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Iconic stream has seduced Toledo-area anglers for years

04/04/2017, 12:04am EDT
By By MATT MARKEY BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR

Michigan's Au Sable River has rich history

BAGLEY TOWNSHIP, Mich. — The North Branch of the famed Au Sable River wells up near here and begins to trace a worrisome looking EKG track toward where it will join the waterway’s main stem about 20 miles east of Grayling.

This carotid artery of the river slips around Flashlight Bend, meanders through Emerald Lake, past Sheep Ranch, and slices through Lovells before making a series of switchbacks and melting into its parent stream in a constrictor-like wrap around Mac’s Island. The last 21 miles of the North Branch are fly fishing only, further enhancing the lure of this watery thread, rich with brook and brown trout and a relatively comfortable wade.

But for a group of Toledo-area fly fishermen, the North Branch is more than a tributary, more than a river, and more than a trout stream.

“It is just a treasured water when it comes to fly fishing, and it has a very rich history,” said Keith Burwell, who has been a member of the North Branch Boys Fly Fishing Club for about a decade. “We tagged our name to it because that’s where we got started. It is kind of the holy grail for us.”

The North Branch Boys, now about 70 strong, is linked to that arm of the infamous Au Sable since in the early days of the club, the members frequently found themselves seeking out the solitude of the North Branch.

“We would go up there to fish on a weekend, and there are a number of canoe liveries on the main river, and once all of those canoes came down, it destroyed the fishing for that day, so we would just fish the North Branch, away from the commotion,” said retired Toledo attorney George Fell, one of the group’s founding members. “We were comfortable with the name, and it seemed to fit.”

In the early days, a handful of members would camp in the area, but eventually a small group got together and purchased a cabin near the river. Although the members now test their fly fishing skills all across the continent, the close connection with the North Branch remains.

The North Branch Boys holds an annual banquet to raise funds for conservation projects on the river, and for a number of other worthy causes, many of them connected to the Toledo area. It has assisted the Toledo Zoo’s efforts to return sturgeon to the Maumee River, helped Metroparks of the Toledo Area with its youth fly fishing program, and aided a variety of river cleanup efforts.

“We do a lot of good conservation work, and we’re very proud of that,” Fell said.

This year’s banquet takes place on April 12 at the Carranor Hunt & Polo Club at 502 East Second St. in Perrysburg. The cash bar cocktail hour starts at 6 p.m. with wild game hors d’oeuvres. Dinner is served at 7 p.m., featuring wild mushroom and rice soup, beef and fish, Betty Salad, twice-baked potatoes, sugar snap peas, and dessert. There will be a guest speaker, plus silent auctions and a raffle. Tickets for the event are $45 and must be purchased in advance. For tickets or information, contact Don Leary at 419-666-6335 or Burwell at 419-241-5049.

The North Branch Boys traces its origin back nearly 40 years when eight men with a common interest in fly fishing gathered with Pete Draughon at his apartment on Gunckel Boulevard in Toledo. The “founders” included Fell, Dick Ritter, Ed Kramer, Larry Tollstam, Jan Teague, Dr. Jerald Bovino, Bill Sido, and Ed Van Gunten.

In a letter to the membership dated August 18, 1982, Draughon lamented the looming end of the “fly fishing season” and reminded the ranks to assemble their fly-tying materials and fishing stories for a September meeting. The schedule accompanying the letter showed nine monthly meetings, through the following May. Draughon also included a post script that club patches would be available for $5 each.

The early gatherings were very informal, Fell said. The club later met at Toledo Home Federal Savings & Loan at West Central, then at the Perrysburg Boathouse, through good graces of the members of that club. They eventually moved the monthly meetings to the Toledo Sailing Club, and then to the current site, the hall at Wildwood Metropark.

The membership has varied in size over the years, and has included a couple of icons of the fly fishing ranks — the late Chris Helm, a world renowned fly tier, and Pam Peters, a champion fly caster who owns a bookcase full of national trophies.

Speakers are a regular part of the monthly meetings, covering a broad range of fly fishing subjects. One roster of speakers and topics from 2003 included: “The Clearfork and its Insects and Flies” with Ron Kyle, “Fishing for Stripers on Martha’s Vineyard” with Kevin Ramsey, “Fly Fishing in Mongolia” with Chris Helm, “Fishing for Smallmouth Bass on Lake St. Clair”, and “Fishing for Marbled Trout in Slovenia” with Paul Hoag.

Burwell said the club also serves to connect anglers. The information and knowledge exchange is endless.

“You communicate with people with the same interest, and every time you talk, you learn something different, whether that is technique, or just details on a certain area to fish,” he said. “There’s the comradery, certainly, and just understanding that I can know more about what I enjoy by being a part of this. There is no fly shop here in town for us to hang out at, so the club is the place to do that.”

The North Branch Boys Fishing Club is always looking for new members who share the passion for fly fishing, and for preserving and protecting our streams and rivers. And don’t let the name stop you — the club welcomes female members, and Peters is a past president of the group.

It’s just that the name is cherished. After all, if it’s still the Big Ten even with 14 members, then the North Branch Boys can keep the title. It is part of the rich legacy of one of the oldest fly fishing clubs around.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.

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