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KEN PERROTTE: Fly-fishing for salmon in Michigan can hook even a novice

KEN PERROTTE: Fly-fishing for salmon in Michigan can hook even a novice

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Salmon fishing

Jordan Kettlewell shows off a salmon he hooked in a tributary of Lake Huron in Michigan.

“Hmmpf, and they call the musky the fish of a 1,000 casts,” I muttered as I drifted the wooly bugger fly once again past the nose of about a king salmon effortlessly holding its position in the swift waters of the Carp River.

The water in this Lake Huron tributary of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was stained a deep tea color, and higher than usual for this time of year, resulting in a current that constantly pushed against my waders in this knee-deep section of the river. Yet, with polarized sunglasses, the big fish clearly stood out about 10 yards from me.

After what seemed to be an unending series of casts and attempted casts, I handed the 9-weight rod to Jordan Kettlewell.

“Are you sure?” he said.

“Yup. I need a break. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” I said, again reminding him that fly fishing wasn’t one of my regular gigs.

Kettlewell, a sheriff’s deputy by profession and a host of a television show called “Michigan Gone Wild,” took the rod and immediately began executing quick over-the-top presentations. By his fourth or fifth cast, the line tightened and things got nuts fast.

“This fish is going to take me down the river,” he yelled as it ran through the water as line sped off his reel.

I clambered up the riverbank along with our other fishing partner, Mark Copeland of Jay’s Sporting Goods in Gaylord, Mich., silently giving thanks it wasn’t me on the other end of that fish. I’m not as agile as I used to be and I’m sure the hookup would’ve resulted in a major league slip and dunk and, probably, a busted expensive fly rod.

We wanted to watch the action. The only way was to get on the bank and run to a point ahead of Kettlewell and the salmon.

“I’m into the backing,” we heard him shout from the water below. Not good–almost out of line. That fish needed to play out soon.

Mark and I finally reached the point where Kettlewell had stopped the fish. We looked on as he regained line and worked his way to the tired chinook. The verdict upon reaching the fish was unfortunate.

“Foul-hooked in the lower back fin,” Kettlewell announced. Only fish caught in the mouth are legal to keep.

Kettlewell carefully unhooked the salmon, lifted it for a cross-river photo and then quickly returned to knee-deep water where he held it by the tail and moved it back and forth to circulate water over its gills. After about 20 seconds, the fish regained strength and swam off to resume its important mission, namely, spawning a next generation of salmon.


Pink salmon, much smaller than their king cousins, were also making a spawning run to the river. The males grow a pronounced hump on their back during spawning season, giving them their other nickname: “humpies.”

We spotted multiple groups of pinks, usually a “hen” or female staged over a spawning bed with two or three males nearby jockeying for position and mating duties, such as they are for fish.

These smaller salmon might be more my speed, fly-fishing novice that I am. I accepted the rod and with Kettlewell acting as my “net man” and coach, stalked into position.

It was a matter of figuring out the speed and angle of the drift. Cast too far and hangups on the rocky bottom were likely. Cast too short and the fly is past the fish almost as soon as it hits the water. It was like Goldilocks looking for the just-right bed. Well, kind of...

Eventually, I figured it out and began doing both roll and overhand casts, dropping the fly about 10 feet into the current above the fish and then manipulating it in the fast drift by tugging the the line. Salmon are intent on spawning, but these fish were fresh in from the lake and still bright green. Put the fly before their nose enough times and one might get irritated enough to take it.

The largest male finally had enough. It was exciting to watch him break right a few inches and try to slurp in the fly. He missed or I missed, but somehow it worked out. I simply stopped the drift, gave the line a tug and, “boom,” he nailed the fly.

These salmon are only about 18 inches long, but my adrenaline rush soared 18 miles high. I played the feisty fish for a minute while Kettlewell jockeyed for position with the net. Soon, I was gratefully holding my first salmon on the fly.

The pinks are said to be excellent smoked or grilled, so this one went into the creel. Over the next couple of hours, the scene repeated itself. Copeland and I landed pink salmon and, with Kettlewell, we shared the beauty and tranquility that comes with this type of fishing on a mostly uncrowded river.

There is something about feeling and hearing the river, coupled with the wind in the trees, that is good for our human essence and soul. It was mid-September and I could only imagine how much more beautiful the scene would be in a couple weeks once fall foliage began peaking.

The salmon gods generously gave me a final crack at a king. As Kettlewell and I slowly hunted the river looking for fish, we heard a slight splash behind us. We turned in time to quickly glimpse the king. It materialized on the other side of the river, giving me a couple of long-cast attempts before disappearing. Oh well.

You know, maybe there is something to this fly-fishing stuff. For certain, every time I see a fish take a fly, I’m hooked.

Next week: Fishing on Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. For more about the Michigan fishing trip, including more photos and video, see Ken Perrotte’s weblog at

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