Today, in easier times than those of the explorers on a religious mission and timber men in search of their fortunes, the Pere Marquette is spoken of in hushed tones by those who pursue fly-fishing for sport and amusement, rather than a necessary search for food.

By Ed Breen 

It is neither broad nor deep nor of great length, this river.  Just 64 miles of meandering, twisting and turning, flowing and gurgling through the forest and foliage of west Michigan.  As the crow flies, only 30 miles from Baldwin to Ludington in the Lower Peninsula. But a creature of what beauty it is, this stream they call the Pere Marquette.

Pardon me today as we depart briefly from our Indiana neighborhood, board a small boat and float down a few of those miles of the Pere Marquette River in Lake County, Mich., mostly through the protected woodland of the Manistee National Forest.

This river, as with all rivers, has been here forever, or nearly so, carved by flowing water eons ago in the final days of the last great Ice Age, the same ice sheet that scoured northern Indiana and made of it a flat plain, shaving hills and filling valleys as far south as Monroe County today, making suitable space to grow corn and soybeans.

We don’t know what this stream might have been named or how it might have been described by those first native people who undoubtedly waded these shallow waters, watching for fish darting  this way or that, using primitive tools – spears, nets of woven grasses, early rods and hooks and carefully crafted weirs of stone  – to snare and trap grayling and catfish and other creatures native to these waters long before more attractive game fish – notably a variety of trout and Pacific salmon — were introduced centuries later.

We know that this stream, like so many others to the far north of us, flows from the high ground down the sandy slopes of central Michigan, west toward the water of Lake Michigan. There are many similar streams:  Au Sable, Manistee, Muskegon, Betsie, Leland, Boardman, and Baldwin.  Michigan has more than 300 named rivers; by comparison, we Hoosiers have but 65.

We know that this stream was among the first to be given a European name. Its identification is with Father Jacques Marquette, the French-born Jesuit missionary and adventurer who died in 1675 at what is now Ludington, while exploring the Great Lakes shoreline. He was only 37 years old.  The “Pere” in the name – Pere Marquette – is the Fresh translation of “Father,” and it shows up on maps drawn in the 17th Century.

Then came the loggers who clear-cut the surrounding old growth pine forest and floated the millions — nay, billions — of board feet of timber down these streams to Lake Michigan, the logs ripping and tearing away the environment and natural banks of the rivers as they cascaded to the great lake. It was that timber that became the masts of sailing ships and the floors and ceilings of the homes and barns and factories that became the Midwest. And it was that timber that rebuilt the charred remains of Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871 and made it into the ration’s Second City.

An aside here: Should you want to see what the primeval forestland was like before the lumbermen arrived, visit Hartwick Pines State Park just east of Graying, Mich., along I-75. Nearly 10,000 acres that can be described only as majestic.  Red and white pines soaring 150 and 160 feet into the sky above the Midwest. Girth and circumferences of 10 and 12 and 13 feet.

Today, in easier times than those of the explorers on a religious mission and timber men in search of their fortunes, the Pere Marquette is spoken of in hushed tones by those who pursue fly-fishing for sport and amusement, rather than a necessary search for food.

Long expanses of the stream, departing from small places with names like “the bridge” and “clay banks” and “green cottage” are designated as catch-and-release waters; yes, you may catch the fish, but once you have been photographed proudly holding your trophy, you must release it unharmed back into its water world.

You may walk these waters in rubber boots and chest-waders, but if you prefer a boat, that’s fine so long as there is no motor attached.

And you may snare the creatures here only on tiny hooks hidden inside artfully made “flies,” handcrafted simulations of the bugs and insects that hatch on and over the stream, lead very short  lives and are gobbled by the fish who erupt from the surface water to snatch dinner from the air.

Fly-fishermen – and especially those for whom the tying of their own flies is a religious ritual – are reverential people, like Presbyterians or Roman Catholics or Harvard grads. Fly-Fishermen.

The tying of flies is an off-season passion. Winters and time away from flowing water are devoted to this. They, these people, assemble great collections of tiny tools, like miniature surgical instruments, and assorted feathers and fabrics and tufts of hair and hide from horses and pheasants  and other critters, which they sort and separate with tweezers.  Their instructions, their guidance comes from the “recipe” for one or another fly. They have Bible-sized books of “recipes” on nearby shelves.

The object: To create feathers, fur and wire that imitate the look, flutter, wiggle and silhouette of a bug.  A reliable source recounts from decades ago: The inveterate fly-tier was in need of a gob of gray fuzz. He found the color and texture in the living room carpet, took his scissors, trimmed the needed smidgen, returned to his desk and told his visitor: “Don’t tell my wife.”

And each fly bears a name. For this season and on this particular Michigan stream and under these weather conditions, there is the “Adam 14,” and the “Sulphur 14.’’  Then there is the “Gray Drake.”  They are what you and I would call May flies.  Or a “PM Wiggle,” a subsurface fly that wiggles when submerged in moving water. There is the “Bead Headed Nymph” and, of course, a Marabou, so named because it is fashioned from the marabou feathers found on the underside of a chicken’s wing.  There are hundreds – thousands! – more.

And there is evidence that fly-fishing — and all that accompanies it — is not restricted to the lonely and neurotic. An internet site enumerates current celebrities who fish with flies:  Jimmy Buffet, Liam Neeson, Reba McEntire, Eric Clapton, Martha Stewart, Emma Watson, Harrison Ford. All are under suspicion.

There are terrible ironies here. Chief among them the reality that creatures with brains the size of a knuckle are able to consistently outwit, outsmart and outfox adults of the human species armed with thousands of dollars’ worth of high-tech achievement: Monofilament translucent lines – they are called tippets—and rods crafted of split bamboo and, more recently, of graphite and resin,  clothing made of Gor-tex  waterproof textiles and one of everything in the Orvis Co.  catalog.

No evidence that any living fish has ever made a purchase from an Orvis authorized dealer.  But that’s just me. Truth be told, I’m generally on the side of the fish in this titanic test.  ’Tis true: I am not a fisherman.  Not made in that factory, but I have always sought the companionship of those who were.  They are, by and large, decent and enjoyable people with whom to associate.

In my misspent youth, it was pursuit of steelhead trout and salmon – King and Coho — on the Elberta Beach and Betsie River and the Two Hearted and other streams feeding Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.  Cold gray skies, cold gray water. Twenty-something degrees and rain or ice spitting in from the west.

“Perfect,” they said, these gap-toothed, slack-jawed, bow-legged, canvas-clad men who stored their day’s catch in a second-hand ice cream freezer truck they drove north from a warmer place.

They understood that I was of little use to them. I sought only suicidal steelhead that hurled themselves on the beach, pleading to be taken to a smoker.  But I was a pleasant storyteller in the evening hours and a reasonable drinker. Both desired qualities as steelheaders seek companions.

Satisfaction was accompanied by roaring fires built of driftwood on the beach and more warmth drawn occasionally from flasks tucked into snowmobile suits up and down the beach.

Today, in the declining years, I am among more affable folks in better weather and less demanding environment.

A log or tree stump or form-fitting boulder on the bank of this river, the Pere Marquette, will do nicely as we pursue this for the next thousand years or so.

Ed Breen has been an Indiana journalist for 50 years. He was a reporter, photographer and editor at the Marion Chronicle Tribune from 1966-1995, when he became Assistant Managing Editor of the Journal Gazette newspaper in Fort Wayne.