Andrew VanDrie’s Northern Michigan trout opener at the end of April is typically steeped in family tradition. Learn how going with the flow led to an unconventional trout opener among friends.
In years past, the last Saturday in April followed a familiar itinerary. Dad would load the kayaks into the roof racks, pick me up mid-morning and we’d cruise along the bay and swing east until we jounced along the neglected county roads that finally surrendered themselves into plain dirt. We’d wed along a dust-choked track to the ill-marked put-in, unstrap the kayaks and laden them with waders in the hatch and soft coolers with lunch and beer. We’d strap cased flyrods to the bungee netting on the bow, and then we’d shake up a Bloody Mary in a thermos and make a toast to friends, fine weather and another Michigan trout opener together.
This year, our annual agenda had been washed out—flooded with a deluge of house projects yet to complete and the swirling unknowns of a pandemic still at large. We postponed for some sunny morning in June when the stream had warmed and the trout’s appetite wakened. Few diehard traditionalists will freely concede that the snowmelt-chilled streams are usually less than ideal for dry fly takes.
But rather than chalking up the day as a wash, I arranged alternative plans. It was the opener after all! A certifiable holiday for the mayfly maniac. Whether the fishing was poor was entirely irrelevant, and to suggest that this hallowed Saturday be spent indoors was bordering on sacrilege.
A few texts later, a meet-up of three pals was quickly sorted with a gentlemen’s tee time of 1:30 p.m.—a far cry from the lunatics that set alarms for the witching hour and hike up their waders in the dark in an attempt to catch the sun with its pants down. I gladly packed in my boots, waders, trusty 4 weight and let a few adult beverages rattle around in the cooler. We convened in Kyle’s driveway, combined our wares into his truck and, in a nod to years past, headed east.
With my dad, the venture had always been a non-stop straight shot—the no-nonsense paternal obsession to “get there,” with which all fathers are imbued. Today, we moseyed unhurried toward our yet-to-be-determined destination. We paused at Roy’s General Store to gawk at $7 Panther Martins, purchase a few fishing licenses and add some reserve troops to the cooler. We finally put the last outcrops of Traverse City proper in the rearview and were river bound.
Some of the Best Trout Fishing Spots in Northern Michigan
Boardman River, Traverse City | Forks State Forest Campground: Off Supply Road and Brown Bridge Road.
Boardman River, Traverse City | Shumsky’s Canoe Launch: Off River Road.
Manistee River, Grayling | M-72 Launch: This section down to the CCC Bridge is fly fishing only.
Manistee River, Fife Lake | Sharon Road Bridge: N. Sharon Road.
Platte River, Beulah | Platte River State Forest Campground: Off Goose Road.
Pulling into the DNR lot, it was evident that this was not a secret locale (secret trout holes seldom have a state-funded parking lot), but that was of little import. We took our time, rigging up rods, pulling up waders and cracked open that first celebratory brew.
Rods rigged, we crossed the road and, at long last, placed wader boot into water. I unspooled some line from the fly reel and gave some perfunctory false casts. Ian trooped in the middle and Kyle brought up the rear, swinging spinners through the troughs. For a moment, the jesting subsided and an armistice of silence prevailed. Only the river chattered as it rippled over raised stones and swept under cedar boughs. In a Shakespearean twist, a man sat on the bank strumming his guitar and sang a soft folk tune. The bard of the Boardman.
After several break-offs and snags, we were pulled from our streamside reverie. This section had seen an abundance of traffic, something the nomenclature refers to as “fished out.” We piled back into the truck and motored upstream toward less populated haunts. Maneuvering the dirt roads that paralleled the river’s path, we wound farther up toward skinny water. Approaching a bridge, I was certain this covert culvert would be unscathed, only to discover the opposing ditch lined with every manner of rusted pick-up. We pressed on.
Kyle knew of another spot just a few bends up and we pulled onto a narrow access road. To our delight, it was completely vacant. Perhaps the prolonged truck time had heightened our appetites, as we emerged from the cab feeling collective voracity. We realized to our dismay that we had bypassed the plethora of meat sticks, sandwiches and pickled provisions Roy’s had to offer and now stood empty-handed. That is, until Kyle unveiled himself as the Saint of Trout Saturday. Packed in a separate soft cooler were cheese, pickled bologna and canned smoked oysters. We thanked him profusely and tucked into the grub. True, this was not the carefully packed lunch of my prior Opening Days. It was not the smoked snacks, crackers and almonds of which I had come to rely upon my dad to provide. But it was perfect. We sliced off cheese and bologna with a pocket knife. We ate smoked oily oysters from the tin with our fingers. We washed down our streamside feast with beer still cold and rehashed old jokes and laughed about the day’s misfortunes.
Stomach pangs now subsided, we wadered-up for one last hurrah. Ian and I tromped upstream to fish down to-ward the truck, and Kyle sloshed upstream to swing spinners. I tied on a size 14 elk hair caddis and tried to flick my lithe 4 weight between the tight overhangs of the bank. I made a few drifts before the inevitable jarring halt on my backcast. A dropping birch had snatched my fly. I tried to rattle its grasp to no avail and ended up donating one of my hand-tied creations to this arboreal fiend.
I retied and worked downstream, maintaining a flawless record of zero hits (unless you count the birch). Soon Kyle came into view and we worked opposite one another, searching the last few pockets and bends. Ian sat on the bank and watched our glacial approach toward one another. I asked if he wanted to throw a few last casts, and it was only now that he divulged that both feet in his waders had leaks and he had been squelching in cold river water all day.
The trout ignored our many offerings, but that was largely to be expected. We shucked our waders for the last time, Ian put on a dry pair of socks and we climbed into the truck. Rather than retrace our path, Kyle led us farther up the two-track that I had known for so long but never pursued this far. We wended pasts pine stands and scrub plains, catching glimpses of the river that coursed as it chose.
This had not been the trout opener of years gone. It had been undeniably different in substance, circumstance and even in stream. Rather than trying to recreate that which cannot be replicated, we shifted our course the way the river deposits sand on a bank or scoops out an oxbow. It’s never the same river again, but its essence remains unaltered. Regardless of river chosen, or number of trout, the last Saturday in April is about chasing and sharing that riparian mania—a streamside obsession that flows uninterrupted from our past right on downstream to where we’re bound to go.
Andrew VanDrie writes from Traverse City. [email protected]
Find this article and more in the April 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine; or subscribe and get Traverse Magazine delivered to your door each month.