Dry Fly Fishing The Pere Marquette River

Michigan’s Pere Marquette River is a world renowned fly fishing destination for anglers in search of trophy brown trout, as well as migratory salmon and steelhead.  A barrier free, spring fed river, the Pere Marquette flows over 150 miles from its origin east of Baldwin, Michigan before emptying into Pere Marquette Lake which then flows into lake Michigan. The river is named after a Jesuit missionary, father Jacques Marquette, who spent the later portion of the 1600’s exploring North America, specifically the shoreline of west Michigan.

The River

The Pere Marquette is a rather small river that takes on its “switchback” appearance soon after its numerous feeder springs emerge from the ground to form the main flow of the river.  As the river travels west toward the lake Michigan shoreline, it widens, picking up speed and volume along the way.  It is joined by other creeks, rivers and “branches” of the main river, as it meanders west towards the town of Ludington, Michigan.  Along the way, is passes through a mixture of meadows, deep swamp and rolling hills, with both coniferous and deciduous trees dotting the landscape before joining Pere Marquette Lake in Ludington, Michigan.

Obstacles to Overcome

For those who have fly fished the “PM”, you know of its sharp bends, rushing tailouts, steep banks, overhanging trees and sandy ridges, as well as the fishing challenges that come with such surroundings.  For those who have lost their fair share of flies to such angling obstructions, you have probably learned how to adapt to the ever changing environment.  For those who haven’t, it can be learned but does take some time and the willingness to donate your fair share of flies to the cause.

Nearly everything about fly fishing takes on a more compact presence when fishing such a small and winding river.  Like aspects of many other sports such the bat swing in baseball, as The traditional overhead cast is rarely used, instead replaced with casts that require less room to execute and fish affectively, such as the Roll cast, Side cast and Reverse or Backhand cast.  All are rather basic and should be used in their most simple form while fishing a river like the Pere Marquette.

Role cast – Side cast – Backhand cast

  • The Roll cast – The key to a good Roll cast is to KEEP the fly line in/on the water during the “lift” and “load” portion of the cast.   Begin with elbow close to your body, start an accelerated rod lift motion WHILE slowly dragging fly line on top of the water back towards you.  Pause briefly when the rod angle passes vertical, then propel rod tip forward with a “wristy” snap (like a short tomahawk chop).  This is best done with your rod tilted somewhat side arm.  It’s not a side arm cast, nor is your rod straight up and down, but instead is locked in throughout the entire motion at about a 15-20 dewgree side angle.  By stopping rod tip high enough at the end of your cast, about eye level, it will allow the line to gain forward momentum, pick the remaining line up from the water and “roll”” it, leader and fly out in front of you, landing gently at your desired target.  Most often used when fishing around or under overhanging tree branches or shrubbery, it can be a lethal cast when executed correctly.
  • The Side cast – To make a side cast, simply tilt the casting plane of the overhead cast to the side of your body. For a right handed caster, this would be to your right, essentially casting parallel to the water.  It’s a great way of throwing narrow forward loops, but most useful for casting in tight spots, like under overhanging branches on the Pere Marquette river.  One of the greatest benefits in utilizing this cast is that you don’t bring the rod vertical and therefore don’t hit the overhead branches in such tight quarters.  Additionally, you can watch your back loop to determine the amount of line you can actually “cast” , as well as having the forward loop comes to the side of your target fish, therefore never putting it in the fish’s window of vision and possibly spooking it.
  • The Reverse/Backhand cast – To execute this cast, simply rotate your body, make your “forward” cast towards your backside and deliver your line and fly in a backhand fashion.  To do so effectively, it’s important to actually deliver your cast with your forearm and rod hand facing up.  Much like a tennis player does with their backhand stroke, your body may be facing perpendicular to or even slightly down stream from your actual “target”.  It will take some casts to get used to it, but once done so correctly, you will inadvertently convert to this modified cast as though it’s second nature.  The most notable benefits to employing this modified cast include better coverage of water and more precise timing in the subtle changes of your whole casting stroke. Now you can get your fly to key holding spots you only wished were possible before AND do so with ease and rhythm that makes you a better caster who is able to cover more of the river effectively with less effort involved.

The Hookup, Battle & Landing

Casting to a fish feeding on the surface is one thing, getting that fish to bite is another, however playing AND landing that fish is the cherry topping!  When fishing a river like the Pere Marquette, and their aren’t many like it, it is necessary to factor in the river itself…….a log jam filled, switchback river that has large and slippery rocks, just over the edge of that loose, sandy drop-off.   Hydraulics play a very big role in fighting and landing trout in a setting like this and it’s best to understand them before you have that bruiser of a brown trout on your line.  Logs are one thing and you can plainly see most of them, simply keep an eye out while playing your fish and try to steer them away from such obstacles.  One thing that’s not nearly as easy to “see” are the forces within the flowing water that change considerably at each bend, gravel bar or fast water chute in the river.  At each point in the river where depths change quickly, so too does the flow and this is where many quality trout can be lost.  If your quarry takes a run downstream and gets below the head of such a drastic change in the rivers current, get yourself below the fish if possible.   By trying to bull dog the fish back up through the fast, choppy water you’re only increasing the odds for the fish and decreasing them for you.

The Pere Marquette River is a fantastic river for both beauty and outstanding opportunities for the fly fisher.  It boasts some of the largest and smartest brown trout in the Midwest.  The “National Scenic River” designation given to it by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and National Forest Service is most certainly warranted.  Although a true challenge for the fly fisher due to the unique nature of the river and its classic “switchback” path, the Pere Marquette River is a true Blue Ribbon trout stream that should be experienced by all who wield a fly rod.