Neil Travis - Apr 3, 2017

It would start subtly, normally in early October after I had stowed away my fly fishing gear after my last trip. For the next few weeks I would find myself occupied with chasing ducks, pheasants, grouse, woodcock and deer but in the quiet moments my mind would wander back to the next trout season.

In those by-gone days, in the late 50's and 60's, trout fishing was a seasonal thing; at least on the designated trout streams like the Au Sable in Michigan where I lived. After the fall hunting seasons ended the trout fishing fever began to intensify. I would get a calendar for the upcoming year and mark in red that most important date; the last Saturday in April – opening day of trout season. As soon as the regulations for the coming year were available I would buy my license, purchase my trout stamp and check to make certain that they had not changed the opening date. I did not expect that they would change the date but I always wanted to check. Once the date was confirmed I would begin to count the days.

The wait always seemed interminable and it involved lots of tackle tinkering, checking the long range weather forecasts, more tackle tinkering, consulting the calendar, checking and rechecking my fly boxes. I would always tie more flies; old reliable patterns that have proven their worth over the years and some new patterns that a friend may have told me about or one that I had read about in my collection of fly fishing literature or in the latest fly fishing magazine. Over the years my fly collection continued to grow but it always seemed that the flies that I attached to my tippet were the old proven patterns. Even today, when I check my fly boxes, I find patterns that seemed like proven winners that just never to live up to the hype.

The last few weeks before the general trout season opened I would find various diversions to keep my mind occupied. In Michigan there were lake-run steelhead and I would fish for them with a fly rod, but the flies were streamers, large nymphs and egg fly patterns. While it was fly fishing it involved big rods, short, heavy leaders and fishing to fish that you generally could not see, and even when you could see them they certainly were not rising to dry flies!

The week before the season opened was a bit frantic. Check and recheck the weather forecast, read the fishing reports on the outdoor pages of the newspaper, recheck all my gear, at least several times. I would get the camping trailer ready, purchase groceries, make certain the car was in perfect running condition, and then check everything again.

Finally it was Friday afternoon, the trailer was hooked up to the car, all the gear was loaded and I was on my way north. As I left my home just north of Detroit the trees were normally beginning to leaf out, the lawns were green and any winter snow was a distant memory. Hurrying north the green trees faded in the rear view mirror and many years as I got closer to my destination patches of snow were obvious back under the trees. As I drove over small streams I would give them a furtive glance to see if they were clear, discolored or high. Anticipation was reaching a fever pitch.

At last the road leading down to the river came into sight. For many years the Canoe Harbor campground on the South branch of the Au Sable was my destination and Keystone campground on the Au Sables mainstream was my the last few years that I fished the river. As I drove down the dirty road leading to the campground I was increasingly anxious to see who else had returned this season.

The reality of opening day was not the fishing but the continuation of a tradition; seeing the old friends I had not seen since last fall, sitting around a smoky campfire roasting hot dogs on a stick, and just generally confirming that things are pretty much like they have been in past years.

I generally did not sleep very well that night and I would be up early tinkering with my tackle, poking the smoldering campfire to life and catching up on the last few months with my fellow anglers. Some of the guys would be out early pitching nymphs and streamers but I was content to wait until the sun, if it shone, took the chill off the air and hopefully warmed the water just a bit. I would watch the water looking for any hatching insects, a subtle rise, anything that might hint that I should don my waders and head for the water. In any case I would certainly be on the water by mid-morning.

In most years the river was high, cold and slightly off color, the few flies that might appear failed to interest most of the resident trout and a really 'good' fish was likely to be an eight inch brookie. If you caught one on a dry fly you earned bragging rights that evening at the campfire. In a couple weeks you would never mention catching an eight inch brookie but on opening day it was a trophy.

Then there were those record years, the ones that were written in red letters in my angling journal. One such memorable year I arrived on the South Branch of the Au Sable and the water was crystal clear and the water temperature was nudging the mid-40's at 8 o'clock in the morning. I planted myself at the tail of a long riffle and waited for what I knew was going to be an exciting time once the hatch started. About 1 o'clock the first set of tiny wings appeared, a smattering of spring Baetis providing the appetizer for the main course that was to come. Then, about 2 o'clock the Hendrickson's began to hatch, slowly at first and then more and more until the water was covered with hatching insects. As if from nowhere the trout appeared, splashy rises at first and then a steady rhythm of quiet sips and bulging rises. For the next couple hours I moved from fish to fish, all browns with an occasional brookie for spice. Good Au Sable browns; solid fish from 10 to 16 inches long, fat fish even this early in the season.

When the hatch faded the trout disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. I set down on the bank soaking in the reality of what had just happened. It was spring again, I was sitting on the bank of my favorite trout stream, and I had hooked and landed more trout on a dry fly on opening day than a country boy deserves. Trout were rising, the sun was shining, God was in His heaven and all was right with the world. In my mind I still go back to those days, when it was all just for the fun of doing it.

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