Tag Archives: fishing

Paddling Otsego’s chain lakes

Out See Go
By Chris Engle, contributor to GaylordMichigan.net

There’s a body of water in southern Otsego County where a long-running commercial comes to mind when exploring its far corners.

You know the one, with a battery-powered bunny cruising around beating a drum? The pink rabbit with black sunglasses and blue flip flops? Of course you do, and chances are the slogan is pounding its way through your head right now.

On maps, the waterway marked as “Chub Lakes” and drawn as a tightly packed clump of separate water bodies is actually a network of seven interconnected lakes, narrows, creeks and culverts. With a canoe or kayak and a bit of time, a determined explorer can paddle forever here, muttering “it keeps going, and going, and going,” the whole way.

A few years had passed since I last ventured through the chain of lakes, so when Paige told me earlier this month she wanted to go for a canoe ride, I figured it was the perfect time to revisit the waterway.

Paige cruises in the front of the canoe. Photo by Chris Engle

We put in at the ramp on Chub Lake, a narrow public easement where Chub Lake Road comes off Old State and runs right into the water.

Just a few yards off shore, one of the lake’s defining qualities is revealed: steep drop-offs give way to tremendous depths. In an instant, the lake goes from a few feet deep to more than 60. It’s this deep, cold water that makes the lake a good candidate for stocked trout, and the Department of Natural Resources plants rainbows regularly.

There’s not much to see in the deep middle of the lake, but cruise quietly in a canoe or kayak along its shorelines and you’ll see deer, blue herons and ducks. When it’s calm, the clear shallows are prime for casting plugs to huge largemouth bass cruising the lily pads. Having a fishing rod is always a good motivator for exploration.

Just a few minutes into our float, I saw Paige settle into her spot in the front of the canoe. She held the bent shaft of a warped wooden canoe paddle in her little hands but didn’t use it.

“Ahh,” she sighed. “This is so peaceful.”

This is what had me coming back to Chub Lake often after discovering it 12 years ago. I never caught much for fish here, and it’s not very “wild” since about half its shoreline is developed with houses and cabins, but the surrounding hills and cedar-lined shore make it seem like a place plucked from the Pacific Northwest.

Photo by Chris Engle

This quality carries over to Bridge Lake, the easiest neighboring body to reach via a shallow, narrow canal at Chub Lake’s far end. It’s in this channel where you can see how the lake got it’s name: huge schools of creek chubs swarm in the gentle current of this bait-fish nursery. It’s common to see a heron or two hunting the channel, catching fish with its spear-like beak.

The channel opens up to Bridge Lake where Paige and I silently drifted past a solitary loon just as it rose up and stretched its wings. These curious birds generally don’t mind onlookers, so long as you don’t get too close with a motorboat.

A common loon rears up to stretch its wings on the surface of Bridge Lake in southern Otsego County. Photo by Chris Engle

After passing the loon, we cut across the deep middle of Bridge Lake to a hidden culvert on its western shore. What looks like little more than a drain pipe is actually the only way to continue exploring the lake chain by water.

Her head ducked low and fingers tucked safely inside the canoe, Paige was first to go into the corrugated steel pipe as I pushed our way through against the current. She giggled and brushed away spider webs – and spiders – as we made our through the 20-foot length of tube running beneath a dirt road.

Ducking through the tube. Photo by Chris Engle

We emerged into sunlight and another small lake, where we paddled around for a bit before turning back and shooting through the pipe again for Paige’s amusement.

Had we kept going, we would have ended up in Belmore Lake, the fourth and final public water body in the chain.

Three other lakes connect to the system but are fenced off by order of the state supreme court, which favored private landowners over public access in a ruling handed down decades ago. It’s my hope that, someday, these three lakes will be reopened, putting the entirety of Otsego County’s largest lake chain back in public trust. Only then will you be able to keep going, and going, and going.

A damselfly perches on a cattail stalk. Photo by Chris Engle

We coasted back to the boat ramp two hours after we’d left, and Paige piped up with her sentiment.

“That was a nice canoe ride,” she said.

Yes, yes it was.

Chris Engle is an outdoorsman, freelance writer and stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

‘Tie One On’ to beat winter blues

Out See Go
By Chris Engle, contributor

***Please note: Due to poor road conditions, the ‘Tie One On’ event scheduled for the evening of March 2, has been canceled. The next event is still on for March 16.

Any indication that spring is near has literally gone out the window – I’m looking out one right now and the few patches of bare ground out there have disappeared under a blanket of heavy snow. The lion of March’s slogan, “in like a lion, out like a lamb,” is tearing through Northern Michigan today.

Thankfully, a cure for the winter blues is coming up again on Thursday, March 2. It’s the next round of “Tie One On,” a free fly tying workshop hosted by the local Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited. It takes place at 6 p.m. at BJ’s Restaurant & Catering on North Center Ave., just past Otsego Memorial Hospital.

Sofia Messinis, of Gaylord, wraps thread around a fly. "I have a kit at home but I haven't tied in a while," she said. Photo by Chris Engle

Sofia Messinis, of Gaylord, wraps thread around a fly. “I have a kit at home but I haven’t tied in a while,” she said. Photo by Chris Engle

The workshop is usually attended by a mix of young and old anglers learning new fly patterns or practicing old ones. The skill level is mixed too – tying equipment is provided to those who don’t have it, and fellow tyers are eager and willing to help those who need a hand. Nonmembers are welcome, and food and drink is available for purchase in an open and inviting atmosphere.

Alex Cerveniak sits at his tying station with a completed fly. He aims a camera at his vise as he works and projects the feed on a screen so others can follow his steps. Photo by Chris Engle

Alex Cerveniak sits at his tying station with a completed fly. He aims a camera at his vise as he works and projects the feed on a screen so others can follow his steps. Photo by Chris Engle

At the workshop two weeks ago, Gaylord’s Alex Cerveniak, president of the TU chapter and owner of Northern Michigan Fly Fishing, used a camera and projector to demonstrate how to tie a rubber-legged stonefly. A live video feed of his fingers and tools at work was projected on the big screen for all others to follow. The pattern was fairly simple, taking only a few minutes to complete, and covered several of the basic techniques needed on any given fly.

Prior to Cerveniak’s demonstration, Gates AuSable Lodge owner and fly-fishing celebrity Josh Greenberg gave a presentation about fishing the AuSable and Manistee rivers in wintertime. Each workshop hosts a speaker and unique fly tying demostration – on Thursday it’s Russ Maddon, fly innovator and guide with Hawkins Outfitters, followed by demonstrations on tying a glo bug and San Juan worm. See the entire series schedule here.

All the flies you tie there are free to take home and, if spring ever comes, you can even try to catch something on them!

Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited is hosting their annual banquet at Ellison Place in Gaylord April 22. Tickets and more information are available here.

Chris Engle is an outdoorsman, freelance writer and stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

A fine day for an ice fishing derby

Out See Go by Chris Engle, contributor

Historically held on one of the worst weather weekends of the year, Saturday’s Youth Ice Fishing Derby instead came with sunshine and a sweet southerly breeze that carried with it 70 young anglers and their families ready to fish Otsego Lake.

Feb. 18, 2017 cast aside any notion of what fishing on a frozen lake is like — numb fingers, cold feet and blistering winds — and swapped them with smiling faces on frolicking children who built snowmen and ate snacks as they “fished.”

The sun shines over the ice out from Otsego Lake State Park Feb. 18 during the annual youth ice fishing derby. Photo by Chris Engle

The sun shines over the ice out from Otsego Lake State Park Feb. 18 during the annual youth ice fishing derby. Photo by Chris Engle

Maybe it was the distraction of snowball fights and cheese puffs but only eight fish, all perch, were caught during that morning’s contest.

It’s not the catch so much as the turnout that makes organizers of the annual tradition happy.

“That’s more kids than we’ve had in a long time,” said Walt Owen.

Bridgette Zeilinger, 9, of Gaylord, and her perch. Photo by Chris Engle

Bridgette Zeilinger, 9, of Gaylord, and her perch. Photo by Chris Engle

Abraham Zeilinger, 2 1/2, of Gaylord, proudly holds his catch. Photo by Chris Engle

Abraham Zeilinger, 2 1/2, of Gaylord, proudly holds his catch. Photo by Chris Engle

That figure is way up from last year, when only four kids turned up to fish in wind chills topping -20. Temperatures this year were almost 70 degrees warmer.

The contest, hosted by the Northland Sportsmen’s Club of Gaylord, is held every February at Otsego Lake State Park. It coincides with Michigan’s Free Fishing Weekend, when all fishing license fees are waived, and the park waives passport fees for the day to allow anyone to take part.

Afterward, a hot dog lunch was held at the clubhouse and awards were given to the day’s top anglers. Winners were as follows:

In the 0-5 age group
Abraham Zeilinger, first fish and the only one to catch more than one — he caught two
Christian Goldsmith, 8 1/2-inch perch
Charlie Zeilinger, 8 1/4-inch perch
Maverick Coburn, 7 1/2-inch perch

In the 6-10 age group
Bridgette Zeilinger, first fish, an 8-inch perch
Ethan Cottrell, 8 1/2-inch perch
Caleb Ferguson, 6 1/2-inch perch

Aiden Sullivan, 4, of Pinckney, waits for a bite while his dad, Joe, chills on the ice.

Aiden Sullivan, 4, of Pinckney, waits for a bite while his dad, Joe, chills on the ice.

Maverick Coburn, 4, of Gaylord, holds up his catch. Photo by Chris Engle

Maverick Coburn, 4, of Gaylord, holds up his catch. Photo by Chris Engle

The Checks family -- Mason, Desi, Connor and Frank (l-r). Photo by Chris Engle

The Checks family — Mason, Desi, Connor and Frank (l-r). Photo by Chris Engle

Sponsors included Jay’s Sporting Goods, Eagle 101.5, Northern Sports Sales & Service, Jack Anderson, Michigan DNR, Gaylord Herald Times, Weekly Choice, and club members who donated their time and equipment.

I’d like to share a personal thank you to everyone who helps in this effort every year, from the cooks who make breakfast for the volunteers and lunch for the awards, to those doling out bait and hot cocoa to little hands. They are heroes in my eyes, helping perpetuate one of Michigan’s greatest outdoor traditions.

For more about the Northland Sportsmen’s Club, visit northlandsportsmensclub.org.

Chris Engle is an outdoorsman, freelance writer and stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

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What to know before fishing our frozen lakes

Out, See, Go, by Chris Engle, contributor

I had been planning to spend this month’s blog sharing some fishing and ice-safety advice before last weekend’s tragic news of the death of two local fishermen. Regrettably, in light of these terrible events, I feel I should open with a refresher in ice safety.

Over the weekend, thin ice claimed the lives of two anglers on nearby lakes. The first was 61-year-old Wayne Ballenger who fell through on Big Bear Lake east of Gaylord. His fate was discovered by two friends who’d gone to the lake to see if the ice was safe, only to find the lone man’s fishing bucket on the lake and his snow-covered vehicle parked on shore. They called 9-1-1 and rescuers had to wear protective rubber suits to retrieve the man’s body from the frigid water.

The second happened that same day when 69-year-old Terry Weber fell through a rural lake in Montmorency County not far from Big Bear Lake. Weber, who owned Advance Tackle and Michigan Stinger lures – popular trolling spoons I’ve used to fish for salmon – was also an experienced, veteran fisherman who made a fatal mistake by trusting first ice too soon.

Tracks lead 10 feet out onto Little Bradford Lake in Waters Dec. 20, evidence that someone had come either to fish or check the ice and didn't like what they saw. Photo by Chris Engle

Tracks lead 10 feet out onto Little Bradford Lake in Waters Dec. 20, evidence that someone had come either to fish or check the ice and didn’t like what they saw. Photo by Chris Engle

I have made the same mistake. Fifteen years ago, during a first-ice trip with my dad, I broke through 100 feet from shore and fell until my outstretched arms caught the edge of the hole. Luckily I was able to scramble out with the help of my dad. As we carefully but quickly made our way back to shore, dad’s foot went through into shallow water and, as he fell forward, his fist punched through too.

It was a hard lesson we both needed and neither of us have forgotten it. Even so, I’m still tempted every December to fish when the ice is still young and questionable. Fishermen dying is a tragic reminder that comes too often and we got the one-two punch this year.

Here are some recommendations for preparing to fish first ice, last ice, or any time in winter, as well as how to survive a fall into the lake.

Don’t go alone. This is especially important early and late in the season when ice conditions are most untrustworthy. If you’re like me and insist on going solo, tell someone where you’ll be fishing and when you’ll be back. Check in every so often with a text message or phone call. Seriously, your loved ones will thank you.

Check local conditions. Call your bait shops. Check public-access points for foot and sled traffic. See if anyone else has been out. Being first isn’t always best.

Prepare for the worst. Wear a life vest. Drape a short length of rope over your shoulders with an old screwdriver tied to each end. These can be used as ice picks should you fall in.

Crafted after I fell through the ice 15 years ago, this set of ice picks are worn over my shoulders early and late in the season. Photo by Chris Engle

Crafted after I fell through the ice 15 years ago, this set of ice picks are worn over my shoulders early and late in the season. Photo by Chris Engle

Keep your head. If you go through, turn back toward shore and try to climb onto the ice. This ice supported you on the way out, so it’s your best chance at getting back. Try not to panic. Get your legs horizontal with the ice and attempt to kick your way out.

Roll to safety. Once you’re out of the lake, don’t stand up. Distribute your weight by rolling, if possible, to shore. If there’s too much snow to roll, crawl on all fours until you are safe. Forget about your gear.

Get to shelter. Now that’ you’re freezing cold, soaking wet and in shock, you are far from out of danger. Hypothermia can still get you, so go to the nearest home, pound on the door, and ask to come inside. Drink warm fluids and wear a blanket. (I ask that lakeshore residents welcome anglers in distress into their homes.)
If a house isn’t an option, get to your vehicle and turn on the heat.
In either case, it is critical you remove all wet clothing. Being bare and dry is far better for survival than wearing cold, wet clothes. No one will care that you’re naked in this life-or-death situation. Call 9-1-1 if your cell phone is working.

I truly hope no one else will have to rely on this advice this year. Two deaths in one weekend is too many for one season.

I’ll be checking back in in January with some fishing advice. If all goes well, we should have relatively safe ice by then.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all.

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman, outdoor columnist and stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

Paddle the Jordan or 5 other rivers

Out See Go by Chris Engle, contributor

Have you seen the new fountain on the lawn of the Otsego County Courthouse? It’s been a busy spot this summer as a gathering place for Alpenfest revelers and as a place where teenagers chase virtual Pokemon characters with their cell phones. A prophecy made during a push to make Gaylord more friendly to pedestrians proclaimed that a water feature in an otherwise dry downtown area will draw people in – and the prophecy has been fulfilled.

But there’s something you may have overlooked about the fountain which consists of a granite boulder set over a circular pool. Five streams of water occasionally leap from the pool and splash onto the rock, sending rivulets trickling down the giant stone in all directions.

That’s the key: Five streams.

The design phase of the courthouse lawn project took input from the people of Gaylord and a recurring suggestion was for a fountain which would, in some shape or form, represent the waterways that originate in Otsego County. Five streams – the AuSable, Black, Manistee, Pigeon and Sturgeon rivers – all start here. It’s something we’re proud of and the new fountain is a way for us to spread the word to visitors to our town. So far the message has been well received.

There’s one stream that’s not represented by the fountain because it is just slightly outside the borders of our county. Even so, I still consider the Jordan River as one of ours – maybe even moreso than the AuSable which is rightfully claimed by the trout-centric town of Grayling to the south.

I’ve written about the Jordan River before so I won’t go into detail about how it is born from ice-cold springs near Elmira, winds through 18,000 acres of wild forests, feeds a federal hatchery’s 3 million lake trout with fresh water and empties into one of Michigan’s largest inland lakes – Lake Charlevoix, with 62 miles of coastline – at East Jordan.

Wide enough to float in a canoe or kayak, the Jordan River still has plenty of obstacles to maneuver around. Photo by Chelsea Engle

Wide enough to float in a canoe or kayak, the Jordan River still has plenty of obstacles to maneuver around. Photo by Chelsea Engle

Instead, I’ll take you on a short float of its midsection by canoe, which my wife and I did last weekend to beat the heat and you should too as long as this hot weather persists.

We dropped the canoe at Webster Bridge, about six miles south of East Jordan as the crow flies, then spotted my car about four miles downstream at Rogers Road. Unless you want to hitchhike back upstream to your starting point – thumbing for a ride in the midday sun on the shoulder of M-66 is not my idea of fun – then you’ll need to take two cars and park (spot) one at your planned end point.

Webster Bridge, a popular put-in spot on the Jordan River. Photo by Chris Engle

Webster Bridge, a popular put-in spot on the Jordan River. Photo by Chris Engle

There were about a dozen people either putting in or taking out at Webster Bridge when we got there and loaded our canoe with fishing rods, snacks and sunscreen. The blazing noontime sun had no apparent effect on the spring-fueled river which stays somewhere around 50 degrees throughout the summer and stings with your first step in.

“Don’t worry, your feet get numb after a few minutes,” a man joked from his canoe pulled up at the bank.

With a light shove from the bank we were immediately carried away in our canoe. Just 20 feet wide and two feet deep, the Jordan is deceivingly swift. We drifted at a fast walking pace without paddling and often had to steer around deadfalls or under overhanging cedar trees. Snagging on one of these obstacles could easily cause the canoe to roll over and that’s why our camera, phone and keys were locked in a water-tight dry box in the middle of the boat.

In an instant I saw Chels relax in her seat and start to take in the sights and sounds of her first ever river canoe trip. This was only my third time floating a small river – and the second time on the Jordan – and I was falling right into relaxation mode with her.

The Jordan River flows under a canopy of overhanging cedars but plenty of sunshine still makes it through in the middle of the day. Photo by Chelsea Engle

The Jordan River flows under a canopy of overhanging cedars but plenty of sunshine still makes it through in the middle of the day. Photo by Chelsea Engle

It’s hard not to get caught up in the scenery of wildflowers, dancing damsel flies and singing blue jays. Every so often a submerged log slams the keel and jars your attention back on where the current is taking you. There’s a lot to take in because, thanks to the current carrying you swiftly along, the scenery is ever changing.

The only fish photo we managed to get the whole trip -- the small but spunky trout like to jump and throw the hook. Photo by Chelsea Engle

The only fish photo we managed to get the whole trip — the small but spunky trout like to jump and throw the hook. Photo by Chelsea Engle

Fishing from the canoe is difficult as I could only get one or two casts in under the low-hanging branches before I had to change our course with my paddle. If you’re in to trout fishing – and there are plenty of spunky brookies and browns ready to test your ability – then I recommend pulling up to a sandbar and working the river’s deep pools and undercut banks that way.

In two hours we’d covered about 4 or 5 miles of river and had stopped a couple times to cast, swim and snack. We moved slower than everyone else – about 15 kayaks passed us on the way – but our butts were just starting to get sore in our seats when we pulled up to our end point.

A giant willow marks the take-out point at Rogers Road. Photo by Chelsea Engle

A giant willow marks the take-out point at Rogers Road. Photo by Chelsea Engle

The Jordan – and all the other area rivers for that matter – have outfitter services that will gladly set you up with a canoe, kayak, tube or raft for the day and give you a ride to/from the river, making spotting a car or hitchhiking unnecessary. This weekend is going to be another hot one, so pick a river and stay cool.

Information on rivers, outfitters and rentals: http://goo.gl/AYmGhR

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and outdoor columnist. He is a stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. Contact him at englemobile@gmail.com.

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Out See Go: Celebrate spring by land, air and sea

Every spring, Otsego Lake County Park hosts a free camping weekend where people are invited to stay for free in exchange for some light physical labor. Campers enjoy one or two nights on the lake at no charge and, in return, clean up whatever site they’re on. The weekend usually falls sometime in late April or early May.

It’s a great system: The parks & rec department saves on labor and campers feel more vested in the park when they’re asked to treat it like their own back yard. That’s a feeling user fees can’t buy.

Between now and spring cleanup weekend the park will be practically dormant, visited only by the occasional person walking their dog. Visiting the park now when it is most quiet has become a sort of springtime tradition for me and my family.

The beach at Otsego Lake County Park is a tranquil place to take in the sight of ice leaving the lake.

The beach at Otsego Lake County Park is a tranquil place to take in the sight of ice leaving the lake.

Every year we get a jump on cleanup by building a small fire of pine cones, needles and branches in one of the lakeside fire pits. We’ll cook hot dogs and take in the sights and smells of early spring as they mix with campfire smoke. Even the melting lake ice gives off its own smell that adds to the anticipation of warmer days and open water to come.

During a visit there earlier this week, Paige and I heard the distant rumble of an A-10 warplane firing its massive gun over Camp Grayling’s Air Gunnery Range about 10 miles away. We packed up, snuffed our campfire and headed south to Waters to take in a very different springtime spectacle.

The bombing range is east of Waters on Marlette Road a couple miles past where the pavement ends. It is active most of the year but training exercises by Michigan’s Air National Guard only happen a few hours a day and just a few days a week. The best way to catch it is to keep your eyes peeled for the telltale jets circling south of Gaylord and listen for the distinct low tones of ammunition hitting the ground.

Here’s a little background before you go see for yourself. The A-10 is a single-seat warplane built around one of the largest guns in the world, the GAU-8. It is a 30mm, 7-barreled Gatling gun capable of firing more than 3,000 rounds per minute, though pilots only fire in short bursts that are still plenty powerful to take out a tank.

My daughter, perched atop my car with a Ring Pop on her finger, watches an A-10 as it prepares for a strafing run.

My daughter, perched atop my car with a Ring Pop on her finger, watches an A-10 as it prepares for a strafing run.

It is at the Air Gunnery Range where pilots learn to use this weapon in a unique training environment designed to simulate a warzone. There are mock buildings, streets, radar installations and missile sites spread out across the range. There are also numerous decommissioned armored personnel carriers, tanks and trucks that are living a hard “retired” life as target practice.

Small, remotely launched rockets add to the realism for pilots by simulating an attack from the ground.

You can see a lot of this from the shoulder of Marlette Road but the public is welcome for a closer look by appointment Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call the tower at 989-939-8880 to set up an appointment.

If you’re more of a lover than a fighter, go back to Otsego Lake to see its springtime pike marsh in action.

Volunteers with the Northland Sportsmen’s Club team up with the DNR’s Fisheries Division to operate a spawning marsh for Otsego Lake’s pike population. A metal trap catches pike then volunteers, using long handled nets, scoop the fish from the trap and move them over to the marsh. It is here where the fish can spawn without the risk of having their eggs or young eaten by other fish.

Al Raycraft cradles a 39-inch female northern pike, one of more than 300 fish that were transferred from Otsego Lake to an adjacent spawning marsh in the spring of 2014. Photo courtesy Gaylord Herald Times/WILD Northern Michigan

Al Raycraft cradles a 39-inch female northern pike, one of more than 300 fish that were transferred from Otsego Lake to an adjacent spawning marsh in the spring of 2014. Photo courtesy Gaylord Herald Times/WILD Northern Michigan

This year, since lake levels are abnormally high, volunteers are forgoing the trap and nets and allowing pike to leap over low boards into the marsh on their own. You can see this for yourself by going to the end of Evergreen Road, off North Otsego Lake Drive, and walking the short two-track to the marsh. Keep in mind the marsh is off limits to fishing and pike are out of season.

Six to eight weeks from now, the boards damming the marsh will be removed and it will empty into the lake, taking adult pike and millions of two-inch fry with it. Thanks to the marsh, Otsego Lake boasts a healthy pike fishery.

So long snow, hello spring. It’s good to see you again.

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He is the outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Herald Times and Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau. He can be reached at englemoble@gmail.com.

Out See Go: Explore the Saunders property

By Chris Engle, contributor

Long the envy of any hunter or trout fisherman, the once-private Saunders property east of Gaylord is now in public hands and ready for you to explore its woods and waters.

The 517 acres of wild forests, meadows and marsh land were publicized in 2013 when, for a sum of $1.37 million, the state bought the property as the newest addition to the Pigeon River Country State Forest. That money came from the Natural Resources Trust Fund, a special account funded by the sale and royalties of mineral rights on public lands and used exclusively to buy land or improve public parks.

Dubbed the "Saunders Property" for its former owner, this 517-acre tract is the newest addition to the Pigeon River Country State Forest and is only a short drive from Gaylord. Photo by Chris Engle

Dubbed the “Saunders Property” for its former owner, this 517-acre tract is the newest addition to the Pigeon River Country State Forest and is only a short drive from Gaylord. Photo by Chris Engle

The first order of business for the state was to demolish a decades-old dam where the Black River flows through the heart of the property and reconnect the small stream to its spring-fed headwaters. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, along with several local conservation groups, aided in that restoration effort and the stream now flows unhindered, much to the approval of its prized brook trout.

One of the beauties of this property is that it is located on the Pigeon Forest’s southwest corner, putting it very close to Gaylord. From downtown it’s a 20-minute drive on plowed roads; from Treetops Resort it’s barely 10.

To get there, head east from Gaylord on Wilkinson Road then turn right in Sparr. From there, head 4 or 5 miles then turn left (north) onto Sawyer Road, then turn east onto Saunders Road. Access to the property is at an elbow near the end of Saunders Road. Park at the gate.

Don’t be fooled by tire or snowmobile tracks going past the gate and onto the property – motor vehicles are not allowed, with the exception of workers who maintain the still-functioning gas wells there.

Follow the two-track across the open field and into the woods. At the wood line you’re about 2/3 of a mile from the river. In total, round trip from the gate to the river is 1 to 1 ½ hours by snowshoe, depending on snow depth and your own pace. Don’t rush, bring along a bottle of water and give yourself enough daylight to make the trip.

A stand of evergreens laden with fresh snow, just one of the many postcard scenes of the Saunders property. Photo by Chris Engle

A stand of evergreens laden with fresh snow, just one of the many postcard scenes of the Saunders property. Photo by Chris Engle

The woods are a mix of aspen, pine and cedar, making for some really beautiful contrasts in color after fresh snow has fallen. This mix of cover also means you’re likely to encounter grouse, deer and other wildlife. During a hike on Jan. 2, my wife and I saw a hawk and three deer cross the trail about 50 yards ahead and there were deer tracks everywhere.

After about 25 minutes the two-track will fork left. Head right if you want to see the river.

The clearing and low hill at this spot is where the Saunders cabin used to sit. It was also demolished in 2013. Follow the unmarked path about 100 yards to the river – you won’t hear it flowing until you’re almost on top of it. The river is surrounded by a wide clearing, making it pretty easy to find.

There’s a gentle riffle now where the crumbling concrete dam used to sit. Huron Pines, a Gaylord nonprofit which headed the restoration project, uses cobblestone to help stabilize the soil in areas where excavation of dams or culverts has taken place. What was once a dramatic, 5-foot cascade of water is now an easy passageway for small brook trout.

The former site of the dam is now a short riffle of cobblestone. Photo by Chris Engle

The former site of the dam is now a short riffle of cobblestone. Photo by Chris Engle

Speaking of trout, the Black River is the only one in the Lower Peninsula managed exclusively for brook trout, Michigan’s state fish. Since they don’t face competition from brown or rainbow trout, the brookies are plentiful in this woody, wild stream. It is open to all tackle but is closed to fishing until April.

How the dam used to look in 2013 prior to its removal. A wooden foot bridge crossed the five-foot cascade. Photo courtesy of the Gaylord Herald Times

How the dam used to look in 2013 prior to its removal. A wooden foot bridge crossed the five-foot cascade. Photo courtesy of the Gaylord Herald Times

For the brook trout, having the dam out means they can escape to colder water upstream during warm summer months.

A pond that had formed upstream of the dam buried valuable spawning gravel in a thick layer of muck. Now that water flows freely through where the pond was, that mud will eventually be washed away, revealing the gravel bed beneath.

Just upstream of the dam site is the point where Saunders Creek joins the Black River. Walk along the bank to see where these two streams meet but don’t get too close to the water. There are still some mucky spots along this stretch.

Loking upstream at Saunders Creek near the spot where it flows into the Black River. Photo by Chris Engle

Loking upstream at Saunders Creek near the spot where it flows into the Black River. Photo by Chris Engle

As you explore the area, keep in mind this is the very same river used by an ancient fish to propagate its species.

Way downstream, near Onaway, giant lake sturgeon come up from Black Lake and spawn at the base of Tower-Kleber Dam in May. Some of these fish reach 150 pounds or more and their hulking silhouettes can be spotted from high up on the bank.

That crucial spawning site for the sturgeon has humble beginnings upstream at the Saunders property. Lucky for us, it’s in good hands — ours.

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau and the Gaylord Herald Times. He is a stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. Photo by Chelsea Engle

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau and the Gaylord Herald Times. He is a stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. Photo by Chelsea Engle

 

Out See Go: Explore the Jordan now or later

If you didn’t make it to the top of Deadman’s Hill to check out the colors this year well, you’re a little late.

At 1,329 feet, the peak offers a bird’s-eye view of the Jordan River Valley which, only a week ago, was lit up like the Fourth of July. Aside from one or two cell towers in the distance, there’s not a single manmade structure in sight – just trees, rolling hills and a winding river for as far as the eye can see. Rightfully so, it’s a hotspot for tourists and locals who flock to the summit for photos.

A view of the Jordan River and surrounding fall colors. Photo by Chelsea Engle

A view of the Jordan River and surrounding fall colors. Photo by Chelsea Engle

That moment has come and gone but it’s still worth the trip to go see the valley for yourself, either from the top of the hill or from the spring-fed river for which the valley is named. Its 18,000 acres of protected and picturesque public land has much more to offer if you’re willing to look. The best part is that the valley is beautiful year round, so you’re never too late.

For your convenience, here are some of my favorite waypoints within the Jordan River Valley, some with basic directions of how to get there. In return, I ask you to leave these places better than you found them – pick up any trash you see and treat the area with respect. Much appreciated.

Deadman’s Hill Overlook

This is the easiest way to see the valley but you’ll have to work a little harder to experience it. More on that later.

Visitors to Deadman's Hill will read about the fate of "Big Sam," a lumberjack whose tragic fate in 1910 led to the hill's name.

Visitors to Deadman’s Hill will read about the fate of “Big Sam,” a lumberjack whose tragic fate in 1910 led to the hill’s name.

Access to the overlook is located on Deadman’s Hill Road just a few miles south of Elmira on US-131. Take the road to the end and follow the signs to the parking area. There’s a pit toilet and information kiosk here. It’s also the trailhead for a three-mile day hike and an 18-mile overnight loop.

Landslide Overlook

This is the lesser known but equally spectacular view of the valley from its southern end. The 18-mile loop will get you here but so will your car. Head west from Alba on C-42 a few miles until you see a brown DNR sign for the overlook on the north side of the road. Take that dirt road to the end. Keep in mind that both overlooks are at the end of seasonal roads.

The day hike

Don’t be fooled by the term “day hike” – even the 3-mile loop descends several hundred feet into the valley and calls for good hiking boots, a bottle of water and a starting time at least 4 hours before sundown. The sun sets early this time of year and it gets dark fast in the valley, so allow yourself enough time to get back out.

Basic survival stuff — knife, lighter and whistle – is recommended just in case you get lost. There’s only one road out and it’s a heck of a walk.

That said, you’ll be rewarded with good exercise, a deck view of one of the river’s feeder springs and a nice photo op with a gigantic rock left behind by the glacier that carved the valley.

The overnighter

I finally did this hike in 2012 with a couple friends. At the midway point is Pinney Bridge Campground, set back from the river on a hill. This stretch of the river is really unique for the dozens of little islands throughout, each one connected to the next with cedar roots serving as bridges.

Pinney Bridge crosses the Jordan River at a decent fishing and swimming hole but keep in mind the river fed by groundwater is extremely cold year round. The bridge can be reached by heading east off M-68 via Pinney Bridge Road.

My friends and I had planned on a trout dinner on our overnighter. We caught a few small trout but ended up eating a lot of rice and beans.

The first day we followed the river and got some fishing in. The second day took us to the hatchery and Landslide Overlook, plus a lot of elevation changes. It’s hard work but worth it.

Jordan River National Fish Hatchery

There’s three ways in to the hatchery: The trail, the road winding through the valley, and a nice paved road a few miles south of Elmira off US-131.

The federal hatchery produces about 2.2 million lake trout annually which are released into the Great Lakes. Currently they’re adding another raceway building which will house an experimental herring-rearing program.

The raceway buildings are open to the public and so are the numerous wildflower gardens on the hatchery grounds. They’re definitely worth a trip in the summer when thousands of native plants are in full bloom.

The many wildflower gardens at the Jordan River National Fish Hatchery have been planted to attract pollinators like this honeybee. Photo by Chris Engle

The many wildflower gardens at the Jordan River National Fish Hatchery have been planted to attract pollinators like this honeybee. Photo by Chris Engle

The salmon

There’s another interesting fish in the river and it has nothing to do with the hatchery. Though I’ve never spotted one alive, salmon run up the Jordan this time of year to spawn. I’ve only seen their carcasses.

Salmon running upriver is nothing new. What’s unique in this case is the obstacles they have to overcome to get as far up the Jordan as they do.

The fish leave Lake Michigan and swim through Round Lake and Lake Charlevoix before entering the river at East Jordan. From there they swim another 15 miles upstream, vaulting over cedar roots and under deadfalls, sometimes in only six inches of water. Finally they reach gravel spawning beds, do their business and die. Since salmon spawn where they hatch, all this effort must pay off.

All of this is what makes the Jordan River Valley a special place year round and it is always worth the adventure.

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman, stay-at-home dad and outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau and the Gaylord Herald Times. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

Out, See, Go: Shore lunch

By Chris Engle, outdoor contributor

I remember quite vividly my first meal of fish after moving to Gaylord a decade ago, partly because it was exciting and sad in equal parts.

New to town and without a boat, I got to know my surroundings by cruising the back roads in my Ford Escort in search of stream crossings or public boat launches for a place to fish. Guiding my hunt was a snowmobile trail map I permanently borrowed from work at the Gaylord Herald Times and I kept it splayed open on my steering wheel as I drove.

It was late August of 2005 and I was looking for a headwater of the AuSable River, this area’s famed trout stream which I’d never gotten the chance to fish. But where I ended up was a warm tributary of Jones Lake, in northeastern Crawford County, where the rock bass fed like piranhas at the roadside.

With a few minutes of casting a nightcrawler from the culvert I’d collected three or four rock bass in my bucket – not the brook trout I was hoping for but something to satisfy my urge for a meal of fish.

When it comes to looks, rock bass are pretty much the exact opposite of brook trout which are known for their brilliant orange bellies, stark white-trimmed fins and beautiful speckles along their flanks. Rock bass – especially this particular ditch-dwelling variety – have muddy bellies and just enough black parasites speckled in their scaly skin to make you think twice about eating them.

The parasites apparently die when the meat is cooked so I took my catch home to my apartment overlooking Otsego Lake, cleaned them, and cooked the fillets on my single-serve George Foreman Grill.

I know. Sad, right?

Believe it or not, they tasted … edible. Some beer brought over as a house warming present helped wash them down. Actually I was only 20, so it had to have been apple juice. Yep, just juice.

By fall I had a canoe and a few boat launches marked on my map. I caught perch and bluegill and never had to resort to ditch bass ever again.

That next spring I discovered better trout waters and was catching an occasional brookie for my frying pan. Smashing such a beautiful trout in a Foreman grill just seemed wrong.

Shore fishing has always remained one of my favorite things to do so I thought I’d share a few spots in Gaylord area you should try this summer. Here they are, in no particular order, and I hope they lead you to some great fishing.

Otsego Lake State Park fishing pier

This one’s pretty self explanatory. Otsego Lake State Park is about 10 minutes south of town on Old 27. There you’ll find a well-maintained floating fishing pier extending off the south side of the point near the boat launch.

It’s a pretty popular place in the summer but I’ve never had trouble finding a spot to fish off it. There’s three great things about this pier: It reaches into fairly deep water (about 8 to 10 feet) which makes for good fishing, it is wheelchair accessible, and you could hook into a true monster.

Since the mid 1980s the Department of Natural Resources has stocked lake sturgeon in Otsego Lake. These fish reach gargantuan proportions and 50-inch sturgeon are not unheard of. They eat nightcrawlers – coincidentally the same bait you’d use for panfish – so that next strike on your bobber could be the fish of a lifetime.

Bright and Glory lakes

Down near Hartwick Pines State Park in Grayling are two small, deep kettle lakes open to fishing. Bright Lake has been regularly stocked with sunfish and rainbow trout and both lakes have panfish, bass and trout. There’s no stocking data for Glory Lake since 2008.

There’s a fishing platform on each lake and boat access for canoes and kayaks. It’s a good place to stop and eat lunch after touring the old lumber camp at Hartwick Pines.

In case you needed one more reason to bring your rod, the area around Hartwick Pines is home to the East Branch of the AuSable River, so ducking down a gravel road or two-track might take you to some trout water.

The brilliant pattern of teal and gold on a sunfish. Photo by Chelsea Engle

The brilliant pattern of teal and gold on a sunfish. Photo by Chelsea Engle

Horseshoe and Bluegill Lakes

Further south of Otsego Lake State Park, near the county line, is a dirt road heading east. Just a short drive down are two little lakes that are a bobber-angler’s paradise. Take in a sunset while you sit on shore waiting for that next bluegill bite. I like wading there but watch out for leeches.

Big Lake beach

Big Lake lies east of Gaylord. It’s a good place to fish from a boat but the public boat launch offers enough frontage to spread out and fish from shore. You’ll only hit about 6 feet casting straight out, but that’s enough to get into some good weeds for bass, pike and panfish.

Any culvert or bridge

My best piece of advice is to keep your eyes peeled while you’re driving around, especially in the extreme northern or southern parts of Otsego County. Any place where the road crosses a small stream is a potential fishing spot.

In exchange for these tips, I have one request: Please keep these places clean. Too often I find trash strewn at public access sites and it is upsetting. It’s like people only think of themselves and not the others who will come after them. Pick up your garbage and if you see any that’s not yours, pick that up too. It’s for the benefit of the resource and everyone who wants to enjoy it.

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad who lives in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

Out, See, Go: Josh Greenberg & his rivers of sand

By Chris Engle, outdoor contributor

Through my work as an outdoor reporter I’ve met some truly special people. Josh Greenberg is one of them.

It was at Gates AuSable Lodge about four years ago where I first met Greenberg. He was a spindly fellow with a 5 o’clock shadow, pacing circles around a long table where a dozen men were tying flies. He stopped every so often to chat with one of the guys as they wrapped the tiny hook clamped in their vise with string and bits of feathers.

Josh Greenberg

Josh Greenberg

That particular morning of tying was devoted to veterans of war in the Middle East. The goal was to tie as many flies as possible and donate them to veterans who fish the AuSable. One fly pattern which caught my eye had a red- and blue-striped body and white wings, appropriately named the “patriot.”

Some guys were new to tying and Greenberg was there to help. In fact, tying flies is exactly how Greenberg eventually came to own the legendary fishing lodge. He said so during a talk about his book, Rivers of Sand, at Otsego County Library this week.

Greenberg grew up in Ohio the son of two teachers. His father was a fishing addict and planned epic, cross-country family vacations around fishing outings.

“Dad was a fisherman first and fly fisherman second,” Greenberg said, explaining how his own enjoyment of catching fish on flies, spinners or through the ice is hereditary. “I came to fly fishing through fishing and I still like all kinds of fishing.”

Between family trips, Greenberg honed his casting skills by trying to hook rocks in his yard. He admitted there wasn’t much else to do in Ohio, so imagine his excitement when his parents considered buying a cabin on the AuSable River.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “I ran down to the river and there was a big caddis hatch going on. I saw two trout rise at the bend. I ran back to my parents saying ‘We gotta get it, we gotta get it!’”

At age 15 Greenberg landed his first job: tying flies for the shop at Gates AuSable Lodge. People who tie flies sell them to the shop by the dozen or sometimes by the hundreds, and each one must be done just right or fishermen won’t buy them.

Greenberg went on to study writing in college. He focused on fiction but was eventually approached by a publisher seeking a nonfiction, how-to sort of fishing book. He signed the dotted line.

Right around that time in 2010, after lodge owner Calvin “Rusty” Gates died of cancer, Greenberg was presented the opportunity to buy the lodge. He tried to back out of his book deal to make the purchase.

“It was at that moment I learned what a contract means,” Greenberg joked.

He and his wife, Katy, bought the resort and he kept his word with the publisher. As a new father, husband, mortgage holder and fishing addict, Greenberg still managed to hold it all together and wrote his book during the “cold and lonely” Decembers of 2011 and 2012. I can’t even imagine his stress level but Greenberg is a noticeably chill dude. Maybe the stress is what keeps him so skinny.

Out of two solid months of writing through the night, drinking pot after pot of coffee, Rivers of Sand was born.

Rivers of Sand by Josh Greenberg

Rivers of Sand by Josh Greenberg

He describes the book as a collection of “essays with utility,” pairing his own experiences on the river with tactical advice on ways and means of catching trout. Just like the river, his book flows from the headwaters of the AuSable River to Lake Huron.

“Sable” is the French word for sand and rightly describes the geography of the river and its upper reaches. Greenberg calls the river a “premier, but cruel, fishery” sought by people from as far away as Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

“Michigan is such a unique fly-fishing state,” Greenberg said of its diverse fishing species and methods. “There’s nothing like it in the country.”

Greenberg plans to write another book focused more on the experience of trout fishing and less on technical know-how.

MY FINAL WEEK at the Gaylord Herald Times in April 2014 was spent tying up loose ends and bidding farewell to the people on my various reporter beats. The week also came with a sense of “seniorotis” – the disorder you get in the waning days of high school where you can just slack off and get away with it.

What better place to slack off than on the banks of Northern Michigan’s most beloved river?

I drove down to Gates AuSable Lodge on a rainy April morning with my editor and friend and bought a copy of Greenberg’s book with the newspaper’s money. He signed it and I gave it away through an online contest.

Greenberg chatted with me a while from behind the counter of his fly shop where he looks right at home. He promised me a trip this summer and I won’t pass up that opportunity to fish his river of sand.

Learn more about Gates AuSable Lodge and Greenberg’s book by visiting gateslodge.com. Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad who lives in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.