Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Stump Man

A stump resists the force of the Fox River
     The people you meet in the back country of the Upper Peninsula are worth getting to know because they have good stories, often ones that will help you learn about the landscape.  The central U.P. where I’ve spent many days fishing and hunting is a flat, often brushy area. But it’s the stumps that get my attention. There are vast areas of old pine stumps left by lumberjacks from the 19th and early 20th century.
     For some reason, probably soil conditions, the forest didn’t return to those areas, and the stumps are surrounded by grass lands. The stumps are partly charred black by countless grass fires that have swept across the plains. I think of them as tree cemeteries, each a tombstone bearing testimony to the birth and death of a stately white pine.
         Many of the stumps are tall, some three to five feet, and when my sons were young they’d ask me why they were.  I use to tell them, knowing it wasn’t the truth, that the lumberjacks use to be bigger than people are now, like Paul Bunyan. The truth is that most the trees were cut during the winter and that the tree cutters were standing on the snow pack.
          During the peak of the lumbering era in the 19th century the nearby town of Seney where the mills and railroad were located was a town of about 3,000, but that has dwindled to about 300 these days. It’s hard to imagine that the motley collection of motels, gas stations and a few restaurants and bars that stretched along M-28 was once a thriving community.

The river system
           The Fox River snakes through the town, and eventually feeds into the Manistique River system further downstream just north of Germfask. The Fox has two branches, the east and west, and it offers good brook trout fishing for those willing to do battle with the tag alder and mosquitoes.
           I’ve been fishing the west branch since the mid 1970s, and rarely encounter other anglers, so I return at least once a year to a special spot on the river, and informal camp ground on state land that’s marked by a white pine that escaped the saw and axe. As an angling friend says, “I’ve got a lot of bad habits, but I keep them up because they work.”
                My bad habit is going back to the places where I caught fish, because I know they’re there. The trouble is you don’t find new places. 
                During one trip to the Fox, I decided to fish a new part of the river, upstream from my usual haunt, a spot where two branches met. I figured there’d be a deep hole at the spot. To get there, I had to drive upstream toward the Wagner Dam. I’d driven there before, but never fished it. It’s an eerie place with hundreds of burned pine stumps, and it had kept me at a distance for years.
 But as I drove the two-track toward the river, I found a certain beauty in the stumps. They were survivors and a reminder of when the area abounded with white pine, the knotless kind favored by 19th century carpenters.  They’d never dull your saw.
  There was no-one in sight on the warm summer day, and I had the place to myself. I parked and rigged up for a day in the river.  I tried on a favorite fly for the Fox, a royal coachman. Long ago I’d decided either rightly or wrongly that the red and black fly imitated the leaches in the water.

Where two rivers meet
I waded in and headed downstream toward the juncture where the two rivers met, fishing along the way.  Casting the fly so it floated under the tag alders that cover the river in many places yielded a few brook trout, small ones. 
At one point a large white pine blocked the river, and I sat on it for a while thinking about what would happen if I dropped dead right here. I was alone.  The thought quickly passed because I’d had similar thoughts in the past, and could even envision my carcass floating for a while and eventually getting snagged on a log. It wasn’t a terrifying image.
The day was getting hotter when I finally arrived at my destination, and I worried the heat would put the fish down. I favor flies that can be fished either dry or wet, so I put some goop on the royal coachman so it would sink and cast it into the hole.  Several casts later I landed a fairly large brook trout. I can’t say exactly how large because I no longer even carry a net, and usually don’t take pictures, figuring that injures the trout’s dignity.
I’ve read so many articles about trout fishing, that I’m actually more confused now than I ever was, but I am pretty certain that there are only one or two large predators in each hole, and once you catch one, chances are you won’t get another.
I headed back towards my truck, wading upstream against the current. Unlike many Lower Peninsula trout streams, there are very few fishermen’s paths along the Fox, and it’s nearly impossible to push through the brush.
The Fox is like other rivers in that it snakes around and creates bends just because it wants to, but there are also straight runs, usually alder covered that are deep, and I often go in over my waders.  That happened that day, and when I got to the Jeep, I pulled off my waders and drained the water from them.

The stranger
I stood in my wet socks and pants on the sandy road, looking more like I belonged to the river than the world of fly-fishing as presented in romantic ads or magazines.  It was hot and I sat on one of the stumps.  It was then that I realized I wasn’t alone; another truck was parked nearby.  It was one of those ageless pickups with an old camper cover on the back that you see in most small U.P. towns.
I figured it was another angler. I scanned the horizon in all directions and didn’t see a soul, and was a bit miffed that this interloper had invaded my solitude.  After a few minutes the pickups owner arrived, and looked a bit surprised to see me.
Backwoods encounters between two people are usually a bit awkward, and this one no different. It was as thought we had caught each other in some sort of illicit act.
We nodded, and I looked at his license plate that carried the name of a deal in Escanaba, one of the bigger towns in the U.P., and figured he was a local.
He said hello, and it took me a moment to respond. I often spend whole days and sometimes several days alone, not speaking, and the sound of a human voice jerks me out of my inner world of random, mostly useless thoughts.
“I’m looking for a stump,” he said.
I laughed and said: “Well you’ve come to the right place, plenty of them.”
He didn’t find that amusing, and went on to say that years ago he and his step father would often fish the river, camp here and make a cooking fire in a certain stump.
“They’ve got the charcoal already – you just need to get them lighted.”
I filed the information away for possible future use, and we kept talking. He was a welder from Escanaba and hadn’t been here in nearly ten years. His step father had since died, and he wanted to find that certain stump.
I wandered around with him, looking at the stumps, some of which he rejected as being too low and others, too high.
I’ve never been one to rain on anybody’s parade, and the older I get, I’m even less likely to do so. Who was I to point out the absurdity of finding a certain charred stump among thousands?  I’m a fly fisherman who never brings home any fish. God knows what people think of me. I’m a backwoods wanderer looking for my own version of the welder’s stump.
After looking for a while, my welder friend decided to try another bend in the river and he drove off on the sandy two-track in his rusty truck.  When I think of him on occasion and hope to God he found it.


  1. Thanks, Jeff....always love reading these. Reminds me of a ritual I used to observe years ago. I was waiting for a now deceased wonderful friend and fishing companion on the mainstream of the AuSable once over 30 years ago. For some reason, while sitting on a huge pine stump next to the river, I slipped a quarter into a crack of the stump. I did this over a period of years whenever I fished past the spot and now, all these years later, if I get down that way, below what used to be known as Pine Road, the stump is still there as are the weathered quarters. Thanks for the reminder....

    1. Mike, thanks. Anybody who fishes picks up these strange things over the years. Our task is to figure out the meaning, if there is any.