It was not the perfect afternoon; not yet. After a Chinese fire drill start to the weekend preparing the Jeep for the hitch and wiring, finally, all was in place and the Jeep headed north to meet up with my friend Rich Merlino, perhaps for the last time.
Rich quit his job as fishing manager at the Royal Oak Orvis store and moved to Florida. He said it was because he couldn’t stand the cold Michigan winters anymore, but I sensed there were other reasons, reasons he wanted to keep to himself.
Besides wanting to fish with him one more time, I had also bought his boat – a floating pontoon platform really – a Bi-yak. They were made in Colorado in the eighties and didn’t catch on, but the few that were purchased by serious fly-fishermen were and still are cherished. On the Lower Au Sable they’re a gem.
Rich was waiting at the ramp at the park in Mio and was just about ready to put the oars in the locks as I pulled up. A few pleasantries went back and forth and after putting on my waders, we got in and shoved off.
The water was still high and murky, but the temperature was mild and for some reason it felt like we were supposed to be there. As usual, Rich had strung up three rods and insisted we use them, storing my tubes in one of the pontoon’s storage compartments. I opted for the 6 wt with the sinking tip and had a streamer with a stinger hook tied on.
The water at the ramp and above is swift, has lots of rocks and holds fish. So our usual custom was to push the boat upstream a hundred yards before we began to float, eagerly wanting to catch anything in the water. This time however, knowing the float was as much to get me used to handling the oars – something Rich always did when he took someone fishing – we just began floating from the launch.
It takes me a while to get used to slinging a weighted streamer on a sinking tip so I began pulling line and making a few casts to get the rhythm before I threw it toward the bank and stripped the line furiously. The streamer didn’t have a chance to get down completely before the current caught it and pulled it into the middle of the flow when on the third cast, I saw a white torpedo shaped object approach the streamer as it was being pulled to the surface as the line got taught. Whaam! The rod bent and without any hesitation, the fish dove and headed toward the boat. One of the great features of the Bi-yak is the casting platform with rail that lets you be right there, inches from the water and see without obstruction where the line meets the water. Keeping the line taught, I managed to dissuade him from going under the boat. Feeling the pressure he changed direction and headed for the large clump of submerged logs along the bank.
I knew this was not your typical brown trout – 16, maybe 18 inches long – this was bigger, something special, something that only comes along once in a while. I didn’t have time to contemplate losing him, it was all happening so fast and instinct took over shaped by years of fly fishing ….and of course, the constant flow of instructions I was getting from Rich, who couldn’t help himself.
The rod was bent and the line was tight, there was no way I was going to give him an inch. So between the pressure I was putting on him and the force of the current, the big fish tired and with the help of a long handled net, we were going to meet face to face.
The trout was as beautiful a brown trout as I’ve ever seen. His belly was white and the spots on his side and back looked like they had come from an artist’s pallet. He was all muscle and showed his displeasure all the while he was attempting to wrangle himself free from the net as I kept it in the water to help keep him alive.
Showing no appreciation, this brute put on a display of power in defiance that would have caused him to tangle his gills in the old string like nets. Luckily, we had one of the newer nets with Latex like webbing with larger openings. After admiring this monster and taking several pictures, it was time to prepare him for release.
Defiant to the end, as soon as I got his head under water, he flexed and dove for the depths almost saying, “O.K. I’ll let you go this time, but watch it bub.”