Learning to Fly Fish on the Holy Waters

Years ago, a Temple Fork Outfitters fly rod was gifted to me in a plum velvet case, thanks to my mother and father. Shortly after receiving it I uprooted from Seattle and moved to northern Michigan where I hoped that half of my living might be spent outdoors exploring the rugged side of this beautiful planet, painting wildlife, and catching trout. It was the place of my childhood.

Reality got the best of me, and I spent my first few years in northern Michigan working—nose to the grindstone—for a view of the bay for half the pay. So it goes. But after crossing the thirty-one-year line something shifted in my terrier-like genetics, and I booked a trip with guide Brian Kozminski who I interviewed back in 2015 while working for Traverse Magazine & MyNorth Media. His love of fly fishing runs deep. 

Gerard and I met Brian at the Holy Waters. This is a section of the Au Sable River northeast of downtown Grayling, a town named after a beautiful species of trout that once flourished in the river, but that's a story for a different day. I had planned to be wading in the river all day but Brian rolled up with a boat.

Full disclosure: I had one casting class back in 2012. Naturally, my first thought consisted of many a flies in many a trees. But my gut reminded me that there is one way to truly know anything, and that is by doing it with your own hands. Gerard had a leg up thanks to his friend Peter who owned a fly shop during his days in Tennessee. 

We got in the boat. Brian got us setup with streamers while he shared his knowledge about how native trout behave in rivers and what they eat. The streamer he tied for me was white and flashy like a minnow. As Brian rowed, Gerard and I casted. I felt silly and uncoordinated as I focused on one technique at a time. The first few casts were like patting the top of my head while rubbing my belly. But then I began to feel the fly moving through the air.

About two hours into our trip we anchored for lunch and enjoyed homemade sandwiches while we discussed the history and stewardship of the Holy Waters. Shortly thereafter we floated passed the log cabin lodge where Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit founded by 16 fishermen who worked together to protect the river so native trout could thrive, was established. (Today the organization is 150,000 members strong, with chapters in states across the country). I learned that fish raised in hatcheries behave differently than natives. In a world with aggressive commercial interests, the case for Trout Unlimited's mission was made in more ways than one.

As we neared the end of our float, Brian exchanged my streamer with a dry fly. Just when I thought I had a bit of rhythm, the dry fly's weightlessness bewildered me. Nevertheless, I cast. And cast. And cast, again without a bite. 

We must've passed fifteen or so wading men. As we passed, Gerard and I learned about the etiquette of the river. It became apparent that luck was on the side of the seasoned sportsman. Some reported catching browns, while other reported brooks. Brian told us the trout hit when you least expect it. 

So I stopped trying so hard, and given that I'd been working on this very concept in my personal life, the transition came easy enough. Still, I was having a tough time deciphering where the dry fly was as I whirled it about the air. 

We were winding down when I felt a runaway tug on my line. I knew it was small, but that didn't matter. My body was flooded with excitement. The maternal instinct in me wanted to be gentle, to get this fish into the boat as healthy as possible. Brian got the net as all three of us realized that a small but glorious brook trout was ours to behold for a moment. As I watched it draw a couple breaths, I could only think about getting it back into the river—as if the river depended on it—and that I found what I came for.