Mike McCumby works too much. I know he's a little tired of hearing it,
but it's true. He's a building contractor who always takes the extra
time to do a job right, even if it means working evenings and weekends.
He and his wife, Marcy, and their two children live in a small town about
a mile from one of Michigan's famous trout rivers, in an eighty-year-old
farmhouse they've been remodeling for a decade or so. When Mike's not
building other people's houses, he's replacing kitchen cabinets at home,
cutting firewood, gardening, gathering apples from the trees in the yard,
attending his children's basketball games and dance recitals, and
assisting relatives and neighbors with their domestic emergencies. He
also hunts deer and turkey and fishes for trout. Or he used to. Lately
he's been too busy.
Mike and I have been fishing together since the year we got out of high school. For most of those years there have been three angling events we never missed, no matter how hectic our schedules: opening day, the Hex hatch in late June, and the final day of the season. But lately work and other obligations have kept Mike busy even on those sacred days and nights. He says if trout season were compressed into two weeks, like deer season, he would get out on the water more. Months ahead of time he would be preparing gear, planning strategies, mapping destinations, and when the season finally arrived he would fish every possible minute of those 14 days. But with it spread over five months it's easy to take the season for granted, to miss a week or two, to postpone a weekend outing because there is always another weekend to come. It's like youth. You think it will never end, but it does. One day you wake up and it's October.
We share the same basic situations: young families, houses in perpetual need of repair, the dizzying responsibilities of adulthood. But I get out a lot -- it's my job, after all -- and by the end of September I'm content to see the season end. Mike, last year, was not. All spring and summer, whenever I called, he said, "Maybe next week." When the trees began to flare with color and it was obvious that time was running out, I got insistent. The last day was on a Friday, a pretty good day for working stiffs. But he couldn't make it. Too much to do, he said. Maybe Thursday.
Thursday morning I stood in Mike's kitchen drinking coffee while he squirmed and made excuses and complained that an expensive parquet floor had come in special order and needed to be laid that day because the owners had a party scheduled for Saturday night. Finally Marcy took charge. The party was a week from Saturday, she said. The weather was too warm to put up storm windows. The woodpile could wait. Go fishing.
Mike looked at me and grinned. "What are we waiting for?" he said.
Autumn in northern Michigan hasn't peaked by the end of September. Tamaracks, which in a few weeks will yellow and drop their needles, are smoky with impending fade. Sugar maples, always the first to color, are scarlet or yellow or orange, but the leaves of oak, ash, and aspen remain mostly green. By the time the woods are in their full brilliance, trout season will be over.
While it lasts, that autumn fishing can be very good. The rivers are usually in good shape, the water clear, the bottom vivid with colored stones and fine, emerald algae. On the surface the water glints blue and gold and khaki, each riffle tipped with glittering bits of mirror. Trout rise to feed on terrestrials, Baetis, caddis, and other small autumn bugs.
Bird and deer seasons are just ahead, but if you want to fish -- and I do, year round, even when snow covers the ground and the guides on my rod fill with ice -- there is still much to do. Here in Michigan certain stretches of river are open until the end of December for steelhead and salmon, a few are open year round, and several choice lengths of blue-ribbon streams remain open for resident trout. You can fly-fish twelve months of the year if you choose.
But the rivers I like best are still subject to the traditional opening and closing dates. For seven months you can't fish them at all. I like it that way. It gives the trout a rest, permits them to spawn without being disturbed, and allows the imagination time to incubate. Like fields left fallow, those waters are better for being unfished most of the year. At the risk of sounding like a geezer, I think we benefit from such closure. Some things are worth waiting for, are better for having an opening and a closing and being sometimes unattainable. How magical would deer season seem if it lasted six months? How many duck hunters would be awake all night before the opener if the season began in August and ended in January?
Mike and I drove to the upper river. The water there is bright and quick, its riffles slowing in pools that flow dark green beneath the cedars. The river is inhabited by both brook and brown trout. Local bait fishermen catch hog-size browns there, but most of the flycasters I know take only occasional sixteen-inchers, except during the Hex hatch when bigger fish are caught with some frequency. But you rarely see big fish feeding during bright September days. You learn to lower your expectations.
We bushwhacked through a quarter mile of hardwoods, then followed a game trail down a long, steep bank into the alder bottoms. The trail peters out there. You have to weave your way through as best you can, keeping your rod pointed ahead like a directional antenna. Mike and I once got lost in this same swamp at night after fishing the Hex hatch. We discovered after it was already dark that I had forgotten my flashlight and that the batteries in Mike's little vest light were so weak he could scarcely see to tie on a fly. At midnight, trying to find our way back to the car, we got turned around in the tag alders. It was a cloudy night and moonless, so there was no help from the sky, and it was too windy to hear the river. We were in no danger -- the swamp is bordered by the river on one side and the gravel road on the other -- but we managed to stay lost for an hour.
Now, in daylight, it took only a few minutes to push through those fifteen acres of alders. We broke out next to the river and found it covered with flying ants. That's not unusual in September, when ants abandon their nests, sprout wings, and fly off to establish new colonies. Thousands of them take to the air at once and blunder around clumsily. When they blunder onto the water they become easy food for trout.
The ants were tiny, reds and blacks about evenly mixed, their transparent wings gleaming in the sunlight. They drifted among a few early leaves, on water the same cold and metal-blue color as the sky, and were picked off steadily by small, eager trout in the shallows and by larger, more deliberate fish where the current was strong and deep.
We saw a good trout rise quietly against the far bank, where grass leaned over and dragged silently in the water. Mike tied on a cinnamon ant and waded into position below the riser. Aspens and cedars formed a canopy over him, and he had to cast sidearm to keep his fly out of the branches. His ant landed among drifting leaves, and when he lifted it to backcast, a yellow maple leaf came with it.
"Salad," he said. "Diet food." He gave the trout a few moments, until it fed again, then made another cast. The trout rose and he hooked it. It was a brookie, its colors as hard and bright as river pebbles. It might have stretched to nine inches. A decent fish rose downstream, and I waded to within casting distance. I put on a black ant girdled with a few turns of hackle, dressed it with floatant, and cast over the fish. It took the fly without hesitation, and I drew up tight on a twelve-inch brown.
And so it went. Trout rose all afternoon. A few mayflies came off late in the day, and we switched from ants to blue-winged olives. It didn't seem to matter. The fish would take any carefully presented fly. Between us Mike and I caught and released a few dozen. We saw no other anglers, though at dusk a canoe came downstream carrying two deer hunters scouting locations for Saturday's bow opener. "When's this river close for fishing anyway?" one of the hunters asked. "Tomorrow," Mike said.
We left the river and pushed through the tag alders and climbed the long hill to the truck, then drove to a tavern for burgers and beer. One beer led to another.
Finally there was no putting it off. We made promises to get out more often next year, to not let work get in the way of what was important. We shook hands and said our good-byes.
That should have been the end of it, a satisfying conclusion to the season, a tidy wrapping up of the year. But Friday morning was warm and windless, fishing weather, and although I began the day with the best of intentions, I could not keep my mind on my work. I thought of how the first day and the last day of the season are more important than all the other days put together. The first day, in youthful April, is filled with excitement and anticipation, fat with potential, a day to spend in cheerful and naive optimism. The last day should be taken slowly, like a last meal, so you can absorb enough sights, sounds, and scents to last through the winter. It is a day to spend sitting in a warm spot on the bank thinking of the season that is ending and the seasons yet to come. I fought it until noon, then caved in.
I parked in the same spot, walked through the hardwoods, slipped down the high bank, busted through the alders, and came out on the edge of the river. I had it to myself. It was a Monet day, the river shimmering like a watercolor painting. Ants were falling again and trout were rising. I forgot all about Mike. I claimed the place as my own and took a proprietor's interest in the yellow leaves dropping from the birches, in the methodically feeding trout. I saw a good fish across the river.
"That's no twenty-four-incher," someone said behind me. I turned. It was Mike, leaning against a birch, grinning.
"I thought you couldn't make it today."
"I thought you couldn't make it."
"You could have called me, you son of a bitch."
"And you could have called me."
I offered him first chance at the fish across the river, but he took a seat on the bank. "I'd rather watch," he said.
Late in the afternoon, with the sun almost gone, Mike tied on a small Royal Wulff and made a long cast that settled the gaudy fly among floating leaves. They drifted together, the colors of autumn surrounding the jewel- bright red of the dry fly. In the next half hour Mike hooked and released five brookies up to ten inches, then a brown a little over a foot long that took the fly with the authority of a much larger fish and burrowed deep into the current. Mike bent to the river and released the trout. He joined me on the bank, and we sat and watched the sun disappear behind the maples on the ridge above us.
Mike clipped the bright fly from his leader and stuck it in the bill of his hat. It was the final moment of the final day of the twenty-fifth year we had been fishing together. Then the moment passed and it was time to go home.