Au Sable River Fly Fishing

Overview

This river is an original, a holy water. Sandy bottoms, wide meanders, leaning cedars, and lots of woody debris support healthy brook, brown and rainbow populations, and lunkers lurking beneath log-jams are common. Steelhead run the Au Sable, too, and it pays to be prepared for the silver giants.

au-sable-fishh-on

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to fish Michigan’s Au Sable River. I’d heard many stories about its wild brown trout and read many articles lauding its habitat. Upon first seeing the river, I was struck by its simple beauty. The Au Sable is one of America’s quintessential trout streams. At the upper end it’s wadeable, and the river is loaded with woody debris and small in-stream islands with soft, foam current seams rolling down the edges. The Au Sable’s wild browns are educated, see a fair amount of fishing pressure and are not easy to convince. Perfect downstream drifts were necessary and not always easy. Downstream, it’s driftboat water and the river reminded me of many Western streams as it broadened and picked up speed and depth.

Conservation Efforts

Framed by white cedars, the Au Sable’s clear water winds east through the rolling, pine- and aspen-covered hills of Michigan’s northern lower peninsula before entering Lake Huron and joining the Great Lakes seaway.

During the 19th century, lumber barons stripped a great forest from this watershed, baring its sandy soil. The consequences of over-cutting, and of the boomtown mentality it generated in the region, still resonate in the Au Sable’s current ecology.

Among these, the statewide extinction of grayling, the watershed’s native salmonid, stands out. Once-teeming populations were wiped out by a combination of unregulated fishing pressure and radical habitat change. Ironically, while the loss of this beautiful fish is a darkness in Michigan’s history, it was also partly responsible for much future conservation efforts, including the creation of Trout Unlimited.

The grayling’s passing left vacant a niche in the river’s ecology, filled in the late 1800s by introduced brook, brown and rainbow trout. Abundant baitfish and healthy insect populations supported the new species, and a lack of competition facilitated their rapid expansion through the watershed.

Jump ahead half a century, when in 1959, 16 trout fishermen gathered at George Griffith’s house on the banks of the now established fishery. Concerned about the river’s future, and that of its wild trout, they formed a new organization dedicated to sustaining the coldwater ecosystems that support wild salmonid species: Trout Unlimited. Although born 70 years too late to save the grayling, TU and its conservation work has been largely responsible for the Au Sable’s status as one of trout fishing’s holy waters.

It hasn’t been easy keeping this river productive. The Au Sable’s two local chapters, the Paul H. Young Chapter and the Mason-Griffith Founders Chapter, have worked tirelessly to preserve its ecological integrity, stabilize stream banks, and restore habitat.

The chapters also raise money to fund conservation projects by other Au Sable grassroots organizations. In the past five years alone, the Paul H. Young chapter contributed approximately $33,000 to groups including the Anglers of the Au Sable, the Au Sable River Property Owners Association, the Grayling Area River Patrol Partners, and the George A. Griffith Foundation.

Currently, the two chapters are working with the Grayling City Council to address the city storm sewer’s inability to handle increases in polluted runoff caused by the area’s expanding impervious surfaces, such as streets and parking lots. A Storm Water Committee, appointed by the council, completed a study last year that recommends measures to reduce discharge of polluted runoff by as much as 80%. While the cost of these measures is estimated at nearly a million dollars, the City recognizes that a healthy Au Sable is an important source of revenue for the area, and is attempting to move forward with the project.

Access

Public access is adequate along most of the upper river and its tributaries, while boat launches are well marked on the lower river. Dry flies work well during abundant hatches, nymphing is productive, but working streamers beneath and around submerged logs and other woody debris draws the spectacular fish.

Hatches

If you catch the Hex spinnerfall, be prepared to catch your largest ever trout on a dry fly, as these bat-sized, night-mating mayflies draw the river’s biggest browns to the surface.

Super Hatches

  • Hendrickson – late April through about May 16
  • Mahogany (adoptiva) – May 10 to about June 1
  • Light Hendrickson – May 15 to about June 1
  • Sulphur – May 20 to about June 10
  • Brown Drake – May 25 to about June 6. varies from year to year more than most hatches.
  • Isonychia – about June 10 through mid-August
  • Hexagenia Limbata – varies by section from about June 12 through July 7
  • White Fly – from about August 18 through September 10
  • Streamers – work all year

Streamer Flies for the Au Sable Region

Galloup’s Zoo Cougar

TAIL: yellow marabou
BODY: pearl braid
UNDERWING: white kip tail
WING: mallard feather
HEAD: deer hair

Galloup’s Articulated Zoo Cougar

STINGER HOOK: marabou tied on size 6 mustad #3366
MAIN HOOK: mono loop for stinger attachment. 15-20 lead wraps at head.
TAIL: marabou covering stinger hook attachment.
BODY: pearl braid
UNDERWING: kip tail
WING: mallard feather
HEAD: deer hair trimmed wide

Feenstra Strippin’ Sculpin

TAIL: natural chickabou
BODY: olive polar chenille
UNDERWING: natural chickabou
WING: natural mallard flank feather
HEAD: australian oppossum

Madonna

BODY: mixed silver and gold braid
WING: rabbit strip split up middle
HEAD: deer hair

Galloup’s T&A Bunker

STINGER HOOK: 2 colors of marabou (dark on top/light on bottom) tied on a mustad 3366 or similar wide-gap hook
MAIN HOOK: mustad 8089 bass bug hook with mono loop for attachment of stinger hook. Thread colored beads over mono before installing stinger hook.
TAIL: flashabou
MID-SECTION: marabou as shown
HEAD: Wool as shown

Crafty Sculpin

Circus Peanut

Feenstra Emulator

Sluggo Minnow

Conrad Sculpin

Dry Flies for the Au Sable Region

Hendrickson

Hex Spinner

Isonychia

Brown Drake Spinner

Robert’s Drake

Sulphur

White Fly