The Many Faces of the Ausable River, Michigan

I recently made the journey from North Baltimore County, Maryland to the Grayling area of Michigan. Matt, a Gunpowder regular joined me for the 14 hour drive across several states with my raft in tow. Nick, a Michigan native and former college chum of Matt was waiting at what felt like the farthest northern tip of the state. We pulled in his cabin’s drive around 1:30 a.m., but he wasn’t there. He pulled in ten minutes later and said he just got done mouse fishing. “Rolled two fish,” he said. Mouse fishing at midnight puts me a little out of my element, but we had five days of fishing before we had to head east again. I’d try to adjust.
Classic Ausable Boat
Our first morning we arrived on the small North Branch of the Ausable River, that looked oddly enough like the Masemore section of the Gunpowder with flat slicks, tree falls and flat riffles. I heard the words uttered in a local fly shop not hours before that “these are wild fish, not likely to bite under the midday sun, but you can still catch a few ten to twelve inchers on a beetle or hopper.” Things started sounding all too familiar.
We put in and floated that day and every day after on different branches, and finally the main stem. Probably floated twenty five miles in total. The North Branch provided scenic views of trees and clear water with long green waving tendrils of grass. The brook trout were aggressive and many taking beetle, ant and caddis imitations. The occasional brown would show its face, but this branch was not known for really big fish. The best fish may have topped out at 12 inches, but we had just seen four miles of totally new water.
The next few days we fished small mouth on the lake the cabin was on, floated the bait stretch of the main branch of the Ausable with a local guide and friend of Nick’s. We waded the Manistee in the afternoon, choose our pools, set up camp and returned sometime around 11 p.m. Headlamps were strictly forbidden if you wanted a serious shot at a trout over 22 inches. I pulled the 2X knot tight on a freshly tied deer hair mouse pattern and it was lights out until we all hooted and began sloshing our way to camp around 12:15. You essentially swing the mouse and locals advise as much action as possible to entice a strike. None of us had felt a thing, except the excitement of wading in the dark in a good sized river. Fly fishing totally blind is pretty tough. We floated the Manistee the next day, hearing stories at the put in of huge trout by anglers who had just finished mouse fishing hours ago. We did see one enormous 25 inch plus trout sulking in the hollow of a weed bed and we pulled off to rest him, but he refused my two drifts with a nymph and slid farther into the grassy beds.
Some strange similarities of the Ausable and the Gunpowder kept showing themselves to me. Long forty foot wide riffles and glassy flats were common for many miles until small bends narrowed them. We got caught in a frenzy of rising fish on Tricos one morning at the put in, although few were larger than six inches. A good sized trout was twelve inches, and they were awfully hard to catch. The truly big fish in Michigan were caught on large streamers ,Hexs or mouse patterns. As always the bigger ones we hooked all got away.
Ausable River
The final float day we took some advice to fish the “big water” and it turned out to be the best and worst day of the week. We caught more fish than we could have ever wanted, but the catch was you had to roll cast to avoid hooking hundreds of nearby canoers. It was the wildest thing I ever saw, and is by far my most memorable day of the trip. For a good laugh watch the video, and realize this went on for hours. We were more afraid of hooking tubers or being run over by canoes than them affecting the fish.
Recognizing a good fishery is an angler’s hardest task. We missed the Hex hatch by months, whiteflies by days and the first run of salmon by about a week. The trip was productive, we caught fish each day, avoided any major problems and never fished anywhere twice, except one area that was some of the best looking water I have ever seen anywhere. We caught glimpses of the river’s worth when we nymphed four fish from one hole, or when I tied on a size 26 midge and begun to work through all the trout that were now greedily rising, but formerly refusing. Michigan has some incredible branches and stretches of the Ausable river, just one could require years to learn.