It is Saturday, April 14th 2007, and Mike is yelling at me from the parking lot. "Paul! Let's go!" The wide river moves around my waist, and before me it dives into a deep pool from which even the gin-clear water can't wash the pure and "foreboding" emerald stain. There are steelhead down there, I can feel it. They've been outwitting me for several minutes now - or maybe I've outwitted myself once again; but I know a fly that will make them come up, or maybe a single egg fished deep... "Paul!" I reel in quickly. It's 6pm after all, and I'm hungry too. Tomorrow morning we will leave without fishing, lured by an early arrival home. With quiet regret I turn and walk out of the Manistee river, perhaps for the last time.
Apologetically, I have to admit to my three trip companions, that I was only being facetious when I agreed to go to the Big Manistee. We had discussed it as one of our options ad nauseum for over four hours, knowing we were going to fish for steelhead 'somewhere' in Michigan, and I found myself wanting resolution more than prospects more solid (as I imagined them). And anyway, I was still not over the rain-ruined trip to Ohio that had originally promised so many fish, so it no longer mattered to me what our ultimate destination would be.
But Mike found a passage in one of Bob Linsenman's books describing some of the pools on the Manistee as "dark and foreboding." This phrase was repeated several times during our debate, like a mantra, and it guided us in our choice.
My first impression, when we finally arrived at around noon on Friday the 13th, was not very good. Enormous parking lots sit on both sides of the river, from which countless anglers descend daily to sound its great flow, like gamblers at roulette. From the dam at Tippy reservoir down at least 2 km, there is no stretch wider than 15 yards without a rod and reel dredging the depths for silver. It's even worse on weekends. Make it 5 yards on weekends. And past the first bend, a veritable armada of drift boats divvy up the deeper pools of the river's heart.
When we get down to the water, I'm immediately put off by the "combat" fishing arena that presents itself. Anglers stand shoulder to shoulder up river, down river, as far as the eye can see. Mike, Andrew and Dave move up river. I move down. I find a relatively uncrowded bend, with a couple of attractive seams knitted at its surface, then wade out and begin float fishing. Time goes by. Nothing. Up and down the river, the rods swing like clock pieces, straight, unbent and the faces of the people are blank. Patient. My float spikes down suddenly, and up comes my rod - straight. Nothing. A crushed roe bag now hangs from my hook. This happens once more, then the mysterious creature that did it lies still. Maybe it has fallen asleep.
This summarises my Friday the 13th. I don't even recall if I hooked a single fish, so powerful was the spell that held me in its grip. Call it what you will, disappointment or bad luck, the steelhead gods had turned their collective heads and smiled, instead (as you may have guessed), on my friends. But mostly, as usual, they gave all their love to Mike.
With disturbing regularity, Mike's rod would suddenly leave the senseless, uniform, back and forth tick-tock of the masses to perform a ritual all its own. It dipped and bent, jiggled, was jarred, bucked in his knuckled grasp. Sometimes the dance stopped abruptly, and other times a brightly coloured steelhead was coaxed to shore. Above "the Coffer" Mike was expounding the virtues of the steelhead Gods, and all within eyeshot and earshot took notice. In such a crowded place, with fish so pressured, I have seen no finer performance. The next day, we found out from one of the locals that he was "that guy who's been catchin' all the fish." I knew it to be an exaggeration, but it wasn't a big one.
What I didn't know was that the river itself had begun its work on me. Mike was only a small ingredient in her enchanted brew, her counter-spell to my deep funk. Great vistas open themselves to the eye, in the valley through which it flows. And the Manistee itself flows like a necklace of jade, emeralds and diamonds at the bottom, rich with pools and shoals. It has a powerful, melodious voice that calls the spirit down to its cold, generous caress. I was being called down, down into the valley and down the river.
I think I landed 1 fish all weekend. 1 measly fish. Actually, it wasn't measly. It was a gorgeous hen, which three of us felt compelled to photograph. But she's the only one I landed. Though I am not totally bereft of my own little piece of fame...
On Saturday, after landing that hen and hooking several others (that all got off) I heeded the call of the river and walked down her banks. This is how crowded the Manistee is: at the end of one of the parking lots, there's a large, roofed platform for handicapped anglers. There's room on that platform, for at least 6 anglers - and there are six there when I begin fishing slightly downriver from it.
My float strikes downward on the first drift, and a brightly coloured male leaps from the water as it snaps my tippet. Enthused, I re-tie and send another offering roughly in the same area.
I drift and drift again. On the fifth pass, the float comes down and the river makes its statement. It is a strong statement. It follows me up river and it crosses. It moves up the current and then back down. It flashes at me white chrome blasts of light that halo the deep green water. My rod, I see, is shaman-dancing. It wants to break. The line moans under the pressure. My arm and my shoulder begin to wither. Down the river goes the fish. It flashes again, and I feel the head bending in great, powerul sideward thrusts. I pull and gain an inch; the rod pulses and throbs; I pull again. The fish turns and again I must pull hard, and my shoulder feels like it is filled with ink, and my arm is a piece of driftwood on fire. The head shakes again, and again, and again; and again I winch it upriver, and she pulls (I can see now that it's a big, chrome hen); the hook comes free - and I am freed from my funk, and I hope -
I pray -
I will go back there someday.