Down the Au Sable; Among the Grayling (1874)

Down the Au Sable: Among the Grayling  

Thaddeus Norris 

Forest and Stream, August 1874

Ever since the American grayling has been known to anglers, my friend, Mr. Daniel Fitzhugh has urged me to come out to Michigan and join him in a trip in pursuit of them.  It was not until the last week of July just past, however, that I could find time to break away from the city of Brotherly Love and make a fair demonstration against them on the Au Sable.  By appointment, I breakfasted with Daniel, the aforesaid, in Bay City on the 29th ult.  The plan agreed on by correspondence was to drop down the river some six or eight miles further than Mr. Fitzhugh had explored it, and after having a surfeit of sport to return to Grayling (formerly called Crawford), the station where the railroad from Bay City crosses it.  This plan would have involved two days’ hard pushing against a strong, steady current.  In the course of our conversation, Daniel remarked that at some future time, if he could find a congenial brother of the angle to accompany him, he intended to take a trip on the Au Sable that would require no such labor in returning.  That he would put his boat in at Grayling and run the river as far down as Thompson’s, which is seventy-five miles by land, and much more than double that distance by the stream.  At Thompson’s he would get teams and haul his boats overland twenty-five miles to Tawas City, on Saginaw Bay, where a steamer for Bay City touches every day. 

Think, my dear Mr. Editor, how provocative this was to one who had not camped out or slept on spruce boughs for five long years.  Would you, then and there, have done otherwise than earnestly advocate such a trip instanter in place of that originally proposed?  Daniel seconded the amendment as soon as I moved it, and we were unanimous. 

After our nutritional meal we walked out, and on the street met Mr. Leonard, generally known as “Len” Jewell—not “Lem,” as my ancient friend Seth Green hath it.  Len is a brawny, broad-shouldered youth of sixty, six feet and an inch “in his stockings,” and, as I found on our trip, a man of not over many words, but still cheerful and communicative, with a low down, pleasant laugh, full of expedients when one’s flies form an attachment to the tops of the many cedars jutting out at a low angle from the banks of the river, the best cook I ever met with in camp, and, as Seth truly says, “the host goes where he wills it.”  Dan had assigned Len to me as pusher.  He chimed in with our change of plans immediately, and proposed that we should go see John Sharp, who was to push Dan’s boat.  We found Johnny at his fish house, busily engaged in putting up an order for white fish, cramming in ice and nailing up boxes, destined for the interior, and yet he had time to remove the ice in a large chest and display at full length a lake trout of nearly four feet.  After a while he laid down his hammer and saw, and said he was ready to talk on business.  He jumped at our new plan for the trip.  Johnny is a wiry young fellow of sixty-five.  He and Len, hunt, shoot, and fish with Dan and the rest of the Fitzhughs, and the ducks and deer they have laid low may be called “legion,” besides a few “bar’ and an occasional wolf and panther. 

At half past two in the afternoon we were en route for Grayling, distant about ninety miles.  This part of Michigan is an elevated, sandy plain, slightly rolling, and, except in marshy places, with a very thin soil, or no soil at all, on loose, coarse, white sand.  The new railroad, running almost due north, was projected by the lumbermen, and within a year or two will cross some fine trout streams flowing northwest, north, and northeast.  There are no trout in the grayling streams, as far as is known, except in Boardman’s Creek.  On our way we crossed the head of the south branch of the Au Sable, which rises in a shallow lake, is fed by swampy water, and consequently rather warm.  It has no grayling until within a few miles of its junction with the main stream, fifteen miles down from Grayling by land, and about thirty-five by water.  Grayling is not far from the source of, and on, the main branch.  The north branch comes in about twelve miles below the south branch and of course from an opposite direction.  It is well stocked with grayling, and about half the volume of the main stream.  A dam for flooding the river to run logs, however, causes a discoloration of the water unfavorable to fly fishing, and after its waters unite with the main stream this provoking influence is still observed. 

Four miles west of Grayling is Portage Lake—abundantly stocked with large pickerel and black bass—one of the sources of the Manistee, and approachable by a good wagon road.  It is the intention of Mr. Fitzhugh at some time to have his boat hauled to Portage Lake from Grayling, to descend the outlet into the Manistee and explore it as far down as the crossing of the Indiana and Grand Rapids, returning thence with his boat by rail to Bay City.  Mr. F. says that he has been told that grayling abound in the Manistee even more than in the Au Sable, but that the Hersey, where he first killed them, has been pretty well fished out.  And yet we see by Mr. Ainsworth’s letter to the Rochester Democrat that he killed nearly five hundred, during a sojourn of two weeks at Reed City, on that stream early in June.  They were small, however, compared with our average catch in the Au Sable. 

All the grayling streams, whether flowing east, west, or north, rise in the same elevated region of almost level, sandy country.  The ascent from the lake shores from either quarter is so gradual as not to be perceptible to a traveler.  Grayling is seven hundred feet higher than Bay City, and this inclination to the lake shore gives an average current of about three miles an hour to the Au Sable.  The shores, especially near their sources, are but slightly elevated above the surface of the streams, which, of course, have in most places the appearance of being bank-full.  Lower down there are now and then, at long distances apart, high sand bluffs abutting against the rivers.  There is little or no water shed, and the rains falling on the sandy plains form small underground rivulets, which find their way to the rivers.  The streams being replenished in this way with spring water, are always of a low temperature in summer, do not freeze over in winter, and are of very equable flow, not varying more than a foot in depth between high and low water even in the spring of the year. 

We reached Grayling a little before sunset, and stayed all night at a new hotel, the only dwelling at the station, built mainly to accommodate the employees of the railroad.  There came in the car with us a pleasure party, consisting of Mr. Mershon, his wife and children, and some lady friends of Bay City, to camp on the river a few days, fish, shoot pigeons, and have a good time.  We passed their camp next day in descending the stream, and Dan hailed the ladies and held some conversation with them in the Chippewa language, which, I suspect, both he and they improvised for the moment.  They were jolly, although it was raining.  The Au Sable at the station is small, with low and apparently swampy banks, much obstructed with alders and fallen cedars, and affording but small opportunity for a fly cast.  An affluent of half its volume comes in a few miles below, after which there is ample room to swing one’s line. 

On inspecting Mr. Fitzhugh’s boats, and questioning my friend Len, I found that they were eighteen feet long, the beam (a little forward of midship) three feet, sharp at both ends, flat bottomed, two feet six inches on the floor in the widest part, with a flare of three inches, making them, as just stated, three feet wide on top.  There is a compartment, water tight from the other portions, extending from abeam two feet six inches forward, and the whole breadth of the boat.  This is the “well,” to keep the fish alive.  It has three one inch holes in the bottom, and two on each side, to admit the water and keep up the circulation, the water being six or seven inches deep when the luggage and men are aboard, and will keep alive seventy or eighty fish, averaging three-quarters of a pound.  It also has a movable, close-fitting cover, on which the angler sits, with a hole of about four inches in diameter on each side into which he slips his fish on releasing them from the hook.  The pusher stands in the stern, and with his ten-foot pole directs or arrests the motion of the boat, which fully occupies his time and skill, leaving him no opportunity to assist the angler in landing his fish, a thing that requires coolness and dexterity when three lusty grayling are darting in as many directions as one draws them within dipping distance.  The space between the well and where the pusher stands is used for storage, with dunnage, as strips of sticks or board are used to keep stores and camp equipage from the floor if the boat should be leaky.  The boats are not over eleven inches deep.  And it is surprising to note the capacity and staunches of these apparently frail little barks, made of half inch white pine. 

July 30th.  About nine in the morning we commenced our voyage on this little river of sticks, pushing through openings in the alders, hauling our craft over logs, and dodging the cedars protruding from the low banks.  It was our intention to tarry none on the way until we got to Camp Hallock, ten miles or so down stream, but after we had passed the junction with the stream already mentioned, some three miles below Grayling, and a good open cast offering, Dan hailed me: “I say, old man, put your rod together and sample the grayling, just to see what they are.”  So we uncased our “artillery,” and “limbered up.”  At the second cast I hooked, and after a sharp tussle landed, a fish of six ounces or so.  “Throw him in,” said Dan, “we keep nothing under a half pound this trip.”  Well, I looked at my first captive from snout to caudal, and as it was still struggling, before I took the hook from its mouth, I put it over the side of the boat to observe the play of its powerful tail and the tints and markings of its magnificent dorsal in the sunlight beneath the placid surface.  “Poor fishing up here,” said Len, “too much spearing and netting; but still we must have some for dinner, so keep on.”  I thought it very good fishing, and at noon, when we stopped to lunch, I had twenty handsome fish in my well, and Dan had about the same number. 

We had occasional showers in the forenoon, and after our lunch, a heavy rain, which, with a prospect of a wet night, drove us to camp early in the afternoon.  Our India rubbers were wet in the cloth side, our blankets were damp, and our stores were also somewhat wet.  I expected to pass an uncomfortable night, but Johnny Sharp, tackling the huge stump of a Norway pine, some twenty feet high, laid it low, then splitting off the knots and other resinous portions, soon had a fire big enough to roast an ox.  We opened the broad front of our shelter tent to its genial warmth, hung up our blankets and India rubbers, put on the tea kettle and potato pot, and put fish in the pan and presently these culinary implements discoursed most pleasant music.   We replenished the inner and dried the outer man, and between the puffs of smoke from his Dudeen Dan sang: 

“But O, life is sech

That it fades at the tech.

O think of all this

While you’re smoking tobocey.” 

And then we took a “snifter,” and turned in and “slept the sleep of the innocent.” 

July 31st.  I was awakened in the morning by Dan’s query, “Feel any mosquitoes last night, old man.”  “No,” I replied, “I forgot that there were such things.  Don’t you take mosquito nets and tar ointment when you camp out?”  “None,” responded Dan, “and what is more remarkable, of the few such stragglers or black flies that may sometimes be found in this region they never attack you in a cedar swamp.”  I subsequently found that, as a general rule, the cedar “swamps” along the river had an elevation of from three to eight feet above the surface of the water.  But there was no stagnant water, the thirsty, sandy soil drinking up the rains as fast as they fall, and consequently there were no mosquitoes or punkies. 

Although we heard the rain pattering on the fly of our shelter tent when we turned in, the sun rose bright, the skies were clear, the morning cool.  We embarked after breakfast with the determination of not making a cast until we got below the limit of Dan’s former explorations.  Of course we broke this agreement by an occasional cast as the boats glided within striking distance of some pretty pool, and about eleven o’clock, coming to a deep, wide, well-shaded flow of some smoothly gliding water, which, by the by, Dan, who was in advance, had hurried through, I could not resist the temptation any longer, and commenced in earnest.  I made havoc among the fins.  No fish under fourteen inches found entrance into my well.  I thought I had exhausted the pool, but Len, who, of course, was standing while I sat on the cover of the well, said, “Not by a jug full; I can see five times as many as you have taken.”  I must have killed fifty from the head to the lower end of this water, a distance of twenty yards, and then pushed on to overhaul Dan.  “What luck, my boy,” I asked, as I came up with him a mile below.  “Well,” he replied, “I am ashamed to look a grayling in the face.  That upper dropper, the drab winged coachman, you gave me, is bloody murder to them.  If one takes it he goes trolling the lower drop fly and stretcher through the pool and takes two more for me.  I am going to take one dropper off, two kills them too fast.  It’s slaughter.” 

After lunch our sport still continued.  In one whirling, eddying deep little rift, close by the bank, while Len held on to the boughs of an overhanging cedar I hooked and landed, in five successive casts, fifteen fish, varying from a half to a pound in weight.  We soon had our wells so full that the fish commenced dying, and a little after four in the afternoon we pushed on to find a good camping place, that we might kill and salt them down, and have time to make things comfortable for the night, for there was muttering thunder and occasional lightning to be seen far up the river.  With entrails out, heads off, salted down and pressed hard, we had two forty pound kits full, which, with those we had eaten and reserved for supper and breakfast, made our catch a little over a hundred pounds, gross weight. 

A few words about the flies we used and the game qualities of our grayling.  Fitzhugh’s favorite whip is the Jewel fly (named after Len) for stretcher, having lead-colored wings, red hackle for legs, and body of yellow floss, wrapped with flat gold tinsel; first dropper, black wings, body, and legs, wrapped with silver tinsel; second or upper dropper, a plain brown palmer without tinsel, all on No. 9 hooks.  I had, for a greater part of the first day a Jewel fly for stretcher; first dropper a black hackle (No. 10 hook) and yellow floss body; upper dropper, brown Pennel fly on No. 12 hook.  On coming to the little rift where Len held on to the cedar boughs, I hooked and lost several good fish, as he supposed, from the hooks being too small, and, at his suggestion, changed them for larger, viz: White-winged coachman for stretcher, brown hackle for first and lead-colored wing coachman for second dropper—all on No. 8 hooks.  Throughout the trip I found the latter the most killing fly, using it as upper dropper; although the water cricket—i.e., a black palmer on a yellow floss body—was almost as killing when using it for a stretcher on bright days. 

After passing the mouth of the north branch, which made the river quite turbid, we both used larger flies of the colors described.  I fully agree with Mr. Ainsworth, that in pluck and endurance the grayling is not a whit behind the trout.  There is this difference, however, when the grayling is lifted from the water he seems to say: “It is all up with me,” and is lifted aboard with pendant tail, while the trout, like a certain denomination of Christians, believes in “final perseverance, struggles and flounce in the air, et ad finis.  My experience on the Au Sable was not that of Mr. Ainsworth’s in June on the Hersey.  He had frequent rises to the strike. I found them generally to strike with as much certainty as trout, and to hook themselves as securely.  So much was the latter the case that after the first day I seldom used the landing net, but lifted them in, even three at a time, weighing almost as many pounds. 

The engraving in a back number of Forest and Stream is a very true representation of the grayling, although of rather slender proportions even for a young fish; when they get to be a half pound and upwards they increase rapidly ion breadth and depth, with very small additional proportion to length, and loosing somewhat in symmetry.  The wide-spreading dorsal and long ventral and anal fins give them great power in a slanting dash across the current.  I could but admire the fine delicately proportioned head and handsome prominent eye, as did Mr. Ainsworth.  When I brought in two fish on the droppers—not more than fifteen inches apart—I frequently held them for a while beneath the surface of the limpid water to admire the colors and motions of the dorsal fin.  It looked like a beautifully colored leaf waving in the stream.  The pectorals and ventrals also exhibited pretty metallic spots.  As to their edibility, I think they are inferior to trout. 

I hope I am not wearying you and your readers, Mr. Editor, with my description of these handsome fish, the tackle to take them with, and the country and streams where they abound.  I did not intend to write even this much, but I think the subject justifies it.  I will try to hasten on to the end. 

August 1st.  We were now eighteen or twenty miles below Grayling, the stream had spread out to three times its width there.  The general depth of the smoothly flowing river did not exceed eighteen inches, a foot was more common than two feet.  It was in the deeper holes of the bends that we found the fish, our boats being held with the setting poles out in the stream while we cast in shore, or where it was contracted to half or a third of its usual width, washing out deep channels.  We had passed over two or three miles of splendid ground in hurrying on to our camping place the afternoon before and were almost tempted to go back.  “But what’s the use?” Dan asked; “What would we do with our fish, and we had yet a hundred and thirty miles of river to run?”  So we merely “took of the wire edge” by filling our wells full of grayling and then pushed on to find the entrance of the south branch; Len and John exclaiming in wonder at the schools of fish as we passed over them.  The grayling is the fish of the river.  Some suckers, a few little redfins and shiners, no bass, no pike, and no eels, of course, for they are not found above Niagara Falls.  But well down towards the mouth of the river some of the smaller species of white fish are found at certain seasons of the year.  We passed the mouth of the south branch eight or ten miles below where we passed under the first bridge we had seen, and much to our relief, found a wood-chopper’s hut on the bank, where we eased our consciences by giving away the fish in our wells.  A little below we lunched. 

As our wells were empty we fished occasionally, as we dropped rapidly down stream.  Casting in towards the bank, in likely places, with a short line, and allowing our flies to come into the wake of the boat and frequently hooking fish within three feet of the stern.  They did not appear to mind the boat much, and in the language of Alexander Selkirk, I exclaim: 

            “They’re so unaccustomed to man

            Their tameness is shocking to me!” 

Passing the mouth of the north branch we found the water almost too turbid for fishing, but at the foot of rapids, where it fell off into smooth, deep pools, picked up a few.  It was evident we had left the best of the fishing behind up stream.  We pitched our tent at 5 P.M., made a good bed of spruce boughs, ate our supper (how good the potatoes were; I never knew I was fond of potatoes before), and turned in. 

August 2nd.  Our object now was to make time; our fishing, as we supposed, was over, and having had a surfeit of it, we accepted the situation cheerfully. 

“How far is it to Thompson’s, do you think, Len?” asked Dan as he sipped his coffee.  “Can’t say,” responded Len, “we must have come over sixty miles by the river, and I don’t think we will get to the mouth of the creek that comes down from his house before tomorrow noon.  This is a mighty crooked river; it doubles itself up terribly, if you could stretch it out straight I believe it would reach across the State of Michigan.”   

Part of Len’s profession is to look up and estimate timber lands, and he carries in his pocket a map showing the sections of lands and the courses of rivers.  Producing it and counting the sections as laid down—so many east and so many north—he estimated that we were about forty-five miles from Thompson’s, in a straight line, and remarked, “that he wouldn’t wonder if it was a hundred by the river.”  We struck tent, stowed luggage and started.  The river now had an average width of a hundred and twenty feet, with a deep, steady current, in many places no bottom to be found with a ten-foot setting pole.  The temperature of the water, which was 54 the first day had risen to 65, so we looked for good springs along the bank.  Stopping at one to take “suthin’ to drink,” Dan asked Len to look at his map. 

“What creek’s that that puts in on the right?”

“Some call it Spring Creek, some call it Miller’s Creek.” 

“Were you ever there?” 


“Pretty sizeable stream, eh?” 

“Yes, about the size of this river at Grayling.” 

“And freshens up the water considerably?  We’ll get some good fishing there.” 

Dan, as everybody knows, is a rigid Presbyterian, “as touching the law, a Pharasee,” and, “after the straightest sect.”  He fishes frequently with the Reverend Mr. Schultzes, his pastor, on week days.  Was he going to fish on the Sabbath?  Being of a persuasion that allows such indulgence, I told him that I might, but remonstrated with him as to his engaging in the sport.  “What would his straight-laced family and relatives think of it?”  He seemed to be convinced of his wrong intentions and expressed his determination to push on to “make distance,” as he said.  But what did I see when I got to the mouth of Miller’s Creek, some eight or ten miles below?  Dan had gone ahead.  There he was, as John held the boat in two feet of water, hauling in the grayling, hand over fist—three at a time.  I held up my finger reprovingly.  He said there was a destitute little settlement of wood-choppers at the floating bridge a few miles below, and they were entirely out of fish, and ended his excuse by quoting those memorable words: “Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the Sabbath day.”  There was no resisting such argument.  I joined him.  For a half hour it beat all the fishing we had up the river, and we stopped only because our wells would hold no more.  We gave all those that were belly up to the people at the floating bridge. 

“How far to Roque Vaughan’s?” asked Len of the man as he picked up the fish we threw on the bridge. 

“’Bout ten miles,” was his reply. 

Len knew Roque Vaughan; had been at his house on a surveying expedition and stopped with him on a deer hunt.  We lunched, and as we ran down stopped to take an occasional cast, just because it was comparatively difficult now to get a rise or hook a grayling.  Presently we saw a “dug-out” in shore and a man and a boy gathering raspberries.   “Halloo! you old rascal,” said Len, “don’t be dodging there as if you were going to shoot and rob us; come out and show yourself plainly or I’ll put a load of buckshot into you.”  “Who is it, Len,” I asked.  “Why that’s Roque Vaughan, as clever a fellow as ever lived.”  Roque came down to the bank of the river.  “Why, is that you, you darned old transgressor?  I didn’t know you.”  Roque had been in search of fish with his spear.  His string consisted of a grayling, a sucker and a small chub.  After chatting awhile we got his dug-out alongside and gave him as near as we could estimate the weight, about forty pounds of fish from our wells.  He opened his eyes in astonishment, asked us how we were off for pork, said he had plenty and pressed us to stop at his house, a hundred yards below, and get some milk, fresh butter and eggs.  Dan told him he wanted to make distance and declined his hospitality.  “How far to Thompson’s,” asked Len, in parting.  “Twenty-four miles by land.”  “And three times that by water,” added Len.  Presently we found an icy cold brook plunging from a bank eight feet high into the river and pitched our tent on a bed of moss six or eight inches deep.  It was a fairy-like place, that “Cest? Swamp,” where we camped.

August 3rd.  Having still sixty or seventy miles to run we determined not to linger on the way to fish, but killed a good many grayling, as I have before described, by casting in shore with a short line as we ran the bends of the river and then allowing the flies to swing with the current into the wake of the boat.  About 5 P.M. we passed under a bridge with a squad of lumbermen’s lodges on the bank.  “Now,” said Len, “I know where I am.”  Just three miles from the creek we push up to get to Thompson’s.  We found, on enquiry, that there was a drive of logs just ahead and that the creek running down from Thompson’s was full of logs.  We bargained with a man who was hauling hay to wagon our boats and luggage to Thompson’s, whose house was three miles away.  We gave him all of our dead fish, say about twenty pounds, and packed, in a large hamper, about twice as many for our landlord.  We were told by the man at the floating bridge and also by Roque Vaughan that the grayling were quite plenty there, in May, but that they had run up above the north branch, where they were not disturbed by log-driving, in June, and yet Dan and I each of us must have put two dozen or more into our wells as we ran the seventy miles below.  We killed some an hour or so before we lifted our boats out of the water.  There was no telling how far we had run since leaving Grayling.  Johnny Sharp was positive it was at least a hundred and eighty miles.  Len expressed no opinion, but Dan, who is rather given to underrate in such things, thought it was fully a hundred and sixty miles. 

In summing up the fish we had packed, given away and eaten (none spoiled on our hands), Dan’s estimate was of two hundred and thirty pounds, and yet the actual time of fishing did not amount to two days of ten hours each.  If the time spent in running the river had been devoted entirely to angling above the south branch I am confident we could have taken from six to seven hundred pounds.  We killed a great many fish of a pound, some of a pound and a quarter, but none larger.  I do not think they attain a greater size in the Au Sable.  In running the river we saw twelve deer and one bear.  Dan leveled his gun at a splendid doe just to see how he could pink her if he was so disposed, but lowered the muzzle, as she likely had fawns by, and it was out of season. 

We reached Thompson’s with our boats about sunset.  This gentleman is, as the term is applied, a “Scotch Irishman” by birth.  He came when a small boy from Ireland and lived, until he had grown up, in the timber country of the Sinamahoning in Pennsylvania.  He then moved to Michigan, is a large holder of valuable timber lands, and keeps a big roadside tavern, it appears, as much for the fun of it as anything else.  His large, neat house and big Pennsylvania-looking barns bespeak thrift and good judgment.  He is a splendid specimen of a man, still young—say thirty-five—over six feet, and well-proportioned.  He received us kindly, took a bottle of Cognac from its straw wrapper, gave us a good supper, good beds, and a good breakfast, and, loading our boats and luggage on a stout wagon, placed us in one with springs and sent us rejoicing towards Tawas City, on a level road twenty-five miles long “and as straight as a gun barrel.”  We arrived in Tawas City to dinner, and then took the fast steamer Sherman for Bay City.  I am sorry I have forgotten the name of the Captain, but he was the cleverest and most gentlemanly skipper I have traveled with for a quarter of a century.  Thus ended from beginning to end one of the most pleasant excursions it has been my happiness to undertake.