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Fishing the Pere Marquette, a river for all seasons

By Bill Semion
Doc Green’s and Birch Hole. Whirlpool. Rosebud and Jorgenson’s. Atlantic salmon and Doc Winery’s. And Merle T. “Simmy” Nolph. If you’ve ever slipped a wader leg into the swift, westward-flowing waters of Michigan’s Pere Marquette River, you might recognize those names. If you haven’t, you should.
The fame of the Au Sable system near Grayling as a trout stream has been recounted around thousands of campfires over the years. But the Pere Marquette, named for one of Michigan’s pioneer priestly explorers and flowing cold and clear from springs emanating near the nearly nonexistent, blink-once-and-it’s-gone town of Chase to the east along U.S. 10, is just as storied in its trout and salmon history.
Just as Simmy Nolph guarded that history a few decades back as the Pere Marquette’s unofficial river keeper, others have stepped up to preserve and protect a resource unique to West Michigan. pere-marquette1The Pere Marquette is the only free-flowing river left. Period. Just think about that for a minute. There are dams or other obstructions on every other stream flowing into Lake Michigan from the Lower Peninsula.
The Pere Marquette also holds a position in the hearts of all trout anglers (or it should), because it was the first stream in the United States to be planted with brown trout. The trout were delivered by boat and wagon to Flint, and then carted cross-state to be reared at a local hatchery. According to Frank Willetts, ponytailed owner of the Pere Marquette River Lodge just south of Baldwin, the mature trout were planted into the river on a Tuesday in 1834. It was designated as one of the country’s first Natural Wild and Scenic rivers in 1978.
The cousins of those first browns are still in the river, along with a fabulous mix of other fish such as steelhead and salmon, waiting virtually all year long for anglers in drift boats or waders.
Willetts’ lodgers come from across the country, launching from his property which hugs the river at the M-37 bridge starting the flies-only stretch. Later, they sit around the lodge fireplace to tell tales of the journey they each share with others gone before.
His assembled cadre of guides, who know the river both at night and at day, can introduce you properly to this stream’s seemingly constant cutbacks, oxbows, twists and turns, and you’ll meet one of them below. But let’s let Willetts tell the story of the river he fell in love with years ago, and then had the opportunity of his life, purchasing the lodge with partners, allowing him to live his dream today.
“It’s simply an awesome cold water fishery because it sustains a huge migratory fishery and having the top 8.6 miles be flies only also enables our browns to grow to exponential form,” Willetts said.
“Along with those you get steelhead, salmon and coho, and also white suckers, which are a huge food source for the trout. You also get lake-run browns that spawn and once in a while a rare Atlantic salmon. You also get summer-run Skamania steelhead, all naturally reproducing in the river,” Willetts continued. In other words, a West Michigan treasure trove of year-round fishing.
In the 1970s and ’80s, when I fished the Pere Marquette regularly, different regulations applied. You could keep a few fish then. It was up to people like Simmy Nolph, whose house perched on a bluff looking over the Baldwin Creek mouth and from whom a group of us always rented a cottage each spring, to protect the river and its fish from those who thought that rules to protect the river just didn’t apply to them. The 8.6 miles downstream from the lodge were made flies-only, no-kill in 2000 and are now watched over by the federal government, not just the Department of Natural Resources.
“Our winter steelhead usually start showing up around Oct. 15 to gorge on salmon eggs. The salmon start trickling into the river the third week in July, and in the ‘little man’ (Little Manistee, just a few clicks north of the lodge off M-37) the third week in June,” Willetts said.
More solid numbers come in mid-August, which is a great time to throw streamers or hardware downstream from the flies-only stretch for them. Deciding on which of the river’s 22 public accesses to use depends, of course, on the conditions.
Water temperature is key, Willetts advises. “Forty-two degrees is optimum. Colder temperatures below 34 degrees make fish sluggish, and when you’re at air temperatures below 20 degrees, fishing is questionable.”
While I learned to fish the Pere Marquette by sight, Willetts says the way to go now is fishing the holes with a strike indicator, which looks for all intents and purposes like a bobber.
Tied between two pieces of surgical tubing, protected from twisting by a barrel swivel weighted with split shot and ending in a leader that Willetts recommends should be about the length of your rod, it’s the best technique available for plumbing the depths of the holes on this river which sometimes reach 10 feet deep or more.
“You should rig like this: fly, another (dropper) fly, split shot, then the indicator. Use a size 12 swivel,” he said. As for flies, there is only one real choice in Willetts’ book: an egg fly.
“Egg flies, and possibly stonefly and hex nymphs. On eggs, use size 10 or 12 hooks and 8s and 10s on stones and hexes.”
pere-marquette2As Ryan White, one of the Pere Marquette Lodge’s full-time guides explains, fish the runs and holes. “In winter, they’re primarily in the holes and as it turns spring, they’re in center water on the gravel. They’ll spawn at the top of runs and in late winter they’ll still be maybe 15 feet downstream in the pools. So if you’re fishing the wrong spot at the wrong time of the year, you’re fishing empty water.”
“On the P.M. in mid-spring you’ll not find a single steelhead left in the holes. They’re almost all on the gravel because all the winter fish have primarily left. Winter fish spawn as soon as the water temp creeps up to 40 or 41 degrees. So as soon as you get warm-ups starting in March or even February you’ll see hen fish on gravel,” White said.
However, those fish aren’t necessarily the ones you fish to. First, they’re spawning, ensuring another generation of steelhead will be there for the next three or four years. Second, if you rip a female fish off a redd, the six or seven males behind it jockeying for a chance to get lucky will leave. Third, anglers like Willetts and White say it’s just not kosher.
“Steelhead is our most coveted fish, and I try not to rake gravel if I don’t have to. And, the fish in the darker water are often the ones that will bite best, because as soon as the water starts rising in spring, you’ll have ‘drop-backs’ (winter fish and early spring-runners dropping back downstream on their way back to Lake Michigan after spawning). They’ll start in March and they need to go on a feeding spurt right away,” Willetts said.
“If they’re feeding they will be at the back of the holes where all the current is going to funnel food right to them,” Willetts added.
Eggs also are best because where there are steelhead spawning, there also are browns waiting to pick up some high-protein nuggets.
Anglers drifting in boats during April also often use streamers because they’ll also fool browns. Some of the best patters include strip leeches that imitate salmon smolt hatched from last fall’s Chinook and coho runs. “Fall steelhead are dropping back and hungry, and spring fish are coming up and hungry, so it’s also a good time for streamers.”
“You can count on steelhead being around until May 11,” Willetts said. “Then the summer run will start coming in at the end of May into June, but that’s more hit-and-miss.”
Come late May and June, it’s time to throw surface flies for trout, White continued.
“The major hatch on the river is the hex. Last year, however, was exceptional at the end of May for gray drakes. Hexes start appearing after the first few 80-degree days in June, as soon as the mud banks warm up,” White said. As they do on other rivers, guides and boats prowl the river looking for feeders, along with the occasional 10- to 12-pound drop-back steelie still in the river feeding on hexes on the surface.
After the hex, anglers concentrate on fishing hoppers and other terrestrial patterns.
“And that’s also when we get the brave who want to go at night to get that trophy brown and toss a nighttime mouse,” Willetts said, a huge pattern that imitates a swimming rodent that big fish can’t pass up.
“It’s probably the best way to get a trophy brown for a photo.”
And, just about that same time, others will be rigging their heavy rods for the salmon that again will make their way upstream from Lake Michigan, to spawn, and renew the cycle that makes the Pere Marquette unique among Michigan trout streams.

When you go

Contact the Pere Marquette River Lodge to book either its main lodge rooms or in cabins and a riverfront home. Other motels also are in Baldwin. The PM Lodge offers a full-service Orvis shop and plenty of advice, as well as river maps. The PM has excellent access for anglers on foot, however expect plenty of company especially in early April. The river is fairly swift, so those unsure of their footing should bring a wading staff. For guide information and lodging, call the lodge at 231-745-3972, or go to www.pmlodge.com. The fish will be waiting for you.
Bill Semion is a freelance writer who specializes in travel and outdoors articles. An OWAA member since 1984, Semion makes his home in Plymouth, Mich.

Photos courtesy of Travel Michigan.
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