Night-fishing trout, history and the Au Sable: Browns in Grayling

Two days and nights of fishing the Au Sable River drew on history and made some personal history.

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The look of the Au Sable River before an early July float to fly fish for big brown trout.

Dale Bowman

GRAYLING, Mich. — The splash exploded in the dark where my Calf Tail Hex Spinner fly floated the Au Sable River. I set the hook with faint hope. Mercy, something heavy headed the other way.

I first crossed the Au Sable and visited Grayling, in northern Michigan, decades ago while going to honeymoon in the Upper Peninsula.

Grayling and the Au Sable are significant to natural history, trout fishing in America and fly-fishing. This month is the 60th anniversary of Trout Unlimited’s founding by the Au Sable at the home of George Griffin.

I wasn’t doing anything that profound, just fishing at the invitation of Pure Michigan with the help of Otie McKinley. We anticipated a transition from the craziness of night-fishing the Hexagenia hatch to midsummer fishing. With our odd spring, it was the middle of the Hex craziness.

Gates Au Sable Lodge was packed. Gotta love a place with blackened-trout tacos as an appetizer.

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One of many Hexes alighting on Josh Nethers’ skiff while night fishing for big brown trout on the Au Sable River.

Dale Bowman

We held off until 7 p.m. Monday, which gave me a couple of hours to sharpen my limited fly-fishing.

As we set up, guide Josh Nethers and McKinley said ‘‘good buggy night’’ the way I say ‘‘Drew Barrymore.’’

We were on the virgin voyage of Nethers’ new Hyde skiff, which he favors over a traditional drift boat because the lower front makes for easier dry-fly fishing.

‘‘I like this because the night fishing we do, it is the only place where you match the hatch at night,’’ Nethers said. ‘‘This is a dry-fly river when you get tuned in.’’

We fished dry flies, with Nethers matching the hatch. Nethers and McKinley swept headlamps for signs of Hex spinners in the air. Masses clouded the air at times, and we listened for rising trout. Then Nethers would set us up to float flies through the active fish.

‘‘Hearing fish feeding gives you a 3D vision of the water,’’ McKinley said.

That’s a good description. We hooked one and missed many more.

Josh Greenberg, who went from working at Gates to owning it, is one reason Grayling is special. He received a Fulbright to work on fiction in New Zealand.

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Guide Matthew Verlac setting up his Au Sable longboat before a float from day into late night.

Dale Bowman

‘‘I hate writing about fly-fishing; I would much rather write surrealist fiction,’’ Greenberg said.

He is enough of a realist to have six full-time guides, a fly-fishing instructor and several part-time guides, of which he is one.

Greenberg is a word man, and he said: ‘‘Au Sable is a context river: ‘That is a good fish for this time of day.’ ’’

A perfect example came Tuesday, when McKinley and I went with guide Matthew Verlac. His Au Sable River longboat was a foot longer and 3 inches wider than usual.

Verlac gave a basic fly-fishing refresher before we floated off. I needed it to help me focus on the stop on the back cast and to mend (flipping the line upstream on the cast to cut drag).

My learning continued when we fished the last daylight hours through a section with active brook trout and small browns. I landed two brookies and one brown and missed seven.

Before dark, we took a dinner break. Verlac grilled brats, then served them with jalapeno chips, fresh pineapple chunks and sustenance-packed cookies his wife, Katrina, sends.

As darkness came and whip-poor-wills called, we listened for rising trout gorging on Hex spinners. Fishing the Hex hatch is primarily a late-night event targeting big browns.

Hexes are mudbugs that burrow into the Au Sable banks. The optimum time to emerge is when the water is 66 degrees. The Hex hatch generally runs from late June into early July on the Au Sable. Verlac anticipates it running through July 15 this year.

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There were so many Hexes flying into the headlamp light that taking a photo of Otie McKinley with a big brown from the Au Sable River was nearly impossible.

Dale Bowman

When darkness completely settled, Verlac picked a nearby riser for me to target. He instructed me to cast 8 to 10 feet above the fish and to make sure to mend the line before the fly drifted through.

Astonishingly, I did it perfectly on the first cast. A big brown exploded, and, astonishingly again, I hooked it well. At first it bulled toward some wood, but Verlac told me to strip line and bring it in. As the fish neared, it bulldogged under the boat. Verlac yelled at me to get it up toward the bow. I finally muscled it forward, and Verlac netted it. None of us could believe the 23-inch brown in the net.

McKinley and I alternated and went 4-for-6 on big browns, with McKinley landing browns of 18, 19 and 22 inches. The air was so buggy that taking photos was tough.

As we floated to the takeout well after midnight early Wednesday, Verlac asked, ‘‘Are you going to write about the one that got away?’’

I lost one significantly bigger than the 23-inch brown. Verlac speculated it was about a 25-inch thick-bodied hen. We don’t know. It fought low, and we never saw the mystery fish.

Reason to come back to Au Sable.

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Dale Bowman with one of the fishes of his life, a 23-inch brown trout, caught fly fishing at night on the Au Sable (and he lost a significantly bigger one later).

Otie McKinley

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