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Angling for a Healthy River
A fly fisherman wades in to save the Au Sable
by Marilyn Berlin Snell

According to lodge owner Rusty Gates, gas drilling near the Au Sable will ruin the fly fishers' experiences: "This is their head time, and they don't want people messing with it."
"Trout don't live in ugly places," announces Rusty Gates from behind the counter of his tackle shop on the south bank of the Au Sable River. If this lushly wooded bit of Michigan's middle section is any indication, he's right. Designated as one of America's wild and scenic rivers, the Au Sable gently weaves through a wonderland of red pine, white oak, osprey, bald eagles, and tall grasses animated by whirring, iridescent bugs. Beauty, tranquility, and awesome fishing spots are its higher themes.

At the fly-tying station in Gates's busy shop, a young man bends over a deer hide in fierce concentration, snipping tan-colored hair with scissors, then wrapping it in pale yellow thread around a barbless hook. "For the Trico hatch," Gates says by way of explanation, as though I have any clue what a Trico is. (I learn later that Tricorythodes stygiatus is an insect that hatches July through September in these parts, usually in early morning.)

"I came to work at 6 a.m. because it's warm out," says Gates, who also owns and operates the adjoining Gates Au Sable Lodge with his wife, Julie. "I knew guys would want to have a cup of coffee and get on the river." Several mornings ago, he knew the opposite: He could sleep in because it had dipped to 34 degrees the night before, so the hatch would come later in the day. "Everything we do during the season is dictated by temperature: air temperature, water temperature. Then, of course, you've also got to know the insect cycles to know what flies to use."

Featured in the book Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die, the Au Sable is a sanctuary and vacation destination for thousands of devoted anglers. A stretch of the main stream outside the lodge's dining room is even called the "Holy Water." The name was bestowed by Gates's father, a fanatical fly fisherman who had fished the stream with his kids since the 1950s, quitting his job as a high school music teacher in the '70s to take over the lodge so he could be closer to the source of his true happiness. The river's effect has been practical as well as restorative: George Griffith, whose love of angling led him to found the conservation-minded Trout Unlimited in 1959, had a home along this part of the Au Sable.

Unlike the mighty and wide rivers of Montana and Argentina, the Au Sable is human scale: It's wadable, with a bed of firm sand and small to medium-size limestone gravel that camouflages the dappled brown and brook trout; it's narrow enough so that anglers can stand in the middle and comfortably cast into the shadows on either bank. And, in Gates, it has a flesh-and-blood guardian angel.

Gates, 50, is not your typical advocate for the wild. Anglers who have been making the pilgrimage to the family lodge for decades (Gates took over in 1983, after his father died) say that as a younger man, Gates barely talked and avoided people as much as possible. He wasn't antisocial, just shy. "I was laid-back. If someone said something to me, I'd take three days and then respond," he jokes. He discovered his voice defending a quiet stream.

The Au Sable is a catch-and-release, artificial-flies-only haven. In the 1980s, some residents banded together and challenged the restrictions in court. "We wanted this to be a sports fishery--enjoy catching the fish but put them back--but some locals felt that these regulations took away their right to keep what they caught," Gates says. As the fight heated up, he realized that most of the anglers who visited his lodge year after year didn't live in the immediate area. So he founded the Anglers of the Au Sable as a way to organize them into a voice for the conservation of the river's habitat. His efforts paid off: The Holy Water continues to give fish reprieve from the dinner table. Today Gates is still president of the group, which has nearly 900 members around the globe.

Chosen as Angler of the Year in 1995 by Fly Rod & Reel magazine for his conservation efforts, Gates has had many flies named for him: One, Rusty's Spinner, is tied to look like the mahogany, Hendrickson, and brown drakes--all mayflies. Rusty's White Not utilizes reddish-brown deer hair and a parachute-type wing made from the white belly hair of deer to impersonate another mayfly, which Gates calls a "White-Gloved Howdy."

Tall and thin, with a trim salt-and-pepper beard and mustache, Gates is professorial when he talks aquatic psychology to his customers. "We look at this as a PhD river," he tells a couple from North Carolina one morning. They'd read his name in a book and want advice on how best to suss out the Au Sable. "It's not stocked, so we have wild trout, and wild trout are much more leery and harder to catch. If you learn how to fish this river, you can fish anywhere in the world." As they look at the exotic array of flies, he points to one and suggests that the Black Ghost Marabou would be good today: "Put it up in the quiet stuff and then bring it out to the flow."

After the couple leaves with some Marabous and maps, Gates says that he has two rules of thumb: Don't offer unsolicited advice--let the customer ask the questions so as to gauge angling abilities and needs; and don't get fancy--use names for flies that regular folks can pronounce. "People come in here wanting to spout Latin, and I respond, 'Oh no, I haven't fished with a Hillbilly or a Rat-Face McDougal in a long time.' I prefer the common names."

On the days I visit the shop, it's mostly peopled by men. They buy gear and share intelligence--about what's hatching, what flies to use, and whether the weather will hold or turn. It's all fishing, all the time. (Gates's dog, Buster, chimes in only when a distracted customer steps on him.) Gates says that fly-fishing used to be a guy thing but not anymore. It's still a way for dads to connect with their kids, however. He tells me about a father and son who wandered into the tackle shop the day before. "They were new to fishing and didn't know the area; they were asking a lot of questions," he says. "I told 'em to think about where they'd want to be to get out of this hot sun and how this stream leaks cold springwater all along the edges, where there's also shade."

Gates is a character whose enthusiasm attracts those who share his quirky affection for fly-fishing. One repeat guest, who's been making the trip for 35 years from out of state, compared the excitement of fishing the Au Sable to "hard moves on a rock climb" or "a first kiss." He also likened the stream to a woman: "It's always changing, and I can never figure it out."

When I first arrived at the lodge, close to 11 p.m. after a three-hour drive from Detroit, I met another Au Sable character. He was standing in the shadows outside the room next to mine, dressed like a soldier in camouflage fatigues and a floppy canvas hat. He smelled of bug spray and made me nervous. My citified street sense kicked in, and I tried to avoid him, but he called out a hushed greeting and offered that I must have had a long day. "Mine's just beginning," he said cheerfully. He was waiting for a buddy to pick him up for a night out--on the Au Sable. "It's the best time to go," he assured me. "You've got meteors and coyotes yelping and other amazing things. Plus the fish are jumping like crazy tonight." They didn't return until after 3:30 in the morning.

Gates later tells me that the man is a friend. After many years as a lodge guest, he had come to the Au Sable--uncharacteristically mid-season--as a form of therapy, to help ease his grief after a family loss.

Continued
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Photo by Gary L. Howe; used with permission

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