The South Branch of the Au Sable River in Michigan, is one of the finest trout streams in the country. Mired in rich fly fishing lore and history, anglers are taken back in time, following this meandering river through a pristine wilderness as it flows from its headwaters towards the mainstream of the Au Sable.
From Chase Bridge in Roscommon to above Smith Bridge there is a special place in the annals of fly fishing. The Mason Tract. A section of undeveloped land that was conveyed to the State of Michigan in 1955 by the late George W. Mason in a perpetual trust to insure it remains undeveloped. It includes 1500 acres bordering the stream and an additional 1330 acres acquired from the U.S. Forest Service in 1957 that extended it's borders. This special tract is also known as the Mason Retreat.
George Mason was the President of the Nash Car Company and in addition to this generous donation, is also remembered by helping to inspire George Griffith to form Trout Unlimited. George A. Griffith, who died on April 7, 1998, at the age of 97,achieved a national reputation for his work in protecting and promoting trout fishing. It was at his lodge, The Barbless Hook, on the Au Sable River in 1959 that a group of like-minded fly fishermen conceived Trout Unlimited, now a national organization with 500 chapters and 125,000 members.
The rich history of our sport and passion is alive and well in Michigan with many quality organizations like TU and the FFF as well as local trusts. Money is sorely needed to maintain our quality fisheries and the heritage we enjoy.
I was up on the North Branch of the Au Sable the week before for the annual opener and to visit the Lovells Historic Society's new log museum and to wet my line. This week I decided to fish the Mason Tract and was well rewarded for my efforts. I had ventured down here last week but the water was still running rather cold.
Henry Ford and members of the Au Sable Trout and Gun Club
This week I had a new friend tagging along who's enthusiasm for learning the sport reminds me of the passion that took hold of my spirit some years ago. Andy was ready for our adventure and was full of questions. I did my best to answer them as we made out way into the two-tracks that provide access to the river. We decided, or should say, I decided to fish above Donners flats in the faster moving water.
We timed our advance on the river for the seasonal Hendrickson hatch that usually takes place a little later in the season on the South Branch. Here the water is a little colder and hatches usually follow behind those on the Au Sable mainstream or the North Branch. I had tied up some patterns the day before and was giving Andy the lowdown. Around 2 PM the telltale signs of the hatch was evident. As it got closer to 3:30 things were in full swing with the trout finally looking up to the surface for duns.
A Female Ephemerella Subvaria (Hendrickson) from the South Branch.
Photo by Jeff Selser
Our flies were getting the attention of eager trout and I quickly landed a few nice browns. Andy was learning the art of getting a drag free drift and would soon be rewarded for one with a beautiful little brown trout. I heard a larger disturbance downstream and keyed in on the area. Timing the feeding pattern of what looked to be a nice fish. I moved into position slowly and attempted to fool it with a couple of drifts. The third drift was the charm as this quality brown accepted my imitation. A brief and vigorous fight ensued. After bringing the fish to the net we struggled for the camera in the back of my vest. As we did, the trout released itself from the barbless hook at the end of my line. No photo for me. At around 16 inches this brown was no monster but my smile could have been seen a mile away.
Spring is a magical time. The hendrickson hatch reminds me of the start of the year when life again awakens from the doldrums of old man winters blues. The weather was around 70 and the air was clean and crisp. Beaming sunshine and the site of new green foliage, with birds chirping and singing in the wind certainly recharge the soul. Mine was in for a dose after many hard hours of work this year.
The South Branch Au Sable River
The hendrickson hatch ended a couple of hours later. Time had passed quickly as my mind tuned everything out but the sounds of the river and the visual queues of trout feeding from the surface. Andy and I both gleefully discussed the event. Soon we switched to streamers as we looked for a spinner fall that would not happen for us. Working about a mile of water in the process.
The water was 54 degrees on this day and the fish were just starting to respond to the warming trend by slashing at my streamer as I worked it slowly from dead fall to dead fall. I missed the few fish that were enticed by the action of the streamer or maybe they just missed the streamer. The week earlier it was quiet on the water with no real hatch activity here during the opener. I had swung streamers then as well but none of the residents on that weekend even seemed to be interested. Timing can be so important here in spring.
We finished the day as darkness overcame the sights and sounds of the Mason Tract. We would be back the following day, hoping for more of the same. I settled in to our retreat for the weekend and tied up a few more flies. Adjusting the color variations on the hendrickson dries that I had tied the day before. The wonderful thing about the hendrickson hatch is it happens in the afternoon. You can take your time getting started in the day. Plenty of time to sleep in, relax and enjoy the surroundings. I guess that is why it is sometimes referred to as the "Gentlemen's Hatch".
We got our stuff together and drove on down to the river once again. Today I would take Andy to the Chapel. Fitting as it was Sunday and of all my favorite places of worship, the Fisherman's Chapel on the South Branch is it. As we had headed through the river to the stairs, I pointed to the Black caddis hatch that was starting. I stood in the chapel I took a moment to thank our creator and George Mason for his wonderful gift they have left us to care for. As we headed down from the chapel to the water again, we were greeted with the sounds of fish feeding and insects coming off the surface. The day's Hendrickson hatch had begun.
Wasting no time I keyed in on the bigger rise forms. Quickly I caught and released five wonderful browns. Andy watched in some amazement I think and I mentioned that "you can't catch these trout without saying a prayer at the chapel!" He quickly bolted up the stairs and was back in a few minutes. Soon after his fly was engulfed by a native trout.
Today's hatch was more intense and lasted longer as the day had really warmed up to 70. We caught quite a few browns and I had a few smaller voracious brook trout devour my offerings. I did lose a sizable brown on a wood run that had come up once before my cast. I had time to tell Andy to "watch this" and he turned his head in time to see a perfect drift and an ensuing explosion on the waters surface. My 6x tippet was busted off in the wood a second later. So much for being a show off.
Not another soul seemed to be on the water other than one drift boat and a couple of pontoon fishermen passing by. I just love Sunday's. We stayed in the area of the chapel the rest of the day and Andy was coming into his own and really picking up on the techniques. No spinner fall again so back to the streamers to finish the day. A few more fish answered to the twitching in my rod as I drifted the streamer on a slow crossing swing across structure.
When we got to our entrance spot, we exited the river and headed back to my truck. From there it was off to the cabin for some food and relaxation. Recounting the events of the weekend have me itching to head back to the Mason Tract on the South Branch right now. We had a wonderful time and I am extremely thankful to all the care takers of this revered watershed. Thanks George.
Now it's time for me to cut the grass. That's the other thing spring reminds me of.
By Jeff Selser - Fly Fishing Information Center
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Au Sable River, Michigan Trout Opener
The Hendrickson Emerger
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