Tom Manus of Boyne Outfitters fishes in his waders
in the frigid Jordan River in northern Michigan on
an early January afternoon.
JORDAN, Mich. — Anglers know something that tourists don’t.
You can fly-fish all year round, even in winter.
skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, skating and winter
zip-lining, the latest tourist attraction in northern
Michigan is getting in a float boat and having "A
River Runs Through It" experience in the dead of
say, ‘What?’ They think the river freezes," says
Ethan Winchester of Boyne Outfitters. He is head
fly-fishing guide at Boyne Mountain, which for the first
time is offering winter fly-fishing as an activity for its
guests. "Rivers don’t freeze up like a lake. The
trout don’t leave. They become somewhat dormant and slow
down, but they’re still in the river."
time of year, steelhead and trout are theoretically there
for the catching — but they are elusive.
fly-fishing has other challenges. If it’s sunny and in
the 30s, conditions are glorious. Great waterproof waders
keep anglers dry. Gourmet lunches and hot coffee keep them
a lot of times when you come out here and it’s 10 or 20
degrees, the rods get covered up with ice, and the reels
freeze," says Tom Menas, another guide. "It adds
a different element to it."
may be the understatement of the year.
this January day, we start at Chestonia Bridge, a few
miles south of East Jordan.
are lucky. It is above freezing. And it is sunny.
backs up the Jeep and its trailer to a snowy embankment
and slides the boat downhill like a sled, where it gathers
speed and splashes into the water of the Jordan River.
Soon, we are floating in the Hyde-McKenzie- style drift
boat, with paddles like a river raft. Winchester guides
the boat past low-hanging branches, eddies, swirls, minor
rapids, sharp limbs and fallen trees. We dodge hollers and
shadows, dark water and open areas.
fish at holes the anglers know, murky spots called Two
Logs, Brown Trout Alley, Lawyer’s Lounge, Sucker Hole.
fish. We fish. No bites yet.
day is all crystal ice and melting snow, at times
completely silent except for the sharp cracking snap of
our drift lines. A merganser duck honks and flies
overhead. The burbling water calls out its winter song. My
feet feel warm in their waders with boots, waterproof as a
tarp on a roof. I sip hot coffee. I cast my line, again
and again. The guides show me how to flick my wrist, cross
over, then repeat until it becomes automatic, even
and Menas are ardent fly -fishermen. They have caught
plenty of trout in winter. But not every day. Perhaps not
fish keep you humble," says Winchester, 25. He used
to be a fly- fishing guide in remote Alaska. He grew up in
Charlevoix and knows this area like the back of his hand.
Still, he doesn’t always get lucky.
Boyne guides prefer to take clients on the Jordan and
Sturgeon rivers in winter, adding others in summer. The
Jordan is a favorite. Rarely above 52 degrees even in
July, it is clear, fast-moving, and the banks are quiet
are a lot of proverbs about fly- fishing, and one says
that each river has its own soul and character,"
Winchester says. "This river has just about
everything to put you at ease."
the 3 1/2-mile route takes us six hours. We stop many
times to fish from the boat and wade in the water. We stop
longer on a riverbank to eat lunch and fish some more.
grills steaks, asparagus and new potatoes and heats
brownies on a portable grill. The sun shines. The river
shimmers. Menas and I walk slowly downstream through the
frigid January water, casting our lines. You don’t want
to fall into the river this time of year. We are so
careful, especially walking back upstream against the
tugging icy current. My boots feel like they weigh 1,000
pounds apiece. But they are stable. It’s the oddest
feeling, to walk through water up to one’s knees in the
middle of January and not be cold or wet.
can do winter fly-fishing all across the state. But mostly
it’s confined to hard-core anglers "who just need
that fix," Winchester says. For newcomers or people
who want the help of a guide, a more structured program is
definitely the way to go — and the big ski resorts like
Boyne are happy to oblige. Resorts across America are
adding other unusual activities to keep skiers busy and
attract new guests . Water parks, spas, zip lines, yoga,
ice skating, cross-country skiing — and now winter fly-
fishing — beckon to winter lovers who used to show up
just for the downhill skiing.
I do recommend winter fly-fishing, as odd as it sounds.
The winter river, with its bowing cedars, yellowish and
curving, is something to see. Newly fallen trunks and
limbs lie this way and that (Winchester and Menas bring a
chainsaw in case they encounter an obstacle). Snow hugs
the banks. A midwinter sun looks as chilly as a circle of
lemon sorbet in the sky. Ice clings to bare twigs like
glass. You can breathe out here. Deeply.
have one weird question for my guides. Have they ever
caught the same fish twice? Yes. If a fish has a scar or
special marking, they may recognize it. Also, anglers know
these rivers, know where the fish are, at least sort of.
Because it’s catch and release, fish often return to the
same general area where anglers caught them last time.
know their address," Menas says. Still. The entire
venture to me seems delicate and chancy, the rod so light
that it seems it would be torn from your hand should a
trout have a notion to eat lunch.
new anglers who try fly- fishing can be intimidated,
partly because of the 1992 film "A River Runs Through
It," which made the fly rod seem like Brad Pitt’s
magic wand. Even today, guides see some people with
"A River Runs Through It" Syndrome, which is a
compulsive need to do a figure-8 twirling of the line,
"like you’re doing a ribbon dance," scoffs
Winchester, flicking his wrist and sending the line
straight out into the fast-moving current .
Mountain is going into winter fly-fishing full throttle,
plus preparing for spring. There’s a stocked trout pond
near the ski runs. There are fishing poles available for
guests. They teach fly-fishing and fly tying.
we leave the river and return to the resort, Winchester
asks if I want to catch a trout in the pond.
it seems a violation of the zen of fly-fishing, contrary
to the acceptance of the fish’s wishes on this day not
to be caught.
I kind of get a kick out of picturing the lazy steelhead
huddled along depressions in the winter river. I picture
them watching plankton drift by, the steelhead equivalent
of watching "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" on TLC.
They feel a boat passing, hear voices, see that nice juicy
bug or clump of eggs dangling above, but … nah. They’ll
doze on this January day until they feel spring coming for
real. Crazy humans, they murmur as the boat passes, then
all becomes silent again.
fly-fishing is offered by many fishing guides in Michigan,
but the big ski resort Boyne Mountain has taken it up a
notch, offering it for the first time this year to guests
through Boyne Outfitters on the property.
packages are available, including the classic described in
this article, the Traditional Float: Float down the river
and fish from the boat and in the water. Instruction,
equipment, waders and lunch included in the full-day tour;
$375 for two people.
offered is a half-day tour for $275.