When I first got to know the Boardman River I had another, secret, name for it. My private name for it was the “Compromise River.”
I called it that because the Boardman ultimately empties into the Grand Traverse Bay, an arm of Lake Michigan, right in downtown Traverse city, a sophisticated northern Michigan resort town known for – among other things – its shopping. Once upon a time, when I had to be concerned about such things, I could drop the lady in my life in town with the cash and scoot a few miles out of town for some fishing. So everybody was happy, more or less. Though sometimes I would get, “But I thought we were going to spend our vacation together!” Never mind that there are 168 hours in a week and I was going to hog a mere 6 of them for myself. Besides, I would tell her, when you’re having lunch on the terrace at the Bean Pot, look down at the river and remember that the water you’re seeing flowed right around my waders a little earlier. It’s sort of like being together.
That’s how I came to secretly call the Boardman the “Compromise River.” You can bet that I had dozens of no-compromise rivers all over the state but trout streams being what they are, you don’t usually find them flowing through the basements of designer-label boutiques. The Boardman is a real Christian river in that regard and I was thrilled to discover its benefits. I even thought about presenting a marketing proposal to the Chamber of Commerce – ‘SHE SHOPS/YOU FISH!” – but had second thoughts when I realized the idea was self-defeating in the long term. True, the local merchants might have been grateful. But I couldn’t imagine a trout fisherman on every bend of the river for one thing. For another, I’d know that they were stooping to my level of sickness – paying (literally) for a few stolen moments. It wasn’t a club I wanted to start.
The Boardman really does flow right through downtown Traverse City and actually gets a limited salmon and steelhead run. The salmon are captured at a permanent harvesting station and stripped of their eggs, practically in the shadow of Milliken’s Department Store. At certain times of the year, you’ll see mom and dad and the kids with their noses pressed against the viewing windows of the egg-stripping station, Gucci shopping bags overflowing. I swear I once saw a guy cooling his credit cards in one of the raceways.
The steelhead are passed by the weir and one of the hot spots is the part behind the main post office, although there’s not much cover there and the fish are real spooky. (If you’re fly fishing on the boardwalk on the post office side, you must roll cast. Otherwise your backcast will hit the building.) But I once saw a kid not more than seven or eight years old hook what appeared to be about an eight-pounder on a Snoopy rod. His buddies dropped their rods with their lines still in the river, and ran shrieking up and down the bank following the action. The kid’s line was soon tangled in the others and a rod shot off the bank as the startled fish made a lengthy run. After two or three minutes, the fish threw the hook and the kid retrieved a tangled mess of monofilament and the other Snoopy rod. His buddies offered high-fives while shouting “awesome, awesome!” And to think, some of us started out on sunfish.
I’ve caught steelhead off the sandbar at the mouth of the river right behind the Holiday Inn, once in a suit and tie. In an earlier life I used to get to Grand Traverse City on business and once – having been through a serious nonfishing spell – I pulled into the parking lot of the Holiday Inn, popped the trunk, pulled on my waders, and grabbed my rod. Two minutes later I was waist deep in Traverse Bay, and about five minutes after that I was fast to a small steelhead that had mistaken my Mepps spinner for a cocktail-hour hors d’oeuvre. I presented the trout to the chef at the Holiday Inn, who promised me his best effort. (Yes, there were guests who seemed skittish at the appearance of a man in waders walking through the lobby and dining room with a largish, still-wet fish.) I checked in at the front desk and not long after that I was at the bar in the cocktail lounge, contemplating a wonderful dinner and thinking kind thoughts about a firm that would send one of its employees to Traverse City, Michigan. The bartender said – as he set my martini down – “I just heard that some jerk walked though the restaurant in waders.”
South of Traverse city the river flows through the lovely Boardman valley, finding its’ way through mixed pine and hardwoods, and then through meadow land. Here it’s a trout stream and a pretty good one if you know its secrets. Over the years it had become a favorite, and my buddy Pete and I fished it often. We liked it as an occasional alternative to the Au Sable and other rivers that could get crazy with canoes on holiday weekends. We stayed at a strange place called Ranch Rudolph – in the summer a combination mid-western dude ranch, campground, sometimes fishing camp, and in the winter a roaring snowmobile enclave. The river runs through the grounds and I especially liked the isolated, narrow meadow stretch just below the ranch. Now there is a privately owned horse operations on one side of the river where over-grazing has turned that once pretty little meadow into a hellish mess.
But there are miles of good water. From above the ranch to Brown Bridge Pond it’s mostly woodsy. Just upstream from where the river enters Brown Bridge Pond (really a small lake) Pete once caught an enormous brown trout during the Hex hatch. But the river has deep holes there and you have to know what you’re doing. Especially at night. Below Brown Bridge Pond and downstream from Garfield Road, there’s a lot of meadow water where grasshopper patterns can be deadly during late summer months. Bob Summers, the famous bamboo rod maker, lives and works on this stretch.
Early one Saturday, just before first light, Pete parked the car on a turnoff in the woods above the ranch. We had pulled an all-nighter, leaving Detroit at the bewitching hour. Pete drove; I kept the coffee coming.
For those of you who have done this, you’ll know that there are intermittent lapses throughout the night that are potentially fatal when the driver and the navigator have them simultaneously. For those of you who haven’t, you might remember all-nighters for high school or college exams. You’ll recall drifting off, and then waking up with a start. But safely at your desk. It’s another thing to wake up on the wrong side of the road in a deadly glare of oncoming high beams and the desperate roar of an eighteen-wheeler’s horn. This in the cause of the supposedly gentle sport. (The adrenaline rush is about the same as your first Atlantic salmon on a dry fly.)
We rigged up in the dim pale of the trunklight. I was uncertain what to start with and I finally settled on a slender streamer, a Black-Nosed Dace. I couldn’t see what Pete was tying on, but I knew it would be something wet. We spoke in whispers as though not wanting to wake the red squirrels, or the tiny chickadees, or the big black bear surely sleeping just behind yonder bush.
The plan was to fish downstream, leapfrogging each other, and end up at the ranch precisely at cocktail hour late that afternoon. There we would corral someone from the ranch to drive us back to the car, something they were always glad to do.
We got in near a giant old white pine that leaned precariously across the river. Many of its’ branches were rusty brown, a sure sign that the tree was nearing the end of its long life. These old warrior white pines still exist here and there, memorials left over from Michigan’s incredible post-Civil War logging boom. There has been a lot written about the early logging industry in Michigan, but in his wonderful little book Waiting for the Morning Train, Bruce Catton, the noted Civil War historian, wrote about growing up in Michigan and visiting some of the camps as a young man. Catton puts the Michigan logging industry in perspective, writing that enough pine boards were produced in Michigan in 1897 to build ten million six-room houses. That’s one hundred and sixty billion feet of lumber, according to Catton. Michigan was literally awash in big timer. The preferred tree was the white pine. There were millions of them, they grew tall and straight and they floated high in the shallow rivers of Michigan, making them the easiest to drive to the mills. By the early 1900s what had been one of the densest stands of pine each of the Mississippi River had been mostly leveled. Michigan had been transformed from a land of deep forest to a land of scrub.
The root mass of this big pine was pulling away from the bank and its tentacles were alive with ants, spiders, and other small critters. But it was very shallow there and no trout would hold under that potential smorgasbord, at least not with daylight coming on. So I stuck with my Dace and waded downstream, working out line and getting my arm loosened up. Minnows scattered and I felt pretty good about the fly. There was a nice little morning breeze and the sun was just beginning to break through the forest. Shafts of light did pirouettes on the river’s surface. I watched Pete slide quietly into a pool of diamonds just downstream.
My first trout came to the Dace from a small pool below a snarl of tag alder. It was a brown, not large – as none of the fish in this stretch could be. It was a beautifully colored trout and I held it up and whistled. Downstream Pete smiled and gave me a thumbs-up.
I was very pleased, as I always am, with my first trout of the day. Sure, there is a satisfaction of knowing that – at least momentarily – you’ve got the right fly. Moreover, it’s also knowing that things are right with the world, at least in my little corner of it. After that first trout, especially if it has any size to it, my anxiety level drops tremendously. Suddenly I’m hearing birds, aware of water noises, smelling the smells of the forest, and actually realizing that I have a cigar in my mouth and am tasting it.
I released the fish and watched it scoot back into the pool. I climbed out and walked the bank down to Pete. I had the thermos in the back of my vest.
“That was the icebreaker,” Pet said. “What was it?”
I told him. “You want some coffee?”
Pete was warming to his task. He was working a small logjam. Cast, strip, strip, strip, cast, strip, strip, strip – and so on – until something or nothing happens. We have fished together for years and he is an intense fisherman for the first couple of hours. But not competitive. (He once caught three, twenty-five-pound steelhead on the same day on a visit to a British Columbia river, which I learned about practically by accident months later.) We glory in each other’s successes, large and small.
“What I’d really like is a beer,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been up all night.”
“Well, we have been except for one little indiscretion.”
“That could have been a serious whoops,” he said. And then, a little pointedly, “Why don’t you sit the hell down or move back. You’re casting a shadow on my pool here.” Subtlety is another of his attributes.
I did, in fact, find a very comfortable spot on the bank where, after unslinging my vest, I poured some coffee, relit the cigar, and enjoyed the beginnings of a beautiful day. I watched Pete work on the little jam. His fly landed next to a log and there was a wonderful boil and he was fast to a fish. The trout zipped out into the current, changed its mind, and charged back toward the jam. Pete led it carefully away from the logs and minutes later had it in hand, a twin of the brown I had caught earlier.
He admired it for a moment or two and slipped it back in the water. It darted under the logjam.
I asked Pete what he was using. He held it up as he waded to the bank. He was smiling. A Royal Coachman streamer.
“Now I’ll have some coffee. But I’d rather have a beer. You got any more of those cigars”
“This is the last one.”
He reached toward my mouth and I swatted his hand away. Then he was going through my vest.
“That’s what I thought!” he said, unwrapping the dark A.C. Grenadier. “Two packs! And here’s the lighter.”
It was warming rapidly and I took off my jacket and stuffed it in the cargo pocket in my vest, noting that a package of cigars had disappeared.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
“Thank you,” he replied, grinning like a lotto winner.
“Need anything else while I’m at it?”
“I think I’m fine for now,” he said, blowing a puff of smoke. “Unless there’s a beer in there.” I shook my head.
“Then maybe you’d walk back to the car for the cooler?”
I flicked my still-lit cigar butt at his waders. He was laughing as he jumped out of the way. So was I. It was going to be a great day.
We fished downstream, doing exactly what we had planned, with a lot of jazz going back and forth about who was getting the better water. There were intermittent requests for cold beer. We each picked up a couple more trout nearly identical to the others, one a little larger, pushing thirteen inches. As the day wore on we began to see some bugs and finally some rising fish. Just above the ranch I saw what appeared to be a decent fish working below a riffle, but tight against the bank. So I camped on the spot and added some tippet material to my leader. The bugs were sparse and I couldn’t tell what they were, so – what else when on the Boardman? – I tied on a small Adams, a fly that generations of angler have used with success almost everywhere trout are found. The Adams was born on this very river in the 1920s, developed by local angler/tyer Len Halladay, who named it after an angling friend from Ohio. Little did he suspect back then it would one day be famous on trout waters the world over.
I wasn’t sure it would actually match what was hatching, but that of course is the beauty of the Adams. Besides, I wanted to fish with the fly on its home water.
At that moment Pete came by on the bank. “I see you have the juicier water again,” he said.
“This little nothing of a riffle? I stopped here just so you could have that good pool right around the corner.”
“I’m touched. But I don’t suppose that fish over there that’s sucking down flies every ten seconds had anything to do with it? “
“Is there something rising over there?” I said, shadowing my eyes. Like a machine, the fish rose again.
“If that’s a five-inch brook trout I’ll go get the beer,” he said. “By the way, these cigars are very good.”
“I’m glad you’re enjoying them, I said. “I suppose you’re going to stand there and watch?”
“Of course. I want to see you blow this one.”
But it was too easy. A freshman at the Orvis school could have caught this trout. The fly landed a couple feet upstream from the fish, rode a line of slick water, tumbled onto the eddy at the bottom, and was neatly snatched.
The trout bolted downstream and it was clear that this was a better fish. The river was shallow and the fish scampered everywhere, the light tippet slicing the water.
“There’s still time to screw it up.” This came from up on the bank.
Gradually the fish tired and I heard Pete slip into the river behind me. He was at my shoulder as I worked it in. It was another brown, a nice one, a couple inches past the twelve-inch marker when laid against my rod. The small Adams was snug in the corner of its mouth. I faced the trout upstream, letting the oxygen-rich riffle water pour through its gills. A minute later it shot away, leaving a long wake.
Pete stuck out his hand, a big smile on his face. “Nice fish, pal.”
I was appropriately modest.
I then went way down, leaving Pete a series of good pools, all on tight bends with deeply undercut banks. I was ready to call it a day, particularly after that trout. But I continued to fish as I moved along and took a mixed bag of browns and brookies, mostly in the ten-inch class, all of them on the now scruffy-looking Adams. Finally, I came to the ranch, its long, broad lawn running down to the river’s edge. I climbed out, propped my rod against a handy birch, slipped out of my vest and stretched. It had been a long but satisfying day.
I walked up to the lobby of the main building and inquired about a room. The kid behind the desk grinned when he saw me standing there in still-wet waders. I got the room key and went into the rustic bar, where I felt a lot less sillier, and bought a few cans of cold beer. “How’d you do?” the bartender asked?
Back down by the river, I sat on the bank, popped a beer open, and relaxed. It felt good to get the wader suspenders off the shoulders.
Presently Pete came around the bend upstream, reeled in, and lit the afterburner when he saw what I had. I never saw a guy in waders go that fast in the water. I handed him a cold one and he drained it. “That was the best beer I’ve ever tasted,” he said with a belch.
We freshened up in the room, retrieved the car, and headed for the bar. Over cocktails, we discussed the day. Pete had also taken several more fish on dry flies, and a nice one to boot. He’d seduced them with Bivisibles, or so he said, a fly I’ve never fished and probably never will. But he likes the damned thing. (“It has class. Class and it works,” he claims. Class? It’s a brown and white fuzz ball.) At any rate, we both agreed that the Boardman had given us a good day, good at least for that stretch of it. Streamers in the morning, some satisfying dry-fly fishing in the afternoon. No outsized fish, but we didn’t expect any. Just some classic fly fishing.
We were pooped and hungry and left the bar and found a table. The restaurant was nearly full. Most were out-of-state tourist types – “fudgies,” as they’re called. They had that look. (there are nearly as many fudge shops in northern Michigan as there are pine trees.) There was a group on the patio clustered around a big, half-barrel barbecue. Whatever was getting scorched smelled pretty damned good.
A chipper little waitress came over and handed us menus. I drained what remained of the martini I had carried over from the bar and ordered another one.
I didn’t have to look at the menu. I knew that a dude ranch – even a Midwestern version – would have a stockpile of steak in the kitchen. A couple of different kinds, as it turned out, and I ordered the biggest cut. So did Pete. Our waitress leveled with us and said the kitchen was a little backed up so it might be awhile, but she could bring our salads. I said fine and she looked at Pete. His eyes were closed.
“Sir?” she asked?
Pete jerked awake.
“She wants to know if you want your salad now?” I said.
“Yeah, sure.” His eyes fluttered. I said I was going to go out on the patio for a few minutes – I’d watch for the salad delivery. The waitress said fine; Pete mumbled something.
The group around the grill turned out to be a congress of adult Boy Scout leaders. There was much talk of merit badge training and so forth. My martini was the focus of so much lip-smacking attention I thought the glass was going to melt. I stood near a corner of the patio and watched a guy fish one of the ranch ponds stocked with rainbow trout that you can see but not catch. I have fished for them with grasshopper patterns (the grounds are alive with them at time) all the way down to Tricos on 7X. If the ranch ever becomes famous, it will be for a strain of rainbow trout that do not eat.
Turning, and peering through the window, I could see Pete, chin on his chest, eyes closed.
A guy sidled up to me and said quietly, “If I slip you ten bucks would you get me a double one of those – pointing at my drink – and take it around to the front of the building?”
I said sure, but there was the bar just ten feet away through the open door. I was curious – why didn’t he just hope in there and get his own?
“Because some of the organizers of this little shindig are from Baptist churches, and they have a real thing about certain types of refreshment. I’ve got a flask stashed in my tent for a quite little nightcap later. These guys are okay, but a Saturday night cookout without a see-through is un-American.”
I was glad to do my good deed for the day, and as I maneuvered through the dining room I discovered that salads had been delivered to our table. Pete was sleeping, sitting up with his arms crossed on his chest.
I carried that big wet silver bullet through the lobby, thrilled to be part of a clandestine operation. It added a little extra excitement to an already outstanding day. Out front I found my panting scoutmaster.
“You get the Citizenship merit badge!” he exclaimed as we introduced ourselves.
“I already got it thirty years ago.”
“Good for you. Then I’ll put you in for an Oak Leaf Cluster or something,” he said between sips. “ And here, take these.” He handed me a film canister. Inside were half a dozen of the prettiest Hendricksons I had ever seen. “I saw you get out of the river. I’ve been staring at these all day. I was hoping to get in some fishing myself. I tied ‘em,” he said modestly.
I thanked him, wished him luck, and back in the dining room gave Pete a shake. There was barely a response and I could tell that the lad was about done for. But I thought he wanted to eat, so I gave him another shake. This time his head came up and he looked at me through half-crossed eyes. “Pete, there’s your salad,” I said.
“Rest my eyes for a minute,” he mumbled. In an instant he was breathing deeply, his chin in his chest once again. I went to work on my salad, while I examined in more detail the fortuitously acquired Hendricksons, which not sat perkily on the tabletop. Our thirsty scoutmaster was, indeed, a lovely tier.
The waitress came by with a basket of break and gave Pete the eye. She looked at me with raised eyebrows. I smiled, my mouth full of salad. “Your steaks will be out in a minute,” she said. “Should I bring his?” I nodded affirmatively.
Minutes later she was back. The entrees were truly beautiful, big and sizzling, and just what the doctor ordered. I gave Pete a couple of good shakes – “Pete! Pete!” – and got no response except for a gentle snore.
I assaulted my steak, eating too fast, but luxuriating in every mouthful. I eyed Pete’s, wondering.
And then suddenly, with a big sigh, Pete leaned forward, crossed his arms on the table around his plate, and rested the side of his face directly on that big, perfectly grilled porterhouse. A sixteen-ounce, medium-rare pillow. I kept eating, but with less enthusiasm because I could see that my chances for a double portion had dimished.
The waitress rushed over, horrified. “It’s okay,” I said. “He likes to sleep with his head on his meat.”
“Is he okay!?”
He was fine, I assured her. He was snoring steadily and attracting the attention of other diners, who were smiling and pointing, doubtless having never seen a man sleeping on his supper.
I helped myself to his side order of onion rings.
The snoring got a little louder and his exhalations were having an eroding effect on his vegetable selection. At regular intervals peas skipped off his plate and across the table. I thought about him possibly inhaling a couple and wondered if that would wake him. A little girl came by and stood and stared. People in the farther corners would stand and stretch for a look, smile or laugh, and sit back down.
I finished eating and thought about various ways of raising Pete’s head to get at that steak – I’d slip the bread under there – but thought better as I recalled watching him smear himself with bug repellant a couple of times during the day. I couldn’t imagine that Deep Woods Off would improve a steak. The mother came and collected the little girl, but not before giving my fishing partner a good looking-over.
I ordered cognac, two of them, in case Pete came around. But he didn’t, so I was forced to drink his.
Finally, I started to get a little tuckered. I signed the check, left a tip, and after many minutes of prodding was able to partially rouse the sleeping beatify. In a daze he put an arm over my shoulder and I guided him out of the dining room – to a smattering of applause – and ultimately to our room, where he collapsed onto his bed. I removed his shoes, and that’s all I remembered until the next morning.
I wakened to hear water running in the bathroom, Pete came out, pointed to his face, and asked, “How did I get these crosshatch marks on my cheeks?”
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.
“Dinner with Pete” appeared in Jim’s book, The Incompleat Angler: A Fly Fishing Odyssey (1986).