It’s usually around mid-September when I start to get excited – that first morning when I walk outside into the cool air, the smell of fall riding the breeze, a slight hint of rotting leaves, the burst of colors – reds, oranges, yellows and browns. Fall is my favorite color. It is my favorite time of year. As someone with an October birthday, it’s only natural. But, since 1999, the coming of fall has also meant something else. In 1999, I was invited by my friend and co-worker to head north from central Indiana to a little town in northern Michigan called Honor. There, we would stay in a lakeside cabin for four days, and make a daily trip of 45 minutes to Kaleva, Michigan to wade Bear Creek in search of King Salmon as they made their way into the creeks and rivers to spawn and die.
Since 1999, I have made the trip to northern Michigan every year save two. In 2006, I lost my job and was financially unable to go, and in 2011, I stayed home to spend time with my new granddaughter Ariana. Several years ago, I asked a friend and co-worker named Jim Skeel to go. He went with us for a couple of years to the cabin in Honor. One year, Jim and I struck out on our own, staying in a hotel in Manistee, closer to Bear Creek by about half an hour. We had a very successful trip, filling our coolers with delicious salmon filets.
I think maybe it was 2007 or 2008 when Jim and I started pulling a pop-up camper and staying on the banks of Bear Creek on the property of a woman who lets people fish and camp on her property. Several other friends began staying in rented cabins on the same piece of property, and most times, we are all up there together. We spend our evenings around a big campfire, sharing fish stories and food.
For me, the day of our departure, Sunday, October 12, 2014 began at 4:30am. Between excitement and worrying about what I have forgotten to pack, I always have trouble sleeping the night before we leave. Jim and his son Aaron wouldn’t arrive until 7:00am, so I busied myself with showering, dressing, packing coolers, and moving everything out to the driveway, next to the camper.
Finally, Jim pulled in at 7:07am, and by 7:27am, we were on the road – on our way to Kokomo for breakfast at Cracker Barrel with one of my oldest friends, Doug Borders. This breakfast almost always consists of two or three plates of food that, while obviously way too much, manages to keep my hunger at bay until dinner, which is usually at around 7pm. Breakfast also consists of me getting my chops busted by Jim and Doug, two of my closest friends, who like to tag team me like it’s a professional wrestling match.
We were back on the road at 10am for 300 more miles. The foliage became increasingly vibrant the farther north we got, becoming a palette of fiery reds, yellows, and oranges. When we made the turn off of Highway 31 onto 9-Mile Road, my stomach came alive with butterflies in anticipation of our arrival at Bear Creek, “the Bear,” as it is affectionately known. Two turns later, we were heading down the gravel and sand road that would lead us to the Bear. As we pulled onto the property where we would be camping, I instinctively crossed the fingers on my right hand, hoping against hope that our camping spot would be available. Mind you, this is a large piece of property, with ample room to accommodate eight or ten campers and/or tents, but Jim and I have camped in the same spot since the first year we began camping on this property.
We pulled around the bend, and there it was – our camping spot – waiting on us like a long-lost lover. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but our spot was empty, and we both breathed a sigh of relief. Then we saw that a truck belonging to some guys staying in one of the cabins was parked close enough to our spot that we would be unable put the camper there. Instead, we parked the camper about 25 feet away, making due and making camp.
By 6pm, we had set up camp, and after some minor electrical issues that seemed to solve themselves (was there a ghost in the electrical line?), we prepared dinner – bratwursts and deer tenderloin. We settled around the camp fire, and Jim and I imparted all of our salmon fishing on seventeen year-old Aaron, along with a fair number of fishing stories from years past.
At about 9pm, we saw two sets of headlights coming up the sandy drive. “Oh man,” said Jim, “who are these yahoos?” Turns out it was some of our friends from home. We hadn’t been expecting them until the following day. Our greetings to one another consisted of a fair amount of good-natured insults – men being men – and a lot of catching up. One of our friends was, quite literally, half the man he had been last year, having lost 170 pounds since we had last seen him. Finally, around eleven, we made our way to the camper and went to bed, and the rain came…
…and continued to come in buckets. We got out of bed on Monday morning, had a breakfast of coffee and Little Debbie Donut Sticks. I put a pork loin on the smoker, and we geared up for fishing. We heard that there were no fish where we were camping, so we decided to head to a couple of other spots we know about. Fall’s splendor was in full color, but there were not many fish to be found at either place. Of note, Aaron caught his first salmon, a twelve-pound battle-scarred veteran that had only one eye. We decided to set him free to finish out his days frolicking and mating with all the pretty females.
We headed back to camp and followed a trail through the woods for about five minutes until we got to the river. Bear Creek is deceptive. She winds and horseshoes, turning what is a five minute walk by land from camp into three-quarters of a mile by river. We got into the river, and within five minutes, Jim caught his first fish, a beautifully-colored Brown Trout, spotted black. As it turns out, that would be the last fish that we caught that day. I got skunked – no fish, not even a bite.
We spent the evening around the campfire, eating pork loin and baked potatoes, until Mother Nature sent us into the camper with more rain. It rained heavily all night long, the sound of the big drops clattering on the metal roof and canvas sides of the camper. There were a few drips through the non-metal parts of the roof, but nothing too serious.
Tuesday morning welcomed us with more rain, so we got some coffee and donut sticks and hit the road, making our way to the Tippy Dam, and impressive, towering structure that gives way to the fast-flowing Manistee River. We got into the truck and headed back the way we came, stopping at Sawdust Hole in the Manistee National Forest. We walked about half a mile down a winding trail to the Manistee River. There were plenty of fishermen, including several boats anchored in the middle of the river, braving the rain. We opted not to brave the rain, at least not then, and decided to head back to camp.
When we got back to camp, two of our friends were getting into their truck. “Where are you guys going?” we asked.
“The Crystal,” said one of them.
“Can we follow you?”
An hour and fifteen minutes later, we were fishing the Crystal River. Although we were all wearing waders, most of our fishing was done standing on the bank. It took us four rain-soaked hours, but we put a dozen salmon on our stringers. The Crystal River is much different from Bear Creek. The bottom consists mostly of light-colored sand, with dark patches and holes where the fish like to hide. The Bear, on the other hand, is mostly dark and murky.
We returned to camp and made our way to the fish cleaning station to filet the day’s catch. Cleaning salmon is a messy proposition. During the fall, the salmon are spawning, and when you cut them open, they are often full male or female reproductive components. The eggs are kind of pretty – clear, orange balls that are about the size of a pencil eraser. Also, salmon bleed more than any other type of fish that I have cleaned. When we finished cleaning the fish, the stainless steel table looked like something out of a horror movie.
Tuesday night’s dinner consisted of smoked meatloaf covered in a woven blanket of bacon. Having never smoked a meatloaf, I was a bit nervous about the outcome. My worry was for nothing; it was delicious. After dinner, Aaron got a fire going, and we were able to dry some of our rain-soaked clothing.
Tuesday night into Wednesday morning was another rain-soaked affair, with a few more drips making their way through the canvas and onto us. Again, nothing major. There were people tent camping about fifty yards from us. They told us the next day that there was water pooling in the bottom of their tent.
Wednesday morning, we headed back to the Crystal River, managing to land seven fish. It was a slow day of fishing, but I managed to catch up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a year while sitting in the middle of the woods, admiring Mother Nature’s beauty.
Thursday morning, we were up and on the road by 10am, making a stop for supplies on our way to the Crystal River. The sky was overcast, but there was no rain in the forecast according to Aaron’s iPhone. Ah, the wonders of technology. From my perspective, it was nice to get away from technology for a while, or at least temper its use. I will admit that I spent a maybe 15 minutes a day while on this trip checking the news and Facebook, and I have talked with my wife, kids, and grandchild several times. Aaron, on the other hand, had his phone in his hands most of the time we aren’t fishing. I suppose I would have been that way if I’d have had that technology at that age. We ended up with six fish in about four hours of fishing.
Friday, we fished until noon. Aaron put four fish on the stringer, while Jim and I managed three between us. We returned to camp and finished the river camp chili. I guess that I should explain what river camp chili is. We started with a basic chili, made with deer and elk meat, tomatoes, tomato juice, beans, and chili powder. When we finish dinner each night, we cut up whatever meat is left and add it to the chili. This year, we added pork loin, meatloaf, and corned beef brisket, all expertly smoked. By Friday at noon, when we sat down to finish off the chili, it was perfection in a crockpot – thick, dark, and meaty.
After we cleaned Friday’s catch, we spent an hour or so cleaning up around camp, getting as much done as we could so that breaking camp would go more quickly on Saturday morning. We then headed to the Little River Casino, located a bit north of Manistee, for the buffet. Jim and I each ate about thirty pounds of crab legs, along with various other delights, and headed back to camp. Since it was raining, we turned in early.
We got up at 8:15am on Saturday, after a night of heavy wind and rain. The wind had damaged the awning on the side of the camper, and we had to spend an extra thirty minutes making repairs so that we would get it rolled up and in its case. We broke camp and hit the road at 10am, another salmon trip in the books. We caught thirty-two fish, and had as much rain as any year I can remember. We also exposed Jim’s son Aaron to the joys of six days of (sort of) roughing it, eating smoked meat for nearly every meal, and Jim’s famous river camp chili.
As we made our way back home, I couldn’t help but heave a sigh. I was looking forward to getting home and seeing my family, sleeping in a real bed, and having access to indoor plumbing. Plus, the new episode of The Walking Dead awaited me on the DVR.
At 46, I also know that these trips won’t last forever, but I’ll continue to go as long as I am able, and will pass the experience along to my kids, just as Jim did this year. Catching fish is fun, and having fish for the freezer is nice, but nothing compares to spending time outdoors in the fall in Michigan with good friends at your side, strengthening friendships and making memories.