Fly Fishing the Au Sable River in Grayling, Michigan
Gates Au Sable Lodge – Harmony on the Holy Waters
The Gates Au Sable Lodge has evolved since its early days, not only are the rooms comfortable and the river view splendid, the 30 seat dining room has raised the bar with its full service breakfast, lunch and dinner offerings. So high, I’m told it’s hard to secure a dinner table on weekends as the local crowds are booking ahead of the fishermen who once held court at the fireside tables.
Chili Rellenos was the campfire recipe choice I received from chef Matt Haley when asked what he’d prepare for our rivers edge dinner on the Au Sable in May. Matt, a veteran from south Florida corporate hotel kitchens, chose to relocate to Grayling Michigan six years ago, along with his wife Emily (she makes an excellent blueberry pie), the Gates Lodge pastry chef. They have not only built the business with owner Josh Greenberg but also a whole new way of life. Along with guides like Jordan Klemish, a local man who shares his passion and knowledge for the river with guests on over a 120 float trips a year, the whole team has crafted an experience for adventurers that features a natural setting – a place that they all are willing to fight for to maintain its pristine existence as they share the mantra “the cure for every doubt is why we fish for trout”.
As we floated from one bend to the next, Haley mused about living a quiet life with Emily at a place that requires focus and hands on attention – so different and sometimes more intense than the union based corporate job of his past. In short time I realized that articulating his experience was an emotional exercise as the 6 foot 3 chef on the bow of the long, thin drift boot got choked up describing his life in what he now sees as “heaven”.
Grayling Michigan has a story to tell, once a thriving timber mill town, the rivers were then full of grayling trout said to be stacked like cordwood in the Au Sable. Grayling trout ironically soon disappeared from the river in the late 1800’s due to their loss of habitat caused by the harsh practice of moving logs down the river in springtime. In an effort to restock the river with grayling, a species rarely found elsewhere at lower elevations, wealthy conservation minded men like Thomas Edison and Edsel Ford helped build a hatchery to restock the rivers with trout. As the hatchery was developed, changes to the use of the river were made to protect it and bring it back to its wild state. While these moves were never able to bring the grayling back, they were successful in establishing a flourishing population of brook, brown and rainbow trout to Grayling area rivers. As a result, this remote area referred to in Wikipedia as the “Gateway to Up North” has become a true river town, host to one of the longest running canoe races in history and a magnet for fly casters.
Planning a trip to the Au Sable river in Grayling Michigan takes some time, in my case the journey started in February when I called Josh to see if Chef Matt Haley might have time to fish with me, we picked a date when the Hendricksons were said to be hatching and proceeded to the next task of booking a room, a guide and setting up a morning float with Matt.
The Au Sable River is famous for many things, in the eyes of fly casters like me. It’s prolific hatches (hatch refers the the type of bug emerging from lara on the river’s surface, generally a key to fly choice success) like the hendrickson, blue winged olive, sulphurs and the world famous hex, a large mayfly that breeds after dark and falls to the surface dead afterwards. It’s the legendary Au Sable hex hatch that makes even the largest trout crazy enough to fall prey to hand tied replicas of the hex that brings leagues of fisherman to this river every year. I picked the hendrickson hatch knowing that as a first timer the hex hatch would require a working knowledge of the area (mainly because one fishes the hex in the darkness of night), and the holy waters surrounding the Gates lodge would be best for us this year in mid May.
Finding the Gates Au Sable Lodge in Grayling Michigan isn’t hard, all it takes is a GPS and plenty of time. Don’t be surprised by the remote location either, on the bend in a river that’s locally referred to as “The Holy Waters” and you’ll find a sign that changes with the different insect hatches.
The nice thing about fishing with a guide like Jordan is that the local guy chooses the flies. Early on in our float he was suggesting streamers (flies which replicate small fish instead of bugs) since it was still to cool that morning for a fly hatch. Our float was relaxing and I was amazed by how Jordan handled the handmade drift boat, pulling over to remove my snagged flies, and slowing the pace of our drift to take second and third casts as we encountered things like downed trees and streamside docks.
I hooked my first trout of the day within eye site of the Gates Lodge, just around the first bend. As we release the fish, a kayak floats by, then another, Jordan smiles and waves. Sharing the river is key and the guides of the Au Sable do it with grace and pride. He’s keenly aware of the temperature of the air and water now, the sun is out and it’s growing warmer. He looks up and notices birds circling high above, time to switch to the sulphur, the dry fly.
This means we will now look for rising fish instead of blind casting at structure in and along the river. Another kayak floats by and again he smiles and says hello. Then as the lone craft slips out of site, Jordan mentions that once a group of women were floating by and asked him why the guides all look into the air when they are floating the river? His response was classic “We’re more interested in the bugs than the fish”. Looking up to determine what the birds see, then searching the strata above the water helps the seasoned fisherman to determine what hatch is on and then in turn which fly to consider.
After another bend in the river we see the first rise, Jordan uses his pole to slow the Au Sable drift boat in the current, allowing me to gauge my cast, strip enough line and begin to load the road. After two false casts I release the line and the sulphur fly settles in the soft crease on the river’s edge about four feet upstream from the spot where we saw the rise. Like clockwork, the trout hits my fly and the tug is on. This time a brown trout, about eight inches long. I bring it to the boat, Jordan handles it with respect and releases it without removing it from the water and we drift on.
At the next bend we look down river to see two men in waders casting flies. Jordan whispers rods up, we float by respecting their water, silent and smiling.
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Au Sable River: May 17, 2017 | Grayling, Michigan | Matt Haley, chef Gates Au Sable Lodge | Jordan Klemish, guide