Often overlooked for their historic importance, the AuSable River and nearby streams have played a key role in the development of fly fishing and tying.
[by Jerry Darkes]
THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN FLY FISHING HAS BEEN WELL DOCUMENTED. The Catskill, Adirondack, and Pocono regions played prominent roles in the early development of our sport. There is another area that has also been a focal point for fly fishing and tying since the late 1800s, and it is going strong today.
Grayling, Michigan, has had a profound impact fly fishing. Numerous contributions in fly design, trout conservation, and more have come from this region. Today, although often overshadowed by western trout fisheries, Grayling continues to influence fly fishing everywhere.
What’s in a Name?
The town of Grayling was named for the now-extinct Michigan grayling, a species of fish that once thrived in several local rivers including the AuSable and Manistee. A huge underwater aquifer supplied a steady stream of pure cold water, and the white pine forest covering the area provided abundant shade to keep the rivers cool.
When the railroads reached Northern Michigan in the 1870s, prominent eastern American fly fishers, including Thaddeus Norris and Theodore Gordon, traveled to the Wolverine State to fish for these grayling. There are descriptions of anglers enjoying immense catches of fish. An angler might use three or four wet flies at a time—fishing with more than one fly is nothing new—and it was common to hook a fish on each fly. Grayling were so abundant, in fact, that they even supported a fly-caught commercial fishery.
Unfortunately, this era was short lived. As the pine forests were logged, several things happened. With the loss of the tree canopy, river waters warmed beyond the tolerance of the fish. Logs driven downriver during the high water in spring wiped out most of the suitable spawning habitat. In combination with overfishing, the grayling could not survive. Around 1910, these fish became extinct.
Oddly enough, brook trout were not native to the rivers around Grayling. These fish were introduced into the Manistee River system in the mid-1870s and the AuSable in the mid-1880s. They were an acceptable replacement for the diminishing grayling and were caught using the same type of equipment and multi-fly rigs. Eventually, the brook trout suffered from the same problems that eliminated the grayling—loss of habitat, logging, and overfishing. Fishing for brook trout in Michigan was closed from 1925 to 1933.
Try, Try Again
Rainbow trout were first introduced in Michigan in 1873 at the mouth of the AuSable River near Oscoda, and more stockings of these fish took place around the state. Many of these trout were of an anadromous strain and they ventured into Lake Michigan and Lake Huron; these fish were eventually labeled as steelhead. Today, rainbow trout are not found in significant numbers in the waters around Grayling.
Brown trout were first introduced in the United States in Michigan’s Baldwin River, a tributary to Pere Marquette River, in 1884. They were then planted in the AuSable in 1889. Being more difficult to catch, and more tolerant of warmer water and sediment, brown trout slowly became the dominant fish in these systems. Also, since brown trout spawn in the fall, they were less affected by springtime log drives.
As equipment and fly patterns became more sophisticated, anglers slowly transitioned their fishing from brook trout to brown trout. Catskill-style patterns came into the area and local guides began incorporating them into their fishing. Anglers gradually learned to catch the wary brown trout, and by the 1920s, it was the primary trout species in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.
A Time of Fly Pattern Development and Tying Innovation
Catskill-style dry flies worked well on the waters around Grayling. Some early AuSable patterns, such as John Stefan’s Cabin Coachman and Ernie Borcher’s Drake series, reflect this style of tying, and these flies still catch fish today. Nearby on the Boardman River, Len Halladay conceived the Adams dry fly, perhaps the most wellknown dry fly in existence. Even in its current form, the standard Adams echoes the Catskill style of tying.
There were a few problems for continuation of the Catskill designs. First, the materials for these flies were hard to get. It was difficult to find quality ingredients in Northern Michigan in the 1920s. When the Depression hit, there was little money to buy anything, and tiers made do with what they had on hand, such as strands of wool and silk and hackle from barnyard chickens. Furs and hair came from animals harvested in the area by hunting and trapping.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, tiers created several techniques and patterns we still use today. Around 1930, William Avery Brush developed a style of wrapping hackle around a wing post; today we call this the “parachute” method of tying. Brush even patented a series of hooks made with posts built in for wrapping hackle.
Clarence Roberts may have been one of the first to tie deer hair parallel to the hook shank for making a body, and white belly hair for a wing post. The deer-hair body provides both a good silhouette and flotation. The white deer hair provides both a post for wrapping hackle and increased visibility on the water. With a change of hook sizes, his Yellow Drake imitates a number of light-colored Michigan mayflies.
Ann Schweigert’s Stickfly uses deer hair for the tail, back, and head of the pattern to provide flotation. This simple fly likely imitates various emerging insects. Tie it in different sizes and with various colors of dubbing to imitate a wide range of bugs.
Earl Madsen was a true innovator and developed a number of wet and dry flies. He popularized the well-known Michigan Skunk. This was likely the first fly to incorporate rubber legs. Madsen collected strings of white rubber from various sources, such as truck seats, to tie his Skunk.
Madsen is also well known for his Buzz Saw streamer. This is one of the first streamers designed with a rear stinger hook. Madsen receives dual credit, with Clarence Roberts, for being one of the first tiers to place deer hair parallel to the hook shank and use white deer belly hair as a parachute hackle post.
Many other guides, anglers, and tiers contributed to the fly tying and fishing of this region. Art Winnie, with his Joe’s Hopper, brought us one of the earliest terrestrial-specific flies. Griffith’s Gnat, another pattern found in every trout angler’s fly box, was named after the founding father of Trout Unlimited, the great conservation organization born on the banks of the AuSable River.
Today There are still a few people alive who provide a direct connection to the golden age of fly tying in the Grayling area. Jerry Regan is a retired barber from Swartz Creek, Michigan, and at 75 years old, he is still fishing and tying. He grew up in the region and has owned a house on the AuSable River for many decades.
Regan met a number of the tiers and guides I have mentioned. He is a font of information about the river and its history. Regan worked as a guide on the AuSable and tied flies commercially to supplement his barbering income. He still ties for Grayling-area shops, and you’ll see him at local shows and events, keeping the fly tying traditions of the region alive.
You will find Regan wearing an apron and with a green mat across his lap covered with trimmings of deer hair and hackle. He sits at his table surrounded by several shadow boxes showing the various patterns that have come out of the area. Each fly is labeled with the pattern’s name and the creator or tier.
Regan may be best known for his series of spinner imitations. These flies went through several stages of development, and were finalized in the late 1980s after thorough testing by guides and anglers. They have been available in Grayling fly shops for nearly 40 years.
He developed a unique way to tie on the hackle and wings, creating a parachute-style fly that led to his spinners. A body is deer hair tied parallel to the hook shank with the color of the thread influencing the final color of the body. Excess body hair is posted up at a 90-degree angle to form the wing post. This gives the wing visibility on the surface, even in the fading light of an evening spinner fall. The crossing thread wraps securing the body make the fly very durable. It is a great imitation of a spinner, and when tied properly, it lasts for multiple fish.
Regan dyes most of his materials. He primarily uses Danville threads, and ties without a bobbin. Years of experience have taught him exactly how much tension to use to form the deer-hair bodies on his flies. He is also very particular about the deer hair he uses for the bodies; once again, years of experience help him pick the proper hair for a given pattern and size.
Regan admits his patterns are not always the first choice when anglers buy flies; they often select newer flies tied with modern synthetics, but his patterns are usually the “last resort” that catches stubborn fish when they have refused all other offerings. Regan’s flies have stood the test of time and continue catching trout around Grayling and beyond. He still ties commercially and is keeping the Grayling tying tradition alive, one fly at a time.
So much fly fishing and tying history comes from this part of the country that we can’t cover it all. Many anglers and tiers either came from or spent time in this part of Michigan. Ernie Schweibert, Rusty Gates, Bob Linsenman, Carl Richards, and Doug Swisher helped lay the foundations of modern fly fishing. Kelly Galloup, Russ Maddin, Jac Ford, and Alex Lafkas, plus others, have Michigan roots and are keeping the tradition of fly fishing innovation moving forward. Lyle Dickerson, Morris Kushner, and Paul Young made some of the finest bamboo fly rods, and Bob Summers continues splitting cane and making rods. Finally, we have to remember that Trout Unlimited was formed on the banks of the AuSable River more than half a century ago.
Tie some flies from this area and try them on your local waters; I know they will catch fish. Or visit Michigan and enjoy some memorable angling.
Jerry Darkes is well known for his knowledge of fishing in the Great Lakes region. His book Fly Fishing the Inland Oceans: An Angler’s Guide to Finding and Catching Fish in the Great Lakes is one of the best on this subject. Jerry lives in Ohio.