BY BOB GWIZDZ, Outdoors columnist
MIO — Had Steve Sendek and I been trying to earn our fishing merit badges, we'd have flunked our exam.
We were not prepared.
We'd set up the fishing trip — a pre-Christmas, afternoon float in a canoe on the Au Sable River, downstream from the dam here — well in advance, but when I met up with Sendek, armed with three fishing rods (a spinning rig, baitcaster and fly rod) I thought I was ready for all contingencies. But I soon realized I'd left my fly vest on the back porch, so I was immediately reduced to spinning or baitcasting.
I figured I could cast spinners or small Rapalas — my two favorite baits for trout — with the spinning rig or back a crankbait downstream with the bigger rod, the way folks do when fishing for winter steelhead. (In truth, I suspected drifting nymphs was the best approach, but c'est la vie.) But that's where Sendek's lack of preparation comes in; he'd forgotten the chains he drags behind his canoe to slow it down. Without them, the crankbait would just float downstream at the same speed as the canoe.
This was to be a new experience for both of us as this is the first winter when this stretch of river — known as "the Trophy Water" to many — has been open to fishing. Until last April, trout season in the Au Sable below Mio closed on Sept. 30, as it did on the bulk of Michigan trout streams.
That always struck me as unnecessary as this stretch would be ideal for extended season fishing.
"There are a couple places in the state where, if you really want to increase your chances of catching a big brown trout, you fish," said Sendek, who recently retired from the Department of Natural Resources after a long career in fisheries. "This is one of them. There are a lot of fish here that are 20 inches or longer."
Sendek should know. He'd been the biologist is charge of this stretch of the Au Sable since 1986 until last September.
Sendek said he'd wanted to get some sort of extended season on this stretch for a long time, but it never fit into any of the categories the DNR set up for managing trout streams. Because it is maintained by stocking, it isn't really appropriate for catch-and-release only fishing, like the mainstream of the Au Sable, which is not stocked, Sendek explained. But because it grows such big fish, it doesn't make sense to have anglers jerking them out of there at 10 inches, either. So after years of debate, several false starts, and a couple of interventions, the Trophy Water was opened to year-round fishing.
Sendek and I had chosen a cold (just barely above freezing) drizzly day, which might have been perfect in the warmer months, but was the opposite of what you need in the winter. To make matters worse, the temperature sank throughout the day.
"What we really need is a warm spurt," Sendek said, as he cast a small Phoebe spoon, while I alternated between a spinner, crankbait and Rapala. "You've really got to pick your days this time of year. When you see a little warming trend, that's when you need to go." Despite the negative environmentals, Sendek had a strike our first hour into the float, a fish he said he saw come out from under cover to hit his spoon. He never hooked it, but guessed it at 20 inches.
Sendek said the last electro-fishing survey he conducted here, in the fall or 2010, indicated there was a good population of big fish.
"It's cyclical," he said. "You have a year when a lot of the planted fish — or the wild fish, for that matter — survive. Then six, seven, eight years later, that's when it happens.
"We've got very few places where we actually manage for six- to eight-year-old brown trout. Usually it's the opposite." Over the next three hours, nothing much happened. We fished from the canoe, beaching it occasionally to wade through stretches that Sendek said were traditionally productive, without a strike. It was pleasant enough; a mink working the bank and a pair of bald eagles, tree hopping, flying downstream ahead of us, helped keep us entertained. But as darkness approached, Sendek had another strike.
The fish, he explained, had been in shallow water, no more than six inches deep, in an area with no current. It wasn't where I'd have guessed we'd find fish, but, any port in a storm, eh?
I grabbed a paddle and worked the canoes up to the bank while Sendek played the fish. Not all like the first one, he said. He brought in close to the boat and I dipped it up with a net. We got out the tape measure — 11 inches. It wasn't what we'd come looking for, but, what the heck? I snapped a couple of photos and Sendek released the trout.
We fished that stretch until dark, wading, without another strike. One and done.
"I think that's the way is it's going to be in the winter," Sendek said. "You're going to have a lot of slow days, when the fish are inactive. So let's just watch the weather and when we see a warming trend, we'll try it again." I agreed to do so. I'll report back to you when it happens.