Au Sable River, Michigan

Thanks to the ice age and the incalculable grinding power of glaciers, Michigan has the largest coastline of any state excluding Alaska, more than 11,000 lakes, and over 36,000 miles of streams and rivers. More than 20 percent of the world's fresh water supply flows through Michigan and there is no geographical point in the state that is more than six miles from a stream, river or lake. And it snows and snows and rains - and then it rains some more. We Michiganders are a soggy bunch.

Pastoral AuSable Scene

There is water everywhere, falling on our heads and squishing under our feet, draining into a rivulet, then a creek, on to a river, and eventually feeding one of the Great Lakes. A lot of this moving water is justifiably famous. Chief Pontiac, America's highest-ranking cannibal, terrorized the British from the Detroit River. The Pere Marquette is one of the nation's premier steelhead streams, the Muskegon is an incredible tailwater trout fishery, the Manistee is a year-round treasure with steelhead, salmon, and superb brown trout angling. And there are many more - the Pigeon, the Sturgeon, the Escanaba, the Two-Hearted, the Fox, the St. Mary's. But for a high percentage of the fly angling public, resident as well as tourist, the term "the river" refers to only one, the majestic Au Sable. My river. [For a MAP of The Au Sable River, click here.]

The river's official birthplace is the junction of Bradford and Kolka creeks near the village of Frederick due north of Grayling. From this point, the flow meanders south to Grayling, makes a sharp, eastward turn, picks up the flow of the East Branch and continues its easterly run to Lake Huron. Throughout the course, the Au Sable system comes together and swells that small stream born near Frederick. It is fed by numerous brooks and several significant tributaries, and is continually charged by the countless ground springs bubbling up from the Marshall and Coldwater-Antrim aquifers. In fact, the Au Sable is a spring creek, one of the five largest ground-spring rivers in North America.

Steve Southard, Grayling Fly Factory Just east of the Grayling city limits, Burton's Landing marks the upstream boundary of the flies-only, no-kill water, the eight-mile flow to Wakely Bridge, known as "the Holy Water." Approximately three river-miles downstream from Wakely Bridge, the South Branch of the Au Sable merges a fertile and significant volume of water. From this point it is four-plus river-miles to McMaster's Bridge, then another two miles to the confluence with the North Branch. With the addition of the flows from the South Branch and the North Branch, the hydrodynamics of the river are swollen dramatically, evidential of the powerful surge farther downstream. What was a happy and friendly spring creek just a few miles upstream has become a vigorous, powerful river that is unforgiving to carefree or foolish behavior.

This is the official starting point for "the Big Water." It is approximately seven miles from the North Branch to the access point at Parmalee Bridge, then another three miles to the mouth of the northward run of Big Creek at Big Creek Flat. From there the last of the river's free flow is the four miles to the backwater pond behind the dam at Mio, the first in a series of Consumer's Energy generating plants on the course to Lake Huron. Below Mio the river widens but does not slow its pace on the way to the next obstacle, roughly 35 miles downstream, Alcona Dam. In this stretch the tributaries are smallish brook trout headwaters. Loud Creek, Perry Creek, O'Brien Creek, and others make contributions, but the noticeable increase in volume is more attributable to the influx of water from ground springs in the riverbed and along the banks.

Midday trophies come to streamers, simulans and
 limbata nymphs

This stretch of river is big trout habitat with deep, foreboding holes, long inky flats, and lively, oxygenated riffles over a streambed of sand, fine and course gravel, rock and slit. But during mid- to late summer, afternoon water temperatures reach well into the 70s, and although the springs, riffles, and deep holes provide cooling safety, the backwaters of Alcona Pond are the downstream limit for the Au Sable's classic trout water.

From Alcona the river flows nearly due south approximately 12 miles to the backwaters of Loud Dam. This flow is a mixed fishery with walleye, trout and superb fly angling for smallmouth bass. Hoppy Creek, the South Branch River (not to be confused with the South Branch of the Au Sable), Smith Creek, and Stewart Creek enter the AuSable on this flow to the next impoundment.

Drift boat anchored near Perry Creek Flat

Between Loud Dam and Foote Dam, the Au Sable is not so much a river; it is more a continuing backwater of varying width. The outlow from Loud Dam Pond feeds almost immediately into the pond known as Five Channels Dam Pond, then into Cooke Dam Pond, and finally into Foote Dam Pond. Foote Dam is the last of the hydroelectric facilities on the river.

From Foote to Lake Huron, the Au Sable has several miles of unimpeded flow. This last reach of river is famous for large, kinetic steelhead and heavy runs of salmon. Although it is generally too warm to sustain a year-round trout population, it provides excellent angling for walleye and smallmouth bass with northern pike and whitefish as a bonus. [lake whitefish, not the Rocky Mountain version.]

In this overview of the river we have followed the course well over 100 miles. At its headwaters the Au Sable is a child's splashy skip from bank to bank. In the Holy Water it is a beautiful, critical paramour. The South Branch is both brook trout nursery and haven to hook-jawed brown as long as your arm. The clean, cool run of the North Branch is a beckoning, comfortable stream with prolific hatches and guileless brookies. The Big Water demands your attention to detail and good measure of common sense regarding safety, but its gifts are extravagant. The steelhead reach below Foote Dam is the birthplace of the Great Lakes strain. These direct descendants of the McCloud River [California] first stocked over 100 years ago, are the most beautiful and powerful steelhead in the Great Lakes basin.

The Mainstream - "The Holy Water"

Flies Only Water

The Holy Water . . . received the blessing of "no-kill, flies-only" regulations in 1988. The hard-fought victory came only after an intensive, exhausting effort by enlightened conservationists led by the Anglers of the Au Sable.

Tight loops on the Holy Water

Today, all trout must be immediately released, unharmed. All fishing must be with artificial flies and, although the Department of Natural Resources does not so require, it is recommended that all hooks be barbless.

Dan Tooman pole near Burton's Landing

The Holy Water is the heart of the river, the pump that pushes cold, crystalline renewal downstream. Its fragile beauty is stunning. It is easy to wade and fish, and is easily accessed at multiple public sites. It draws anglers from around the world.

The South Branch

The headwaters of the South Branch begin at the outflow of Lake St. Helen in southeastern Roscommon County at an elevation of 1,156 feet. From there the river follows a northerly meander for 37 miles to its junction with the mainstream at 1,035 feet of elevation. The drop of just over 100 feet in nearly 40 miles produces a smooth, even flow interspersed with lively riffles. The wading is generally comfortable and the fishing, particularly in the Mason Tract, is good throughout the season and superb during the major hatches.

Guide Jac Ford picking a winner The Mason Tract consists of 2,800 acres, 1,500 of which was bequeathed to the State of Michigan by the estate of George Mason in 1955. Mason died in 1954 and his gift provides public ownership of 11-plus miles of beautiful and productive trout water. Much of the surrounding lands are federal forest. Homes, cabins and other man-made structures have either been removed or allowed to disintegrate, and the natural forest has been permitted to rejuvenate and heal the land.

In addition to the land gift, Mason funded the construction of The Fisherman's Chapel on the river's east bank as a place for quiet reflection. Construction was completed in 1960 and since that time, the chapel has welcomed wedding parties, baptisms, eulogies, and countless, peaceful meditations of anglers from around the world. In addition to this magnificent gift, Mason was the inspirator of Trout Unlimited. When you visit the South Branch take a moment to whisper a "thank you."

The Famous Hex

Each year the South Branch produces extraordinary trophies and indelible memories during the brown drake, Hex and Isonychia hatches, but the Hex Vex is supreme on both counts. From Chase Bridge through the beautiful, wild Mason Tract and past Smith Bridge and the Oxbow Club on to the junction with the mainstream, the alluring pull of the giant mayflies is overpowering. [For the FLIES for The Au Sable River, click here.]

The North Branch

The North Branch of the Au Sable is popular with anglers for its stable flow, cool water, diverse and prolific hatches, comfortable wading, and easy casting. Experts and novices alike find it a welcome respite from the often highly technical demands of the mainstream. It is a serene haven, relatively free of canoe traffic, and both brook and brown trout are often eager to join our game.

Flies Only section North Branch

Flies-only regulations are in effect from the Sheep Ranch access just north of Lovells to the North Branch's junction with the mainstream approximately 21 miles downstream. An extended season allows angling until the end of October, and many anglers take advantage of this liberty to combine fly fishing and upland bird hunting in fall's blazing colors and crisp, sunny days.

June is the magic month on the North Branch. A guided trip in a classic Au Sable riverboat is a clear water float through history. There will be a warm breeze and high anticipation. There will be bugs dancing and lusting through the shadows. You guide will stop the boat with his push pole and stare at the current seam below an ancient sweeper. The water will bulge and he will say, "There. Are you ready?" You will be ready.

Steelhead Water Foote Dam to Lake Huron

Steelhead can be found in the Au Sable every month on the year. Sporadic surges of summer-run fish can show (briefly) from late June through August, but this is hit or miss game with long odds. The fall fish begin to trickle in behind the run of spawning salmon in early September. This run accelerates through October with aggressive steelhead determined to gorge on salmon eggs. The winter and spring fishery peaks in late April and often continues through late May.

Author Bob Linsenman with Steelhead

An Au Sable steelhead is a high-energy package, a direct descendent of the first steelhead planted in the Great Lakes basin, Dan Fitzhugh, of Bay City, Michigan, made the region's first planting of rainbow trout in the Au Sable River in 1876.

Perhaps it is due to relatively light fly-fishing pressure, but the Au Sable steelhead are less finicky than their cousins on the west side of the state. They are eager consumers, occasionally downright aggressive, and are (in my opinion) the most powerful and electric of all the Great Lakes strains.

The king salmon that rush in from Lake Huron in September are not to be ignored. They reach weights in excess of 30 pounds and are a real stretch for an angler's endurance - even with heavy 9 - and 10-weight rods.

The common misconception is that these fish will not take flies. But they do. Silver fish, fresh in from the lake, are very aggressive at first and last light. They will smash a wide range of large streamers . . .

Day's end on the Mainstream

Deep winter at the end of my favorite river is magical. A friend and I will have it all to ourselves. We will share only with a solitary gull, perhaps a mink twitching and scurrying through the logs. The water will be very cold, near freezing. If the sun is shining and the air is cold enough, we will see water vapor crystallize and shoot into the air, then bend back toward us and the surface of the river. Tens of thousands of infinitesimal jewels weave a tenuous shine of light. It is called diamond dust and, on a beautiful river, is reward enough. ~ Bob Linsenman

Publishers Note:
Michigan's Au Sable River system is what JC and I consider our 'home water.' There is a huge variety of water within the system, literally something for everyone. We previously did a book review on this book with our personal comments in the Book Reviews. dlb

For a MAP of The Au Sable River, click here.
For the FLIES for The Au Sable River, click here.

Credits: From Au Sable River part of the River Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission.

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