The Best Water Still Lies Ahead
Updated: Jan 12
The tartar-sauce-smeared walleye sandwich, deep-fried tater tots, and tall Two Hearted hit all the right notes – more than can be said for the guy wearing the Hawaiian shirt and belting out 80's covers from the back corner of the bar.
It's the Friday before Michigan's trout opener and I'm in Dingman's with my buddy Koz; the place is packed. A dusty gravel parking lot crammed with jacked-up diesels, tricked-out trail-ready Wranglers, and more than a few side-by-sides tells you everything you need to know about our fellow patrons.
A slight cheer rises in the room and we both nod our agreement that Seattle got a steal grabbing MSU’s Kenneth Walker with the 41st pick. I take another sip of beer and smirk at Koz as the gentleman from table four takes his best shot with the slender, slightly tatted bartender sporting painted-on jeans and a low-cut t-shirt. The salvo falls safely short, embarrassingly evident to everyone but him. She flashes a practiced smile and wiggles past. Chalk up another big tip to courage in a can and a healthy side of pre-season bravado. On a night like tonight, it's easy to feel a little swagger, warranted or not.
After dinner we opt for the backroad-route to Koz's place, and swing through the campground upriver to size up the competition. It's about what we expected. A cacophony of trailers, tents, tarps, and even a quite-impressive totem-turned-flagpole form the small symphony of opening-day optimists. We roll past with a polite wave.
Back at the cabin, Jason pulls in just in front of us. He grabs his gear and we all head inside to get out of the chill, each staking out our respective bunk before pouring a few drinks, finding a cozy chair, and laying plans around the radiant-orange wood stove.
The forecast looks encouraging, a relative metric here in the Great Lakes state. The weatherman on 9-and-10 News tells us tomorrow will be warmish with in-and-out sun followed by a good rain overnight. The fact that he delivers it with a straight face is convincing enough and, like Lion's fans on draft night, a "this-is-our-year” glow suddenly fills the cabin. With a low-pressure system moving in, and temps that could touch 60, we are hopeful for Hennies, and chart our course accordingly.
Foolproof plan in place, we all but high-five ourselves while mentally snapping grip-n-grins and carefully returning golden trophies back to silver streams. Bend by bend we work the water in our conversations, at some point losing count of all the fish we've brought to hand, the excitement rising in climatic crescendo. Warmed by the fire, assured success, and the contents of a charred-oak barrel, we finally turn in, chasing a sunrise that can't come soon enough.
Like an eight-year-old on Christmas Eve, shut-eye is elusive, my anticipation barely dulled by the liberal doses of rocks-glass sleep medicine I've consumed. I toss and turn, playing the events of tomorrow's float over and over in my mind's eye, and walking through my fly selection one final time. The click-click of the wall clock a tortured testament to time traveling too slow.
Darkness. The coffee begins its pre-programmed brew and, moments later, the rich aroma of the pot's contents hits, coaxing me awake. Mustering all of my concentration I manage to pry one eye open and then the next. Rubbing the blur away, I'm bid good morning by a wash of pinkish-purple sky over the dark river just out the front pane. A good omen to be sure.
The birds are starting to get rowdy in that first-light-of-day kind of way, and there's quiet stirring in the cabin. Untangling myself from the sleeping bag, I tug on some sweatpants, pull on my lucky hat, and stumble to the bathroom before grabbing some coffee and heading outside to have a smoke. The morning has "that feeling" to it. Like porn, it’s hard to describe but you know it when you see it.
On the deck I sip the first of the black elixir and finish my cigarette, watching the tannic water slide slowly past. A breeze as faint as a whisper tickles the trees. For a brief time I'm lost in the rhythm of the river and only dragged back into the present by the wafting scent of breakfast. Koz is a wizard in the kitchen and soon we are stuffed to the point of discomfort.
We clean up and start gathering gear, still waiting on two more friends that will join us for the eight-hour float. Kevin is a podiatrist from Traverse City and Sam is a water-quality biologist for the local tribe.
They roll in just before 8:30, excited. We quickly wader up and head out, wanting to be first down this stretch of water. The air has the slightly damp fresh-dirt smell best described as "spring anticipation" and marsh marigolds pepper the swampy drive.
German legend tells of the first marsh marigold. A young maiden named Caltha (meaning "cup" in Greek) fell so in love with the sun god that she spent her days and nights in the fields, trying to see as much of him as possible, until her body and spirit slowly wasted away. The first marsh marigold – a cup filled with the sun's rays – grew where the devoted maiden had stood.
Spring is the undisputed season of optimism, and the maiden's message is not lost on us.
Finally at the parking area, we wrangle the boats down the ridiculous wooden launch and catch up with a couple other buddies who stop by – planning to start at the next put-in upstream. It’s agreed that today is the day; there’s something you can just feel in the air. We bid them good luck and promise to leave a few untouched fish.
There may not be a moment filled with greater expectancy than when creaky oars first break water on trout opener. We jostle for position out front, and Jason and I manage to win the duel, with Koz, Sam, and Kevin just behind. I start in the bow, rigged with a streamer, knowing we'll be hitting the better hatch water later when the day warms up. We'll switch spots after each fish, rotating between bow and sticks. A quick "yeeeh haw," and we are off.
The first few casts are sloppy, as always, before I finally tamp down the adrenaline and shake off the pre-game jitters. In a rhythm now, every shot providing the puckered anticipation of a strike. I hit each pocket, testing the bank and thick timber while Jason deftly maneuvers us into position. Nothing yet, but any moment will bring the season's first, and then we can all breathe again.
An hour or so in and we've yet to move a fish. I'm not alarmed. We are, after all, barely into the first quarter, and the better water is down around the next bend or two anyway. But still, a small morsel of doubt is planted. We make the corner and the wind noticeably picks up. I shoot a glance at Jason; we both know that behind the wind and around this bend lies our opportunity.
Another hour passes. It's a little premature, but I'm anxious and decide to switch flies again, this time going straight to the "can't miss" black Sex Dungeon that I probably should have started with in the first place. "Dark day, dark fly," they say, and the building cloud cover affirms the inevitable. No more messing around.
The weather shift and my favorite fly have me feeling confident but, in fishing, there's a fine line between optimism and insanity. After another half hour or so of fruitless flogging I'm spent like a mayfly spinner, and reluctantly slip into the middle seat while Jason hops up front to close the deal.
Two hours later we all decide it's time to stop for lunch. A mid-day rally is desperately needed, and brats on the grill chased down with carbonated hops are just the fuel we need. The air carries a hint of humidity and we make quick work of the eating so we can get back to the fishing. The water on the last half of the float is a veritable bug factory, and the weather signals a hatch is imminent. I take one last drag, extinguish the cigarette, and we shove off, eyes glued to the river for tell-tale rings and stealthy sips.
It starts slowly, first a few small BWO's, then a few bigger ones, and finally a Hendrickson here and there. A faint rise, and another. Nothing consistent, but enough to make us pay attention. It's all finally starting to unfold. We float a few parachute patterns down the bubble line but find no takers. I switch up, electing a modified Klinkhammer emerger specially tied by my buddy Ozzy for this very moment. I make the drift, go untouched, and exhale the breath I was holding in. Everything is unnaturally quiet. The talking has stopped; each intently focused as we present our offerings.
And then a heavy splat hits the brim of my hat and another finds my hand. The air has grown thick and the wind feels like it's about to make a switch. Splat. Another drop hits my sleeve. And then the breeze brushes the back of my neck, cooler now. The splats become more regular, pinging off the cooler and the sides of the boat. I pull on my rain jacket and look up. The sky is ominous, and the hatch has completely shut down.
I turn to Jason, "looks like we are back to streamer weather." He nods his affirmation and I switch rods as he pulls anchor. Luckily the section just below the next bridge is prime streamer water, having proven itself several times in the past.
Koz’s boat moves to the front, and we push through some of the less-desirable spots as the rain intensifies. Under the bridge we follow the current on the left and slide into position to fish the channel just upstream from our friends. We work all the way through the tail-out without so much as a follow, and finally decide to move on. Pushing through a slower shallow stretch, we come to the whirlpool. The crew in front has hopped out to thoroughly cover it, so we glide past and focus on the deep undercut clay bank on the right. But I’m simply going through the motions at this point.
We’re still a solid hour and a half from our take-out and soaking wet. I offer to switch up with Jason, but he declines, and we keep moving down, barely slowing to fish. I make a few half-hearted attempts at anything that looks especially juicy, but I’m tired and getting cold. Pride assures that neither of us will be the one to call it, but at this point we are just pushing through and we both know it; collectively lured by thoughts of a warm fire and fresh drink waiting at the end.
Back at the cabin we tie up the boats and unload in the rain. Kevin and Sam have to take off, so we say our goodbyes and our “we’ll get 'em next times” and watch as they roll out. Back inside we change into dry clothes and I immediately get to work on a fire, while Jason pours cocktails, and Koz gets the charcoal going and preps the steaks. Nothing soothes a tough day like red meat on a grill and bourbon in a glass.
After dinner I sneak out under the back porch to burn one last cigarette before settling into a comfy seat with my comfy drink. Warmed by the fire and the spirits we begin planning tomorrow’s float while wet pellets ping on the metal roof. We tune in the local news and the weatherman says tomorrow will be little warmer with heavy cloud cover and a slight chance of rain. A perfect streamer day.
Eventually the fire burns down, the glasses dry up, and the lights go out. Back in the bunk, I close my eyes to the click-click of the wall clock, waiting on morning, knowing the best water still lies ahead.