Cy with a fresh steelhead from the Big Two Hearted River.
The landscape along the way was severe. It seemed almost otherworldly with great burnt over stretches of forest that alternately stood with all the undergrowth gone and charred spires reaching towards the sky, and then was laid flat by the logging operations that were removing all that remained for wood commodity products. In some places stands of smaller Jack Pines, without value for logging, looked like some sort of Halloween version of an apple tree, bare black branches bearing the enlarged cones that had blown open in the intense heat. This was the result of the Duck Lake Fire in late May that burned over 21,000 acres of the Upper Peninsula, stopping its march to the north when it reached the shores of Lake Superior.
The adult Jack Pines hold their cones closed, sometimes for years, until the heat of a forest fire causes them to open and thus reseed the burnt-over ground. With that the forest comes full circle. I also felt like I had come full circle, for the location I was about to fish had been planted in my mind for more than 45 years. This was the road to the legendary Big Two Hearted River at the point where it enters the waters of Lake Superior. Let me take you back (way back) to the beginning.
I learned to read at a very early age, probably as much because I had some older siblings to teach me as any natural aptitude. They had unleashed a beast because my appetite for reading material was nearly insatiable. Anything, everything printed begged to be read; the back of a cereal box, the label on the tube of toothpaste (Crest has been shown to be an effective decay preventive dentifrice...), the newspaper my dad would lay on the kitchen table to read while seated across from me, giving me an ability to read a document upside down nearly as quickly as one right side up. Nothing sparked my desire to read more than material that fed my other passion, fishing. Field and Stream and Outdoor Life brought stories of fishing for exotic fish in far away places.
And then one day I discovered Hemingway, eventually reading most of his works but first, and most importantly, his short story titled “Big Two Hearted River,” about a young man, the semi-autobiographical character Nick Adams, and a trip to fish and camp, alone, in the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula. No other writing about fishing ever had the impact of that one short story. It would be years before I understood the symbolism of nature and rebirth that lie below the surface of the tale, but the imagery and sense of “being there in the moment” would shape my taste in literature for the rest of my life.
I would be an adult before I came to discover that the river at the center of the story was actually the Fox River near the town of Seney, and not the Big Two Hearted. Hemingway confessed to a writer friend that he did this “not from ignorance nor carelessness but because [the name] Big Two-Hearted River is poetry.”
A few years back I had the chance to fish the Fox River. Hiking far from the road alone, reaching a stretch of water unlikely to be interrupted by other anglers or canoeists I spent a morning with a fly rod in my hands and the realization of a lifelong dream in my heart. I caught a few trout and, although they were small, as Nick Adams said, “they were very satisfactory.” I will always remember that morning fondly.
I still wondered about the Big Two Hearted itself though, far into the northern wilds of the U.P. and whispering to my imagination since I was 12 years old. I guess you could say it was on my “bucket list,” but I had yet to put it onto my schedule. However, sometimes a schedule is unnecessary. Sometimes the wind just blows you somewhere.
I had gone to the U.P. to surf fish southeast of Whitefish Point, but the strong steady winds had been coming out of the north for days, and the waters of Superior pounded the beach mercilessly. I stood and watched 4-foot waves crash the shoreline and knew that there was no point in even attempting to keep baits positioned under those conditions. My fishing partner John Pemberton suggested that perhaps a trip up to the mouth of the Big Two Hearted might be a good option for the following morning. He didn’t need to ask twice.
The campground near the river mouth had been spared the ravages of the fire, but the towering dune that turned the river parallel to the shore before joining the lake was capped by tall pines that were blackened skeletons of the majestic trees they once were. Still, the beauty of the river itself, and the beach and waters of the deepest of Great Lakes were all a fisherman could ask for as a backdrop. Poetic even.
Deep and slow at the point where the river exits the forest, one small split shot and the simplicity of a single hook was all the terminal tackle needed to let a spawn sack drift across the bottom beneath tannin-stained water. With a strong crosswind buffeting my rod it was hard to feel the bait at the end of the line, and I decided that watching my slack line through the drift was the best method to detect a bite.
I’d made fewer than a dozen casts when a sudden twitch in the line as it lay on the surface let me know that a fish had picked up the bait. I lifted the rod and when I felt the line tighten and move I applied enough pressure to set the hook and then the rod came alive in my hands. A powerful fish surged upriver and I did all I could to turn it before it found some unseen snag to separate itself from me. I fumbled with an uncooperative folding net before accepting some help from a nearby angler and managed to finally bring a beautiful seven-pound male steelhead to net. You couldn’t have wiped the smile off my face with a brick. Lake Superior Steelhead possess a beauty unmatched by any other, perhaps just a reflection of the environment from which they come.
The morning held yet another fish, and will hold a place in my top ten fishing mornings for a long, long time. It turns out that Papa Hemingway himself never fished the Big Two Hearted. If I were to meet him, I would tell him that I have, and, to borrow his words, the fish “were very satisfactory”. Satisfactory indeed Papa, satisfactory indeed.
See you on the water.
White Lake - Slow, a few anglers are targeting steelhead close to the narrows, no reports. For the latest info on White Lake call Johnson’s Great Outdoors at 231-893-6688.
Whitehall/Montague - Surf and pier fishermen are targeting steelhead, no whitefish yet.
Muskegon River - Has more steelhead moving up into the river even though water levels are low. Anglers are floating spawn and wax worms, casting small spoons or fly fishing.
Grand Haven - Pier anglers and those surfcasting continue to target steelhead. Not much on whitefish as catch rates were slow.
Hamlin Lake - No reports. For up to date Hamlin information call Hamlin Grocery at 231-843-2058.
Ludington - Steelhead were caught in the surf and off the piers. Fish early, late or when the weather is nasty.
Pere Marquette River - Water levels were low and clear and could stay that way for a while. The low and clear water conditions require light leaders especially if fish are on the gravel. For now, try fishing the deeper holes.