By Milton F. Whitmore
My father was a trout fisherman. Back then in the 1950’s and living in Grand Rapids, he would travel with his fishing pals, Fred and Joe, up to Northern Michigan to ply such storied streams as the Pere Marquette, Little Manistee, Boardman, and the Betsie. It was from these hallowed waters that my father and his friends caught trout; browns, rainbows, and the occasional brookie.
It was to the Betsie, near Thompsonville and what is now Crystal Mountain Resort that he brought me on that magical weekend when I was to be initiated into the world of trout fishing. We had driven up on Friday evening and stayed in the old Sell’s Hotel in downtown Beulah. I can remember talk of the smelt run in Cold Creek that evening. I would even like to think that the fish indeed ran, but I don’t believe that they did.
Sell’s Hotel was a throwback to another time. The bar downstairs, serving up assorted beverages and burgers, was one of those long-vanished saloon-type establishments that oozed atmosphere from the very core of its abundant wooden furnishings. With the classic oak bar backed by a long reflecting mirror it offered its customers a respite from the world outside its doors. My main source of entertainment, other than keeping an ear alert for fish stories, was to browse in an alcove area off the back of the barroom where the proprietor had lined the walls with numerous pictures of fish catches from Crystal Lake, as well as the two Platte lakes to the north. As a youngster I marveled at the fish and fathomed that one day, I too, would be as successful.
The hotel rooms upstairs surrounded a large entry at the head of the staircase. Each chamber had two single beds, a couple of nondescript chairs and a dresser. The bath and restroom, in the main entry hall, were shared by the guests. It reminded one of an old time Western saloon/hotel commonly found in the cowboy movies of the time. I slept the night with images of trout and cowboys all in the same dream.
In the early pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning we drove south to the river and parked in the small area next to what was then called Red Bridge, but is now referred to as The Tubes. It being dark out and me a mere neophyte to stream fishing, Dad told me to wait in the car until it began to get light. At day break I was to cross the bridge and walk downstream to the first bend, staying on high ground as I went. There Dad would be fishing.
As I waited the coming dawn, my mind wandered as does a ten year old’s. What mysteries lay out there in the dark? What critters lurked in the underbrush? No dawn came so slowly.
As the sky grayed into the coming today, I left the safety of that 1949 Pontiac to venture forth. Crossing the bridge per instructions, I kept to the high ground being careful of the barbed wire fence so as not to puncture my newly purchased hip boots, of which I was so proud.
The underbrush opened up into a field as I moved along in the half-light of the pre-dawn, the land rising to a modest height above the river. I could just make out the low alder brush that lined the far bank and as I came to the bend. Dad, in a soft yet audible voice, spoke. “Milt, go down to the bend where you can see and watch what I do.” Doing as instructed, I moved to the heart of the bend on the high bank, which rose about 15 feet above the river. In the dim light I could make out the form of my father as he waded on the inside of the bend.
I can see him now as I write. The picture forever etched in my mind, as if the waters of time had never flowed under the bridge.
Looking upstream towards the red iron bridge, in the gaining light of a cloudy dawn, with the foggy mist ascending catlike from the river bed, I could see Dad casting his line from the corner of the bend. His dim figure with the backdrop of alders told the story of a fisherman. His plaid weathered hat, barely visible in this pre-light, his trout jacket, and his steel fly rod with fly reel; all of this I can see today. The “morning bird”, that solitary pre-dawn aviatory friend, twiddled his morning song to the day. Magical sounds of the water upstream gurgling over the rocks below the bridge added to the melody of this awakening day. “Sllippp”, went the line as Dad presented his offering of nightcrawler to the trout gods. “Blop” as the nightcrawler landed on the water and the bait began its descent to the feeding trout.
What a wondrous time this is in the day of a trout fisherman. The wizardry of the fish gods to set such a table for a man to taste inspires a flood of serenity. I am at peace in my world with these thoughts.
“Have you caught anything?” I asked in hope that he had. “I caught two browns about 12 inches”, he responded, “and had a good hit from a bigger fish.” “Wow”, I thought to myself, “Dad’s already got trout.” The idea that he had caught fish may have, in my mind, foretold of a successful day. Dad responded, not knowing of my hopeful thoughts, “Now you cast upstream and let the crawler bounce along bottom through the hole. You have to feel the bottom if you want to catch trout. Now, there’s a hit”, he said. “Let him take it and when you think he has the crawler set the hook.” With that Dad’s rod snapped back. The hook was set. And he was on to a trout.
It wasn’t large, but it jumped and battled across the river and I saw it. A thin slice-twelve inches of rainbow, difficult to see in the dim light, but a trout……A Trout! With skill born of experience Dad fought the fish until, with another airborne effort, the fish was gone. Back to his watery roost he swam and dad reeled in and re-baited. “That’s how you do it. Now walk on downstream and…….” With this, he gave me directions to what turned out to be called Grandpa’s Hole, named, not after my father, but the father of the landowner named Ross, but that is another tale to be told some other time.
We fished that day. I didn’t catch a trout, nor would I for a few more weeks. But I learned from Dad about trout fishing. My mind would conjure up all kinds of fishing scenarios of trout lurking in secret selected spots. Facing upstream, they would be in some bottom depression under a low cedar branch or log or rock, awaiting my offering. And I fished with Dad and followed his example. I wasn’t aware of it then, but it was a time of bonding with my father. It was a time of accepting the challenge that he had given me; that of becoming a trout fisherman.
The last stream that we fished together was on this same stretch of the Betsie in the late ‘70’s. I hadn’t thought of the significance of this, until a few weeks ago. The first time we had trout fished together and the last was there on the Betsie River between Thompsonville and what now is Crystal Mountain Resort.
It became a habit after fishing on the Opening Day of trout season, that sacred Last Saturday in April, that I would call him up and give him my fishing report with all of the details about what, where, and how. He has been gone now for two years, going to that Big Stream up there to join his best buddy Fred and he fishes still. I continue to give him my reports on Opening Day. I did so while I fished the Pine River this year with two of my sons. And I thank him for the gift he gave me, that of being a trout fisherman.
I see him still, in the half light of a cloudy dawn with ghostly mist rising from its riverbed home, wading on that bend in the Betsie with tag alders as a backdrop. “Slipp”….as the cast is made….”Blop”….as it lands on the water just upstream from the feeding lair of the wily trout. Ahh! The trout steam! As if God has expressed His handwriting across the mantle of the land.
Thank you Dad!
“What a wondrous time this is in the day of a trout fisherman. The wizardry of the fish gods to set such a table for a man to taste inspires a flood of serenity. I am at peace in my world with these thoughts.”