how loud you are willing to yell at someone (and you should remember who is signing the check that day), your client will never develop your exact casting style or profile.

If you don’t accept this, both you and your client will have a poor experience in the boat, and neither of you will want to repeat it. And that means that you’re lacking as a professional guide because you simply not going to get that re-booking. And, right now, I can tell you that the only guides that know how to get a client back in the boat are surviving these days, not the ones that live almost exclusively on new business.

Secondly, it is important that a good guide have an arsenal of different teaching strategies instead of some “foolproof way” that “works on everyone” — because there is nothing like a “one-size-fits-all” teaching strategy. Great guides have a dozen different ways, or combinations of ways, to cater to each person’s unique learning style.

It really comes down to taming and using the client’s muscle memory as it is, and not how you might wish it was — and every person uses different muscles, which impacts their various casting habits in different ways. As a guide and an instructor, your teaching agenda has to respond to the unique needs of the situation, rather than trying to bring the client over to a single way of seeing and doing things. Good teaching is teaching that really responds to where the student is in their individual development.

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