An Evening on the Au Sable

The Au Sable River flows roughly west to east for about 140 miles across the northern section of Michigan’s lower peninsula before spilling into Lake Huron. One of the towns the river intersects is Grayling, original home of Fred Bear Archery.

I’ve visited Michigan several times and have always wanted to fish the Au Sable but for various reasons never had. That changed last week. I was in the Wolverine State for other editorial business but was determined to get on the legendary fishery, which I was able to do one evening in the company of my friend Alan Clemons and local guide Joe Bartha.

Joe supplied the tackle, boat and expertise. Clemons and I embraced the roles of the clueless out-of-towners.

The free-flowing Au Sable has been designated a blue ribbon trout stream by the Michigan DNR. The brown trout fishery is reputed to be the best east of the Rockies. Rainbows live here too. But brook trout are the bread and butter fish. The river is loaded with them.

We climbed into Joe’s Au Sable boat – a stable, sturdy rig that reminded me of scaled down, streamlined version of an Arkansas/White River john boat. Joe said this particular boat had been built by a local craftsman sometime in the 1980s (probably about the time the guide was born). We pushed off a little after 6 p.m. local time armed with loaner Orvis Clearwater rods, generic white-winged dry flies and soaring optimism.

Clemons (that’s him in the photo with an Au Sable brook trout) is an Alabama native and bassman to the bone. He freely admitted to be more comfortable with a flipping stick and 1/2 ounce jig that a 5-weight fly rod and fingernail size dry fly. I wasn’t fooled by this poor mouthing. Alan is an expert angler in any venue. Naturally, he had the first strike.

The Au Sable (which, in French, means “sand”, “in the sand,” or “with sand,” depending on the translation) was everything I expected and more. Clean, clear, cold, breathtakingly beautiful . . . a well cared for resource.

We saw none of the river’s legendary brown trout but the brookies were friendly, rising often to our flies, which were not always presented with a delicate, deft touch. Joe offered gentle suggestions but didn’t complain, criticise or ridicule, any of which would have been justified.

When darkness fell the complexion of the river changed to a sort of netherworld of shadowy splashes. Accurate casts and drag-free floats became best guess propositions.

The dark surrounding didn’t bother Joe, who started floating and fishing the Au Sable when he was a teenager. He handled the boat as though he was operating with built-in radar. I hope to visit again. Soon.