Chasing Ghosts in Michigan

Before my uncle died, before I knew anything about blood knots or double-hauls or 0 tapered leaders, before I started making the long drives home, I’d been thinking I needed a change. Growing up in Michigan, I’d fished off the pier in South Haven, bait-casting for yellow perch and salmon, and at an unproductive spot on the Black River that for mysterious reasons my father liked. But by the time I was a teenager, fishing had vanished from my life. In my late 20s, after a decade in New York City, I decided it was just the thing I needed to reestablish my sanity, and I learned to cast a fly rod on cold blackwater lakes in Vermont, lobbing cork poppers at smallmouth bass. It was years before I was any good with a fly rod, and I was nearly 40 by the time I finally made it home to Michigan to fish seriously for trout.

Uncle Rob died in May. That summer I drove to the old lumber town of Grayling, plopped down in the crotch of the Au Sable and Manistee watersheds. The Au Sable River splits the Michigan mitten widthwise at about the second knuckle of the middle finger, running from just north of town down through the index finger all the way to Lake Huron, 140 miles east, and for much of its length is blissfully free of Pep Boys and Steak ’n Shakes. Almost exactly longitudinally parallel to the Au Sable but flowing in the opposite direction, the Manistee empties into Lake Michigan after a 190-mile run through jack pine and hemlock forest. Looking at a map, the two rivers form a ragged unibrow over the top half of the state, with Grayling as the nose…

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