Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Drifting Back To Steelhead Fishing 35 Years Ago
People who just started steelhead fishing in the last few years missed out on the finest fishing ever seen back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Good numbers of fish were being planted all around the state, and the Betsie and Platte rivers offered great sport that was as good as it gets.
There was some natural steelhead reproduction 35-40 years ago, and the DNR was planting fish as well. The number of anglers who knew how to catch steelhead were few, and the numbers of fish were very high.
My guiding career began in 1967, and brother George joined me in guiding fly fishermen for salmon, steelhead and broad-shouldered brown trout. John McKenzie became the third of Tres Amigos, and we cut a wide swath through runs of spring and fall spawning salmon and trout.
Snagging was rampant in those days, and we fished with No. 4, 6 and 8 single-hook flies, and it may sound like bragging but it’s not: we were good anglers and guides, and there was no need to snag fish. We could fair-hook fish on a regular basis. The sheer numbers of fish meant if we spooked fish in one spot, a short distance away would be other willing fish.
The steelhead runs were huge in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and I can remember days on the Little Manistee River when we could hook 30 steelhead in a day. Not all fish were landed, but George and John tied flies while I handled the bookings for three guides.
We were a busy bunch, and were on the river every day. We knew where the salmon, steelhead or browns would be from day to day, and we seldom had much competition. We came and went, and sometimes Tres Amigos were all on the same stream, and at times we would be spread out across three different rivers. We’d compare notes at night, and decide who would fish where the next day.
John, 13 years younger than George and I, was a good-looking guy. I often paired him with husband-and-wife teams or father-and-daughters, and his great talent—besides catching fish—was being able to teach people how to fish. He was patient, and clients easily learned from him.
George and I were older, and by nature, seemed to attract the older anglers or the chief person who brought a crew up fishing. We treated everyone the same; we’d fish from sunup to sundown every day if clients wanted it, and clean fish at night and be up early the next day and ready to go again.
Guiding fishermen was a way of life for Tres Amigos, and we were very good at what we did. We could spot fish, coax anglers into putting the fly in exactly the right spot so it would be scratching gravel when it passed the fish. Often the fish would take, and we’d have a big fight on our hands.
One thing captivated the three of us: putting people into big fish for the first time. The smiles that crossed their faces when they fought a 15-pound steelhead for the first time; got hooked into a 30-pound Chinook salmon; or was trying to land a big hook-jawed male brown trout weighing 12 to 18 pounds. It’s been many years since those faces broke out into a smile, but I vividly remember most of them.
There wasn’t anything we wouldn’t do for each other. John was known to tie flies by hand on the river bank when we ran out. George was always there to coax anxious anglers into following a big fish downstream, and I was the guy that made it all work with the precision of a Swiss watch. All of us had a job to do, and we greeted each peach-colored dawn with a smile on our face and a jump in our step.
For 10 years we were Tres Amigos—three friends—who made a living in the best possible way—being outdoors, on the river, and with a client holding tight to a big fish jumping in the river.
We often went without eating, found ourselves upside down in the river current trying to net a client’s fish for them, and we looked out for each other. We also paid attention to our clients, catered to their every wish that was ethical and legal, and we coaxed more out of our client’s skill levels than they knew they had.
We put people into fall-spawning rainbows that had tiny tails, fat waists, and a 23-inch fish that weighed 13 pounds. The browns, especially the big males, were a golden-bronze with big spots; the steelhead were mint-silver and high jumping; the Chinook salmon were tackle busters of the first degree, and some mighty battles would cover a half-mile of river. The coho salmon were seldom finicky about a fly: put it to them at their level, and they would hit.
It was a magical 10 years, and now brother George is gone. John McKenzie talk all too seldom, and when last we spoke, we took a trip down memory lane. We were there for the finest salmon and trout fishing this state has ever seen, and pride ourselves on being the first fly-fishing river guides.
And that, my friends, is something we’ll never forget.