Rusty Gates, of the Holy Waters

The Au Sable is a river of subtlety.

The 120-mile river that gently wends its way east from near Grayling to Lake Huron shares little in temperament or appearance with the brash mountain streams of the Rockies or the sweeping brown mass of the Mississippi.

The small things make a difference here on Michigan’s most renowned river, which fishermen consider one of the country’s finest trout streams, and which canoeists cherish. And the man who perhaps best understands the Au Sable, its small things and their large consequences, is Calvin “Rusty” Gates, owner of Gates Au Sable Lodge, fly fishing guru and, when he sees the need, combative protector of the river.

Like the river itself, Gates, 51, does not come on with bluster. Quiet as a shadow, lean as a fly rod, Gates has earned widespread respect for his strong work ethic, his knowledge of the river and its fish, and his resolve to protect the life and river he loves.

In the waning of a July afternoon behind his lodge, Gates takes a few moments to smoke a Marlboro Light and just be by the river. He watches the evening’s shadows slide across the dark water. Above him he can hear the sighing of tree leaves as they turn their pale bellies in the breeze. This type of moment he has lived thousands of times before.

Running past where Gates stands, the Au Sable, dark with tannin, is a corridor of oolong—seemingly still, yet moving. Though dark, the river is transparent enough to reveal green river grasses on the bottom waving in the current. Reeds along the bank nod in the flow. A bare tree branch dips into the water, dipping, dipping to the rhythm of the stream. A miniature circle appears in an eddy and then grows to silver-dollar size and is gone. A trout had sipped a fly from the surface. The scene seeps into your being and makes you feel at peace.

As Gates sits and absorbs the calm, an aluminum canoe sluices in from upriver. Paddles bang against gunnels. The canoe presents an extravaganza of pink. Wedged in the stern is a broad belly sunburned a painful pink, and more pink perches at the bow—pink bikini, sunburned skin. The canoe swings broadside as the navigator struggles to pop open a Budweiser. Can wedged between his feet, he recovers with two frantic sweep strokes. Next arrive two tousle-haired teenagers floating in inner tubes. “And so she goes, like, ‘Don’t drip that ice cream on me.’ And I go …”

And then a stubby yellow kayak. And then a canoe and another canoe. Gates speaks no words from shore. The paddlers send no greetings from the water. “Let’s put it this way,” says Gates after the flourish of passersby, “they usually don’t stop here to use the phone.” The comment is classic Gates. Subtle, because it is an oblique reference to a divide between fly fishermen and canoe liveries over canoe traffic, and strong, because Gates is making a no-apologies acknowledgment of where he stands.

And the canoe traffic issue is just one of several river topics on which Gates makes his stand clear. In recent times, he has marshaled an effort to block oil drilling near the pristine Mason Tract on the Au Sable’s South Branch, worked to enforce Natural Rivers Act protections, and every September since 1995 he has led an annual river clean-up when hundreds of volunteers—including state officials—pick up trash along 100 miles of the river’s banks.Gates sees all of this as part of his job—unofficial and unpaid—as river keeper for the Au Sable.

Rusty Gates started his journeys to the Au Sable River soon after he turned teenager. He tagged along with his father, who taught him the fine art of trout catching. He loved the fishing. He loved the river. Little did he guess that he would become a crusader for both.

Before Rusty took over the Gates Lodge, it was his dad’s place—Calvin Sr.’s. The father had taught and directed band at high schools in Pinconning, Bay City and Oscoda. His mother, Mary, taught piano and played the church organ, so the three sons and three daughters all learned instruments. 

Which instruments? “Well whatever Dad needed for the school band,” Gates says. He can still play the trombone. So when fishermen stroll around the fly shop at Gates Lodge—checking out flies with names like Rusty’s Spinner 10 and Au Sable Hopper 8—the music they hear is Mozart. 

It’s possible to catch Rusty when he steals in through a back door with no one really noticing. He’ll listen to the music and react the way he does when he tells you about a perfect fly to use that day. He cocks one eyebrow as though to say, Isn’t that cool? And on this day in July, with that one eyebrow up, he says, “It’s rare to walk into a fly shop and hear good music.”

Calvin Sr. turned himself into a fly fisherman extraordinaire. Some say he was the best they had ever seen. He started by commuting to the South Branch of the Au Sable nearly every weekend.

“He was a terrible addict,” Rusty says.

Then in 1970, Calvin Sr. completely gave in to his addiction. He gathered up his family, cashed in his retirement savings and made a down payment on a lodge where Stephan Bridge crossed the main branch of the Au Sable. It was called the Canoe Inn and had a main building and 12 motel-style rooms. The place, which never made much money, was owned by Mrs. Zoe Borcher and catered to canoeists. Calvin envisaged a fly fishers’ home base. When the family of eight moved in, their real estate agent said she expected the property to be back up for sale in six months. “No family with six kids is going to make it there,” she said.

Thirty-seven years later, Gates Au Sable Lodge is still going strong. Along the way, the family rebuilt all of the original buildings and added others, and now it is truly a fly fisher’s home base.

All six kids worked at the lodge. And they worked hard. Though Cal Sr. charmed guests, with his kids he was “a little Hitler,” Gates says. “I was the only one who would stand up to him. And we had some knock-down, drag-out fights.” But Gates also learned to work—hard.

Along with other jobs, Gates started tying flies when he was about 17. Now he pays local fishing enthusiasts, including many kids in high school and college. Ninety percent of the flies in Gates’s shop are tied by locals, “not like other shops where the flies come from India and Sri Lanka,” Gates says.  

“He’s put eight or ten kids through college,” says Josh Greenberg, one of the five full-time guides at Gates Au Sable Lodge. He counts himself among those kids who Gates helped along.

After high school, Rusty escaped his father’s demanding ways and worked away from the lodge. He put in about 80 hours a week—8 to 5 every day for the propane company and then nights pumping gas. And he had other jobs as well. After five years, he realized that was not the way he wanted to live. 

When his father had a brain aneurysm in 1976 and was hospitalized for several weeks, Gates came back to work at the lodge. By the time his dad retired in 1982, Gates was running the business full time.

And the lodge was succeeding. Helping immensely: for the first 10 years, a photo of Gates Lodge was featured in the center spread of Fly Fishing Magazine, associated with Berkley Fly Schools. The publicity fixed Gates Lodge in the minds of fly fishermen across America.

Then in 1992 came what fishermen call “the movie.” It was Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It, with Brad Pitt fishing surging Montana streams. People took up fly fishing by the thousands.

Most of these Pitt-wannabes did not endure. “They did not have the patience,” Gates says. “The fly-fishing boom lasted about five years,” Gates grins with that raised eyebrow. “It was long enough to put all new roofs on the buildings.”

Now 98 percent of lodgers are repeat customers. Some families have been coming for three or four generations. “Fathers teach their sons to fish and their sons, in turn, teach their sons,” Gates says.

Over time, Gates Lodge added a few guest rooms, a restaurant—now one of the best in the region—offered a guiding service and opened a retail fly fishing shop many consider the place to stop before any fly fishing trip on the Au Sable.

With his lodge widely regarded as the happy place of Michigan’s fly fishing psyche, perhaps it was inevitable that Rusty Gates would also become a defender of the Au Sable.

Back in 1986, Gates along with five men who regularly fly fished on the Au Sable, came up with the idea of forming The Anglers of the Au Sable. This would be not just a club but rather an action group designed to preserve and protect the Au Sable and the nearby Manistee River.

Anglers now claims 900 members from throughout the United States. The group produces a quarterly publication called Riverwatch and a Web site, which keeps track of the latest doings on the river and serves up the latest tips for fly fishers.

One dispute in particular helped jumpstart the Anglers group. It was a local community effort to end a “no kill, catch-and-release” fishing policy for an eight-mile section of the Au Sable Main Stream that included the revered Holy Water. The no kill policy had been approved by the state Department of Natural Resources in 1985, but a Grayling group of 60 or so wanted it repealed. They wanted to walk to the edge of town and fish for dinner. 

Gates’s no-flinch battle to preserve the catch-and-release policy did not endear him to the Grayling town elders and many others. “For a time,” he says, “I was the local whipping boy in the Letters to the Editor of the Crawford County Avalanche.”

It eventually was resolved in favor of the no kill policy in Crawford County Circuit Court.

From there, Gates and the Anglers took on a full range of efforts to protect the river. These activities included studies of the river’s temperatures, turbidity, fish stocks and insect life. All too frequently Gates finds himself far from the quiet waters he loves, raising his voice in the offices of bureaucrats and legislators and in various courtrooms.

The battles all have been part of the group’s effort to watchdog such things as dam policies, incursions by oil companies into the watershed, erosion control and pollution from Camp Grayling, which is one of the country’s largest National Guard centers and is near the Au Sable headwaters. 

In recent times, Gates and the Anglers in coordination with the Sierra Club have fought back efforts to drill for oil near the Mason Tract, a 14-mile stretch along the South Branch surrounded by protected woodlands that cover 5,300 acres.

“I’ll be darned if they are going to ruin one of the most special places we have left,” Gates says.

Gates and the group has also raised tens of thousands of dollars to improve the river and install “fish hotels,” places where fish can hide, rest and lurk when looking for an insect snack.

Real estate deals along the Au Sable also concern Gates. While paddling this river, certain sections seem less like pristine woodlands and more like a series of suburban backyards. Making population density worse, now when a large lot goes up for sale it often is subdivided into three lots. Everyone, it seems, wants a house by the river.

Back by the river’s side, Gates slips back to discussing fishing the Au Sable. “It’s all good fishing here, all good trout water. But it’s not easy. These fish are about as wild as they get.

“Trout,” he says, “have a brain about the size of a pea. But they are very smart. They’d be easy to catch if they weren’t.

”It seems that the fish too, like the river and Gates himself, take heed of the small things. “These trout can sense when a bald eagle flies over. They head for cover,” he says.

“It’s pretty cool to see,” he says, as he lifts an eyebrow.

Gerald Volgenau writes from Ann Arbor. His latest book, Islands, Great Lakes Stories, is available in bookstores and online. Look for Shipwreck Hunter: Deep, Dark and Deadly in the Great Lakes to be released this spring. [email protected]

If you go
Gates Au Sable Lodge
Open April through October. Rates start at $90 per night, double occupancy. Fourteen motel-style rooms with double beds and one two-bedroom suite with fireplace in living room. Reservations recommended, especially during peak trout season. 989-348-8462, www.gateslodge.com or [email protected]
Rusty’s book
The Michigan Au Sable: Seasons on the River
By Rusty Gates
$24.95, Hardcover, 248 pages, ISBN 1-58726-452-8.Available April 1, 2007

Rusty Gates reflects on his life along the Au Sable, sharing memories and practical fly-fishing tips along the way. Proceeds from book sales go to The Anglers of the Au Sable, a river protection group that Gates helped found.

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