Northern Michigan’s zen-like experience of winter fly fishing
Anglers know something that tourists don’t. You can fly-fish all year round, even in winter.
Beyond skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, skating and winter zip-lining, the latest tourist attraction in northern Michigan is getting in a float boat and having “A River Runs Through It” experience in the dead of winter.
“People say, ‘What?’ They think the river freezes,” says Ethan Winchester, of Boyne Outfitters. He is head fly-fishing guide at Boyne Mountain, which for the first time is offering winter fly-fishing as an activity for its guests. “Rivers don’t freeze up like a lake. The trout don’t leave. They become somewhat dormant and slow down, but they’re still in the river.”
This time of year, steelhead and trout are theoretically there for the catching—but they are elusive.
Winter fly-fishing has other challenges. If it’s sunny and in the 30s, conditions are glorious. Great waterproof waders keep anglers dry. Gourmet lunches and hot coffee keep them warm.
“But a lot of times when you come out here and it’s 10 or 20 degrees, the rods get covered up with ice, and the reels freeze,” says Tom Menas, another guide. “It adds a different element to it.”
Which may be the understatement of the year.
On this January day, we start at Chestonia Bridge, a few miles south of East Jordan.
We are lucky. It is above freezing. And it is sunny.
Winchester backs up the Jeep and its trailer to a snowy embankment and slides the boat downhill like a sled, where it gathers speed and splashes into the water of the Jordan River. Soon, we are floating in the Hyde-McKenzie- style drift boat, with paddles like a river raft. Winchester guides the boat past low-hanging branches, eddies, swirls, minor rapids, sharp limbs and fallen trees. We dodge hollers and shadows, dark water and open areas.
We fish at holes the anglers know, murky spots called Two Logs, Brown Trout Alley, Lawyer’s Lounge, Sucker Hole.
We fish. We fish. No bites yet.
The day is all crystal ice and melting snow, at times completely silent except for the sharp cracking snap of our drift lines. A merganser duck honks and flies overhead. The burbling water calls out its winter song. My feet feel warm in their waders with boots, waterproof as a tarp on a roof. I sip hot coffee. I cast my line, again and again. The guides show me how to flick my wrist, cross over, then repeat until it becomes automatic, even beautiful.
Winchester and Menas are ardent fly-fishermen. They have caught plenty of trout in winter. But not every day. Perhaps not this day.
“The fish keep you humble,” says Winchester, 25. He used to be a fly- fishing guide in remote Alaska. He grew up in Charlevoix and knows this area like the back of his hand. Still, he doesn’t always get lucky.
The Boyne guides prefer to take clients on the Jordan and Sturgeon rivers in winter, adding others in summer. The Jordan is a favourite. Rarely above 52 degrees even in July, it is clear, fast-moving, and the banks are quiet and forested.
“There are a lot of proverbs about fly-fishing, and one says that each river has its own soul and character,” Winchester says. “This river has just about everything to put you at ease.”
Today, the 3 1/2 mile route takes us six hours. We stop many times to fish from the boat and wade in the water. We stop longer on a riverbank to eat lunch and fish some more.
Winchester grills steaks, asparagus and new potatoes and heats brownies on a portable grill. The sun shines. The river shimmers. Menas and I walk slowly downstream through the frigid January water, casting our lines. You don’t want to fall into the river this time of year. We are so careful, especially walking back upstream against the tugging icy current. My boots feel like they weigh 1,000 pounds apiece. But they are stable. It’s the oddest feeling, to walk through water up to one’s knees in the middle of January and not be cold or wet.
You can do winter fly-fishing all across the state. But mostly it’s confined to hard-core anglers “who just need that fix,” Winchester says. For newcomers or people who want the help of a guide, a more structured program is definitely the way to go—and the big ski resorts like Boyne are happy to oblige. Resorts across America are adding other unusual activities to keep skiers busy and attract new guests . Water parks, spas, zip lines, yoga, ice skating, cross-country skiing—and now winter fly- fishing—beckon to winter lovers who used to show up just for the downhill skiing.
And I do recommend winter fly-fishing, as odd as it sounds. The winter river, with its bowing cedars, yellowish and curving, is something to see. Newly fallen trunks and limbs lie this way and that (Winchester and Menas bring a chainsaw in case they encounter an obstacle). Snow hugs the banks. A midwinter sun looks as chilly as a circle of lemon sorbet in the sky. Ice clings to bare twigs like glass. You can breathe out here. Deeply.
I do have one weird question for my guides. Have they ever caught the same fish twice? Yes. If a fish has a scar or special marking, they may recognize it. Also, anglers know these rivers, know where the fish are, at least sort of. Because it’s catch and release, fish often return to the same general area where anglers caught them last time.
“We know their address,” Menas says. Still. The entire venture to me seems delicate and chancy, the rod so light that it seems it would be torn from your hand should a trout have a notion to eat lunch.
Most new anglers who try fly- fishing can be intimidated, partly because of the 1992 film “A River Runs Through It,” which made the fly rod seem like Brad Pitt’s magic wand. Even today, guides see some people with “A River Runs Through It” Syndrome, which is a compulsive need to do a figure-8 twirling of the line, “like you’re doing a ribbon dance,” scoffs Winchester, flicking his wrist and sending the line straight out into the fast-moving current .
Boyne Mountain is going into winter fly-fishing full throttle, plus preparing for spring. There’s a stocked trout pond near the ski runs. There are fishing poles available for guests. They teach fly-fishing and fly tying.
After we leave the river and return to the resort, Winchester asks if I want to catch a trout in the pond.
But it seems a violation of the zen of fly-fishing, contrary to the acceptance of the fish’s wishes on this day not to be caught.
Anyway, I kind of get a kick out of picturing the lazy steelhead huddled along depressions in the winter river. I picture them watching plankton drift by, the steelhead equivalent of watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo on TLC. They feel a boat passing, hear voices, see that nice juicy bug or clump of eggs dangling above, but—nah. They’ll doze on this January day until they feel spring coming for real. Crazy humans, they murmur as the boat passes, then all becomes silent again.
If you go:
Winter fly-fishing is offered by many fishing guides in Michigan, but the big ski resort Boyne Mountain has taken it up a notch, offering it for the first time this year to guests through Boyne Outfitters on the property.
Several packages are available, including the classic described in this article, the Traditional Float: Float down the river and fish from the boat and in the water. Instruction, equipment, waders and lunch included in the full-day tour; $375 for two people.
Also offered is a half-day tour for $275.
For details, contact www.boyneoutfitters.com, 231-549-6064.
Getting there: Boyne Mountain is in Boyne Falls, northwest of Gaylord and about a four-hour drive from Detroit. For general questions about Boyne resorts or lodging, contact www.boynemountain.com or call 800-462-6963.
Winter Fun: For a different spin on a snowy vacation, here are some things to look for:
AIR BAGS: These massive, inflatable air bags are placed at the bottom of jumps to allow skiers and boarders to try flips and spins. Nail the landing on your feet, and you ride off down the hill. Fail, and you have a soft landing; www.bagjump.com or www.bigairbag.com.
Bumper cars on ice: These are turning up at skating rinks from coast to coast. The battery-operated “cars” are large rubber tubes with molded seats that can hold one adult or an adult and a small child. Controlled by two joysticks, they are easy to steer or spin as they bump along on wheels with tiny cleats.
Ice castles: These massive ice castles are formed by thousands and thousands of icicles. A series of pathways takes visitors through ice columns, tunnels, caverns and archways. Introduced last year in Silverthorne, Colo., the castles were being built this winter in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.
Snowbikes: Bicycles that ride on skis have been around for decades, but now they have the blessing of some ski resorts, which rent the bikes and offer instruction. The bikes can be taken on the chairlifts to access a variety of terrain; www.snowbike.info
Ellen Creager is a reporter with the Detroit Free Press.