Circling back around again

“I grew up wild and free, walking these fields in my bare feet. There wasn’t no place I couldn’t go with a .22-rifle and a fishing pole,” Bob McDill

I stood alongside the banks of a small creek, soaking the sunshine in as far as I could, simultaneously drinking up and holding big gulps of fresh, clean air that still snapped with a zest of northern, wintry chill.

The creek was flowing fast and clear, with a bottom covered in cobbles and rocks certainly water worn, with their sharp edges long-since smoothed and rounded.

When I knew this place best, I was in middle school.

Back then, me and my younger brother would ride here on our bikes to fish for brook trout. I never knew it until much later, but my dad had done the same thing when he was a kid, though I think he just walked from his house rather than peddled a bicycle.

He told me that one time he didn’t return home until after dark to find his parents worried about his whereabouts. The creek was located a couple miles from the family home situated at the east edge of town.

He then explained that he had been fishing for trout at the creek and was so successful that he filled up a gunnysack with fish that was too heavy for him to drag home by himself.

This would have occurred sometime during the years of the Great Depression – likely the mid-to-late 1930s. My dad was born in 1926.

He told me that he “and the old man” had to go back to the creek that night to carry the bag of fish home together.

There were probably lots of fishing trips like that by people trying to feed their families during a time of great economic strife in our country.

My dad said the state had “planted” trout in the creek with the intention that it be available as an opportunity strictly for children. Several decades later, fish are still stocked in these waters to help promote fishing and provide fresh table fare for families.

Knowing my dad, I’m sure he felt proud being able to bring several meals worth of fish home to do his part to help-out, especially as a kid, during those challenging and terrible times.

Just a handful of years later, he and two or three of his friends enlisted in the military before they graduated from high school to fight in World War II.

My dad served for two years and went to the Philippines and other Pacific destinations on a Navy ship, which is a circumstance difficult for me to believe as he often thought it was too far to travel 14 miles to the next town to grocery shop or to go out for dinner.

I am certain he saw his military time as another opportunity to pitch-in to serve the greater good. More than 50 years after he was discharged, he and his pals were awarded honorary diplomas by their high school.

My brother and I used to fish this creek from the highway down throughout the twists and turns of the first mile or so. The creek flowed slowly and quietly through old culverts who entrances were partially covered by rusty steel bars that kept debris out.

We used to drop our lines baited with worms through the bars and then would retrieve flipping and flopping fish back through the bars, losing more than one when they fell off trying to complete that maneuver.

There were also a couple of places where the creek widened, offering a dark place for the fish to congregate. Suckers used to spawn in this place too.

On a couple of occasions, when I was in high school and my brother had since been diverted north across the Canadian border to live with our mom, I walked the powerline down from a cracked a broken county road.

From there, I would cut across a meadow into a swampy area at the shoreline of a small lake that the creek flowed into and out of. The shore around the rim of that lake was a bog mat that moved up and down as I walked across it.

I stuck close to the trunks and roots of the brush and small trees that grew out of it for walking stability. It was a little iffy, but I was never really scared.

The lake was home to small perch and sunfish as well as brook trout.

Upstream from the lake, the creek tumbled over large slate boulders and into a small pond where trout also congregated. My dad showed me this place when I was in high school on a night when he and I went there and caught a bunch of fish together.

Beyond all of this, the part of the creek I was most familiar with I fished with a couple friends of mine from my middle school and church choir.

This part of the creek flowed in a more pronounced and direct sense, rolling faster, wider and deeper. This is the part of the creek I am standing at today.

I haven’t been here since those old times back in middle school.

I was excited to see the creek still bouncing along like it was still young, with ample trout waters available to fish.

On this day, I was simply walking along taking in the sights, too early to fish yet.

There were signs of spring all over with the sound of Canada geese honking overhead and soft and white pussy willows sprouting from the bushes nearby. I brought a sprig home for the Queen of Shebis.

In this place, the creek crosses back and forth two or three times under what once was a railroad track used by passenger and freight trains to service the old mining town.

Off to my right, I see the remains of an old railroad bridge broken up and rolled into a heap at the side of the road, across the creek.

Back and forth under the road, the stream switched sides at each crossing. At all these points, the creek flowed impressively.

In other spots, there was just enough space in between the bushes to drop a line. I knew these places would be holding fish and would likely produce a strong and swift tug on any baited line that would be dropped in there.

There was a wide pool I was approaching where we used to fish with bobbers. It was a place that good casting into those deeper waters might catch you a beautiful trout for the frying pan. The bobber would provide extra weight to get the line out farther.

At one of the crossings, I put my sunglasses on to have a better view into the water to see if I might see some fish.

Almost as soon as I did, I spotted a large fish swimming toward the edge of a backwater just upstream from the crossing. At first, I thought it was a sucker as it was too large to be any trout in these waters.

A smaller fish, about 9 or 10 inches long, followed alongside the big fish. When the big fish stopped to hide within the shadow of some bushes, I could see its tail and side clearly through the cold water.

From the pattern of spots on its side, I could tell this fish was a northern pike. No doubt a trout eater and a ravenous foe in these small waters.

My heart sunk at the realization.

I dropped a couple of brightly colored pebbles into the water to see if the motion might lure the big fish out from under the bushes, but nothing doing.

As I continued to walk along the old railroad bed, farther and farther upstream, the quality of the fishing waters began to diminish greatly.

At one point, there were significant amounts of brush pushed down and across the stream, providing cover for fish perhaps, but no place for a fisherman to drop a line.

The creek was also braided where it diverged from the road upstream into a swamp where it lost greatly its definition.

Overhead, the bright azure skies were sparkling in the sunlight and the day was warming impressively. I continued walking until I reached a crossroads and another road that had not been in existence when I used to ramble around this place as a kid.

I had almost reached the farthest place downstream that we fished from above.

It was a very strange and surreal occurrence to be back here today. It was just as happenstance that I decided to stop to get out of my vehicle.

I was on my way to an appointment and when the person I was meeting was late, I decided to kill some time by taking a jaunt down here to see what the old place looked like.

So much of it had changed that only portions of it remain as I once recalled them.

The rest is a new story being written for other young kids in town who I hope still have fishing poles and bicycles and brothers and maybe even nightcrawlers that they picked out in their backyards on a rainy night to fish with.

There are so many wonderous experiences to have in the wilds of nature, even close to home. I am so fortunate that I had those times when I did to help shape who I am today – someone still finding myself in nature.

Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula.


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