Two-Hearted River Trout

The solid take of a large fish got my blood moving as I stood nearly to the tops of my hip boots in the Two Hearted River of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The night crawler I was using for bait was to the fish’s liking and he again sucked it in. Trembling hands, forgetting the cooler air of mid-May, tensed in preparation for the hook set. Another heavy take caused me to flick the rod back and he was on. An initial shaking, lunge downstream told me of his size. This was a steelhead trout of major proportions. The fish turned, headed upstream and then he was gone. I raised my rod hand in frustration in an effort to rid myself of the flyrod and plunge it into the river. This wasn’t the first large trout I had lost early on after hooking.

Having trout fished since I was ten years old, by the time I was fifteen I had some fishing experience in my creel. However, I had never landed a really large trout, the largest being a brown of about fourteen inches. Oh, I had caught a lot of trout. My father was a fine fisherman, and an excellent teacher and I was an attentive student, at least as far as fishing was concerned.

I was eager to take this last step into the world of trout fishing. I wanted a big one!

We had fished the Two-Hearted River since my eighth grade in 1958 when my father convinced Sister Clarine, principal of St. Mary’s School in Grand Rapids, MI, I could miss a few days of school in May and Sunday Mass, to go with him, his fishing pals Fred Swart and Joe White to the Upper Peninsula, north of Newberry. The object of the trip was to try for trout, steelheads and, of course, the native brook trout found in this storied stream. We stayed at a cabin owned by friends, Otto and Irene Rinner, which was located about ten miles south of the river. It was a deer hunting camp, but doubled as a get-a-way vacation spot and trout camp.

Steelheads in the Great Lakes were still being ravaged by the sea lamprey. This salt water import, which entered Lake Ontario via the St. Lawrence River and Lake Erie by the opening of the Welland Canal, had spread to the Upper Lakes and decimated the lake and rainbow trout populations of these largest of all bodies of fresh water. To date on our trips, the steelhead count was zero and the brook trout fishing consisted mainly of catching recently planted fish, with a larger native speckled beauty adding interest. However, the excitement of traveling to the Upper Peninsula, along with the camaraderie of good friends, added to the full enjoyment of the adventure.

The year in question saw a much later Spring breakup and we had left Grand Rapids, MI, with hopes of catching some late steelheads in the upper river.

That early morning of the first day found my dad and I hiking downstream from the car. Fred and Joe went upstream.

During the previous trips dad and I learned there was some excellent water downstream and it was easier to hike on the highland above the river, rather than breaking trail through the tangle of tag alders and cedars at river’s edge. Thus, we took the high road to our chosen spots. My father entered the river a few hundred yards upstream from where I planned to begin fishing. He was going to work a very productive bend hole. I began to fish at a point below that bend at the culmination of a stretch of faster water.

The spot was on the outside of a gentle bend in the river, downstream from the riffle that drained Dad’s bend hole. I was wading the outside of this bend in hip boots, as the curve wasn’t great enough to gouge out a deep hole. The steelhead had struck on one of my first casts, but was only on for a few seconds before he was gone. Disappointment etched my face.

I continued to bounce a night crawler through the deep run at the bend for an hour when Dad caught up with me. He had hooked and landed a few small brook trout and after inquiring about my luck, and hearing about the loss of the big rainbow, he moved on past me, fishing from the opposite side of the river.

By now I had sidled my way in the current downstream about ten yards from where I had hooked and lost the steelhead. I hugged the tag alders, so as not to go over my hip boots which would have been a serious “no-no” in my dad’s eyes. He was about fifty yards below me, fishing a productive looking stretch of water, which the deeper water that I fished emptied into. It was here that I again felt the thrill of a solid strike. Again, and again the fish took the crawler. My right arm arched back in a snap motion to set the hook.

The fish was on!

I called to my dad in a plaintive voice, “Dad, I’ve got a fish on, a big one.”

Seeing my bowing rod and the look of concern on my face, he raced back to me and crossed the river to be at my side.

Back and forth the fish surged with all the power it could muster. Using the flow of the river as only a stream trout can, it raced, lunged, and swirled in the current. The river being only about fifty feet wide, with tag alders narrowing the gap between both banks, the danger of losing the fish in the brush was always at hand. Slowly the trout worked its way downstream as Dad and I followed.

“You have to get below the fish, Milt so that if it heads for the brush or a log jam you can get between them.” Dad’s advice was sound and solid, as was the rainbow.

With a rush, my trout, I was now calling him “my trout”, sped downstream, obviously headed for distant Lake Superior. Our only option was to follow and let the fish fight the rod, while he used the current. Again I struggled to get downstream of the steelhead. Again he beat me to the punch with another surge. My hand and wrist began to ache and Dad instructed me to switch hands with the rod and shake the tightness out. The trout, unimpressed by my casual efforts, sped like aquatic lightning downstream.

The river began to narrow and Dad and I saw that we were coming to another gentle bend, but this one had a large pine log, a remnant of some previous flood, lying at the outside of the curve. If the trout got underneath the log and wrapped the line around a protruding stub, he would be history. The fish gods were with me and we passed the log without incident. It was here that we saw the river narrow even more. It slowed and the depth increased. The water was being squeezed by a new mass of tag alders. The gap between the growing tips from each bank was only about ten feet. I felt the water inch up towards the tops of my hip boots and so informed Dad.

With a chuckle he said, “If you have to go over the tops to follow the fish, then go over, but keep trying to get below him.”

The trout was tiring now. We were about 200 yards downstream from where he had first struck. The river had narrowed, the tag alders loomed ahead and I was up to my waist in the icy cold flow. Dad realized that to follow the fish into and through the tag alders would mean a lost fish so he began to work his way below the trout, in order to net him.

I kept the rod pressure on, as the trout again attempted to gain his freedom. He worked his way toward the side that we were on. Dad readied the net, a short handled stream-trout net. The fish closed the gap between itself and my father and was just below the surface. With perfect timing, born of experience, Dad made his move to net the trout. In a spray of water, as Dad turned, I could see a bit of a struggle, but his back blocked my view of what was happening.

Suddenly, Dad stopped, turned, and in his arms, cradled against his chest and in the net was my first truly large trout. I was thrilled. About twenty-eight inches and over eight pounds of rainbow trout were mine.

It was the only fish I caught on the trip. Dad, Fred, and Joe all landed steelheads as we had finally found that magic area, one which we fished for the next twenty-five years. Since that day I’ve caught uncounted large trout.. This fish, being the first, remains the most memorable. Its fighting spirit indeed earned it the name, “Two-Hearted Trout.”