Outdoors North

Learning to fish one of life’s great wonders

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

The room was comfortably large and a good place for a group to meet, especially if a kitchen might be needed. It even had a dance floor.

It was a good morning to be indoors, as indicated by the scene outside the big picture windows facing the lake.

It was cold and misting rain with strong, sustained and gusting winds.

Even the frogs were wearing rain slickers.

I was seated with about a dozen other people around folding tables connected to form a U shape. We had all just returned from another table in the middle of the room, where we went to retrieve a series of interesting items from plastic boxes.

There was a long wire shank that looked kind of like a thin Bobbie pin, metal, plastic and glass beads that could be strung onto a thread, and a kind of C-shaped item called a clevis.

We had also gathered a small treble hook, a metal blade that was glinting stainless steel, shaped like the tip of the handle-end of a spoon, and another silvery weighted item called a bullethead that looked just like what its name suggests.

At the open end of the arrangement of tables, our instructor was ready to demonstrate.

He was a man named Mark Stephens, who had spent more than a generation teaching people how to teach kids to fish, that and other things important to fish and the places they live.

Stephens works for Michigan’s Project Fish program (projectfish.org), which runs through a statewide committee composed of representatives from numerous interests, including the fisheries division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

The vision of the program is:

“To initiate and provide fishing education and fishing skills to interested adults and youth from Michigan’s many diverse populations. This will preserve a natural heritage that ensures the future of fishing, which includes natural resources and environmental awareness, ethical fishing practices, fisheries stewardship and positive activities for children, families and the community.”

Goals of the project include:

≤ Provide multiple experiences sportfishing, giving youth gradual, sportfishing mentoring and a lifelong learning experience.

≤ Develop in kids an appreciation of the outdoors and outdoor ethics and behaviors.

≤ Encourage kids to spend time outdoors.

≤ Introduce youth to sportfishing as a hobby and lifetime pursuit.

≤ Reach youth through clubs, schools and sportsmen’s organizations.

≤ Help adults as mentors spend time with youth.

≤ Involve teachers, adult volunteer youth leaders, teen leaders and retirees as mentors.

≤ Provide training for volunteers, with volunteers attending as members of a local team.

≤ Help instructors develop willingness and ability to start and sustain a long-term program in their local communities, including management and coordination strategies.

≤ Help instructors and youth gain new knowledge and confidence, enjoyment of the outdoors, aquatic biology/ecology, ethics and angling skills.

≤ Show local teams of instructors how to use available resources that highlight accessible fishing opportunities.

Those of us seated around the tables were attending a two-day workshop for will-be instructors looking to ignite new sparks of fishing magic for area youth and their parents.

We learned a whole lot over the relatively short period of time.

At the end of the second day, I felt like Johnny Appleseed with my pockets full of seeds, ready to walk across the countryside spreading the fishing gospel.

Back at the table, we were taught how to assemble the items we’d collected to create an in-line spinner. In my case, my finished product looked like a Mepps French spinner, told by its blade shape.

My creation had one red bead and a couple silver ones of varying sizes. With the help of the clevis, the blade spun around the wire shaft like the real thing.

A day or two later, I found myself up early and ready for the sunshine the morning had to offer. I was looking to take a ride.

It was crisp and cold outside, one of those spring days in this part of the world where you might have the heater on in the car on the way out to the woods and the air conditioning on headed home.

I drove east and then south.

I stopped my Jeep – now called an “eep” because the letter “J” fell off the logo and needs to be glued back on – at a place along a river where the water makes a gigantic turn.

The place is pretty to see and wonderful to experience on a springtime morning.

Hearing the surrounding landscape filled with fluttering noises here and then over there, and birdsongs sounding from almost everywhere, no clearer sign was necessary to trumpet that winter was over with.

The water here flows deep into the big corner and then, after it turns, runs shallow over gravels and then slows again to deeper waters.

I stood for a while, leaning on a white pine trunk, just taking in the atmosphere. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths of that wonderfully clean air.

I then went to the back of my “eep” and opened the back gate, realizing that I still had a bunch of stuff back there to unload from my weekend classroom learning.

I decided to use the lure I’d made to take a few casts.

I don’t know if everyone feels this way or not, but I know that when I home-make something, especially for the first time, I don’t have the greatest level of confidence that it is going to come out the best.

This time was no different.

I thought my fish lure looked good enough, but at least half and maybe three-quarters of fishing tackle advertising is geared to catching the angler’s eye as much as that of any fish.

So, even if I thought it looked extremely fabulous, which I didn’t, there was no guarantee it would ever catch anything. I figured it would be a good keepsake from the training that might end up hanging from my rearview mirror or someplace similar.

After tying the lure to my fishing line, I was ready to cast.

My first attempt sent the lure downstream, where it plopped just past the riffles and the line softly, almost in slow motion, fell softly over a clutch of red-twigged dogwood.

So, on the way back to me, the lure was pulled into the bushes and snagged on one of the red branches. I thought I might lose my creation to a snag on the very first cast, but the hooks slid loose and returned to me as I cranked the reel.

I then decided to cast upstream instead.

I had two returns with no action.

The third time, I had a tug on the line that felt like I probably had hooked some grass at the bottom of the river.

I thought this was likely, especially with the extra weight of the lure.

I kept reeling, and the line tugged again like grass.

I thought it strange that I hadn’t hit any grass on the other two casts I’d made to this same part of the river just above the big corner.

When the line tugged a third time, I pulled up and realized that I had a fish on my line.

Wow, this was so strange. It hadn’t felt like a bite at all.

But within a minute or two I had a nice, fat brook trout in my hands, caught on the lure I made. I was almost in shock, certainly in stunned disbelief.

This was so cool.

An hour or so later, after I had moved on to follow a little stream down to a talkative series of waterfalls and rapids, I stood listening to a winter wren singing from just a few feet away.

I saw a yellow-rumped warbler skulking in the low bushes next to the water, and I heard my first white-throated sparrow song of the season.

Ah, the north country! There truly is nothing like it.

As I walked around marveling at the extensive work beavers had done upstream, I kept shaking and scratching my head, thinking about how I had caught a trout with a lure I made myself.

It must have been a fluke.

It had to have been.

A wild stroke of luck.

I got my fishing pole out again, and I guess it was two casts and with another fish, I had to believe the facts in evidence – my lure catches fish.

If I had any lingering misgivings about my ability to get out there and spread the word about how great fishing is, they were gone now.

Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.

I look forward to teaching soon through a Marquette County 4-H fishing club I am organizing. It will be great fun to get together with boys and girls, their parents and some special guests, to learn, experience and enjoy.

For me, fishing is an activity that I have loved as a sacred pastime since my early childhood. There have been countless wildlife and nature experiences I’ve had because fishing put me in the right place at the right time.

The fish taste pretty darn good too.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.


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