Salmon Camp 2015: Pere Marquette River

From October 4th, 2015 through October 9th, 2015 I was blessed with the opportunity observe one of natures great sights on the Pere Marquette river in Michigan, that is, Chinook salmon running into a river to spawn and then die in order to make the next generation of fish.

The 2015 class salmon numbers are not what they have been in the past, it showed in the river but that didn't stop us from having some fun catching and releasing a few of these amazing fish. 

I visited the Pere Marquette river with the Miami Valley Fly Fishers club, a trip that the club has been putting together for over twenty years. We stayed at the venerable and historically significant Barothy Lodge. Having spent a week earlier this year in Belize I felt a bit like it I was tracing, although in reverse, a small part of the legend Vic Barothy SR founder of Barothy lodge and one of the first anglers to explore and establish sport fishing destinations in Belize.

Barothy lodge was established in the 1930s originally as a family retreat and then transformed into a guided fishing operation with tents, then cabins and now beautiful lodges. It is as hallowed ground as there is in the pantheon of Michigan fly fishing history second perhaps only to the Holy Waters stretch of the Au Sable. The paths are well worn and the holes named and occupied by anglers in this season for decades.

I've floated through the Barothy section before with Steve Martinez of and knew it only in passing. Although, he reminded me last week that one of the most vicious takes of a swung fly I've ever felt was on a hole just below the legendary Steelhead Cabin on the property. That was a good one.

My week at Barothy began slowly on Monday our first day of fishing. I started out fishing a two handed spey rod, not something I do often enough to be proficient but something I love to do when appropriate. The 12'-9" rod and 600 Grain Third Coast Skagit Head spooled on the gigantic SmithFly Wheel Hoss Reel was just a too big for this section of water, I prety much knew that going in, but I had to try.

I've used that same or similar set-up on the PM before on a different stretch of the PM and it worked very well. It roll casts like a dream and swings flies with the best of them But that was on a bigger stretch. With this set-up I ended up flogging the river too hard and the few zombie fish to death in the river that first day, and came up empty. But so did some others in the club. The few that fished with guides had a couple fish to hand and many hook ups but all on different stretches of water, the fish just weren't there in numbers.

Tuesday I switched to swinging streamers and trailing hook patterns on a single hand 8WT with a sinking tip line. Again the Barothy stretch was about the same. Those who fished with guides and were able to cover water came back with a few fish to hand. JD a club member even hit the PM slam, a 20" brown trout, a steelhead and Salmon in one day. Now that's FISHING! But the Barothy property just didn't have the fish in numbers like it should and I came back skunked again, and in all likely mostly due to my insistence on sticking to my guns and fishing big streamers. Many in the club hooked and landed more fish on the property but all chuck and duck and not as many as there should have been hooked.

Wednesday was magic! The temps dropped overnight from Tuesday to Wednesday and the fish filled in the holes. Early that morning I rigged a prototype 10'-9" 7/8 switch rod that I'm thinking about bringing to market with a full switch line and a chuck and duck leader set-up. When in Rome right? I rigged up a long leader with a barrel swivel, a tag with four split shot, an egg sucking stone fly, and an egg pattern as the lead fly. You've got to get down to get these salmon to eat. And eat they did.

As a baseball fan and fisherman I suppose I'm a bit more superstitious than most so I was fishing without a net first thing that morning. Until I had a solid hook up the net seemed like a good way to jinx myself. I know it's silly, but it is what it is. I walked dow to the section the club had been fishing most of the week and found a great looking hole lacking a fisherman but containing a nice batch of highly active and aggressive male fish darting around behind a very fresh female. I slipped in ahead of the hole quietly and laid out a few easy roll casts and hooked a solid male behind the female. I landed that fish easily in a quick couple of minutes and beached it on a log without a net, a feat that many had told me was nearly impossible. Difficult yes, impossible no. The fish revived quickly and swam off before I could get proper pics of it, a bright and fresh mid-sized male, my first salmon. He ate the stonefly in the middle of the rig and was cleanly hooked in the corner of the jaw. Incredible.

I walked back to the car to retrieve the net. The skunk was off and it was time to get serious, I was now a believer in the chuck and duck method even though I was using a more fly fishy version with a regular floating fly line, a method used twenty years ago but out favor now. Most people tend to use a thin monofilament running line behind their leader. I wouldn't go that down and dirty, I'm in Rome, but I still have standards.

The rest of the day was the height of what I would call excellent fishing, the way the stories from the past on the PM go. Lots of hot fish, super active, a conveyor belt of fresh fish moving into the holes — one after another. Fresh feisty fish were jumping and hooking up everywhere. Doubles hooked up. Lines broken, fish flying, boils everywhere. Laughter carrying down the river. Nets in the water, fish flopping, hooks poking, tangling in the net. Pure insanity, all day. That's what makes salmon fishing fun, the common bond forged over supporting others with net duties, trading swings through the holes, hanging out on the banks watching your friends hook up and break off, sun shining through the golden tipped leaves of early fall.

All the stories I've heard about that style of fishing came together for an amazing ten to twelve hours hours on the river. I must have hooked up 30-40 fish that day. I landed maybe 3 or four myself, and landed probably a dozen or so for other people. I blew a couple key net jobs. I broke off some real donks, but witnessed so many acrobatic salmon it really made me a believer in the fishery. We slept well that night.

Thursday I went back to fishing with style instead of ease. In the morning I hiked to the end of the property in serach of big brown troots hiding in the brush piles and log jams. Found none to eat my fly, but had a great hike. I hiked back ate lunch and switched out to a more simple swung trailing hook presentation, just to force the issue and see it work on a big dinosaur tooothed rotting critter. I hiked down to the popular holes after a robust lunch consisting of a sandwich piled with honey ham, bread and butter pickles, mayo, mustard on 12 grain bread, a fresh pot of coffee and some tasty but simple no bake chocolate peanut butter oatmeal cookies. Ok, so it's not high brow stuff but is good fuel to burn, the coffee was single source Sumatra extra dark. 

The holes I fished wednesday were all locked up with club members so I found an empty portion at the far bend, a hole the club calls Sam's hole, because of Sam's propensity for fishing it early in the mornings. I'm sure it has another name, probably a handful of them but we call it Sam's hole. 

I swung the fly to some fiesty fish, there weren't as many fish in the holes through out the river as there were the day before, many of them had moved on to new gravel and new holding water up stream of the Barothy section. I swung the fly in front of many eager fish, the males in the hole were very active and were swiping at the fly but I couldn't get one to commit to an eat. The salmon's stomach actually shrinks up when spawning to make room for reproductive organs. So most fighting behavior exhibitied is pushing with the gill plate or shoulder. Big males push the smaller jacks out of the way routinely and chase them around all over the place. The big males were pushing my fly but not eating it.

Then it happened. A big male came out from the dark undercut bank and chomped down on the big blue spey fly and ate it! The fight didn't last long, the giant ripped line nearly to my backing and headed downstream. He had an amazing cartwheeling jump in him in the dark hole below me. The light had grown flat and grey and heavy mist was settling in. The fish threw drops of water from the tight line into the air and my reel screamed as I palmed it in an attempt to stop it. Since the rod wasn't what I really planned on using the reel I had put the switch line on was an old very cheap clicker reel with little to no drag. I was no match. I tried to stop it, but he ran and ran and finally broke me off, but only after burning one of my fingers on the running line.

Undeterred I tied on a new length of leader material and another beautiful spey fly and swung it through the hole a few more times and low and behold another monster smashed it and broke off quickly. Two hook ups on a swung fly to Salmon, I was satisfied. 

By this time the rain had finally moved in and the other fisherman began to retreat the comfort of thier lodges. I headed in as well. I walked up stream but found the organizer of the trip, Jim, fishing alone in the hole I had fished on Wednesday morning. He was drenched and cackling like a mad man as he fought a real beast of a Salmon. I jumped in the water and grabbed the net but the fish broke off. I was on my way in after being drenched in the rain fishing for a couple hours in the cold and the rain, but the excitement of the moment caused pause.

There for the next hour or so I watched the master in his element. He was calling shots and eats and hook ups. Every cast he knew was money and it was. I lost track of how many fish he hooked and landed right there, we lost many more than we netted. In between his fish I continued to swing flies into the darker water behind the gravel to no avail. The fish in this hole just were not as aggressive the fish in the hole further down. I looked up at one point and there was Jim, with his hood hanging low over his eyes looking like the Emperor from Star Wars, he was the Sith Lord of the Salmon, calling out every time he'd hook one. 

"Here comes the Perfect drift, there's one, this is it, fish on!"

I'd get the net, he'd break off, and re-rig. I'd swing flies, we'd land a fish or two, and repeat, in the pouring rain on the misty river. That's a good way to end a trip, fish after fish, jumping, running, screaming up and down the run, rain pouring down, light growing dim, dark creeping in, laughing and landing fish, tired, cold and wet, river weary but always finding that next fresh one and getting it to eat that bright stonefly.

There are a lot of opinions on the salmon in Lake Michigan. Tommy Lynch the Fish Whisperer Guide Service is a guide and fly tier that I admire very much and an influential member of the Baldwin / Pere Marquette fishing community. He says the Salmon fishing is over and that everyone up there needs to come to grips with that. I think he is right, it will never be like it was, and that's ok. Anglers may need to switch to thinking about brown trout fishing and steelhead fishing year round. That's fine, lets spread the thundering herds of meat hunters a bit seasonally. I never knew salmon fishing like it was a decade or more ago when the salmon population in the lake was closer to 7 million, (now it's 2.5 million) and I'm ok with that. But if it was anything like what I experienced for a couple days then I can see why people want to preserve it, even if only in a small version of it's original glory. It's a pretty cool thing to behold. 

I used to shudder at the thought of fishing next to someone twenty feet away from me and having ten other guys within ear shot. Salmon fishing is a community effort. Sure I landed one by myself with no net, but there is something fun and social about helping your friends land fish and seeing other folks hook up around the bend and hearing the shouts coming form the distance with leaping fish and tight lines all around. That's lodge fishing at it's best. As long as you are there with a group, and embrace it it can be fun. 

If the Salmon can find balance with the Alewife population and keep their food source from crashing like it did in lake Huron then the Salmon population will remain and the salmon fishing on the PM will remain. Even it's not as good as it was, it's still worth enjoying a little. It may not be the carnival of earthly delights that it was in days past but a little bit of awesome is better than none. We just need to make sure we release fish, and don't tromp through the reds. Don't fish to the females and let nature do it's thing. Steelhead have been in that river since the mid 1800s and the population is wild and stable.  If the alewives can stay in the lake then salmon will be there so that some day I can take my kids up there and hopefully they too can have some fun catching these magnificent, if a bit boorish fish and witness the true circle of life played out across the gravel bars of western Michigan.



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