Au Sable River Scene
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Au Sable River Mainstream
  Fly Fishing Nirvana
        
By: Jerry Kunnath
Au Sable River Mainstream - “Fly Fishing” Nirvana

Michigan’s famous Au Sable River is probably the finest brown trout fishery east of the Rocky
Mountains. A section of the river called the “Holy Water”, designated by the Michigan Department of
Natural Resources as a fly fishing only quality fishing area, is a classical trout river, with good insect
hatches and an ample trout population. Most of this section of the river is a calm, easy, shallow stream,
that allows wading fly casters to traverse up or down stream with relative ease. The firm, gravelly
bottom is wide enough at this point to back cast without being constantly ’hooked up’ on the cedars that
line the forested bank.

The section of the Au Sable from the town of Grayling downstream to Burton’s Landing, about six
winding river miles, is deeper with a sandy bottom, making wading more difficult. Trout populations in
this section of the “River of Sand”, as it translates from the French, aren’t as high as other parts of the
river, but fishing pressure is also lower here, except during the summer caddis hatch [hexagenia
limbata] when some very large brown trout are hooked here by the night time fly angler, and hopefully
released back to the stream, to grow some more.

In the much venerated “Holy Water” section, which begins at Burton’s Landing and follows downstream
to the Wakeley Bridge, a distance of about eight miles, the river gradient is steeper. This gives the river
a faster current, which is conducive to greater trout populations than further upstream sections. But
even though this section of the river is visited by more fishermen than any other part of the Au Sable, it
continues to reward those fishers with many large, fat and happy brown trout. This section of river is
famous for yielding a bounty of large trout from year to year.

From Wakeley Bridge to McMasters Bridge, a varied downstream  stretch of river that measures nine
miles in length, the river bottom starts with a fast water course with a gravel and clay bed. This gives
way to an area known as the “Stillwater” section, which is predominantly a low banked, sandy bottom
stream with a much slower coursing water. The South Branch enters the Au Sable in the beginning of
the “Stillwater”, adding to its flow, but not substantially increasing its speed. After the “Stillwater” area,
the river once again kicks it in overdrive as it flows over fast gravelly riffles and speeds its way down to
the McMasters Bridge. This section of the Au Sable, from Wakeley Bridge to McMasters Bridge, is not
easily waded. It is fished mostly from river boats by anglers who reach their quarry by floating the river
with less competition than other areas of the Au Sable.

From below the McMasters Bridge, the river takes on a ’big river’ attitude. The flow alternates between
deep, slow, sandy pools and swift, shallow gravel riffles. Some of the riffles can be waded safely, but
the majority of the fishing in this section is done by floating the river in McKenzie style river boats.

Canoe traffic on the Au Sable can be ’weekend’ heavy, especially in the summer vacation months.
Fishermen that want to avoid these ’aluminum hatches’ should concentrate on fishing the early morning
and late evening hours. Not only will the fringe hours fisherman see less ’Grumman Flies’, he will also
have more of the river to himself, away from other fishers. Another factor to take into consideration is
that most canoes destine to the takeout point  just below Grayling. Very few of the canoes continue
downstream of Stefan Bridge , making the river more secluded for the angler.

The Au Sable is best known as a brown trout stream. But brook trout also inhabit it’s beautiful waters in
substantial numbers. This smaller fish is more than eager to take a dry fly off the water. Rainbow trout
are also caught on occasion. Especially in the Stefan Bridge area. MDNR surveys show that these trout
numbers are on the increase.

The town of Grayling was originally called Crawford. There were no trout in the Au Sable at that time. The
river contained a fish that the locals called a ’white trout’ or a ’Crawford County Trout’. In about 1874,
the fish were identified as
’Grayling” and the town quickly changed it’s name to reflect the new
discovery. Brook trout were introduced to the Au Sable system from the Jordan River by a Mr. Rube
Babbit in the 1880’s. Rainbow trout were planted a bit earlier and brown trout came to the river shortly
after.The grayling became scarcer than chicken teeth about the time that the trout were introduced. But
old time residents don’t blame the introduction of the trout for the Grayling’s demise. They blame the
change in the area’s topography, as a result of the lumbering activity of that era, for the Grayling’s
hiatus. The Grayling is far less tolerant of change to its habitat than the tougher trout. They just could
not bear the change to the river’s character the way the trout did. The last reported Grayling catch was
by a Mr. Dan Stephan in 1908 about three miles above McMasters Bridge.

In April of 1987, forty thousand seven inch Grayling were released by the Michigan Department of
Natural Resources into the mainstream
Au Sable near Mio, Michigan. Once again though, these fish
were doomed. This fingerling planting, a valiant attempt by the MDNR to re-establish the Grayling failed.
A few fish were caught by trout fly fishers, [most were probably eaten by giant brown trout] but it was
soon evident that these finicky fish would not make a comeback in the Au Sable. Perhaps a future
planting might work if new techniques and methods are developed.

The Au Sable river is an excellent trout stream because it is relatively steady in flow. It has, for the most
part, cool summer water temperatures. Its upper stretches also have ample gravely, riffled, spawning
beds, which are conducive to reproductive activity by the trout. Over 85% of the flow in the upper river
is the result of infusion into the river of groundwater springs. This results in the river not being subject
to drastic fluctuations in level and temperature. This river is, over the course of an average year, only
one foot higher in depth at high water times over low water times. But six inches of depth increase can
mean much deeper wading conditions, so be careful out there.

The groundwater inflow that stabilizes the level of the river, also helps to give the river a more
constant, cooler temperature. The sandy “Stillwater” area below Grayling can sometimes reach a
temperature of 75 degrees F in the summer. But the water rarely gets that warm in the ’flies-only’
section. Brook trout, the trout species that is least tolerant of heat, does well in this section of the river.

There are excellent hatches of almost all Michigan flies on the Au Sable. Hatches are especially good on
the flies-only section of the river. But the hexagenia limbata, or caddis hatch, does better in the slower,
sandy, silted sections of the river, both above and below the flies-only section.

For the fisherman or fisherwoman that wants to fish the harder to wade lower waters, there are many
experienced river guides available for hire on all sections of the Au Sable. These guides make use of
Au Sable riverboats and McKenzie river style boats on the stream. The Au Sable riverboat was develop
and designed for and by fly fishermen for fly fishing on the Au sable. They worked so well that they are
now utilized on many other rivers in the Great Lakes  area. A day’s float, "fly fishing" on the river with an
experienced, trout wise guide, is an experience that all fishermen should have at least once in their
outdoor careers.
An Au Sable River Evening
For skilled guides familiar with the Au Sable and her fishes and for all the flies and equipment
you will need for these waters contact Bob Linsenman at his fly shop in Mio near the river
                                                         
The Au Sable Angler