Fishing for the elusive descendants of monster brook trout.
- By: John Gierach
- Photography by: Bob White
I came to know about Michigan’s upper peninsula through the writing of Ernest Hemingway, John Voelker (a.k.a. Robert Traver) and, later, Jim Harrison and others. It may be a coincidence that many of the writers I like have a connection to this northernmost landmass of Michigan that, until the completion of the Mackinac Bridge in 1957, was so isolated it could only be reached from the rest of the state by boat.
Or maybe it’s just that the region naturally produces stories filled with tea-colored trout streams, beaver ponds hidden in swamps, and small towns where rules are gracefully bent by those with the right intentions. Whatever the reason, the UP is enshrined alongside the Serengeti, the Yukon Territory and Paris as a place made romantic by virtue of appearing in books. Which is to say, I am an innocent victim of literature.
I’m less sure where I first heard about coasters, the adfluvial brook trout that spawn in streams and then use Lake Superior to feed and grow the way anadromous fish like salmon use an ocean. They’re an item of local knowledge, not something you’d expect to hear about out here in Colorado. If you’re a fisherman living in any of the three U.S. states and one Canadian province bordering Lake Superior, there’s a good chance you know what a coaster is. Otherwise, you’ll probably think it’s the thing your mother makes you put under your glass of iced tea.
These fish are said to be elusive, coming and going mysteriously in the largest, deepest and coldest of the Great Lakes, and they could get big. The world record brook trout—the 14-pound, 8-ounce slab caught in 1917—was a coaster that fattened up in Lake Superior before returning to the Nipigon River in Ontario. Of course a world record is an impossible standard—especially one that was caught almost a century ago—but word is that even in these benighted times a 20-inch-plus fish might not be out of the question. And then there is that photo of a more recently caught coaster brookie that’s going around the Internet. It’s a big, sloppy hog of a fish that wasn’t weighed before it was released, but that the length-and-girth formula suggests would have come in at a stupefying 16 pounds. Or so the story goes.
So when Bill Bellinger asked if I wanted to meet him in the UP in early June, I asked the same question I’d asked several other friends in the area: “Do you know anything about coasters?”
Instead of the usual, “I’ve heard of ’em, but have never caught ’em,” Bill said, “Oh sure. I got into ’em the same time last year on size 12 flying ants.” I booked a flight to Marquette. I tied no less than a dozen size 12 flying ants. You know how it is.
I’d met Bill 15 years ago when I was in Charlevoix, Michigan for a funeral. In the course of things I ended up with a few free days and it was suggested I go fishing, possibly to get me out from underfoot so cooler heads could deal with the adult business. When I asked around about a guide, everyone steered me toward Bill, or “Wild Bill,” as he was known then.
He turned out to be a competent young guy with a little house on the river, a bulldog named Killian (after a brand of beer) and a beautiful wooden Au Sable River boat. We floated the Jordan River and I caught some fish. The next day I followed Bill’s detailed directions to some beaver ponds, where I caught more fish and didn’t see another person all day. I won’t go so far as to say that everything was suddenly OK. Death isn’t just a big deal, it’s the big deal. Still, life does go on.
I didn’t see Bill again until i got off the plane in marquette. I wasn’t sure I’d recognize him, but there he was standing next to a teenager he introduced as Sam Black—known as “Sammy”—who’d be fishing with us. Sammy was a compact, broad-shouldered, 16-year-old hockey player and avid fisherman, the son of a neighbor whose father was “out of the picture” for the usual complicated reasons. In the kind of rural volunteerism that still exists in northern Michigan, Bill had stepped in to take up some of the slack.
It was better than an hour’s drive to the borrowed cabin where we’d be staying, so there was time to catch up. (Aside from having fished together, Bill and I are connected by a web of common acquaintances that fall just short of shirttail relations.) It turned out that everyone was doing either OK or as well as could be expected under the circumstances.
Bill was no longer Wild Bill the single fishing guide, but a married house painter, although that didn’t seem to have changed him much. There’s a pre-nuptial agreement stating that Bill can come and go as he pleases as long as he’s fishing, but he can’t walk into a bar without his wife on his arm.
We’d planned to go out in the 16-foot boat Bill had trailered up, but it was windy and rainy and Superior was too rough. So we left the boat at the cabin and threaded our way down a muddy two-track to a point about 150 feet above the lake. The shoreline for miles along here is mostly sheer sandstone cliffs right down to the water, but in this one spot you can pick your way down to the water and cast from a convenient boulder pile.
I felt good about the whole deal. This was where Bill had caught fish a year before, and the guy at the sporting goods store in the small town of Big Bay had allowed as how it was as good a place as any for coasters. Beyond that we’d hit the usual cagey stonewall where the local fisherman sniffs out what the out-of-towners already know and then leads them to believe that that’s pretty much the whole story.
In the end, Bill and I cast until our arms hurt without so much as a bump, and Sammy, fishing a worm and bobber on a spinning rod, landed and released a whitefish and a small coaster. I congratulated him and Bill proudly clapped him on the shoulder. Sammy didn’t seem to know what to do with all this praise.
The weather that week was the way it can be on the south shore of Lake Superior. There were none of the epic storms they call “Canadian crap hammers,” but there was a steady parade of rainy, windy squalls that would either keep us off the big lake or make us leery about going around the point of the bay toward the mouth of the Salmon Trout River. As we got close to the point some days we could see the shear line where the waves got much bigger than the ones we were already bobbing in, which were plenty big enough, thank you. We were in a 16-foot open boat and the water temperature was around 40 degrees. Sometimes I think I’ve grown overly cautious as I’ve gotten older. Other times I think that’s how I’ve gotten older.
None of us knew a lot about coasters, but we did know a few things through common wisdom. One was that the Salmon Trout was the last remaining coaster river in the UP. Another was that once the fish move into Lake Superior, they stick tight to the coast—hence the name—in relatively shallow water over a rubble rock bottom where your odds of catching them aren’t all that good. Casey Huckins, a biology professor at Michigan Tech who has studied this population, told me that there are no more than 150 Salmon Trout coasters in the lake at any one time and that they can spread out over roughly 50 miles of shoreline. That would work out to about three fish per mile if they were distributed evenly, which of course they’re not.
We developed a ritual of standing in front of our cabin in the mornings studying the cliffs across the bay that we wanted to fish. They were two miles away, but when the wind was up we could see the uneven white line of waves breaking against them and knew we’d be off to the Yellow Dog River until the weather cleared, or maybe to a beaver pond Bill swore wasn’t private, even though getting on it involved climbing through a hole in a chain-link fence.
We got out on the big lake in fits and starts—a morning here, an afternoon there, as storms and waves allowed. Bill and Sammy had the procedure at the boat launch down to a science, so I was left with the simple job of stuffing the two-dollar launch fee in the envelope and filling in the blanks. Date: June something; make of vehicle: Chevy; Name: Bellinger; and Bill’s license number, which was easy to remember: 4ZTROUT.
The fishing was what you’d call methodical. We’d slow troll along the cliffs, casting streamers toward shore and stripping them back. Takes were infrequent, so I concentrated on my casting: the unhurried drift on the backcast, the smooth punch and haul on the forward stroke with a glance at the deck to see if I was standing on my loose line. It became obvious that this was another one of those fish-of-a-thousand-casts deals, so the job was to make clean throws one after another and to not be asleep at the wheel from monotony when the strike finally came.
We did our best when we could tuck our flies right up against the cliffs in shallow water, but that wasn’t always possible. Some days the rollers were high enough that you could lose depth in a trough and tick the uneven bottom with the skeg if you got in too close. These same waves could put you on the rocks in minutes if the outboard stalled, and Bill’s outboard, though serviceable, wasn’t above stalling from time to time. So we stayed in deeper water and lobbed streamers as far as we could reach into the shallows.
Bill explained all this to Sammy, who eagerly soaked it up. Whatever was or wasn’t going on at home, this was a kid who wouldn’t have to try and piece together the fine points of fishing from instructional DVDs.
The fish we hooked and got to the boat were recognizable early summer coasters: strong and chunky, mostly 16 or 17 inches long and a pale grayish silver in color. The typical brook trout markings were all there, and later in the year as spawning approached they’d color up like small-stream brookies, but now they looked washed out, overexposed.
Professor Huckins said these early season fish look too much like splake for their own good and are sometimes mistakenly kept by fishermen who aren’t paying close attention. (“Know your fish,” the state fishing regulations implore.) The limit on coasters is one fish no less than 20 inches long. In the waters we were fishing, splake can be kept at 15 inches and you can string up three. Huckins isn’t what you’d call a fan of splake. He said that even without the chronic case of mistaken identity, it doesn’t make sense to pollute the gene pool by stocking a fertile hybrid of lake trout and brook trout in a fishery that already has spawning populations of both fish.
The coasters’ original range isn’t precisely known, but the best guess is that most of the 300-plus rivers and streams feeding Lake Superior once had healthy populations. Using the 50-mile range of the Salmon Trout fish as a rule of thumb, it’s easy to picture them in the early 1800s spread out along the lake’s entire 2,726 miles of coast, plus inshore shoals and islands.
By the turn of the last century much of the coaster habitat had been or was about to be degraded or outright destroyed by road and railway construction, mining, logging and hydroelectric dams, but even before that they were hit hard by fishermen. Commercial fishing began early and the haul can only be guessed at. Records either weren’t kept or haven’t survived, and even when they do exist lakers and coasters were often lumped together under the single heading of “trout.”
The extent of the hook-and-line catch is also unknown, but evidence is everywhere in old mounts of large brook trout and sepia-tone photos of grinning dudes from Detroit or Chicago posing with obscene piles of big, dead fish. It’s hard not to envy those guys, not so much for the fishing they had, but for their innocence. When you bring a coaster to the boat today you know you’re looking at a member of a remnant population and you can’t help feeling something short of guilt, but a little past nostalgia.
Threats to the coasters’habitat aren’t all in the past. The Kennecott Minerals Company is currently digging a copper mine on the headwaters of the Salmon Trout River—the last coaster river in Michigan, remember—that, according to the opposition, could destroy the fishery through siltation and the introduction of sulfuric acid, both unavoidable byproducts of sulfide mining. (According to the company, the proper environmental safeguards are in place and everything should be fine.)
We got an earful about this from Gene and Carla, our neighbors in the next cabin down the shore. They’d moved to the UP when they retired, but their plans for a quiet life had been sidetracked by unexpected new careers as unpaid environmental activists. It was a familiar story: A small group of under-funded locals who were long on outrage and short on strategy up against a multinational corporation with the kind of lawyers who, as someone once said, could get a sodomy beef reduced to tailgating. As you might expect, things hadn’t gone well. They were not only out-gunned and under-funded, but Michigan has a long history of being sympathetic to extractive industries and careless of the environment. If nothing else, you know what you’re up against when the local newspaper is called The Mining Journal.
One afternoon when we’d been blown off the lake again, Gene drove us out to look at the mine site. He’d given the impression that there was still a chance to stop the project, but it looked like a done deal to me. There were high chain-link fences plastered with KEEP OUT signs, heavy equipment everywhere and diesel exhaust in the air. The dirt road we’d driven in on was in the process of being widened to super-highway proportions. Several guys in hard hats recognized Gene and gave him the hairy eyeball reserved for tree-huggers bent on stopping progress.
We drove past the mine to where the Salmon Trout went under the road through a culvert, then we got out of the truck. At this point the river was narrow enough to jump across, flowing out of an expanse of jack pine and alder. Bill walked into the woods and came back in a few minutes to report that there were small brook trout finning in a couple of pools. He wondered if there might be beaver ponds up here somewhere that held bigger fish. Gene was silently glum. I was uncomfortably contemplating my personal use of copper (I must have gone through pounds of the stuff for the ribs on nymphs alone.) Sammy took it all in with an air of puzzlement. I got the sense that he’d rather just fish without all these complications. Me too, kid.
As soon as we got back in cell-phone range on the drive home, Gene called Carla. She answered with, “Did you get arrested again?” and he replied, “Not this time.” This may or may not have been a private joke.
One calm afternoon we motored out of the bay, past the mouth of the river, and found a small pod of coasters off a spectacular rocky point. I’d just caught a nice one from under a rock overhang when a man in a canoe paddled over. His name was Paul; he was a self-confessed coaster fanatic and a member of the Huron Mountain Club, which owns the entire fishable length of the Salmon Trout. After a few minutes of conversation, he asked if we’d like to fish the river. We said OK.
Lower down it was deep, slow, brush-choked and estuarine, but higher up it was a pretty little trout river flowing through some of the last old-growth forest in the UP. Below a waterfall that formed a natural barrier we caught some 8- to 10-inch brookies that you’d have to describe as coaster smolts.
Later, Paul showed us an old skin mount of a coaster from the late 1800s. A large brook trout—maybe six or seven pounds—had been skinned in one piece with the skill of a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, and the skin had been sewn onto a piece of birch bark with something that looked like sinew. The white birch bark showed spookily through the fish’s empty eye socket. There was no approximation of life here as in modern taxidermy. This thing had been dead for more than a century and it looked it.
I’d only heard about the Huron Mountain Club a week before, so I had to be told how unbelievable it was to be let on. The club was started by wealthy industrialists (some might say robber barons), it covers almost the entire Huron Mountain Range and it’s always been paranoid about its privacy. Lots of sporting clubs bill themselves as venerable and exclusive, but few can boast a founding date of 1889 or of making Henry Ford wait six years to be accepted as a member.
The club is an almost mythical presence to locals. Some who have lived nearby all their lives claim to know nothing about it. Others tell of hidden motion sensors, and armed thugs who descend on trespassers like the wrath of God. Maybe, maybe not, but there is a padlocked gate and guard shack manned 24 hours a day by guys who never smile.
Still others claim to have brazenly waltzed on more than once to fish the river without getting caught. Again: maybe, maybe not. Stories about poaching remind me of the tales of sexual conquest I heard in high school. No doubt those adventures did happen, but probably not at quite the frequency or the fever pitch you’re led to believe. On the way back to the cabin Bill said to Sammy, “Someday you’ll tell your grandchildren you fished the Huron Mountain Club with permission.”
The next day, back on the lake, Bill had a close call with a big coaster. The fish boiled after a streamer, darting and nipping as if it knew there was a hook and wanted to bite the thing in a safe place. The fish was on briefly—long enough to put a deep bow in the rod—and then he threw the hook close to the boat. He was big. Twenty inches easy, maybe 21 or 22. This would have been a rare keeper, but although we never talked about it either before or since, I don’t think Bill would have kept it.
Somewhere on the drive down to the airport in Marquette where they dropped me off, Sammy asked what we thought would happen with the coasters. We said we didn’t know; that it could go either way, which struck us all as an honest but unsatisfying answer. Then Bill tried to lighten things up by saying, “Maybe someday you’ll tell your grandchildren you caught coasters when they were still in the UP.”
I glanced at Sammy in the back seat in time to catch his look. Grandchildren again. I remember age 16. You knew there was a long haul in front of you, but spans of time large enough to encompass marriage, children, grandchildren and the possible extinction of an entire fish population seemed too theoretical. And anyway, there were things closer at hand to think about, like the next hockey game, the next fishing trip and that blond girl in study hall—not necessarily in that order.
Sometimes I think I’ve grown overly cautious as I’ve gotten older. Other times I think that’s how I’ve gotten older.
He was a self-confessed coaster fanatic and a member of the Huron Mountain Club, which owns the entire fishable length of the Salmon Trout River. After a few minutes of conversation, he asked if we’d like to fish the river. We said OK.
John Gierach has written FR&R’s Sporting Life column since 1992. His latest book is No Shortage of Good Days.