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THE HOURS IN WINTER

IT’S AN ILLUSION, of course, but winter hours seem longer. In summer, when daylight lasts from five in the morning until ten at night, there’s not enough time in the day for everything you want to do. But in winter, time languishes. You can work eight hours, plow the driveway, prepare dinner, eat, clean the kitchen, build a fire in the fireplace, read a book for an hour—and still have most of the evening ahead of you.

Frogs-and-Fishes-ToughBirdsIn the mornings, while I’m filling the bird feeders, a few black-capped chickadees converge even before I’ve finished and land inches from my hands. Other species hide in the evergreens until I’ve gone inside. Only then can I stand in the window and watch finches, juncos, and redpolls that are otherwise only distant, flitting glimpses in the trees. When they come to the feeders they prove to be not indistinct small gray shapes, but vivid individuals brushed with color and detail. A bird is the very embodiment of wildness, and when it accepts our offerings of sunflower and suet, the space between us fills somehow.

Of course birds aren’t the only wildlife we can watch in winter. Years ago a few friends and I used to set off every winter on canoe and camping trips down rivers in northern Michigan. During those expeditions we would see dozens, sometimes hundreds of whitetail deer yarded in the cedar swamps, where they had packed the snow beneath the trees as thoroughly as cattle yards and trimmed the foliage to the precise height they could reach. The deer were unaccustomed to seeing humans at that time of year, so they behaved as if unobserved, nuzzling one another, rising delicately on their hind legs to strip cedar boughs with their teeth. We often drifted within a few feet of them bedded on the banks and as long as we made no sudden movements they simply watched us, conserving their energy.

Sometimes otters swam near and raised themselves half out of the water to watch us in our canoes. One January we counted a dozen bald eagles during two days on the Au Sable River. We viewed them at close range, perched on pine branches above the river, eyeing us with interest as we drifted beneath.

On bright winter days when I’ve had enough of staying indoors, I dress in sweater and coat, pull on insulated boots, grab leather mittens and a wool hat and walk the woods and meadows near home to see what I can see. When I slow down to look time seems to grow more tangible. I can almost weigh it in my hand—can almost see the bright moments falling like snowflakes around me.Frogs-and-Fishes-NatureBaroque

 

LAKE SQUALL, 1967: WHEN SALMON ANGLERS ENCOUNTERED THE POWER OF LAKE MICHIGAN

WHEN I WAS TWELVE YEARS OLD I was eager for adventure. My family lived on Long Lake, where any ordinary day offered opportunities for exploration and discovery. But ordinary days bored me. I longed for uncommon experience. When storms chased the summer people inside their cottages, I wanted to be on the shore of Lake Michigan, watching waves. I wanted a life filled with drama. And then one day I learned about drama.

After a day on Platte Bay in August, 1967. l-r: Terry Wilkins, Rick Dennis, Jerry Dennis

After a day on Platte Bay in August, 1967. l-r: Terry Wilkins, Rick Dennis, Jerry Dennis

It was August 1967 when Pacific salmon returned for the first time to Platte Bay. Nobody was quite prepared for them. The salmon had been released as smolts, and biologists thought there was a decent chance they would survive. But they did more than just survive. They scythed through the schools of alewives that filled the lake in those days. By the time they arrived in Platte Bay they weighed 15 to 20 pounds each and were ravenous. Any angler with a boat and a spinning rod could catch them.

I was 12 that summer, and had coho fever like everyone else. My family and I fished every weekend from mid-August through September. We launched our 14-foot runabout at the mouth of the Platte River and went out on the lake and caught our limit of salmon. We couldn’t get enough. And to top it off, the weather was magnificent: bright and mild and nearly windless. Some days the lake was so calm that people fished from canoes.

Saturday, September 23, promised to be another fine day. Friday’s forecast had given no indication of trouble: “Saturday partly cloudy and a little warmer, with a chance of showers near evening. Northerly winds … light and variable.” Thousands of anglers finished work Friday, loaded their boats, and drove to Platte Bay.

But that night a shift in the jet stream brought an unexpected cold front down from Canada. At 4:30 that morning, when the alarm went off, I could hear the wind in the trees. My mother argued for staying home. Dad and I talked her into giving it a try.

At dawn we stood beside the tiny weather shack near the mouth of the Platte. A red pennant snapped in the wind above us. Small-craft warnings.

The phrase had potency to anyone who knew the Great Lakes. We had watched storms, had seen gigantic waves batter breakwalls and lighthouses. We had been out in three-foot waves that seemed like they could break our boat in half. Even much larger craft were at risk when the waves exceeded four or five feet.

To the west, the sky was dark with squall lines. The water was the color of steel and booming with whitecaps. During the drive to the Platte, we had listened to weather reports announcing waves two to three feet high and winds 25 knots and increasing.

Many anglers ignored the warnings. They had driven hours to get there; why let a few waves stop them? Besides, others were going out, hundreds of them. A general assumption was that small-craft warnings were a formality, a way the Coast Guard avoided liability in case someone ran into trouble. And one thing was certain: You couldn’t catch fish on shore.

So they went out. The Coast Guard estimated that more than a thousand boats motored into the waves that morning. My father and I stood on shore with the wind in our faces and watched boat after boat motor down the river and meet the breakers at the mouth. Waves struck the bows of the boats and sent up explosions of spray. A few boats turned back and retreated upriver, their passengers shaking their heads in defeat. But for every one that returned there were a dozen waiting to challenge the waves.

All morning conditions worsened. By afternoon the wind had reached 40 miles per hour, and the waves were six to eight feet high. In some places they reached 25 feet. Yet hundreds of anglers stayed on the lake and fished. Then their boats began to swamp.

At first they tried to reach shore by motoring through the breakers at the mouth of the river. It was tricky, even in calm water. In the high waves, boats came in from all directions and wedged in the channel, collided with one another, turned sideways, swamped when waves broke over them. Soon dozens of boats were engulfed.

More timid boaters stood offshore. They circled, fighting the waves until they got up their courage and dashed for the beach. They came in fast, their engines screaming as the water fell beneath them, and ran aground. Six or eight of us on shore would run down with the descending wash and grab the boats by their gunwales and docking lines. The men inside jumped out to help and the women and children crouched against the decks with terrible looks on their faces, and we would pull the boats as far as we could up the streaming beach before they were slammed by the next wave. We were successful only with small boats. Larger ones were too heavy to pull. We would hold them as best as we could while they wallowed in the surge until a wave washed over their sterns and filled them with water and sand. A few waves later the boats would be capsized or anchored to the bottom.

Rumors ran up and down the beach. Hundreds missing, presumed dead. Dozens of bodies washed onto the beach near Frankfort. Boats sinking far out in the bay, beyond help.

Days later, we would learn that most of the missing had been accounted for and that in reality seven men had died. It was a wonder. One rescuer said that of the 15 or 20 boats he helped drag onto the beach at Empire, only two contained life preservers.

There were heroics. Coast Guard helicopters lowered baskets to floundering anglers and lifted six of them to safety. Two men clung to the side of their capsized boat for more than two hours until they lost consciousness in the 50-degree water and were rescued somehow by people on shore who waded through the surf and pulled them to safety.

My father and I helped as much as we could. Dad had been a police officer and was trained to save lives. I knew he could rescue anyone in danger. The knowledge was exhilarating. It made me feel more competent just to be with him. I felt capable of adult heroics.

Somebody told us that people were in trouble at the boat ramp in Empire. We drove there to help and joined a small crowd on the beach. A boat with two men inside circled beyond the breakers. The men seemed unsure of themselves. They had watched others try to run the gauntlet of breaking waves and seemed to be looking for a way to save their boat. They circled, rising on each wave, disappearing into each trough, their heads swiveling as their boat turned, always facing shore. We could see them working up their courage. Finally they steered toward the beach. But instead of accelerating, they came cautiously, their engine at trolling speed. The boat went up on a wave, down in a trough, up on another wave. They went down in a trough and did not come up. When the wave passed, the two men were in the water.

They were so close to shore we could see the hair plastered to their scalps and could see the expressions on their faces. They looked more surprised than frightened. Their eyes were big and they worked their mouths, as if apologizing. They bobbed low in the water in their orange life preservers. Every time a wave came over them, they disappeared for a few moments in the froth.

Waves broke with so much force the ground shuddered. I stood on the beach above the wash and felt the booming thump of every wave through my feet. My shoes were soaked with water and full of sand and my socks had fallen around my heels.

The breakers shoved the men toward shore, then dragged them away again. They never got closer. A current pulled them down the beach away from us. We walked beside them, shielding our eyes from the spray and sand thrown at us by the wind. Every time a wave broke over the men, they tumbled in the foam. Sometimes they turned upside down and kicked their legs in the air as if trying to run. The wave would pass and they would struggle upright and get a few breaths before the next breaker came.

People on shore ran to the water’s edge carrying coils of rope and tried to throw them. The ropes would shoot out and unfurl and hang for a moment in the wind, then come back. One man knotted a rope around his waist and waded into the waves but he was knocked down, and others pulled him to shore against his will.

Waves broke over the two men, one after another. With each wave they disappeared, and we saw only a glimpse of orange in the froth.

I had sand in my eyes. I turned away and rubbed them and turned back and saw the faces of the men in the water. I made eye contact with one of them. He was heavy and gray, the age of my grandfather. He seemed apologetic. I kept expecting him to smile at me and shrug. A wave would crash over him and after a few moments he would come up coughing and spitting water. Every time it happened, he looked a little more apologetic. A woman standing near me put her hands to her face and screamed for somebody to do something.

Children were excused from responsibility, but I was no longer a child. I was 12, nearly 13, old enough to help. I pitched on a baseball team and could have thrown a rope better than anyone on the beach. I could have heaved it low and hard beneath the wind and made it straighten like a bullwhip and land within reach of first one man, then the other. I was lean and fast and swam well. I could have tied a line around my waist and dived through the waves and reached the men in the calm of a trough and spoken reassuring words to them as the people on shore pulled us to safety.

A wave broke over them. Their legs rose in the air but did not kick. Another wave came and I could see two dark, slick objects rolling in the spume. My father gripped me high on my arm and turned me away. I tried to look back but he gripped harder and pulled. An ambulance waited in the parking lot, its lights flashing urgently. People ran past, shouting, their voices torn to fragments by the wind.

The men in the water wore bright orange life preservers with bulky collars designed to support their heads above the water. They should have been safe. Everyone said if you wore a life preserver, you were safe. It was an article of faith. Preserver of life. The Coast Guard guaranteed it. Our parents taught us to believe it.

But the heads of the men did not stay above the water. The preservers hadn’t worked. The guarantee was not valid.

I had wanted to be a hero.

I had wanted drama in my life.

My father gripped my arm and pulled me across the parking lot past the ambulance, past people holding their faces in their hands. He put me in the car with my mother and brother and drove us home.

For weeks I lay in bed at night hearing the roar of the storm and feeling the awful draining power of the waves. I wanted to remain a child, but it was too late. Childhood fades with the knowledge of peril, and peril is everywhere. My father could not protect me from it. No life preserver could save me.

They died a hundred feet from shore.

 

(Adapted from The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas, by Jerry Dennis.)

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FISHING THE JAM: A DESCENT INTO THE DARK SIDE OF SALMON FISHING

salmonPlatteRiver

Coho salmon in Michigan’s Platte River

When the urge to spawn came over them, salmon ran up the rivers by the hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands. They also ran up any creek, slough, channel, and ditch they could squeeze into. My friends and I used to stalk them in rivulets so shallow the fish were virtually stranded, and still they shimmied on their sides and pounded the gravel with their tails trying to get a little farther upstream. Then they died. By October the stench of rotting salmon was everywhere. The experts said salmon stopped feeding once they left the big lake to spawn and could not be caught on lures, bait, or artificial flies. The proved the experts wrong in coming years. But those first few seasons we didn’t know any better. Like everyone we knew, our reasoning went like this: If you couldn’t be caught with conventional tactics and were just going to die anyway,  why not catch them any way you could? Made sense to us. Until it stopped making sense and turned ugly.

This essay was first published in Outdoor Life, and was later collected in A Place on the Water:

MY FATHER never learned the art of snagging salmon. I realize now that is to his credit, but when I was 17 and suffering from a serious case of blood-lust, it was a matter of some embarrassment. My friends and I had become aficionados of the unadorned treble-hook and I had little patience for a man who hardly tried. He stayed home and fished alone for walleyes in Long Lake. I joined the crowd at the Boardman River in Traverse City and learned a harsh lesson.

The river had filled suddenly and unexpectedly with so many coho salmon, a new and exotic species in our part of the world, that everywhere we looked we saw enormous fish porpoising, swirling, leaping clear of the water to land in great side-smacking explosions. It was hardly possible to drag a lure through the water without hooking one. My friends and I, drunk with abundance, figured we could be forgiven if we killed a few more than our share, or if we forgot—temporarily, temporarily—such concepts as restraint and honor and sportsmanship.

It was the beginning of our last year of high school and we were eager to be released to the broad freedoms of adulthood, college, and life. Every afternoon, the moment the final bell rang, we ran for the parking lot and drove Doug’s rust-shot Torino straight to the river. There, at least, we were equals to anyone. On the water we had already graduated to a bigger world.

We recognized many of the cars parked beside the bridge. Other students had skipped school, had been here all day, and would have raked the Willow Hole clean by noon. Below the bridge, the hardcore regulars, the Men, stood in ranks along shore. They crowded each other, their thickets of rods in constant up-and-down motion. They used surf-casting outfits with 30-pound-test line and cast them like they were heaving anvils in the river.

We hurried into our waders, grabbed our spinning rods, and raced down a trail almost nobody else used, beneath tag alders and blackberry brambles, over piles of crumbling yellow bricks and tangles of the discarded monofilament that stretched in coils and snarls from Union Street Dam to the mouth of the river. We busted out onto the riverbank. The pool was deserted. Fishermen were upstream and down—we could hear a wailing drag, the crash of a leaping salmon, shouts and oaths and laughter—but somehow, this spot, the spot, had been left to us.

Doug, careless with knots and other trivial matters, was rigged first. Before he could cast, a large salmon broke the water at midstream; another swirled close to the bank. Doug tossed his Spider out and across, allowed it to sink the necessary three-count, then began the old jerk-and-haul.

“You bozos better hurry,” he said. “Unless you want to watch me catch all the—WHOA!”

He was into one already. It ran downstream, and Doug kept his rod skewed low and rigid, the reel shrieking, the line tearing across the river so fast it raised a trail of mist at the water. Suddenly the fish came up: somersaulting in its own spray, arching and flexing, crashing back into the river. It was hooked in the back. Good spot. It gave the fish leverage but did not disable it with pain.

We had forgotten the net. Russ and I refused to go back to the car. Doug screamed at us to go but we ignored him.

I cast my Spider and let it sink. One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three. Wait any less and the hook would be pulled over the tops of the salmon. Wait any longer and it would get wedged in rocks, driven into a log, or tangled permanently in the monster-snarls of line that had been growing like fungus on the bottom since the run began. Yank and reel, sidearm to keep the hook low. Yank and reel. No resistance to speak of, just the #2 treble and the quarter-ounce bell sinker streaking through the water. Yank and WHOA!  It ran instantly, the rod maxing out, the fish up and leaping before I could warn Doug to watch his line. He hadn’t landed his 10-pounder yet, and mine, 12 pounds at least, crossed his line and his crossed mine and mine crossed his again. Then the two salmon plowed off in opposite directions and the lines broke almost simultaneously, like rapid-fire gunshots.

Doug blamed me, of course. He had a scrub-brush of hair growing straight up from his forehead, like he’d been shocked. When he was angry he pushed his glasses up on his nose, they slid down, he pushed them up again. Russ, meanwhile, cast into the pool and first yank was into a fresh-run eight-pounder that blasted out of the water almost the second the hook bit. Doug, to cool off, left for the car to get the net. I landed Russ’s fish for him, waiting until he led it into shallow water then placing my foot beneath its belly and booting it up on the bank. When Doug returned with the net, Russ had his fish hung on the stringer in the shallows, and I was into another, a coho that might have gone 10 pounds except that it was hooked in the absolute maximum leverage point of the tail and I didn’t have a chance. It made a V-wake for Lake Michigan and kept going even after my line popped 50 yards downstream, where the fast water began at the Front Street Bridge.

*

THE NEWSPAPERS called it Coho Fever. It appeared shortly after the salmon began congregating near the mouth of the Platte River in northwest lower Michigan in 1967, eighteen months after they had been planted by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in an effort to revitalize a Great Lakes fishery that was suffering, to say the least. Once considered sportfishing heaven, the Great Lakes had become a wasteland. Parasitic sea lampries had wiped out the lake trout, and massive schools of alewives—small, shad-like baitfish that had the unpleasant habit of dying by the millions every summer and fouling the beaches—were nearly all that thrived in the lakes.

Nobody knew if the salmon would feed on the alewives, or even if they would survive in the big lake. But when adult fish appeared in Platte Bay late that summer all expectations were surpassed. They had grown an astonishing 8 to 15 pounds in less than two years, and were returning to their parent stream in numbers that even the most optimistic fisheries biologists had not dreamed of. The fever spread like bubonic. Mile-long lines of vehicles waited to use the access ramps and frenzied anglers launched their boats the way a dumptruck unloads a full bed of refuse:  backing up fast to the ramp and hitting the brakes. They would park then in the sand along the road, getting their vehicles stuck to the axles and abandoning them there. Later, when salmon moved up the rivers, the fever moved up with them. I came down with a very bad case of it.

We were not prepared for the salmon. Our equipment was inadequate and we had no idea what techniques might catch the fish. A few anglers were looking to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska for precedent, but most believed that once the salmon entered the rivers they would show no interest in lures or bait. It was thought that since the fish would inevitably die after spawning, we were justified in harvesting them with any method that worked. That attitude was endorsed by the Department of Natural Resources, and snagging was legalized on virtually every Michigan river those first few years. It became the standard tactic of most river fishermen.

In the Boardman, in Traverse City, hundreds of salmon were stacked in every pool from the mouth of the river to the Union Street Dam, a distance of about a mile. Snaggers would fill their five-fish limit, carry the salmon home in the trunks of their cars, then return to fill another limit. Catches of twenty fish a day were not unusual at first, before the competition got intense. By then it was as entertaining to watch the action as it was to participate in it. Fishermen unequipped for the strength of the salmon watched their reels explode and rods shatter. Full-grown men leaped into the river to do battle hand-over-hand with salmon that had smashed their equipment. Fishermen standing elbow-to-elbow at the hotspots became involved in incredible tangles of line when hooked fish ran parallel to shore. Harsh words were exchanged. Fights broke out.

snagged salmonMy friends and I learned fast. We used sturdy fiberglass spinning rods and reels with smooth drags. Many of the snaggers preferred 20- and even 30-pound-test line, but we chose to use 8- or 10-pound-test, willing to lose a few fish in exchange for the greater casting accuracy of the lighter line. Refining our techniques, we became proud masters of snagging. We devised our own snagging lure—the Silver Spider—a treble-hook with a heavy bell sinker attached underneath by a few twists of copper wire. It was a deadly, streamlined weapon that rode through the water with hooks pointed forward, ready to impale anything in its way.

*

WE HAD NEVER SEEN the pool so full of salmon. Doug, Russ, and I hooked six fish in six casts. But our activity attracted the attention of fishermen above and below us and they were closing in. Russ made a hurried cast and lofted his Spider over a willow branch. Doug, laughing, cast sidearm to put his hook beneath the same branch, hauled back once and nailed a big, silver female that did a tail-walking routine the length of the pool. Seven for seven.

I made a cast, jerked, reeled up, jerked, and was into another fish. Eight for eight. After hundreds of pounds of snagged salmon I knew immediately not only the size of the fish but approximately where it was hooked:  head, side, belly or tail. This was a small one, maybe three pounds hooked amidships. I wasted no time, simply derricked it in and dragged it onto the beach.

But it was not a salmon. It was a brown trout, vivid with spawning colors, with the hooked jaw and thick body of a healthy, mature male—the largest and most beautiful trout I had ever hooked. I had snagged dozens of salmon and never felt the slightest remorse, treating them like throwaways, like objects of commerce given out to promote business. But this was different. This was a wild, natural fish, here for a purpose that had nothing to do with the circus atmosphere of the mock-run of salmon. It was not the first trout I had seen snagged. A few steelhead had entered the river, and they were sometimes netted and hurried to car trunks by men and boys who laughed about their indiscretion. Possessing snagged trout was unlawful, of course, but the law seemed to be held in abeyance those days.

I was determined to release the trout. I kneeled and removed the hook carefully. The wound seemed shallow, harmless.

“What you got there?”

I looked up, expecting a conservation officer. He was perhaps 40 years old, dressed in street clothes, wearing aviator’s sunglasses. Not a conservation officer. Not a fisherman, either.

“Brown trout. Hooked him accidentally.”

“Accidentally. Sure.”

“I’m going to let him go.”

“Why let him go?  I’ll take him.”

I had noticed people like him lingering on the fringes. They weren’t fishermen, but they liked to watch. Sometimes they cadged a salmon or two from the fishermen whose freezers were already filled.

“I have to let him go.”

“Seems like a shame, a waste.”

“He was hooked lightly. He’ll be okay.”

I noticed his trousers were too long and the cuffs had frayed where they dragged on the ground. He wore black, heavy-heeled leather shoes caked with mud. I looked up and he was smiling at me. He never quit smiling.

“It’s just going to die anyway,” he said.

“No it’s not,” I insisted. I was growing uneasy. I wanted to release the trout and see it swim away as if nothing had happened.

The man, smiling, shrugged and stepped forward. He raised his foot and brought it down heel first on the trout’s head, crushing it into the gravel. The body jumped once, then was still.

He slid his hand under the gill-plate and lifted the fish. “See?” he said. “It’s just gonna die anyway.”

I didn’t know it yet, but I was finished as a snagger. I would go home that evening unsure what had happened, knowing only that the fun had gone out of it. In a few years the DNR would virtually abolish the practice anyway, limiting it to a few short stretches of the larger rivers. Anglers, forced to experiment, would discover salmon in rivers could be caught after all on lures, bait, and flies.

Standing beside the river, watching the man walk off with the mutilated trout, I realized that my enjoyment had been tainted all along. We had caught fish, many fish, but it had been an empty exercise. Intent on having fun, we had failed to consider fair play. It was obscenely easy to convert abundance into waste, but at some point—and now it seemed inevitable—there must always be a reckoning.

(From A Place on the Water: An Angler’s Reflections on Home. Available at bookstores everywhere, or from the author.)

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A SPORT OF KINGS: THE SALMON OF ICELAND

When you mention salmon in many parts of the world, from the northeastern U.S. and Canada across northern Europe and the remote nether reaches of Russia, everyone assumes you mean Atlantic salmon. Although they are a close relative of coho, Chinook, pink and other Pacific salmons, there are differences. The most significant of them biologically is that, unlike Pacific salmon, Atlantics do not die after spawning. That means the same fish can return for several years in succession to the river of its birth, and each year it will be a few pounds heftier. Another difference, the one that has grabbed the attention of anglers for several centuries, is that Atlantics will often rise to take artificial flies.

In the Great Lakes region, Atlantics were native to Lake Ontario but disappeared during the logging era, victims of log drives and the warming of the rivers after the tree-cover was removed. Attempts to reestablish them have been successful in only a few places, most notably in the St. Mary’s River between lakes Superior and Huron, where a robust fishery is maintained by biologists and students at Lake Superior State University. The Michigan DNR has recently begun a stocking program of their own in northern Lake Huron, so there’s a chance we’ll see mature Atlantics returning to the lower Au Sable and Thunder Bay rivers. Atlantics are also stocked in at least one inland lake that shall remain nameless.

The story below is about my sole journey to fish for wild Atlantics in their native waters. I wrote it on assignment for Outdoor Life, whose editors, after investing a small fortune in the project, decided the subject was too fancy-schmanzy for their readers. It saw print for the first time in my book, The River Home:

 

NO RAIN HAD FALLEN FOR WEEKS THAT SUMMER in Iceland, and the rivers were so low you could see salmon stacked below every rapids and falls. On the Nordura anglers using very small flies had raised a few fish, but they were skittish and the fishing was tough. Then, the day before I arrived, it rained: a steady, all-day shower that brought the river up a few inches (but did not muddy it; the Nordura never muddies), and suddenly everyone was catching salmon.

atlanticsalmon_spawningfemaleI was already stoked with enthusiasm as I bumped in my rental car up the rutted gravel road to the lodge above the Nordura. The outing had all the earmarks of a tease—I had just a day and a half to satisfy the craving of a lifetime. Since high school and maybe a little before, I had dreamed of fishing for Atlantic salmon. I blame Ernest Schweibert, whose evocative recollections of rivers past had stirred a passion for exotic places where big trout and bigger salmon could be enticed into striking artificial flies if they were presented with sufficient skill and a pure heart. Schweibert, the dean of the “Me and André” school of fishing writers, was just as eloquent about good wine, good food, and cultured conversation as he was about trout and salmon. When I read him I was a young fish-head with powerful longings and a lust for adventure but little appreciation for culture. The wine, food, and conversation didn’t take, but the places did— and if you could believe the ravings of writers like Schweibert, one of the best places of all was Iceland.

The Nordura is considered among the top half dozen salmon rivers in the nation , but it is not the best. That didn’t matter to me. In the last few days I had seen enough of Iceland to know that the river and the country it passes through would be spectacular. Much of the big uninhabited interior of the island is a volcanic wasteland strewn with charred rubble that makes it appear as arid and lifeless as the surface of Mars. Some of it softens into bleak rolling fields with the winter-scarred look of Montana in spring , but most of it is covered with such recent volcanic debris that not much lives there. In the interior every horizon is wedged between volcanoes, some of them clearly active. Along the coasts the land is rich with meadows of wildflowers and stands of prolific , stunted birches. Here and there the ground is so thin it shudders beneath your feet and radiates enough heat to melt the soles of your shoes. Springs of hot water support lush, steaming thickets of ferns. Rivers are everywhere— winding through jumbles of rock, slicing in torrents across the lava fields, twisting down tawny meadow valleys where sheep and ponies graze.

The rivers of Iceland are either glacier- or spring-fed. Those that originate as meltwater draining from the island’s five major glaciers tend to be fast and brutally cold and contain so much pulverized rock that they are the color of milk and can’t support fish. The rivers born from springs are also fast and cold, but their water is clear and home to resident brown trout and Arctic char. During the summer they fill with Atlantic salmon.

*

YOU HAVE CHOSEN the best possible time to be here,” the river warden said. His job is monitoring the salmon and making certain everyone who fishes for them has paid for the privilege. I stood behind my car in the parking lot, struggling into neoprene waders and fumbling with the laces of my wading boots. An Englishman loading suitcases and fishing gear into the car next to mine told me he had caught six immature salmon, or grilse, from a single pool that morning. “You will catch salmon this evening,” he said with certainty.

I walked onto the deck of the lodge, a low, cedar-sided ranch located high above the river on top of a treeless bluff. Below were two miles of rapids and pools strung out along the valley. Even from that height I could see salmon jumping in distant pools. The river warden followed me onto the deck and watched the vaulting fish. “Truly,” he said. “The perfect time.”

Inside the lodge I was introduced to two Icelanders who had volunteered to be my unpaid guides on the river. Guides are not required in Iceland, but the nature of salmon fishing makes it a good idea to hire one. Salmon that have returned to the rivers where they were born tend to hold in only a few favored pools. An angler accustomed to fishing for trout can waste a lot of time casting into beautiful and beguiling water that never holds fish.

Magnus Sigurdsson was a forty-eight-year-old bookkeeper for a contractor at the NATO base outside Reykjavik. His brother-in-law, Kristinn Valdimarsson, was the manager and part owner of a printshop in the city. As we were introduced, the river keeper explained that Magnus and Kristinn had already fished the Nordura several times that summer and were now sharing the price of one rod. It meant that they would have to fish alternately, one casting while the other watched. I would share a beat with them.

We followed a steep, winding trail from the lodge down the side of the valley to Eyrin, one of the most productive pools on the river. During the long climb down, Magnus and Kristinn asked if I had ever fished for salmon. When they learned that this would be my first attempt, they were suddenly no longer content to merely lead me to good pools. They wanted to see me catch a salmon , even at the expense of their own success, and insisted I fish Eyrin from the south shore, where a long gravel bar allows an angler to cover all the best water. Upstream was an eight-foot waterfall with a fish ladder notched into the rock beside it. Water poured down the ladder like a plumbing disaster. The pool below the falls was long and deep and, Magnus and Kristinn insisted, full of salmon.

In Iceland the wind can be so continuous that it becomes less a phenomenon of weather than a feature of the landscape. That afternoon the wind was so strong that each time I tried to cast upstream into it the line was thrown back at me. The wind lifted spray from the waterfall and carried it downstream hundreds of feet. Waves on the river had their tops stripped off into horizontal banners. In the middle of that turbulence, at midstream, precisely in the spot I happened to be looking at, a large fish poked its snout out of the water. I muscled a roll-cast across the river and my fly, a small Jock Scott, was snatched by the wind and thrown down hard on the surface, landing by chance just upstream from where the fish had appeared. I yanked the line to take up slack and the fly skittered on the surface like a tiny, brightly dressed clown on water skis. A fish the size of an otter swirled behind it.

The Jock Scott, a traditional salmon fly

The Jock Scott, a traditional salmon fly

I roll-cast again, and again the wind grabbed the line and slapped the fly down at midriver. The line straightened, and the fly skimmed across the surface. It had traveled maybe six feet when a salmon came up and ate it.

I waited for an absurdly long time before raising my rod. I had been coached to do this. Everyone I talked to and every book I read said this was the only way to hook a salmon. If you tried to set the hook quickly, as you would with trout, you would pull the fly from the fish’s mouth. Instead you must wait until the salmon turned and swam toward the bottom and tightened the line itself— only then should you draw up tight on the fish. I did as I was instructed, and when I finally lifted my rod I felt the throb of something heavy and alive. Then it was off.

I didn’t know if I had waited too long or not long enough to set the hook. I had no idea. Across the river Magnus was shrugging at me and holding his palms upward. He called out but I could not hear his words in the wind. I calculated how many hours I had left to fish. Not many. It seemed likely that I had just blown my only chance at a salmon in Iceland.

*

THE ATLANTIC SALMON is supposed to be the anadromous equivalent of the muskie, the fish of a thousand casts. Though I would gladly have made many thousands of casts on the Nordura River, I had two problems. The first was time. My week in Iceland was filled with so many obligations and appointments it had been difficult to break free for even a day and a half of fishing. I was there on assignment, to write an environmental story for a
nature magazine, and had already spent a day bobbing seasick in the Atlantic, been bussed halfway across the island on a tourist junket , and dined with and interviewed government officials, university professors, biologists, and fellow journalists. Only after jumping through a complex arrangement of bureaucratic hoops had I been given permission to fish for salmon.

The second problem was financial. Salmon fishing in Iceland, as in all of Europe, is distressingly expensive. My day and a half on the Nordura cost fifteen hundred dollars for fishing rights, plus three hundred for meals and a night at the lodge. The thousand-dollar-per-day fee for the right to fish goes to the property owners— the farmers who raise sheep in the fertile valley of the river— and it’s firmly set. Not even residents get a discount. Some salmon rivers in Iceland are less expensive, but they are also less productive. A few of the best beats on the best rivers cost considerably more. I was lucky to find an opening on such short notice on the Nordura.

It’s important to understand that this is not my usual gig. In fishing, as in other passions, I’ve never had to pay for it. I didn’t have to pay now, either—at the last minute the tab was picked up by the Iceland Tourist Board—but the principle rankled. I’ve always felt strongly that rivers, lakes, and oceans belong equally to everyone, and everyone should have the right to enjoy them. I don’t mind paying a reasonable fee for a license, knowing that the money goes to enforce game laws and otherwise conserve the resource. But a grand a day? Seven grand a week? Ten grand for a week with lodging? It goes against my egalitarian grain. If the Nordura flowed through northern Michigan and were owned by a consortium of landowners who were growing rich collecting thousands of dollars a day from jet-set anglers, I’d be the poachingest son of a bitch you ever saw. I’d sneak into the river at midnight, wearing camo and blackened face, and catch as many fish as I could. I’d be the Robin Hood of salmon, the most feared catch-and -release criminal in the land.

To a certain extent , of course, you always have to pay to play. Either you pay in effort— as in canoeing and portaging one hundred miles of wilderness river in Quebec to reach a pool filled with five-pound brook trout—or you pay in dollars. The payoff is a richness of experience, a stock of memories, stories to tell your grandchildren.

But when richness of experience is confused with being flat-out rich, somebody loses out. In Iceland the high cost of fishing for salmon excludes many of the natives from the sport. At a fly shop in Reykjavik I spoke at length with a bright-eyed grilse of a clerk who graciously answered my questions about salmon and took the trouble to select a dozen local fly patterns (at five bucks each) that he said were necessary for the Nordura. As it turned out, he could hardly wait to get through those preliminaries so he could pump me for information about salmon and steelhead in British Columbia and Alaska. He could not afford to fish for salmon in his own country and was obsessed with the fact that in the United States and Canada he would be allowed to purchase a nonresident fishing license for less than a hundred dollars and fish anywhere he chose for a year. He could hardly imagine it. Talking about it made him downright goofy with excitement.

Yet, to my surprise, few of the other anglers I spoke with considered salmon fishing an indulgence of the wealthy alone. Icelanders are fiercely proud that in their eleven-hundred-year history as a republic they have always rejected monarchy. That explains in part, perhaps, why fly-fishing for salmon in Iceland is enjoyed by the middle class, while in Scodand, Ireland, and Norway it has traditionally been the sport of kings. Of the dozen guests staying at the Nordura Lodge, the only foreigners other than me were a stiff and unsmiling German financier who was a dead ringer for a Hollywood Gestapo officer, even down to the dueling scar on his cheek, and a Danish businessman and his twelve-year-old son who, when I congratulated him on catching a ten-pound salmon, told me in flawless English and not a hint of snottiness that he had caught a twenty-four-pounder the previous week in Norway. The remaining guests were all residents of Reykjavik who every year squirrel enough money away to take a vacation at one or another of their nation’s sixty salmon rivers. They did not consider the cost unreasonable. They argued, in fact, that it protected the fishery by making it too valuable to abuse.

Economists figure that an Atlantic salmon caught in a commercial net off the coast of Iceland is worth about eight dollars to the nation’s economy, while one caught in a river with a fly rod is worth about eight hundred. In 1991 the government of Iceland placed restrictions on commercial fishing in offshore waters and issued an experimental ban on netting in the estuary where the Nordura and its several sister rivers enter the Atlantic. The following summer, salmon came to the Nordura in twice the numbers of the previous year. Since then their abundance and their average size have increased steadily. For decades nets in the estuary had been set with mesh sizes that captured most of the large salmon and allowed only small adults and grilse to pass through. Such plundering of the genetic stock helped make Iceland’s salmon smaller than those in many countries. On the Nordura before the ban, few fish over ten pounds were caught. Now they are becoming common.

For someone who grew up practicing lowbrow versions of angling, the traditional implements and strict protocols of salmon fishing produce mixed feelings. But after seeing one phantom salmon rise to a fly skating across the surface, the idea of fishing with anything less refined than a fly rod seemed shameful. Netting one from a trawler would be
obscene.

 *

SALMON FISHING IN ICELAND is allowed only during two daily sessions, from 7: 00 A.M. to 1: 00 P.M. and from 4: 00 P.M. to 11: 00 P.M. The first evening, after we left the river at curfew, Magnus assured me that I had done all I could to hook the salmon that rose to my Jock Scott. “Sometimes they are simply impossible,” he said. “But tomorrow is a new day. Tomorrow you will have many opportunities to catch a salmon.”

Before dinner there was some confusion when a non-English-speaking member of the wait staff tried to give me a bottle of chilled white wine. As I reached to accept it, thinking it was a gift from the lodgekeeper, the Gestapo officer marched up, clicked his heels together, and took the bottle from the girl’s hand. He said a few words to her in German, and she blushed and became flustered. He then gave me a cold look and went to his table with the wine. He did not offer me a glass. NaziOfficer

Dinner was at midnight. We were served smoked pork chops awash in a mysterious but delicious sauce, small Icelandic potatoes, steamed cauliflower, and afterward a flaming dessert the chef delivered amid raucous applause. The dining room’s single long table was filled with ruddy-faced men and women talking in several languages about the day’s fishing. The German stood and announced that he had caught seven salmon from one pool that evening, all on tube flies. Polite congratulations were offered, but I noticed disapproval on several faces. Tube flies are made by tying furs and feathers to the outside of small lengths of plastic or metal tubing, which when pulled through the water leave trails of bubbles salmon are said to find irresistible. Later I would learn that tube flies are frowned upon by traditionalists. They’re considered barely a step above live bait.

Then Magnus stood and told everyone that I had raised a fish on a Jock Scott. The news created a stir. It seems that the Jock Scott has a long and revered history on the Nordura but in recent decades has gone out of style. That I chose to fish with that particular pattern during my first evening on the river, and that it attracted the interest of a salmon, was seen as serendipitous. I was whacked heartily on the back by five or six people. The German whacked harder than anyone.

When I went to bed at 1: 00 A.M., it was so light outside that I stood in the window of my room and watched ponies grazing on the slopes across the valley. I awoke three hours later, the sun already high and bright, and forced myself to stay in bed until six o’clock, when someone in the hallway tinkled a bell. I leaped up and dressed.

After breakfast we left the lodge and drove along a gravel road that placed us beside the river well before the seven o’clock starting time. We had drawn a good beat, one with more productive pools than we could possibly fish in a day. Magnus and Kristinn offered me the choice of fishing with them or spending a couple hours by myself on the same pool where the German had caught his seven salmon the day before. I decided to start the day alone.

They dropped me off beside a section of river that snaked in big gleaming curves across a hayfield, among rolled bales the size of Volkswagen Beetles. Beyond the valley was a row of dark volcanic cones. Except for the volcanoes, the valley and river could have been lifted from central Idaho.

“Walk across the field,” Magnus said, “and fish down quickly past the first bend. The best water is at the base of the second bend. You will see three rocks rising above the water. Fish around the rocks. The salmon will be there.”

I followed his instructions, beginning in the upper water where riffles dumped into deep pools tight against the bank. I saw no fish. Near the bottom of the second bend I came upon not three but five rocks rising above the surface of slow, chest-deep water. Thinking it odd that Magnus had not counted correctly, I fished every inch of the pool, changing flies a half dozen times, carefully covering all the water above, below, and around the rocks. When I caught nothing, I walked to the bottom of the pool, where the slow current spilled over gravel into a chute of fast water. A salmon broke the surface of the chute. I looked closely and there, again, the head of a fish came up. Then I noticed three rocks nearly submerged in the turbulence. I had been fishing around the wrong rocks.

I cast my fly, a size 6 Rusty Rat, across and down, letting the line quarter in the current and sweep into the fast water where the fish had shown. Something strong pulled at the fly. It seemed to pluck at it, as if someone had gripped the fly between a thumb and forefinger and pulled. The sensation was so unusual that I was not sure it was produced by a fish and hesitated to set the hook. I lifted my rod tentatively and it bent. A salmon of about six pounds leaped immediately from the river. It ran the length of the chute into the rapids below and leaped again. I followed downstream along a gravel bar. When I could lead the fish into the shallows, I tailed it and lifted it from the water.

It seemed astonishing that this lovely, wild, powerful fish had taken a fly so eagerly—that it had come to the surface in pursuit of a colorful scrap of feathers that resemble no living thing and was presented in a way that intentionally induced it to drag. Such drag would send a trout diving for cover. Now I understood why monarchs through the centuries have claimed the fish and the sport for their own. There is something undeniably regal about the fish, something profoundly dignified about the sport. I thought of the first time I tasted a really fine wine: Until then I could not imagine what the fuss was about. The fuss that surrounds salmon fishing reaches its most distilled form in the flies. They are constructed according to very old, very complex, and very carefully prescribed arrangements of feathers, fur, tinsel, and silk. Their complexity was probably originally intended to keep the riffraff  from producing them. The patterns were given names like Blue Charm, Lady Caroline, Black Fairy, and Silver Doctor, and made as colorful and intricate as hummingbirds. Nobody pretends that salmon will strike only traditional patterns or only those made with the feathers of a dozen exotic birds. In fact, in Iceland one of the most effective patterns, the Collie Dog, is a simple streamer tied with a silver tinsel body and a dark wing made from the hair of a sheepdog—and not just any sheepdog, but a particular dog owned by the Scottish fly tier who produces the pattern. The fly’s future is certain: When the Scotsman’s collie dies, so does the Collie Dog.

During the next hour every tenth cast or so I felt the deliberate, pulling strike of a salmon. All the fish were holding in the fast water around the rocks or just below them. I landed only the first six-pounder and hooked two about the same size and had them nearly to my feet when they pulled free. One or two others felt larger during their first run downstream but got off before I could see them. One strong fish ran down into the rapids and broke my six-pound tippet. I shortened the leader, as Magnus had suggested, until it tested about ten pounds.

There would be other salmon that day. Kristinn caught a nine-pounder first cast in an unnamed pool below a road bridge, then hooked and lost three others all from the same spot. Magnus would cast his big fifteen-foot Spey rod with both hands hour after hour, never raising a fish and never complaining or losing heart. Late in the afternoon, in a narrow, rock-strewn canyon and a pool known as Leggjabrjotur—“ break a leg,” for the boulders that make wading treacherous—we saw a salmon surface in a table-size slick surrounded by fast current on the other side of the river. To reach the fish I had to make a steeple-cast that threw my line high against the canyon wall behind me and sent it fifty feet across the river. In what was certainly more a matter of luck than skill, my fly landed in the center of the
slick. The salmon came up immediately and took it.

I saw no evidence of a catch-and-release ethic in Iceland. The salmon are so abundant that a kind of innocence reigns. I’m told that any angler who catches a salmon implanted with a Floy tag—an electronic device that allows biologists to track migration—and records the tag number and the size and sex of the fish before releasing it is rewarded with a bottle of Bacardi rum, a real windfall in a country where spirits are highly appreciated and extremely expensive. But every Icelander I saw catch a salmon killed it. When I suggested releasing my second fish, Magnus and Kristinn were horrified. It was inconceivable. Salmon were there to be caught and eaten. Throwing them back would be wasteful.

So I killed both of my fish. It was easy to justify. If the Nordura were public water it would be a different matter, but with only a few dozen anglers killing a few fish each per year, there is little strain on the resource. A commercial trawler would take ten times that many in a single day. And it would have been rude for me to release a fish without offering it to my guides. They stood beside me grinning while I bowed to tradition and sliced the small, fatty, adipose fin from the back of my first salmon and swallowed it with a mouthful of river water. I gave the second fish to Magnus.

We had another late dinner and took silent pleasure when the German admitted that his tube flies had failed him that day. Magnus, Kristinn, and I toasted the river and the salmon. Magnus introduced me to his daughter, a radiant twenty-year-old law student who had come for the evening to visit her father. I told him she was beautiful, and his eyes filled instantly with tears.

I drove in twilight the two hours south to Reykjavik, slowing for sheep that had wandered onto the highway. As I crossed rivers rushing from the interior toward the coast, I thought of the Icelanders who fish for salmon in those waters—the shop-keepers, accountants, and high-school teachers who save their money all year for a week or two of fantastic fishing. They would deny that casting elaborate flies for salmon is a sport reserved for the privileged classes, would perhaps argue that in Iceland everyone is a person of privilege.

And what if those lively rivers were mine? What if I owned the land, the water, the salmon that swam up from the ocean to spawn? Would I gate the roads and post the boundaries and allow only my closest friends inside?

I stopped on a bridge over a river so lovely that I felt something in my chest rip. Rapids tumbled toward the bridge, throwing whitewater hard against black volcanic rocks. Upstream, in pools so deep and clear that in sunlight the water would become as blue as glacial ice, salmon swam restlessly. For enigmatic reasons those fish would occasionally rise to the surface to take flies thrown by hopeful oafs who had traveled thousands of miles to sample the mystery and sustain the tradition. Sometimes tradition is just folly perpetuated. But not here, not now. And if it was, it didn’t matter. I wanted more. I wanted much more.

Heaven help us if I ever strike it rich.

 

(From The River Home:An Angler’s Explorations, by Jerry Dennis. Available at bookstores everywhere, or from the author himself.)

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LITTLE GIANTS: THE UNLIKELY JOURNEY OF PINK SALMON IN THE GREAT LAKES

Biologists and anglers had attempted to plant salmon in the Great Lakes for more than a century before the spectacular success of the coho and Chinook programs of the late 1960s. Those earlier attempts had always failed, with one notable exception: the accidental release of a species that established itself in all five Great Lakes and continues to reproduce naturally to this day. I wrote a story about it in 1991 for The New York Times:

My friend Dan Donarski with a pink salmon from the St. Mary's River

My friend Dan Donarski with a pink salmon from the St. Mary’s River (photo courtesy the Michigan DNR)

IN THE GREAT LAKES, where trout and salmon can grow to be as large as small children, it’s no wonder that the comparatively diminutive pink salmon is often overlooked. Weighing only two to three pounds each at maturity, they are too small to be targeted by big-game anglers in the open lakes and are usually noticed only in late summer and early fall, when they congregate in rivers to spawn. Anglers who follow the runs use fly rods or ultralight spinning gear, and don’t often have to worry about competition.

Pink salmon—also called humpbacked salmon, for the spawning male’s deformed spine—have an enigmatic history in the Great Lakes. Unlike coho and Chinook salmon, which were transplanted from the Pacific Northwest to enliven a struggling sport fishery, pinks were introduced accidentally. In 1955, eggs from British Columbia were flown to Thunder Bay, Ontario, near the shore of Lake Superior, with the intention of raising them in a hatchery and stocking them far to the north in Hudson Bay. When the hatched fingerlings were loaded onto seaplanes and transported north, however, about 20,000 of them were inadvertently left behind at the hatchery. Rather than allow them to die, attendants released them into the Current River, a tributary of Lake Superior. No one thought any more about them.

A few years later adult pink salmon started showing up in the region’s rivers. Within ten years they were observed spawning in the rapids of the St. Mary’s River, at the outlet of Lake Superior, and in tributaries along the north shore of Lake Huron. In the years since, they’ve established themselves in all the Great Lakes and can be found in such unlikely places as the St. Clair River north of Detroit.

One of the pink salmon’s intriguing qualities is its unpredictability. In the Great Lakes it spawns in the largest concentrations in odd-numbered years, yet good runs can occur during even-numbered years as well. thousands of the fish might appear in a particular river one year, then not the next. They might spawn in abundance in a rock-strewn creek and be absent from a similar creek a half mile down the shore. They tend to show up when you’re fishing for other species, or not fishing at all. Anglers who like to fish for them find themselves frequently outsmarted. Ask them about pinks and they always shake their heads and grin.

Over the years I’ve fished for them quite a few times in the Upper Peninsula, but never with much success. The St. Mary’s River is the most likely place to find them in abundance —tens of thousands of them, some years—but that enormous and very fast river is difficult to fish and the salmon are not always cooperative. One August I joined my friend Dan Donarski, a professional guide and fellow writer, for a couple days of wading the St. Mary’s rapids. We made hundreds of casts of wet flies and streamers over pods of pinks that we saw clearly in the fast current, and managed to get thoroughly skunked. We weren’t alone. In those two days we watched a dozen other anglers catch perhaps fifty salmon, but not one was hooked in the mouth. I spent most of the second day content to observe the small, sleek females, dark on top and white below, and the males with their grotesque humps, industrious and self-important as they darted about over the gravel, chasing away rival males and fanning their early redds. I became convinced that they could not be caught on flies. Of course, a day later Dan called me at my home to say that everyone in the river was catching them.

One recent September I drove for a week along the north shore of Lake Superior in Ontario, stopping now and then to fish the mouths of the many bright, waterfall-and-rapids strewn rivers that tumble into the lake along that coast. The rivers support a heartening variety of gamefish. Any cast can result in a strike from a brook trout, brown trout, lake trout, or steelhead, or from a coho, Chinook, Atlantic, or pink salmon. There’s a good likelihood, too, of catching a pike, walleye, or smallmouth bass.

At one small river, a few hundred feet upstream from the roaring surf of Lake Superior, I cast a Mickey Finn streamer into one of the first deep pools above the mouth. A two-pound fish streaked to the surface, grabbed the fly, and dove immediately back into deeper water.  I assumed from its head-shaking fight that it was a brook trout—it would have been among the largest I’d ever caught—and for a few moments I was baffled by the silver, streamlined fish I finally brought to my net. It was obviously a salmonid, but just as obviously not a trout.  I thought it might be an immature Atlantic salmon. Then I remembered:  Of course, a pink.

Like all Pacific salmon, pinks die after spawning. It’s a fact of life that should make it easy to justify keeping them for a meal. Yet I released mine with the same care I give to wild trout, then laughed when that audacious Mickey Rooney of the salmon family dashed away to resume its important business in the river. I was reminded of Aldo Leopold’s observation about black-capped chickadees: “Everyone laughs at so small a bundle of large enthusiasms.”

A BOLT OF BLUE: Coming Down with a Case of Coho Fever

Fifty years ago the biggest story in the history of freshwater fisheries was unfolding in northern Michigan. Vast numbers of coho salmon had returned, were feeding rapaciously, and anyone who cast a lure into the water could catch them. “Coho fever” went rampant. Anglers from across the country hurried to Frankfort and Platte Bay, launched boats ranging from forty-foot-yachts to twelve-foot canoes, and caught salmon until their arms ached. And then a storm came up. My family and I were there that day, September 23, 1967, and would never forget what we saw.

Coho Fever at the mouth of the Platte River

Coho Fever at the mouth of the Platte River
(Photo courtesy of Michigan DNR)

I’ll post a new story every day this week exploring some aspect of the history of salmon in the Great Lakes, culminating Saturday with my account of the Coho storm of September 23. If you’re in the area that day, I hope you’ll consider attending “Coho Fever: Boom or Bust,” where I’ll join Peter Payette of Interlochen Public Radio on stage at The Garden Theater in Frankfort, Michigan. Doors open at 6:00, for a social hour with food and beverages. The conversation begins at 7:00. Admittance is free.

So, to kick off Salmon Week, here’s my remembrance of what was probably my family’s first day fishing for coho:

WHEN I WAS A KID not much lived in the Great Lakes except carp, sea lamprey, and alewives. Especially alewives. Somebody calculated that if you netted a hundred pounds of living things from the lakes, ninety of those pounds would be alewives. These small, silvery fish had invaded the Great Lakes in the 1930s and ‘40s from the Atlantic via the Erie and Welland canals. Now they were a plague. So many swarmed through the lakes that they periodically annihilated most of the microorganisms they fed upon and caused themselves to starve. In the spring and early summer, especially, they died by the millions and their carcasses washed up in stinking heaps so large that front-end loaders had to be brought in to clear them from public beaches.

There weren’t enough predator fish to keep them in check. Sea lamprey had seen to that. The lamprey is an eel-like fish that, like the alewife, had invaded from the Atlantic. It feeds on large fish by attaching to them with suckers, rasping through their skin and sucking their bodily fluids until the hosts die. By the 1960s virtually all the native trout and whitefish were gone from lakes Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. Lake Superior was the last of the lakes to be invaded and still had some fish, but it was only a matter of time. Most people figured the Great Lakes were ruined.

Then biologists released coho salmon smolts into Michigan’s Platte River and everything changed. Suddenly the Great Lakes were alive again. More alive than ever. The salmon gorged on alewives and grew faster than any of the biologists had anticipated. Nobody was quite prepared for what happened when the mature salmon returned to Platte Bay in August 1967, seeking the river of their birth.

I was thirteen that summer, and my parents and brother and I were waiting to meet the salmon. The day I’m remembering might have been our first try for them. We were in our fourteen-foot fiberglass runabout, a small boat that thought it was bigger, with a covered bow and a 35-hp Johnson outboard. We had never heard of down-riggers or sonar fish locaters and didn’t even use rod holders—none of the specialized big-water equipment that anglers would later import from the West Coast and transform Great Lakes fishing into what writer John Geirach once called a “high-tech war on the fish.” We were just fishing, with spinning rods and reels that held a hundred yards of eight-pound monofilament and the same plugs and spoons we used for pike, bass, and walleye on inland lakes.

Here I am with a salmon caught from Platte Bay

Here I am with a salmon caught from Platte Bay

It was soon obvious that the best way to find schools of salmon in Platte Bay was to look for a crowd of boats. Anglers scanned the water with binoculars, and when they saw congestion and bent rods, they sped to that vicinity and began trolling silver and orange Flatfish, Rapalas, and Tadpollys.

At first my father resisted doing that. He was an old-school guy who preferred to fish in solitude. Later we would fling ourselves into the fray and catch salmon, hundreds of them. But now, on this early trip, Dad refused to follow the herd.

We motored away from shore, toward the open lake. Wisconsin was out there somewhere, far beyond the horizon. We went miles farther than anyone else that day, until shore was a low band of green and the water beneath us was a deeper blue than I had ever seen. Dad kept the boat on plane, bound for the horizon line, determined to go even farther.

At some point I saw a swirl off the side the boat. Then another. Then a fish vaulted into the air ahead of us, flashed silver in the sunlight, and landed in an explosion of spray. It was a big fish, a very big fish.

Dad cut the motor, and the boat heaved in the wash and stopped. A foot or two beneath the surface, all around us, blue streaks shot past. They looked like bolts of lightning, an electric invasion of blue streaks that would impale you if you got in the way or would fire straight through. Suddenly in every direction fish were swirling and porpoising. Then we saw alewives skittering across the surface like thrown gravel.

“Cast! Cast!”

We grabbed our spinning rods—they were already rigged with silver Rapalas—and cast wildly. Fish slammed the lures, first Dad’s, then my brother’s, then mine. My fish struck ten feet from the boat, nearly yanking the rod from my hands. It leaped instantly, then dived beneath the hull and leaped again on the other side—covering the distance so quickly that I thought it must be two fish that jumped. Then it tore line off my reel in a lunatic run. It went a hundred feet in the time it took me to shout for help. I didn’t know any fish could be that fast or as strong. I was never in control of it. Not even for a moment. Dad netted his fish and Rick’s, a brace of spectacular ten-pounders, but mine ran so far that I panicked. I tightened the drag—cranked down on it to try to slow the fish—and the line broke and the fish kept going, leaving me wanting more.

Fifty years later I still can’t cast a lure or fly into big water without expecting something extraordinary to happen. I expect to be suddenly surrounded by schools of marauding predators, to hook an unstoppable fish, to tap forces I have no control over. Who could have guessed that these lakes, once so close to destruction, would thrive again?

“That Wild Flash…That Lightning Crack”: Writers on Writing.1

IT’S A LONELY BUSINESS, being a writer. Little wonder we’re hungry for words of advice and encouragement. I’ve collected those words for more than thirty years, writing many of them in longhand on the inside covers of my journals and adding others to digital files. I go to them sometimes when I need a chuckle or a kick in the butt. Sometimes they help. If they don’t, at least they’re elevating diversions.

A few of my 40 years' worth of notebooks.

A few of my 40 years’ worth of notebooks.

Last month I sent out a newsletter announcing the release of Glenn Wolff’s and my new letterpress broadside, “Summer Night, Lake Michigan”. I also included some of my favorite literary excerpts and passages. The response was overwhelming: “We want more!” So I’ve decided to make “Writers on Writing” a regular feature on this blog and in future newsletters. (If you’d like to be added to the list, sign up at the bottom of this page.)

Here’s the first batch, ready to be pinned to walls and refrigerators:

 

“Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”—Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

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“Words bounce.” —Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red

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“I like the feeling of words doing as they want to do and as they have to do.”—Gertrude Stein (quoted in Carson’s book)

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“There is a time for reciting poems, and a time for fists.”—Roberto Bolano, The Savage Detectives

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“The poet must not avert his eyes.”—Werner Herzog

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“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”—Franz Kafka

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“Their great need, their hunger, is for good sense, clarity, truth—even an atom of it.”—Saul Bellow, Herzog

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“Writers are greatly respected. The intelligent public is wonderfully patient with them, continues to read them, and endures disappointment after disappointment, waiting to hear from art what it does not hear from theology, philosophy, social theory, and what it cannot hear from pure science. Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for.” —Saul Bellow, It All Adds Up

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“Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity; those who would like to seem profound…strive for obscurity.” —Nietzsche

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“I’m tired of the poets of the day who muddy their waters that they might seem deep.”—Nietzsche

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“What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein, preface to Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

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“Why is it that poetry always seems to me so much more a true work of the soul than prose?…Perhaps it is that prose is earned and poetry given.” —May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

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“Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.” —Ezra Pound

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“Authors are sometimes like tomcats: they distrust all the other toms, but they are kind to kittens.” —Malcolm Cowly

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And from the August newsletter:

“It is possible at last for Masa and me to imagine a little of what the ancient —archaic — mind and life of Japan were. And to see what could be restored to the life today. A lot of it is simply in being aware of clouds and wind.” —Gary Snyder, final lines of Earth House Hold

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Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

“…one would have liked to say, Tell me then how you wrote your essays? For his essays are superior even to Max Beerbohm’s, I thought, with all their perfection, because of that wild flash of imagination, that lightning crack of genius in the middle of them which leaves them flawed and imperfect, but starred with poetry.” —Virginia Woolf on the essays of Charles Lamb in A Room of One’s Own

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“‘Paradise Lost’ was printed in an edition of no more than 1,500 copies and transformed the English language. Took a while. Wordsworth had new ideas about nature: Thoreau read Wordsworth, Muir read Thoreau, Teddy Roosevelt read Muir, and we got a lot of national parks. Took a century. What poetry gives us is an archive, the fullest existent archive of what human beings have thought and felt by the kind of artists who loved language in a way that allowed them to labor over how you make a music of words to render experience exactly and fully.” —Robert Hass, quoted in “A Few Questions for Poetry,” by Daniel Halpern, in the New York Times

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“It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.” ― Vita Sackville-West

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“As a writer, my principal observation about why other writers fail is that they are in too much of a hurry. I don’t think you can write a good book in two years. You may disagree, you have done that, but you’re an anomaly. Most of us can’t write books that quickly, and we need to be a little bit more tortoise-y and a little less hare-ish.

“The problem is that the world wants you to be a hare. Your publisher says I want it now, you’re under pressure, you have a one-year sabbatical where you try to cram and finish, you’ve got a teaching load, etc.

“But one thing that almost all of the professional writers I know do is write drafts and then put the book in a drawer for six months. Then they come back to it, turn themselves into tortoises, force themselves to slow down. That, in a sense, harms the system in that the amount of output is lowered. But I don’t think the problem with writing in America right now is a failure of output. I think it’s a failure of quality.” —Malcolm Gladwell, interview in heleo.com: 

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And finally, because fall is just around the corner:

AutumnMeme5-lowres

 

 

 

My Bay Life

SO I’VE BECOME a homebody. Nobody is more surprised than I. But if you saw my home, you’d understand.LakeMichColors

You’d understand especially in summer, for everyone wants to be in Traverse City in the sweet season. Can you blame them? Days on the bay and the inland lakes, evenings downtown at theaters, breweries, bookstores, and restaurants. We even have a nightlife now—one that doesn’t necessarily involve a bonfire on the beach and the hex hatch on the Boardman.

Summer! Its brevity only makes it sweeter. Our nightlife and daylife blend then, and our swimsuits never quite dry. The days are long but there are so few of them that we get a little boisterous from trying to pack so much in. One summer not long ago we got especially boisterous with our son Aaron and his beautiful wife Chelsea Bay, she with the middle name bestowed by her parents Mike and Carrie Wills in honor of this place so central to their lives. Chelsea’s grandfather was Warren Wills, who lived down the hill from us on East Bay, in a house where Chelsea and her sisters spent part of every summer since they were old enough to swim. The bay permeates the Wills and Dennis families in so many ways that a guy could spend his golden years tracing those golden threads.

But these are golden years, too, and we never forget our good fortune in living here. Chelsea and Aaron spent the summer camped in our backyard, and suddenly our bay life became richer. (Nick was living in Montreal or we would have known riches beyond reckoning.) Our kids can do their work anywhere, on laptops and smart-phones, for their generation has made the world their office, and we gathered often during the day to shoot baskets in the driveway, investigate bird songs, and walk to the shore to check the status of swash marks and Pitcher’s thistle. Evenings we swam in front of Warren’s house, then cooked together, still in our swimsuits, and dined on our patio looking over the bay.

Other adventures were for the weekends: Birding and picking wild berries at the point. Sailing with Mike and Carrie on West Bay while the sun dipped below the hills of Leelanau. Paddling canoes from Hazerot Beach and riding the pushy waves north until we’d gone just far enough to make it home before dark.DSCF1009

Our bay life is about more than just water. It’s about the work we do, though that is often about the water as well. It’s about the foods we love—many of them grown and raised by our neighbors—and the rituals of gathering, preparing, and eating them. But especially it’s about family and friends and our moments together: the laughter and music, campfires in the backyard, fishing trips and canoe outings, late nights under the stars. It’s cornucopia, life’s abundance spilling over—and summer’s stern reminder to make every day count.

 

(Originally published in Michigan Blue Magazine.)

 

SANDBLASTED

"Stormy Cottage" by  Glenn Wolff. Courtesy of Glenn Wolff Studio, www.glennwolff.com (www.glennwolff.com)

“Stormy Cottage” by Glenn Wolff. Courtesy of Glenn Wolff Studio (www.glennwolff.com)

WE SPENT THE NIGHT with our friends Betsy and Eric in a cottage they had rented on the shore of Lake Michigan near Point Betsie. The cottage was a 1950’s-era Cape Cod perched on a dune a pebble toss from the waves breaking on the beach. The lap siding was sandblasted smooth and worn to the color of driftwood, and even the furniture inside seemed polished by sand. There was a fireplace in the living room and an intimate kitchen where two people could work together if they didn’t mind bumping elbows. I like to cook, but that evening I was content to sit on the deck outside with Eric and drink wine and watch the sun going down while the women prepared dinner. Eric and I would do the dishes, of course. First we would have to wipe the counters with a damp rag to get the sand off.

It was a hot night so Gail and I slept with the window open in our upstairs bedroom. Late in the night, around two a.m., I was awakened by flashes of lightning and detonations of thunder. I sat up in bed and discovered that the wind had come up strong and was blowing a fine mist of rain through the screen. I sat in front of it and let the mist coat my face and watched the waves breaking below. Whitecaps give off a lot of light. I hadn’t realized how much. Then lightning flashed over the lake and for a moment the entire world was visible. It was chaos out there. Waves rushed toward us in trains, their white tops streaming like banners and horses’ manes. They fell and burst into froth and rushed to the foot of the dune. It felt precarious to be there, in that little cottage balanced on the dunes, about to be swept away by waves.

I went downstairs and found rain spraying through screens on every window, even on the lee side of the house. The roof was leaking, too, and puddles had collected on the hardwood floor in the living room. I shut the windows and went to the kitchen for pans to catch the dripping water and towels to sop up the puddles. Then I sat in a chair by the front window and watched the storm some more.

In the morning the four of us sat on the deck drinking coffee and watching the lake. We laughed about how easy it is for water and sand to infiltrate a house. The storm had moved inland by then and the clouds were in tatters. The wind had diminished, but not by much, and waves still pounded the shore. Each big breaker struck with a sonorous thump that we could feel through our feet. At some point Betsy said she wanted to spend every day for the rest of her life on the shore of Lake Michigan.

I asked her why.

“For the drama,” she said. “I’m a sucker for drama.”

 

 

(Originally published in Michigan Blue Magazine, The Cottage Issue 2017)

 

YELLOWTHROATS AND AGATES

Common_yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat—male

IN MAY Gail and I like to go to the eastern Upper Peninsula to watch birds. We do a sort of Grand Tour, from Mackinac State Park to the Seney Wildlife Refuge to Whitefish Point. Whitefish Point is a funnel for migrants, and on some days you can see hundreds of raptors soaring in “kettles” as they wait for a south wind to carry them across the lake to Canada. Sometimes a dozen kettles will be in the sky at once, each speckled with a hundred or more slowly wheeling broad-wings, sharpshins, kestrels, and others. In ponds and wetlands are ducks and geese, and occasionally yellowlegs, bitterns, rails, and other shy water birds. And the trees can be dripping with warblers.

Broad-winged_hawk_kettle_by_Steve_Baker

Broad-winged Hawks Kettling. Photo by Steve Baker for the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch

We’re solid intermediate birders but we’ll probably never be experts because of our attention-span problem. We can’t pass a river without wanting to canoe it or fish it. We can’t drive through an aspen woods without stopping to search for morels. If we’re in the mood for chaos and artifice, the casinos draw us in. And every rocky beach beckons with the promise of agates.

One of our favorite agate beaches is at the end of a long, fairly treacherous trail that appears on no maps. Last year when we were there Superior was in a rare mood: calm and steel-gray to the horizon, with small waves lapping the shore. We had found a few small agates in the gravel when, from a thicket of osiers at the top the beach, came a distinctive call—“Wickity wickity wickity.” We were baffled for a moment, then it came to us: the common yellowthroat, a warbler I’ve always thought was not in the least common.

Farther down the shore we discovered half a dozen logs stranded on the beach. They were large—sixteen feet long and two feet in diameter—and worn smooth and bleached nearly white by water and weather. The ends of the logs were stamped with marks to identify the companies that owned them. Most of them were imprinted with the letters “OK.” The others were simple heart shapes.

I remembered meeting a man once on the north shore of Superior who had worked as the skipper of a tugboat that hauled similar logs across Superior. He said the logs were gathered into booms the size of football fields, and his job was to push them across the lake to the sawmills in Sault Ste Marie. He told a story about getting caught in a storm that shoved his tug backward across the lake until the boom broke up against the Michigan shore. Stray logs sometimes drift in the lake for years, he said. Eventually they sink or wash up on beaches.

It was impossible to tell if the logs Gail and I found on the beach that day had been floating in the lake for a year or a decade. Maybe they had been lost from one of those massive booms. I imagined the storm that could shove a tugboat backwards against its thrust and bust chains and scatter logs across a hundred miles of water. If you’ve seen a Lake Superior storm you’ll have no doubt who wins such a contest. Tugs are powerful machines, but the smart money is on Superior.

 

(Originally published in Michigan Blue Magazine.)