‘Hey! There’s blood running down your leg.’ The first mate yells in my general direction. He was relatively new to Big Lake fishing off the shores of Ludington and I acted as though I didn’t hear him. More than likely he thought I had a 1/0 treble hook buried somewhere in my calf. That wasn’t the case, but I wouldn’t have cared much at the time even if it were. I was fighting a 22lb Coho on 300-copper and no fly-infliction was going to dissuade that focus. Only one thing mattered. Get that fish in the net and on the boat!
You haven’t lived until you’ve battled the hordes of Big Sky black flies on the Madison River in Montana while fly-rod Angling for Rainbows; or struggled with the tenacity of the Giant Green Bay Horsefly while match-the-hatch trolling for Browns in Wisconsin; or been tortured by the tenacity of the Mirigama deer fly while downrigger and dipsy fishing the big waters of Lake Michigan for Steelhead and King Salmon. For those Ice-Anglers, the lack of the impending doom of petulance could be what makes that sport so enjoyable, but those are tales for another day.
I grew up in Northern Michigan where we cut, split, and stacked wood (it warms you 4 times which is why you never harvest firewood timber in the summer) to be burnt in the winter as our sole source of heat. I’ll state it up front, this isn’t a narrative of hardship. It was a good childhood. Our parents worked long, hard hours and we – my brother and I – never went without. Although we didn’t have a Grandfather (One drank like a fish and died a premature death, and the other was a big fish in a big pond) that was in the picture, we were very lucky to have two very loving Grandmothers (Kenita [Dawn] Turkowski-Hiller & [Romona] Jane Johncock).
This afforded us a childhood never short on experiences. My Grandmother Kenita would take us down to the Weir in the spring to watch the Trout during their spring run. Then, in the summer down the Dewberry cinder hills to fish the banks of Manistee Lake along the railroad tracks.
My Grandmother Jane owned a farm where a small, unnamed crick split the property and flowed out to Bear Creek (and into the Big Manistee River). By eight (8) years old I already had my own vocation, cleaning barn stalls and bailing hay. It was during one of these summer weeks spent at the farm that my love and admiration for Trout fishing began.
I’ll never forget, it was a Monday (Could have been a Tuesday, or Wednesday, definitely a weekday). My parents had purchased a used sixteen (16) foot, aluminum boat the year prior and the weekend before we had spent bobbing for summer Gills and Sunfish (and occasional Rock Bass, damn old redeyes ;)). We had found a deep, cold-water honey hole and caught a ton of panfish. Our bounty was scaled and filleted and became dinner for the family. I had contributed to that meal and I felt so proud, I was now a provider of sustenance.
Needless to say, by that Monday I had an eye for it, and eye for finding elusive fish. Or so I thought. The crick on my Grandmother’s farm started out as nothing more than moist pasture. That annoying spot for farm hands to avoid with the tractor - less they wanted to get it stuck and feel the wrath of my Grandma’s score - in an otherwise tillable field. That water-spring carved and eroded the fertile soil down to a clay trough that would become a feeder crick. The trail from her house to the barn crossed over this waterway. The east side of the culvert was a waterfall, the water fell eight (8’) feet down the side of a ravine. The west side was a garage-sized pond only one eighth (1/8th) of a mile from its pasture origin. I just knew there were fish in that pond, as unlikely as it now seems. At the time I thought there just had to be.
I asked my Grandma if I could bring my fishing pole, my Zebco, and go fishing in-between barn duty (yes duty as in task and duty as in attracts an endless circus of house flies). She asked me where I had planned on fishing, chuckled a little when I told her, and agreed with the stipulation that it wasn’t until Friday and not until my chores were completed. I was over the moon with excitement.
I spent the rest of the week sizing up that waterhole. I judged every angle, made as many unnecessary trips back and forth over that culvert as I could muster, and planned out every cast I would be making at the end of the week. Friday came, with my pole in toe and assignments finished I was ready to fulfill my obligations as a provider. I asked my Grandma what bait we would be using. She lamented that she hadn’t bought any worms or nightcrawlers. I told her ‘that’s ok Grandma, I’ll go dig some up’. Off I went.
I must have searched for over an hour (In reality it was probably 5 minutes). Turned over every rock and every log on the farm twice, but couldn’t find a worm, a salamander, or roly poly bug to save my hide. Elation turned sullen, excitement turned sour, and anxiousness waned. What can I say, I was wet behind the ears, green behind the gills. I was ready to start shooting fish in a barrel and all I got after kicking rocks and dragging my shoes along the gravel was a barn window full of dead, black house flies.
Dead flies! That was it! The ones on top were the juicy ones, the most recently perished or perishing ones. That was sure to work. I went to work gathering up a handful of dead and half-dead flies, ran to the bank of that green screen pond, and tied a fly on a small Eagle Claw hook. Away went my first thumb button cast. I was fishing. An Angler, all grins, a Cheshire cat at the pond and on the prowl.
By and by a fly is a fly. As it turns out a house fly and hook, without so much as a sinker or bobber, still makes for great live bait. As it were, that top-water-half-dead-homemade, barn-fly-lure hit the water and decided he had more to give the world. He flapped just twice before being engulfed like a seal being eaten by a Great White Shark!
Holy Mackerel! To this day, even after thousands of hours now spent on the water fishing, that day was my best hook set. Instinctively I yanked the rod (the hook was set perfectly). Then I remembered to reel. Reel I did as he took out drag. Fish on!
I fought that fish for the better half of that afternoon (probably 3 minutes). Gaining some ground he would take out more drag. I’m sure you’ve been there and know how equally exciting and stressful the back and forth teeter-totter of an embattled fish can be. I didn’t have a net, nor did it matter. Knee deep in water, rod and reel in my left hand, I scooped and cradled my trophy with my right. Victory…and the most beautiful Rainbow Trout I’ve ever seen.
So you ask and wonder who we are. This is the only, the most accurate, answer I have to offer. We are our passions, our constitutions; we are what we create and what we leave behind when we’re gone; we are our relationships and how we make people feel; we are our accomplishments; and we are our Experiences.
It was by chance that I landed that fish; luck that the line didn’t break; fortuitous that a near dead fly was that alluring; and mysterious that there was even a fish in that hill-top waterhole at all. But, it was with sheer will, stubbornness, determination, passion and perseverance that an eight (8) year old boy came to fish it to begin with.
That’s what fishing is all about. Hell, that’s what life is about. A lot of stubbornness and a little luck. I’m still an eight year old boy looking for an elusive waterhole. In the words of a crazy-ass Anthropologist, “The idea is to die young…as late as possible.” So get F$%#ing Hangry. Get Excited: Otherwise…., otherwise you’re dead already and nobody bothered to tell you.
Connect with family. Create. Invent. Write. Cook. Eat. Play. Experience. Step outside your comfort zone. Empty that bucket list and fill it to the brim again!
Happy fish and Tight lines. Welcome to the Evolution,
Article written by Mike (Fish Mitts) Hiller
Picture courtesy of Larry