By Jeff Counts
So what should you expect in mid-May in the western U.P.? Hopefully the snow has melted in most places and you don’t have to wear fleece under your waders. That’s about all. You don’t expect to do any sunbathing, but you don’t expect to see snow swirling in the air most of the day, with high winds whipping it around. But that’s what we had on a certain Saturday. My guide and fishing complain Chris Gestwicki had one word for it – “brutal.”
It was all of that. Chris knows I love U.P. brook trout fishing and for several years he has been trying to get me to his favorite western U.P. haunts. For various reasons, I couldn’t make it until this year. The western U.P. along the Wisconsin border is a special place for me. It still has some mystery. After more than 35 years of traveling through the state, I can get along without a state map in most areas, but not in the western U.P. when I get disorientated, even though I wrote a travel guide to Michigan.
Time gets warped there because you’re in and out of the Central and Eastern Standard time zones, and the towns look similar and most have the word iron in them Many of the rivers are big sprawling ones like the Escanaba, Paint and Brule, and remind you of ones in the west, river where I have a hard time finding fish. With all my landmarks gone, I was in the hands of Chris, who is one of the few fly fishing guides in the area, and owns the Caddis Shack Fly Shop in Escanaba. The place is a throwback to the old days of fly-fishing, when some shops were operated out of a garage. It’s refreshing to find a shop features that sells nothing but flies, rods, reels, lines and a few other items. There’s no expensive clothing, art objects or trinkets and it’s only open when Chris is around.
Our brutal weekend actually started out fairly gentle. I made the six and a half hour trip from my southeastern Michigan home to Escanaba on a fairly balmy Friday, and in less time than I expected. From his shop/home, Chris drove to one of the Iron towns, and pulled over to the side of the road in the middle of the downtown area and said: “Here we are.”
I looked at him with disbelief. I have this innately held belief that fly-fishing should be done out of the watchful eye of people, preferably as far from town as possible. Part of that belief stems from my not wanting anyone to expose my fly casting abilities to on lookers. It’s like drinking martinis, if I’m going to humiliate myself, it will only be in front of family and friends.
I cast off that old belief fairly quickly. Chris and I rigged up and entered the stream next to the town tavern, when the locals were gathering for the Friday night cocktail hour. I briefly considered joining, figuring I’d have a better time in there than in the river, but I followed Chris to the stream that wound through a park, and past old. frame mill worker homes that looked to belong to the 19th century.
Before I stepped into the river, which was strewn with boulders and large rocks, Chris, who is more than 20 years younger than me, was quickly downstream, and I poked my way along with a newly adopted wading stick. A false pride has kept me from using one, thinking it signaled senior citizen status. But that changed last fall when I took a tumble on the Pere Marquette River while salmon fishing and I accepted one from our host, John Bueter.
It has expanded my fishing range, given me the stability to reach places I normally don’t, and it has save my bad knee a number of times.
To my surprise, a nice caddis hatch was coming off the river, and Chris hooked me up with a few of his specially tied flies for the river. It’s a good thing to have somebody like Chris around when you’re not quite certain about a new river, and what may do well on it. Before knowing Chris, I made several ventures to the Paint River in the western U.P., and was frustrated by my lack of local knowledge.
We caught a few brookies on dries, and it wetted my appetite for the next day. I was tired of using streamers and wet flies; dry fly fishing was the antidote. We then headed out of whatever Iron Town we were in, Chris has sworn me to secrecy, and headed to a back woods cabin in Wisconsin to meet up with the rest of Chris’ crew, mostly Wisconsin guys. Although I had purchased certain adult beverages, I’d forgotten the main ingredient for a trout fishing weekend – beer. Chris told me not to worry. I did, but shouldn’t have.
When we arrived in the camp, there was a fine camp fire going, and plenty of beer flowing, but most of it light beer, which is not to my taste. One of the Wisconsin guys said: “Hey, just look in the back of my truck, I won five cases of Linenkugles at a Trout Unlimited banquet and I can’t get rid of the stuff.”
All I could figure is that if you live in Wisconsin where much of our beer is made, you can get pretty blasé about the stuff. Actually, Leinenkugel’s is my favorite, so I was in beer heaven. All we needed were some brook trout the next day, and I’d consider the weekend as close to a religious experience as I’d ever have.
In the glow of the fire and beer, Chris made a $20 bet that he and I would out fish two of the Wisconsin guys the next day, and we were to count all the fish we caught. In the warmth of the night and under the influence of the Leinenkugel’s, it made sense to me.
But that night it rained hard, and when I stepped outside shortly after dawn to answer the call of nature, I felt a chill in the air, and saw what looked like snow swirling in the air. I tried to make myself think it was ashes from the fire, but then I looked at a thermometer and it read 37 degrees. I went back to my bunk for a while, hoping that in another hour the sun would come out and brighten my spirits.
It never did that day, and the snow was still making its unscheduled appearance when we finally hit the bunks for the night. What occurred between dawn and dark was brutal, and as with any such fishing venture, it ended early and in a tavern.
We did fish though. We hit a tributary to the Paint River, a lovely looking stream. And as we went to the river, the fishing bet was still on. After four or five hours, all bets were off, and we were frozen stiff. Luckily, I’d remembered to bring my neoprene gloves, so my hands still worked at the end of the day. The others weren’t so lucky. One guy, half my age, and a fish guide himself, said his hands were so cold that he couldn’t tie on a fly. Chris went into the river, and had to spend an hour in the truck with the heat going full blast to keep hypothermia away. I actually couldn’t stay in the tuck, it was so stifling hot.
But I had my own casualty, a lost spool for my fly reel. My hands were so cold that I apparently didn’t properly zip up my vest while wading, and the spool went missing. All this for no fish. We’ve all had days like this, and they turn anglers into philosophers. The question asked is – Why? Why am I out doing this? Some fancy fishing writers come up with words that border on the poetic, others of us quote John Voelker and some just stand there freezing. I simply use my Midwestern pragmatism. “What else am I going to be doing? I’m not going to bring peace to the Mideast, find a cure for cancer or engineer a new economic boom, so I may just as well be standing in a river. It beats watching talking heads on TV.
That night at the camp fire, there was plenty of Leinenkugel’s, no fish, except some walleye one of the guys had been foresighted enough to bring, and there was not talk of the $20 bet on the number of fish caught. I was relieved.