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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.