We all have our own fish stories.
Very few of us started out fishing a fine bamboo rod on intimate spring creeks. I know I didn’t! I began fishing at about age 8 or 9, but did not fly fish at all until about 30 years ago. It is nice to be proficient at several methods, but fly fishing makes up about 98% of my fishing these days.
The St. Joe River and Pinhook Lake, South Bend, IN
From age 2, I grew up in South Bend, living about ¼ mile as the crow flies from the sizable St. Joseph River. From about age 9 on, whenever I was home during the warmer months, my friend Bobby and I would be down at the St. Joe trying to catch smallmouth bass and the occasional monster carp. Here is a map that shows my house (A) and Bobby’s house (B). That nice trail you see between Riverside Drive and Woodlawn Park was not there, and there was no park – just undeveloped woods.
Here is an old image of the St. Joe taken about 1/2 mile downstream from Bobby’s house.
Neither of our parents fished much, so Bobby and I made do with what gear we could scrounge up, and figured out the fishing on our own. We did eventually acquire some basic spin-cast outfits that worked most of the time, but we were not beyond cutting down a branch, and go cane pole fishing without the cane pole. I would snitch nuts and bolts from my Dad’s tool room for weights, and we would buy what hooks and line we could find at Kmart. The Kmart line was not much of a match for the odd pike or double-digit carp who fell for our worms.
The bait was worms dug along the river bank. There was a steep hill between Riverside Drive and the river near Bobby’s house. Folks would dump their leaves down the hill in the fall. That made for good wiggle worm hunting. We would add a small nut or bolt as weight and cast out, and the worm would drift tumbling through holes. Hence, catching on to nymph fishing came easy for me when I started fly fishing decades later. We often had smallmouth fish fries at Bobby’s house on Friday evenings.
Pinhook Lake was an easy bike ride and we fished there with bobbers in between catching turtles, snakes, tadpoles and frogs.
Izaak Walton League
We also made the occasional 3-mile bike ride to the Izaak Walton League property. My dad had a membership. In those days, it was just a patch of ground with a couple of ponds with mostly generic warm water fish, plus a tiny rivulet named Juday Creek that ran into the St. Joe on the property. We never saw anyone other than the caretaker, once or twice, in all of the times we visited.
One day at Izaak Walton, I saw a pike-like fish skimming the surface of one of the ponds. I managed to hook and land it. It turned out to be a gar pike or some such. Interesting. More interesting was the time I wandered over to Juday Creek just to explore and saw these really cool 3” fish that would hold in the current and then dart under logs or rocks when approached. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had seen my first trout. Today, the League appears to be much more developed and you can see that the St Joe is now stocked with Steelhead. That may be nice, but Bobby and I were perfectly happy with little smallmouth bass and the place all to ourselves.
Union Lake, MI Area
Here is where my siblings and I were really lucky. My grandfather and namesake immigrated to the US from Ireland and eventually became a successful executive in Detroit during the city’s glory days. Before the full extent of his success, he and my father, basically by themselves, built a small house across the dirt road from the headwaters of the Clinton River near Union Lake, MI. During summers, my mom and all of us kids would spend up to a month in that house (by then it was used as a cottage by my grandparents). My dad would come up for one week of the month plus weekends, so he did not burn all of his vacation time. For about a mile or so on our road, there were four houses: our cottage, one house right next to ours, the Wilsons down the road and “Uncle” Neal’s a few hundred yards away. We could leave the house in the morning and explore for probably a mile radius and rarely see people. There was a bay of big Cass Lake within our exploration range. We could go over to Smitty’s house in the woods with his muddy pond that was a goldmine of turtles and frogs. But mostly, we explored and fished the Clinton River that was no more 18 feet wide at that point and rather placid. Many yellow perch were caught. Turtles were captured by the dozens. Bullfrogs were gigged for frog leg feasts.
One day, I cast my regular worm rig into the Clinton and it landed in a mat of weeds along the far bank. When I pulled out my line, I found that I had hooked an unfamiliar 6-inch fish. I had just caught my first trout – a rainbow. Uncle Neal had to tell me what it was.
One of the best days ever was when my Dad rented a boat at Elizabeth Lake and we fished for most of the day. At first, we had trouble hooking fish, but I had the secret weapon that saved the day – some gold #10 Kmart hooks. With the smaller hooks, we caught perch after perch. The picture below shows me and my brother Mike with some of the catch.
Fly Fishing and Moving West
Like most of my childhood pursuits, my fishing fell off through the college and early working years. In the early 1980’s, I was hearing more and more about fly fishing. I was living in Kansas City at that time and one of my co-workers was head over heels for the put-and-take trout fishing in southern Missouri. I never was able make the trip with him, but his enthusiasm planted a seed.
Very soon after that, we moved to North Carolina and I knew that there were trout in “them there hills.” I joined the Triangle Fly Fishers chapter of TU and made enough contacts to learn fly fishing and met some fishing buddies. Eventually, I would serve on the TFF board.
Learning to fly fish in a rhododendron tunnel is not the easiest way to learn, but it offers an intimate experience and can inoculate one for life against “tight” stream conditions. I was hooked for good.
I tricked my wife, Diane into learning to fly fish by purchasing gear for her and enrolling both of us in a weekend school on the Watauga River near Blowing Rock. It worked. She now enjoys it thoroughly and is an accomplished angler in her own right.
Later in the 1980’s, I requested a Thomas and Thomas catalog just for kicks. When I opened it to the page with the bamboo rods, I lost my breath. Somehow, I needed a rod that beautiful. Little did I know that I would later meet one of the guys responsible for those rods (Bob Taylor).
Fishing trips out west naturally followed, and in 1994 we moved to Boulder, CO. Our young girls protested the change of scenery at first, but quickly changed their minds and grew to love it.
Boulder Flycasters was a very active chapter of TU when I arrived and I eventually served on the Board there too. Once again, great fishing connections were made in a new location.
Fly fishing remained a family affair as demonstrated in the images below.