The fictional fly fishing story you are about to read is based entirely on facts & the kindness of fellow anglers.
Kate and I started the 6.5 hour drive from the IA/IL border to Baldwin, MI, Thursday morning on Sept 27th. We avoided rush-hour traffic on I94 and found our way cruising into a world filled with color. Our first fly fishing trip to Michigan was occurring near the peak of the fall color change. Lovely. We purchased fishing licenses from the helpful folks at BBT, Baldwin Bait & Tackle, who also directed us to Barski’s for lunch. At the bar, we enjoyed chef-created pierogies and Kahlua cheesecakes, & then headed down the road. At the Cloud 9 Resort, we met John Bueter’s wife, Rhonda, of whom John would later speak of with great respect. She directed us to the Salmon Camp property.
After camp host John Bueter gave us hugs & a good ribbing, we got settled. Gene, a tall, fit man with wavy, whitish hair, was on our right also setting up camp. That evening I turned down Bueter’s offer to go fishing. They were ready to go and I was not, and my license was not good until midnight. While I also debated the wisdom of fishing this new water for the first time at night, I regretted not going. But, a couple hours later when it was darker yet, another offer came & I headed out. Kate stayed at camp. Brian drove and Gene sat next to him, acting like a passenger-seat driver. Good-natured bickering ensued. I sat in the back with Mike. Another tall man who I immediately liked; at first glance he had an unassuming personality, but displayed great character, humor, and intelligence.
We drove to ‘Claybanks’, the flies only, catch and release section of the Pere Marquette River. We came upon Bueter’s party of anglers after clumping down 144 wooden steps bedecked with a salmon slide -built years ago, when snagging was legal & there were no fish limits. Bueter had just hooked into & landed a fish. It was fitting that the ‘king’ of Salmon Camp would be the first to be recorded in my pictures of the trip.
While John Bueter had claimed that the use of a net was primarily to carry out trash, our fishing party planned to use one for fish. But… we forgot it. Soon after I hit the water I had a sizeable fish hooked. It was my first salmon of the trip, and it was fair-hooked in the mouth! I successfully fought it. It did break off, but we considered it a catch. Gene had attempted multiple times to land it by the tail, but it continually garnered enough energy to elude the experienced angler. Then, my tippet finally surrendered. If we’d had a net, fish and fly angler would’ve posed for pics. I headed to shore to rebuild my leader under more light. Gene followed and sheepishly asked, “Are you mad?” I laughed. It was a nice first fish, hooked fairly, and we’d had a fun fight. I’d had a great introduction to night-fishing for salmon!
The next day, I assured Kate that the night fly fishing came fairly easily with use of headlamps, and under a full moon that would light the water near midnight. Watching a string of headlamps bobbing along the shore, listening to the loud splashes of salmon, and watching others ready their tackle around small tents of light elicited feelings only truly shared by experiencing them. On this 2nd night on the water, I returned to the bank to sit with Mike and Brian, talk of fly fishing, enjoy the moonrise, and share their flasks of brandy and vodka. I also photographed Kate with her first salmon.
Many fish had come up onto what we termed ‘the flats’, and we were excited. Gene soon hooked a fish and I heard, “Lisa, come over here”. He wanted me to fight his fish. I didn’t want to, partially due to ego (I wanted to hook and land my own) and partially because I wanted the man to enjoy the pleasure of fighting his fish. He persisted & said, “Lisa, come over here and fight this fish!” I did it for Gene, because he was so kind and because instinct told me he had a reason to be so persistent.
Before giving me the rod, he quickly asked if I knew how to set the drag with my finger. I shrugged and said sure. Well, I didn’t know how to set it for king salmon but I learned quickly. Whoaa!!!!! Then I knew why Gene had been so persistent. A main attraction for fly fishing is that one can never stop learning how to become a better angler. However, the anglers I meet continue to teach me that one can never stop learning how to become a better person.
I recalled the lessons given by Gene the first night and from Bueter earlier in the day. I did not high stick and I kept the fish less than 90* from the rod tip. No trout, bass, pike, or musky had ever pulled line off the reel like that and I traded off between setting drag with my fingers to attempting to control the fish from the reel. The latter attempts left me with a bruised finger but got me laughing that night! I followed Gene’s instructions, attempting to guide the fish toward the net. Mostly we enjoyed the excitement of the fight, having the greatest of fun! Then, the fish streaked downriver and I didn’t give enough slack. It was gone.
That night, ‘Jackfish Kate’ landed too many fish to count. I never got the chance to target that large fish again, but other fish made up for it. By then, I’d figured out how to cast to avoid many foul hooks and did not set the hook when I felt I would snag fish. However, I used that knowledge of the fishes’ positions to adjust my cast & eventually hook and land fish. The ‘newbies’, as we had been called, were doing well.
Throughout that night, Gene, John, John Bueter and others were at my side or at least their words and actions were in my thoughts. Every time younger John netted my fish, Gene’s instruction to use the rod to lift the head of the fish and then release the tension on the rod to let the fish slide into the net, would resonate in my head. I enjoyed sharing the water with our small group. The lisagene did not take my fly that evening, but that fish’s job was done. It had rooted lessons of kindness, giving, and sharing in me and then moved on. It’s written that Pacific salmon (including king salmon) spawn once and die. However, the lisagene is an exception. That fish works its way upriver yearly, fighting hard to spawn new learning and life-lessons in others.
While I did finally land a fair number of salmon, none remotely compared in power, fight and spirit to the lisagene. If you ever wish to fly fish for king salmon, I recommend visiting Salmon Camp. I suspect the lisagene times its arrival to coincide with the appearance of those friendly anglers.