Monday, October 14, 2013

The Driggs River Gang and Salmonfest 2013

Growing up in suburban Detroit I was regaled with stories of the Driggs River Gang.  Not nearly as sinister as it sounds, the gang consisted of a large group of family and friends that migrated north for a yearly hunting and fishing camp each fall on the banks of the Driggs River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  ‘The Gang’ started off with original members of Great-Uncle Al and his buddies, then cascaded down through the families generations along with a few friends mixed in. 

Each year there were multiple ‘planning sessions’ held at Eddie’s house to ensure all the bases were covered and then, as the leaves turned, the migration north started.  Once on site it took a full day to erect the monstrous house-sized oil cloth wall tent around a stove piped cast iron wood burner.  The tent was the common area, card room, sleeping quarters, dog kennel, and kitchen all rolled up under one massive roof held up by 37 miles of binder twine…give or take.  A lucky few stayed for a whole month while others migrated in and out of camp a few days at a time; at its peak each year there were three dozen men and a dozen dogs under that roof. 

The days at the Driggs River Camp were spent chasing upland quarry through the woods or trying to trick the local brookie population in to eating a well placed silver Mepps spinner.  The nights were filled with cleaning guns or fish, card games, stories and pipe smoke.  Camp was miles back on some two tracks in a time that was well before cell phones, and in a part of the country they may still not work, so as a young boy the isolation made it feel like we may as well have been on another planet.  There were only three rules; no loaded guns in camp, only the invited were welcomed, and you had to be at least 10 years old to go.   It was something to look forward to every year.

Fast forward to present day…Salmonfest.  It has become a yearly trip that I look forward to spending with a few friends and family each year.  Some years there are more people along for the fun and then in other years, like this year, there are only a couple that can make it.  Each year it is a  quick drive north to the banks of Michigan’s fabled Pere Marquette river where we see about tangling with some king salmon, and then after a few to hand target the egg-gobbling browns and any early steelhead that happen to be around.

We have shed the tent in favor of Baldwin Creek Lodge and we spend all our waking moments on the water so we depend on Debbie’s or Barskis to supply us with an endless supply of gastro-riddles to navigate through (all kidding aside Barskis is phenomenal fare…can’t recommend the burgers or perch dinner highly enough).  Out of nothing but stubborn tradition we get up long before we really have to and walk in to the river in pitch dark, then hang out on the bank and listen to the salmon working upstream as the first cigars of the day are lit.  Everything seems funnier in the dark of the woods when you are working on hours of sleep that can be counted on one hand, so laughing until you hurt is generally to be expected.  Eventually I am usually the one that breaks down first and wets a line in the dark then the others are usually quick to follow, especially once there has been a fish on.  The general plan usually consists of being out until after dark with just a short break mid-day for lunch and a few beverages…then repeat again multiple days in a row.  While we do spend almost all our time on the river we all have come to realize that the fishing is just the excuse to get together.

Mike has been the longest running Salmonfest participant with me now and is my oldest friend met after high school...since literally the day I moved to college.  With a few young kids and a good job his fishing time and vacation days are at a premium, but this trip stays on his list year after year.  It is always goo to see him tie in a some hefty fish.  In this shot he was working a dark slot off the back of an active bed.

And that slot yielded feeeesh!

My first morning up this year I charged up a glow in the dark ESL and ran it through a deep bend a few times before getting in to this beasty.  Keeping the lights off and fighting the fish by feel is always a good time.

Brian has gone a number of years running now.  He was around when Mike and I were talking about the trip one time and commented on how cool it sounded.  Brian was not a fisherman at all but when I said " are welcome to come up and hit it with us next year" he jumped on it.  A week later we were eight months out and he had already ordered up waders...the wait was on! 

Now Brian has this trip down pat and we love getting him to come out from central Illinois to get on some fish for the weekend.  After having done this trip he got the bug bad and now fishes as much as just about anyone that I know, terrorizing largemouth and bluegill at his local lakes on a daily basis!

A quick word of whatever is required to not let your line wrap around the tip of your rod...bad things are a certainty if you are wrapped up.  This hog was giving Mike quite a fight when all of a sudden it swam straight at him.  While trying to manage the line he had out and get it back on the reel a loop developed towards the tip.  As I yelled to warn him it almost happened in slow motion that the fish took off for the lake and turned his rod from a four piece to a six piece.

Mike finished up the fight on what was left of the rod though and about five minutes later I slipped it in to the net.  This was the second year in a row that Mike will be making use of that warranty...these guys can be tough on gear.

Speaking of gear...  I made good use of the Switch Belt, Switch Bag, and Digi-Pouches from SmithFly.  The bag I have had since it came out but this was the first time in the water with the Digi-Pouches.  I have to admit that the first time I went in up to my waist with a few grand in camera gear on me had me pretty nervous, but they performed exactly as advertised.  They are definitely a great way to carry gear that you want to keep dry but still have easily accessible.  I will have no problem carrying my Canon 7D and lenses with me anymore!

 The face of a twenty five pounder with the fly still cornered up.  Fishing with my brother I made a cast in to a dark slot then watched as this guy came across and was head shaking hard before heading to the lake.  I started to follow him downstream with my brother trying to keep up.  I was able to stop him for a bit in a few pools but even with the eight weight doubled over it was as if he did not even know he was hooked.  About 15 minutes in to the tug of war I had my brother run to find the other guys and the net.  He made it back with both in tow as the fish was starting to tire and I was hoping that it gave out before I did.  After over 30 minutes of fight that stretched the better part of a third of a mile downstream Mike slid him in to the net for me and the smiles were contagious.

After a hard fought fight we got a coupled quick pictures and slid him back in to the water.  I was rewarded for this bit of kindness by this fish using his paddle sized tail to give me a serious bath as he went back to his business...and I was totally cool with it.

Arms like jelly, out of breath, and hands still shaking...this celebration required some of the good stuff! 

Mike was up in the tree spotting fish in the dark water, yeah...that's it.  This had nothing at all to do with something silly like retriving a freshly tied rig thrown in to the tree on the first cast... 

 Decisions, decisions...

One really cool thing that happened this year was that my youngest brother John was able to get in to the mix.  He worked midnight shift and then drove across the state to catch up with us on the water for the remainder of the day.  He is used to chasing smallmouth downstate or brookies up on the South Branch, but has never been out during the salmon or steelhead run.  I will never forget the wide eyed look he had on his face as he came around the bend to find us.  He was almost in disbelief that he was seeing so many giant fish swimming around in the river.  I think our first words were something like "DUDE...HOLY SHIT DUDE!".

 After just a little bit he was off and running.  He did not get the opportunity to truly fight a fish in the couple hours that he was there, but did get to feel the power in one that he fouled up on before I had him break it off.  He is totally hooked and already talking about coming back in a few weeks to indi-up on some chrome!

 It is always a whirlwind few days up on the river that seems to take forever to get there and then is over before you know it.  We do not have the same traditions as the Driggs River Gang, but our Salmonfest group is slowly building our own and having a blast doing it.  Just 50 weeks and counting...give or take...

-mike schmidt

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