It had been over 40 years since I had been on the waters of the Au Sable.
Back then I was a youngster of about 14, enjoying her first real canoe
trip. We had paddled the river from its headwaters, above Grayling,
down to the last take out point, near the shores of Lake Huron. The
following summer I did the same thing on the Manistee River so in
essence I’ve canoed across the whole state of Michigan. Back then I
only dreamed of fly fishing. I didn’t have a fly rod nor did I
appreciate the river from a fly angler’s perspective. The Au Sable is
a beautiful river, which changes character along the way, as many
rivers do. I have noticed that there are many more cottages and homes
along the her shores then what I remembered as a youngster. That part
is too bad but then that’s life and it’s happening everywhere.
Here is an over view of the Au Sable to give you an idea.
This page also has a full list of Fly Shops and lodging available.
If you like fly shop and river hopping, you’re in the right part of the
country. The town of Grayling is within close proximity to all of the
finest trout rivers in Michigan.
Downtown Grayling, Michigan
Manistee, the Pere Marquett, Boardman and the Betsy are within an hour
or two drive. The Manistee C&R FLY FISHING ONLY water is just a
few minutes away, as are many other rivers and lakes. This is a fly
fisher’s paradise. Also there are a lot of well know anglers and fly
tiers who come from around here. Shop hopping can be a lot of fun!!
One thing you might do before making long drives however, is to
contact the shop to make sure they will be open. Sadly, fly shops
around the country are dropping like spinners so what’s open today
might not be open tomorrow. ((Good reasons to take kids fishing!!))
upper part of the Au Sable River Main Branch was my favorite part back
then. This is the home of the famous “Holy Waters”, so named by Calvin
Gates Sr. for its’ favorable qualities as a fishing stream. In 1970,
Cal and Mary Gates purchased the Borchers “Canoe Inn” on the river just
below Stephan’s Bridge, as I knew it back then. Borchers moved down to
the next crossing. (Have you ever heard of Borcher’s Drake?) The
Inn, became what is now known as “Gates Au Sable Lodge”. “Rusty” Cal
Gates Jr. (Rusty’s Spinner) took over the operation of the Pro Shop
after his father’s death in 1983. Rusty and his wife Julie still run
the whole operation today. I found them both very warm and friendly,
as is their staff, and Rusty freely gives information about the river
and it’s fishing conditions if you should be looking for info. Make
sure to check out some of the local classic flies while you’re in
there. They know what works. I mentioned the Lodge because it was our
base of operations during the Michigan Fish In, with a group of anglers
who got together from FAOL for some fun and the famous Hex hatch, we
hoped. If you should choose to stay here, it’s a good idea to pre book
it in advance especially when the Hex hatch is expected. It’s very
reasonable, clean and comfortable with access to the river, right out
We participated in a number of friendly casting competitions as well.
I’m hoping it will inspire some from Hipwader to give something like
this a try someday. Unfortunately, with the early heat wave this year,
we missed the Hex hatch by days. That’s fly fishing.
is what I would have to classify as THE Au Sable River Keeper of the
current day. He is a fierce conservationist who started the now 600+
strong Anglers of the Au Sable, a volunteer , not for profit,
conservation group, hell bent on conserving the Au Sable River and it’s
fishery. He is a shining example of what can be done when one sets
his mind to it. Please check out their web site to see all of the good
work they are doing and hopefully it will inspire some to become more
involved with them, make a donation or get involved in your local
conservation efforts. Giving back makes you feel good.
Our little group had a delicious cook out on the 4th of July at the river, in front of the Lodge.
What ever was left over from our free will dinner donation went to the Anglers of the Au Sable to help with there legal fund.
Today, the Au Sable is considered one of the top ten fly fishing rivers in North America.
is a true classic of a trout stream. It was my Great Grandfathers
favorite river to fly fish. It is actually one of the largest Spring
Creeks in North America. This is spring creek fishing at its best.
The Holy water section of the main branch is a little more technical
and you can get you butt kicked here.
Holy Hell water for some. Retying, after an argument with a sweeper
to say I don’t have photos of trophy size fish, but that’s not to say
they are not there. When I said you can get your butt kicked here…I
meant it. These big guys have shoulders. I lost a beauty right in
front of Rusty’s place, trying to keep it out of the wood.
effective is night fishing. The big browns come out to play. Try
swinging some big patterns like a mouse. That was fun. I just need
to learn how to hook up better, when I can’t see what the heck I’m
doing. It goes without saying, that I lost a few more. NEXT TIME!!!
If you want to try something a little easier for starters, the North
Branch is the place to go. The brookies are very cooperative there.
The North Branch is easier to to wade but the main branch isn’t that
difficult either. The South Branch and Mason Tract are the prettiest.
The road to access the Mason Tract can be nasty though. It was
corduroy ally when I was there. There are lots of over hangs on this
section and places to loose your flies in. Wading can be tricky in
some spots, too. The current on the main branch is a challenge at
times and they have developed the habit of wading this river going down
stream from one access point to the next. I know it is not what you
were taught but this is what you will see. You will notice that much
of the structure is man made and placed there by the “Anglers of the
Ausable” group and T.U. volunteers. The water is gin clear and
holds a steady flow and depth, even after a rain.
The fish in
these waters are all wild fish. There is no stocking taking place
here. You can catch Brook, Brown and Rainbow trout, all in the same
section. This 9-mile stretch from Burton’s Landing down to Wakeley
Bridge is regulated by year-round fly-fishing only and
catch-and-release. Both North Down River Road and South Down River Road
straddle the river along this stretch. From the north, the best access
point is the Whirlpool Road turnoff. Be careful here however. Wading
is tricky around this very deep hole. From the south, access points
are Burton’s Landing, Louie’s Landing, Keystone Landing, and Thendara
Road. This stretch is crossed at mid-point by Stephan’s Bridge Road
which provides excellent access. Access below the bridge is limited, so
a float trip might be the best way to comb the waters properly.
Habitat in the Holy Waters is freestone in nature and the fishing is
excellent. Gradient is medium with a rocky gravel and sand bottom
creating an ideal habitat for the Hendricksons, Olives, Caddis, and
Tricos which hatch consistently between early May through October.
Fishing pressure is relatively high and thus you will be faced by a
breed of wild trout not easily fooled. These are the waters I
concentrated on, this time. This section is open to fishing ALL
year. Your best investment is the AuSable River guide book available
through the Challenge Chapter of Trout Unlimited in Michigan. IT gives
you maps with all of the access points and concise discriptions for all
sections of the Upper Au Sable.
put out several that map out the most of the well known rivers in
Michigan. You can also find these river guide books at Gates Pro Shop
and at Ray’s Livery and Fly Factory…another Grayling original and
It’s best to avoid the Aluminus
Flotilla hatch which is at its peak from July 1 through to Labor Day.
Fishing is usually done in the early morning until the canoe-bikini
hatch starts, or in the evening, but one needs to be aware of night
canoes during the first three weeks of July, too. They get ready for
the big Au Sable Canoe Marathon.
It is the longest non stop canoe race in North America, with over
$50,000 at stake. It’s very serious business so one should not be
surprised to see racing canoes ripping by them at break neck speed at 2
AM. Keep a light handy and ears tuned if you are on the river after
dark and be ready to move. If you want a WILD & CRAZY time in
Grayling…this is the weekend.
Speaking of hatches, here is a good link to the Michigan Hatches:
There are a lot of other hatch charts available that are more river specific through Google.
you want up to date info on what is going on, on the rivers around
Grayling, Rusty writes a nice report every week. Google Gates AuSable
We like to camp and there is no shortage of camping
sites in the area. I prefer the State and National Forest campgrounds
over the private ones. I like primitive sites and they are cheap.
Many of them are right on the river at the various canoe landings.
Others are at at nearby lakes. It was $12 US a night (going to $15).
You just pick a site, fill out the form and drop it with your money
(TAKE U.S. CASH) into the slot and you’re done. When I said there is
no shortage…I meant it. In the campground we stayed in over the July
1-4th holiday week… we were one of two sites taken in an area with 20
sites. We were just a few short steps from the river, too. It was
like that in most camping areas. I’m not sure if it was always this
way or if it is because of Michigan’s very depressed economy but don’t
bother with reservations unless you want to stay or eat at Gates on a
weekend…the pan fried perch is a MUST. The only line up we had to deal
with was at Spikes Keg of Nails. You have to go there for their famous
Spike Burger and the beer is CHEAP. That day 22oz Bud was $2. Bill
and I walked out of there, stuffed, after a dinner for two with a few
beers for around $22. The fish fry there is tops, too. If you don’t
like camping, there are a number of places to stay around there and all
are very reasonably priced. Some are better than others, like
anywhere so do your research before you go. A number of places have
direct access to the river.
I should also mention that
Grayling is in the center of two very large and very busy military
bases. It gets quite noisy at times but you somehow feel safe and it’s
cool to see the fighter jets and helicopters. You also hear all of
the gunnery / tank ranges at night. You can see the sky light up at
times too. COOL STUFF!!
The rest of this story I’ll try to tell you with photos.
day time river traffic. The first of the Aluminus Floatilla hatch
of the day. Time to pull up stakes, dig out the float tube and hike
into a special regs lake nearby.
Working the weeds on a particular 160 acre lake.
Send me a PM for more info on this lake and if you are a regular
contributor to the site forum, I will tell you. This is a jewel.
This is float tube heaven. You have to walk in about one kilometer,
but it’s easy and flat all the way. You can camp here as well but
again you walk in. A wagon, cart or canoe wheels makes this really
easy. Why go here? One, it’s a great get away from the hatch
above…but this is really why:
I wish I could show you the Pike but taking the photo was a bit
problematic from a float tube and no net. YIKES. There are also
perch and crappie in here…all willing to hit flies. Sport fishing is
restricted to artificial lures and flies only, and from June 15 to
August 31 only. This lake is also catch and release only. No motor
boats allowed. In addition, if you are a nature lover, look for
loons, eagles, and ospreys, river otters and mink here, although they
seem to ignore the catch-and-release rules. So do the fish!! The one
truly exiting thing about this lake is that you will have company while
you’re out in your float tube or canoe. The big boys come and sit
under you and wait patiently for you to catch something. If you don’t
get it in fast enough something bigger will try to eat what you have on
the end of your line. This place was fun. Too bad it will be closed
when I head up next time, but there are a lot of lakes up there you can
play on that are open in the fall and just as much fun.
had a great time. So did my husband, and he doesn’t even fish. He
suggested we go back there again in September. I think he wants to go
for the Spike Burgers and Perch. I’m not about to argue with that.
There is so much water up there to explore that it makes it hard to
want to go anywhere else. Bill just gave notice at work last Monday.
He has three weeks left to work then he’s retired. It looks like life
has just begun…if we can afford the gas and if only I could get a fly
rod into his hands. LOL!
rivers in Michigan are nice to paddle. There are a lot of places to
camp along the way if you want to make it into a trip. You can always
find someone to move your car to your final landing spot, through a
livery or fly shop whether your floating or wading. It’s not so easy
to fish if you are paddling solo though. I would suggest looking into
a big block type or mushoom shaped anchor if you want to take advantage
of floating and fishing on your own.