Avid fly fisherman Phil Croff—a guide, master craftsman and boat building maven—knows a thing or two about navigating Northern Michigan’s rivers in search of “elusive trout.” On the brink of Trout Opener (April 25th), MyNorth’s Dani Knoph caught up with Phil to talk about the wild side of fly fishing, awe-inspiring catches, and tips for working a Northern Michigan river.

Dani: What rivers have you fished in Northern Michigan and what two do you look forward to fishing the most this season?
Phil: I fish all over Northern Michigan, but the Au Sable and the upper Manistee are two of Michigan’s famed trout waters that should not be ignored.

Dani: It’s a blue-sky Northern Michigan May day, the rivers are open, what’s your rod, reel line and 2 flies?
Phil: May starts our dry fly season. Hendricksons are the big kickoff for most anglers. Depending on the the size of the water we’re on, the rod will be 8 to 9 feet long and either a 4 or 5 weight with a WF (weight forward) floating line that matches up. A hendrickson parachute dry fly and a henny soft hackle pattern would be my two flies.

Dani: The most awe-inspiring fish you’ve ever caught…
Phil: During the months of June, July and August I run a lot of guide trips after dark for trophy Brown Trout. Two years ago in August, I was fishing a Midnight Derby Tourney. That night at 1:45am I hooked and landed my biggest Brown Trout to date. That trout was 28 inches long and probably weighed about 11 1/2 pounds. My partner and I went on to win that night, and the whole experience was awesome.

Dani: Back in March, Traverse Magazine featured a story about Michael Delp’s love for his fish truck. Hands down, one of my favorite essays of 2015. What’s your ideal fish truck?
Phil: My Toyota 4 Runner is not too shabby. It’s all set up for my rod storage and tows my boats very well. It has a lot of room for gear and does a great job of getting its smaller footprint around in the woods.

Dani: What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever seen on the river?
Phil: I’ve seen a lot of cool and crazy stuff, but one night 5 years ago, freaked us out. I was floating with a buddy, fishing nighttime Browns. It’s very quiet at 3am, so the grass rustling as we came around the corner was alarming. We couldn’t see what it was, but when we got right on top of them, two huge sand hill cranes stood up and ran away through the grass. You talk about two freaked tough guys, that was us! Among other things, we’ve seen elk, large owls, eagles, beaver, deer and bear. I highly recommend getting out on one of our Northern Michigan rivers because it can be a fantastic experience. The scenic beauty is unsurpassed.

Dani: Do you have a guidebook that you recommend to anglers?
Phil: The Soft-Hackled Fly and Tiny Soft Hackles, by Sylvester Nemes. 
I’m a big advocate of swinging soft hackles for trout because it’s very effective, enjoyable and is easy for people to learn.

Dani: You’ve been building gorgeous cedar driftboats for several years now. The boats are so stunning, they must lure the darn fish right to you. Tell us about your craft.
Phil: I’ve been a finish carpenter by trade since I was in my teens. After building my first boat to fish some of our Northern Michigan water at night, the hobby turned into my dream job. Boat building has been a trial and error experience, but with several years under our belt now, we are selling them all over the country. It’s always a work in progress, continuing to make the boats stronger, lighter and more efficient. I love my job.

Dani: What are 3 tips for working a Northern Michigan river in Spring?
Phil: Number one, Know your water and be careful wading. Spring runoff can be high at times. One must use good judgement when the rivers are up. Always fish with a partner. Safety first. Number two, fish streamers. As the water warms in the spring, trout get aggressive and are hungry coming off winter. Bigger streamer patterns can be very effective. Number three, Patience, Patience, Patience. Some days they don’t cooperate, but stick with it and success will come. If you’re still having trouble catching that fish, booking a guide can help you pick up new skills and techniques for successful fly fishing.

Dani: Say somebody is interested in purchasing one of your cedar boats or booking a trip with you, how can they connect with you?
Phil: The best way is to call 231-330-5762. That is my only phone, and I have it with me at all times. We also have a website, www.croffcraft.com where there are numerous photos of our boats, happy clients with fish and cool videos.

Dani: Thanks for sharing with us, Phil!

Photo(s) by Phil Croff, Croff Craft