Au Sable River Fly Fishing
Au Sable River
Tim travels to Michigan’s lower peninsula and visits the birthplace of Trout Unlimited, the Au Sable River. He fishes with Ed Kulnis, the director of the Paul H. Young Chapter, and is guided by Steve Southard, owner of The Fly Factory. He learns about grassroots efforts to preserve the river’s beauty and fishery, and how the City of Grayling’s progressive development policies are helping ensure the river’s ecologic health.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Brook, brown and rainbow trout
Rod: Winston 8’6’’ 5 weight
Reel: Abel pt. 5
Line: Cortland 444
Flies: Blue winged olives, sulphurs, parachute adams, woolly buggers
The Fly Factory
PO Box 709
Grayling, MI 49738
Fax: (989) 348-7108
4700 Red Oak Rd.
Lewiston, MI 49756
Fax: (989) 786-3584
Grayling Regional Chamber of Commerce
PO Box 406
213 James-City Park
Grayling, MI 49738
Grayling Area Visitors Council and Grayling Regional Chamber of Commerce
PO Box 406
213 N. James – City Park
Grayling, MI 49738