Annual Au Sable River Trip

At least once a year I try to make a trip up to northern Michigan, to fish the Au Sable River and its neighbour the Manistee. This summer has been unusually busy and last weekend was likely the first and last time I will be up there this year. I took Friday off and drove 6 hours after work to get there for Thursday night.

The weekend was a combination of fishing and partying, as it was the big Au Sable Canoe Marathon weekend. Visitors from all across North America come to Grayling for this weekend to watch the race, making it the busiest time of year for both Grayling and the Au Sable River. Because of this, it’s not exactly the ideal time to be fishing the area – at least not the main branch. However, quality fishing can still be had on the Manistee, the North and South branches of the Au Sable and (to my surprise) even on the main branch the very morning after the race.

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Night Fishing Season

The warmer days of summer are here and with that comes some excellent night fishing opportunities. I still get funny looks when I mention fishing after dark to my buddies around here. I picked up on this addiction after several years of fishing the Au Sable river in Michigan. My wife and I rent a place on the Holy Waters section of the Au Sable main branch and there are a couple fantastic holes right right next to the property. I’d heard stories of the monster fish that inhabited those holes, but for years I was not able to see or catch them.

I still remember a few relaxing nights on the deck where we would repeatedly hear huge splashes in that hole – a big brown smashing prey no doubt. It was after this that I realized just how aggressive these fish get when the sun goes down. A couple years later I caught my first 20+” fish in that very hole after dark, on a big mouse pattern. I lost it before I was able to get it to the net, but I still consider it my first real night fishing success.

Night fishing is so popular out there that Gates Au Sable Lodge began hosting an annual Midnight Fly Fishing Derby, where pairs of anglers head out for an evening fishing tournament in hopes of landing the biggest fish.

Since then, I’ve been doing a bit of night fishing back home in Southern Ontario. Last weekend was my first real chance this year and it was no let down. I landed an 18-20″ fish and lost 2 other similarly sized fish in the span of about an hour.

20" Brown caught after dark

18-20″ Brown caught after dark on a Southern Ontario river

The same rules apply here as they do in Michigan… huge browns come out of hiding about half an hour after the sun completely sets. Here’s are a few things that I’ve found increase my odds when fishing at night for big browns.

1. Use big flashy flies.
I have no doubt that casting a standard dry fly or streamer will catch fish. However I’ve found that consistently catching larger fish is both easier and more fun with a large (up to size 2-4) top water fly like a Gurgler or Mouse. With these flies, not only are they easier to see (or feel), but you generally strip them in and don’t have to worry much about getting that perfect drift or presentation. They also disturb the surface enough to attract predatory fish from all around.

2. Use darker colors.
The smaller the fly, the more important this is. When I fish a Gurgler, I don’t bother with darker colors as I prefer fishing a bright/white fly that is easier to see. A size 2 fly is large enough and disturbs the water enough that the fish are going to see and/or hear it regardless. If you’re fishing smaller dry flies however, you want to be using a preferably black fly which creates a more visible silhouette against the night sky. This seemed counter intuitive to me at first since black is much more difficult for the angler to see. However, we’re looking down from above – a completely different viewpoint than the fish. I’ve heard it described as washing your fly if you try to fish a white dry fly at night.

3. Shorten your leader and use larger tippet.
I learned this lesson the hard way, more than once. Since you’re casting (almost) blindly, you will be dealing with line tangles from time to time. Having a shorter leader definitely helps here. On top of that, the fish are not shy at night and there’s no need to keep your 10-12 foot leaders and tiny tippet. In fact, when I know there are big fish around, I have been going down as low as 4-6 foot 2x tippet. When a huge brown smashes a top water fly as you’re stripping it in, especially when you don’t see it happen, it’s easy for them to snap off even 4x tippet (I’ve had this happen).

4. Know the water and get into a favorable casting position.
Don’t try to wade a river like you would during the day. Pick a hole that looks like it holds a lot of fish and stay put. If you really know the river well, you might be able to move carefully between a few holes, but often you can spend a lot of time at a single location at night. If you’re stripping top water flies, cast downstream and strip them back upstream. This is a very forgiving way to cast at night and accuracy is not too important. I’ve also had success dead drifting flies, especially mice, though it requires a bit more practice to get a feel of where your fly is landing when you can barely see.

Au Sable River Trip

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I took a well deserved week-long trip to a favourite destination of ours on the banks of Au Sable River in Grayling, Michigan.

Grayling is a fly fishing paradise.  I won’t go into detail on why this is such a great fly fishing town, but suffice it to say that it’s surrounded by several blue ribbon trout rivers, it’s host to river stretches with nicknames like the “Holy Water”, it’s got more fly shops than most towns have gas stations and it’s the birthplace of Trout Unlimited… you get the idea.

I made an effort not to spend too much time on the water this trip, since my wife doesn’t fish and we had other things planned for the week.  Most of the time I didn’t stray too far from the place we were staying.  Located on the Holy Water, one of (if not the) best stretches of trout water on the entire Au Sable, it’s just too convenient.

The main hatches for the week included Tricos in the mornings, terrestrials (mostly ants) in the afternoons and some sporadic BWO hatches in the evenings.  No overly large trout were had during this trip, but a nice assortment of brown, rainbow and brook trout were caught.  That’s one of the things I love about the Au Sable in this stretch… all three trout species are very plentiful and on any given day it’s entirely possible to hook up with trophy sizes in all of these fish.

Au Sable Brown Trout

Au Sable Brook Trout

Au Sable Rainbow Trout

And then there’s the night fishing…

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