A tribute to Max Donovan
Some 55 years ago, my long-time mentor — Max Donovan of Clio, Michigan — took pity on the scrawny blond-haired kid with bent hornrim glasses, and took me north to fish the mainstream AuSable River for trout.
“We’re going to be fishing near a place called Wa-Wa-Sum,” Max said. “It don’t make no difference what fly is hatching today. We’ll be using the Adams, a No. 12 or 14, I suspect.”
Now, a bit of background history. Max was a hemophiliac, a bleeder. He would bleed for a week or more if he nicked his chin while shaving. He also was, at the time, the oldest living hemophiliac who had part of a leg amputated. His “wooden leg,” as he called it, worked quite handily and he could wade well at the time.
The drive proved a lesson in history about the inventor of the Adams fly, which we would soon be using. Max had it down pat.
“This here is my favorite fly and I can catch any kind of trout on it that rises to the surface to feed,” and after having shared many fishing trips with Donovan, I knew he could do it. “This fly looks like many other flies, and drift it drag-free over a feeding fish, they will take it like they were starving.
Max Donovan with a black duck.
“OK, Len Halladay of Mayfield (just north of Kingsley and south of Trqverse City), invented the Adams fly in 1922 to fish on Mayfield Pond and streams such as the Boardman River. He named the fly after his friend, Judge Charles Adams of Ohio.”
Some feel the Adams closely imitates some mayflies and stoneflies. The fly, born at the Mayfield Hotel and first used on Mayfield Pond, has been imitated but Halladay’s original creation, is a wonderful catcher of trout.
“Now, listen up, don’t you worry about me,” Donovan said after his Len Halladay-Adams one-sided discussion ended. “I’m heading downstream. I know this stretch of water well enough, and know where the deeper spots are. I know where the trout hold and where they don’t.
“Got any Adams flies,” he asked, knowing full well I didn’t. “Here are a half-dozen. Lose them all in the trees and it will be a long day for you. Watch your back cast, don’t pitch the flies into the trees, and find a feeding fish. There will be a quiz later about what you’ve learned while fishing alone.”
Off he went, with a little hitch in his git-along, and he would drill casts under over-hanging branches to fish water most anglers could never reach. I watched him fish around the bend and out of sight, and then headed upstream along the bank.
I was looking for rising fish, and soon found some. I’d work into position, cast so the No. 14 Adams landed a few feet above the rising trout. I mended the line like Max had taught me, and soon hooked a 12-inch brown. Into my creel it went, this being well before the catch-and-release restrictions went into effect.
Mind you, this was in the days of yore, long before this stretch near Wa-Wa-Sum became a no-kill area. For me, at the time, was a philosophy of catch-and-keep.
Some great fishing then in what now is a no-kill zone.
The fish were fairly easy, and I caught several and put a few down with a sloppy cast. One was a beautiful 14-inch brown, and being young and needing praise from the master, the fish was kept.
Time dragged on as the sun started lowering into the west, and I fished back downstream to the end of Thendara Road where we were parked.
A good fish rose just upstream from the dock at Wa-Wa-Sum, and I worked him patiently. I erred on the side of caution on my approach, and eventually worked close enough to the fish to drift a fly. I switched to a No. 12, a larger fly, and knew there would be but one or two casts.
The brown moved to the fly, tipped up and sipped it off the surface. The fish jumped once, settled into a midstream scrap, and was finally landed.
Some clapping was heard, and Max stood by the car watching, and offered a “Good job. Let’s take a look at him.”
He said he never caught a fish but I didn’t believe him, but I showed off five fish including two really nice ones. He studied them and me, asked it I’d had a good day, and he was told that it had been a wonderful day.
Then came the quiz. “When did Len Halladay invent the Adams? I had forgotten about the date and the quiz.
Max exacted his punishment for me failing his test.
“That’s great,” he said. “In view of your exceptionally good luck and my poor luck, and because you failed the test, I’m going to let you clean all those fish. We will eat them tonight as we think of our trout fishing day, Len Halladay, the Adams fly, and how you really made me look bad.
“For that, you also get to wash and dry all the dishes. My leg stump is getting a bit tender, so I have get off it, and because I’m all gimped up and can’t get away, I suppose you’ll torture me to death about your fish-catching prowess.”
Somehow, I knew I’d get stuck with the cooking and dishes. But that was the price of admission to learn about trout fishing and fly-tying history from the master.
Bless him. He’s been gone for many years now but it’s amazing how many duck hunting and trout fishing memories I have of me and Max. All are treasured tales, and one by one they will be trotted out, hopefully for your reading pleasure. So stay tune for another at some future date.