Northern Michigan's Au Sable River is an absolutely legendary trout fishing location. The river is known across the country for plentiful (and sizeable) brown trout, as well rainbow and brook trout. The river is famously stable, with a sand and gravel bed that allows precipitation to seep into the soil. This allows for natural aquifers that feed the river and its tributaries a constant supply of cool, clean, clear water – precisely what the trout population needs to thrive.
This beautiful, 138-mile stretch of river is a fly fisherman's paradise, with a rich tradition of trophy fish, plenty of great cover for holding trout, and no shortage of resources for both the novice and experienced fisherman.
The Au Sable is home to some of the best fly fishing in the Midwest, dubbed a Blue Ribbon Trout Stream by the Department of Natural Resources. The 9-mile stretch known as The Holy Water is one of the most famous and densely populated spans of trout habitat in the country, but that isn't the only noteworthy portion of the Au Sable.
While the entire stretch of the AuSable is surely ripe for trout fishing, a few particular places have gained a reputation over the years.
Beginning just east of the city of Grayling MI, running just under 9 miles from Burton's Landing, and on to Wakely Bridge, The Holy Water is a mecca of the fly fishing world. Since 1988, this portion of the river is catch-and-release only, and all flies must be artificial. This strict “no kill” policy is respected and enforced throughout the Holy Water, as sportsmen from around the world travel to fish these legendary waters. Barbless hooks are not required, but come strongly recommended from area anglers. If you have barbs on your hooks, simply crimp them flush with the hook using pliers. With multiple public access points, the water is easily wadable, increasing the popularity of this iconic riverbed.
Beginning at the outflow of Lake St. Helen, flowing north nearly 37 miles to meet with the Main Stream, the Au Sable South Branch is a grand stretch of mostly wadable water, particularly in a stretch known as the Mason Tract. The South Branch is home to some superb hatches, as well as the Fisherman's Chapel, a rustic chapel nestled in the forest along the river, and a place for quiet devotion and thanks from the anglers who visit this gorgeous stretch of water.
The Au Sable is a massive river, with many small streams and 350 miles of connected tributaries. Throughout the span of the Main Stream, there are six dams and a wide range of water conditions. The Au Sable flows through the towns of Grayling and Mio MI, running all the way to Lake Huron at Oscada, gracing Alcona, Iosco, Montmorenct, Ogemaw, and Oscada counties.
Part of what makes the Au Sable so fantastic for fly fishing is the regularity, size, and predictability of the fly hatches that occur along the river. Because this is such a famous body of water for anglers throughout the country, hatches are well documented and local lodges, guides, and outfitters have a great deal of valuable advice. Knowing what flies to use can make all the difference.
Fly hatches typically occur between April and October. Below is a list of flies and approximate hatch times.
Blue Quill: Late March – Early May
Blue Winged Olive: Late March – Early April, Late May – Early October (“bwo”)
Caddis: Late April – Early September
Hendrickson: Late April – Early May
Red Quill: Late April – Early May
Sulphur: Late May – Early July
Brown Drake/Gray Drake: Late May – Early June (“drake”)
Stoneflies: June – Early July
Isonychia: June – October (“eye-so”)
Light Cahill: June – Early August
Yellow Sallie: June – Early July
Trico: Late July – Early September
White Fly: August – Early September
Most outfitters will offer several artificial versions of each of these flies, in a range of barbed or barbless hooks, dry and wet flies, and different colors. Depending on your intentions and experience level, different flies are more suited for certain situations. You will want to select a fly based on the current hatch, but experienced guides and outfitters can help you determine which type is best for you.
Fly fishing outfitters are stationed in a variety of locations along the Au Sable. These are among the most notable:
Gates Au Sable Lodge – Grayling MI – (989) 348-8462
Gates Lodge was founded by Rusty "The Gator" Gates who left us his legacy, which should be respected by encouraging a new generation of anglers to don waders and head out for a walk in the water. Josh runs the shop now and he is a fellow Miami University graduate, originally from Oxford, OH. Tell him we sent you! His shop is second to none.
Bob Linsenman's Au Sable Angler – Mio – (989) 826-8500
Ol Au Sable Fly Shop – Grayling – (989) 348-3330
Streamside – Fairview MI – (989) 848-5983
Hand in hand with the long tradition of Au Sable fly fishing, is the use of the Au Sable river boat, sometimes called a drift boat. These low floating, wooden watercraft have been a part of the Au Sable tradition since the late 1800s. Once made of heavy pine planks, modern polymers and epoxies have allowed anglers to construct water-tight river boats of lighter, more porous wood.
Many fisherman choose to build their own, resulting in some variations on the traditional design, but time has proven that many of the traditional dimensions and constructions methods are still applicable today.
These river boats are often available to rent at many lodges and fly fishing outfitters near the Au Sable, and allow fisherman to navigate the "big water" sections of the river where wading can be dangerous. Some of the outfitters even offer guided river boat tours, taking visiting anglers to noteworthy spots along the river.
For any angler, or even just outdoor enthusiast, the tradition and beauty of Au Sable fly fishing is something to be experienced firsthand – this is great fishing and beautiful wilderness as only Northern Michigan can deliver.