Monday, September 28, 2009

Michigan Salmon

It’s autumn. The salmon have arrived and are rising in front of our cabin on the Middle Branch of the Pere Marquette River in northern Michigan. Strong and energetic, they burst out of the water in the clear, morning air. They've come from Lake Michigan, about 100 miles downstream, to spawn in our cold woodland stream full of deep holes and dancing riffles. Three to four feet long, they weigh 20 to 30 pounds and look incongruously out of place. They are, in fact, home - in the very river where they were born.

My memories of my childhood neighborhood were of a wide busy street, big buildings and a long walk to school. When I visited as an adult, however, everything seemed small and close together. I wonder if the salmon feel that way about the river, if they are surprised that their memories are so different from reality.

Like me, the salmon are not native to Michigan. In the 1960s, they were planted in Lake Michigan and several of its feeder streams. They have thrived and every year, we eagerly anticipate their arrival to our part of the river, listening intently for the unmistakably loud splash of a salmon fighting its way upstream.

Now, as I watch from the bank above the river, a female salmon emerges from a deep hole and glides silently onto the redds, the shallow gravel beds where she will lay her eggs. She swishes her tail and rolls on her side, flashing silver. The males follow her much less silently, thrashing and fighting for the right to fertilize her eggs. It is their final battle. After spawning, all the adult salmon die. At the end of the winter, the quarter-inch eggs, which have been safely tucked among the gravel, will hatch. The tiny salmon lucky and resourceful enough to survive a perilous first year in the river, will then make their way downstream and into the big lake. In a few years time, they, in turn, will return to this same river and, perhaps even this same spot, to complete their life cycle.

Fly rod in hand, I walk down to the river. Enticing a salmon to an artificial fly during spawning season is no easy task. It requires skill, patience and a bit of luck. Fishing for salmon certainly teaches patience. Acquiring skill is a lifelong task and luck, as everyone knows, can be elusive.

Luck, however, may be with me today. There is a huge male salmon, just downstream, holding in the fast-moving water along an undercut bank. My first cast, it seems to me, is perfect, but the salmon thinks otherwise and lets my fly drift by - again and again and again.

Instead of casting, I let my fly drift downstream. It sits there just in front of the salmon’s snout. It’s a tiny, tasty-looking egg pattern, but my salmon is not hungry. From the time they leave the lake and enter the river, salmon eat practically nothing. I know that if I annoy a salmon, he may become aggressive and take my fly. My male, however, seems to be a particularly calm sort. For 20 minutes, I do my best to be annoying, drifting my fly downstream and bouncing it off his nose. Finally, it works. My salmon shakes his head, swishes his tail, and silently disappears downstream.
A kingfisher, flashing blue against the autumn reds and golds, flies by protesting loudly. Perhaps his luck has been no better than mine. Deciding to practice patience, I concede today’s battle to the fish. Unlike the kingfisher, I go quietly and without regret, for as Washington Irving said, "there is certainly something in angling that tends to produce a gentleness of spirit and a pure sincerity of mind."

(For a great short video of a kingfisher on a more successful day, click here.)
To see more photos, click here.


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

1 comment:

  1. That was a great post, Geraldine, but I fully anticipated that photo of you with your catch that I saw! Lovely!


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