This summer, I received a call from my good friend Terry Witorp. Terry is the master of the fishing trip and had three different opportunities to discuss with me, 1. A float trip on the mighty Muskegon River (referred to as "The Shit Show"). We would fish on Friday and row some guys from the SJRVFF club the next day. By all accounts, this trip is an absolute blast and peaked my interest. 2. Montana in September for all or any of two weeks. Again, bucket list. I mean come on, Montana!? But then came 3. Fishing a couple of days with Jeff Currier for smallies on the Manistee.
Now obviously, I wanted to say yes, yes and hell yes! And in hindsight, I think I may have slightly committed to all three in various ways, knowing damn well, that all three trips were never going to happen. The Shit Show is an annual event, and Montana isn't going anywhere, but fishing with THE Jeff Currier, I saw as possibly a once in lifetime opportunity. So my choice was easy.
I am not ashamed to admit; Jeff Currier is my fly fishing hero. He has been doing presentations at our SJRVFF meetings for years and always has been one of the best speakers. Being able to get to know him and watch him fish was an even greater experience than I could have imagined. Here are the top five things I learned from those three days in Northern Michigan.
1. Do The Work.
Before we left for Michigan, I took my son Carter to meet Jeff and attend his fly fishing clinic in Elkhart. SJRVFF set up the event which began with a slideshow of some of the places Currier has fished around the world, followed by a casting clinic, and then a knots/rigging session, advanced casting clinic and concluded with a slideshow of the amazing fish Jeff has caught. He has caught over 350 different species on a fly rod!
My favorite session was the rigging. Jeff shared some secret tips on how he fishes nymphs and streamers. One stern piece of advice Currier offered: Never, EVER tie a fly off the hook bend of another.
I regularly use two flys when fishing. The only time I tie off the hook of my point fly is when I fish two streamers or when fishing a dry-dropper rig. I watched Jeff as he showed the group of fifty people how he fishes two streamers, two nymphs, and a dry-dropper rig. I found his insights interesting. However, there were I few extra steps involved that, in my ignorant arrogance, I didn't believe were necessary.
Let's fast forward to day one of our floats down the Manistee.
Saturday night, Stanifer and I enjoyed a nightcap with Terry and Currier in their cabin at D-Loop Outfitters in Wellston, Michigan. I could have stayed much longer and listened to Currier's story of fishing in the Arctic for Char the week before. He was chased around the tundra by polar bears, bitten by mosquitos as big as butterflies, and stayed in what amounted to a tin igloo. Great Story, but alas, we called it a night to get up early and get on the river!
At least that was the plan.
Stanifer and I have a reputation of skipping breakfast and showing up at the boat launch at the last possible minute. This day, we were up and ready! We met at Annie's Kozy Kitchen for what has to be one of the best breakfasts in Michigan. Currier picked up a Fishing Licence and some beer, and we were on the river at around 10:30 am. Not exactly the crack of dawn. Currier fished with Terry and Steve, I had Stanifer and Reber, and Uncle Mike had the VanAntwerp brothers in his StealthCraft with him. I rowed for the first beat, staying a safe distance behind the other two boats. We popped a couple of bronze smallies, none with any size to them. About four hours in, we saw the other boats anchored, and we stopped to have some refreshments and see what was working. A shirtless Jeff Currier was holding court. The man is a fantastic storyteller. We sat there for over an hour, smoking cigars and sipping Wedgewood and Old Style Beer we had chilling in the Yeti (Currier is a HUGE Chicago Cubs fan). Stanifer said he would take a turn on the sticks, so I made my way to the front of the boat. I took a look at my rig and decided I should add a second fly. I had been rowing all day, and it was hot. Africa hot.
I was tired, and since my back was to Currier, and he probably wasn't paying attention anyway, I began to tie my second fly to the hook of my other. Later, I was informed that Currier knew exactly what I was doing and was smiling and shaking his head while I tried to conceal my actions in shame. Then, like an idiot, I flipped the rig into the water to see how she tracked. Now everyone saw what I have done, and the ball-busting began!! Lead by Currier himself.
We pulled in the anchors and meandered downstream in a tight pattern. The current picked up a bit, and the water became surprisingly technical. Stanifer was visibly uncomfortable. Ten minutes into the float, I stuck a pig! Quickly I realized this was not a smallmouth bass, but rather a Skamania. A summer steelhead common in Michigan and a prize catch. I shouted out "Why do you guys make this look so hard? I guess that rig works after all, Currier!" I saw a rye smile from Jeff as their raft disappeared behind the bend.
As usual, I spoke too soon. The fight was brief, brisk and exhilarating! Reber and I both got a look at the fish, and it was huge. I horse the brut a bit too much and SNAP; it was gone. I reeled in my line and damned if that fish didn't hit the trailer bug and break off at the bend. We all had a good laugh in the boat. That fish will haunt me for a while. Maybe forever. I will never tie off the hook of a fly again.
Hours later, when we stopped again for another cocktail, Currier assumed I landed the fish. And even though he had to feel vindicated that I probably would have landed that fish had I used his rig, he genuinely felt bad for me that I lost it.
His system takes a little longer to set up, but if I had only done the work, what a different story I would have to tell.
2. Fish Hard.
Currier says "Fish Hard" a lot. And he lives it. I rowed A LOT on this trip. Reber had never rowed before (but he did great!), and Stanifer, he likes to row, but he LOVES to fish. Our boat was usually last downstream, which gave me an opportunity to watch the master at his game. Currier is a machine. His casting stroke is effortless; delivering his flies on target every time. When we would stop for drinks, Currier would rig up and let his flies swing downstream, just in case a fish swam by and wanted a snack. He seemed eager to take his turn on the sticks, and when he was on the oars, he worked his ass off for Terry and Steve; holding the raft in potential hot spots and slicing into every nook he thought might harbor fish. Fly Fishing is Jeff Currier's job. And he has an impeccable work ethic.
Day two of our float, we got a little better start. After another excellent breakfast at the Kozy Kitchen, We loaded into our vessels and right before launch, Reber purposed a wager. $10 to the boat that catches the most fish, any species. The biggest fish was to be the tiebreaker. Terry scoffed, "How about a buck?" to which Stanifer pointed out that he did, in fact, have The Jeff Currier in his boat! Currier suggested we at least make it worth our time and purposed we up the ante to $50 a boat. We all agreed and launched our boats for another beautiful day on the Manistee.
I started out on the oars. We were in real competitive mode, and Jeff spanked a small fish soon after our departure. We had a lot of chasers, but eaters were few and far between. We were the last boat in the group. I watched the other boats line and chose a different route, not wanting my angler's fly to be the third flies the targets had seen. Though the water was at normal levels and the air was hot, the fish seemed to huddle up on the soft side of the stream. Our opponents concentrated on fishing the fast water and deep runs where the smallmouth usually in those conditions. I believed the influx of spawning king salmon had thrown the fish off and caused them to abandon the fast water for the refuge of the weedy slack water. My assumption paid off at after the first three hours; our boat was in the lead with five fish, the biggest being a 16" fish Reber caught on a popper, his preferred tactic. Currier's raft was in second with four, and Uncle Mike not far behind with three.
I had fished a bit in the first two beats, but I had one of those days where I was doing a good job of wrapping my line around the horn, gear bags and the anchor. Reber seemed to have the hot hand with his popper, and as we entered a technical rowing section of the river, I switched back to the oars. Three hours later, at the next check-in, we had only added a fish to our total, Uncle Mike added another, and team Currier, a big zero. For the final push, I was ready to fish.
Stanifer took the oars. He had rigged by leader up to fish two streamers "Currier Style." I chose a flashy chartreuse Clouser minow along with my pattern, the Aunt Flo, which Stanifer was having good luck with on a challenging fishing day. Stanifer stayed close to Terry's raft. Currier was on the oars. After an hour time of no action, we entered a stretch of river with lots of structure on both sides. I noticed Currier was hugging the soft side. He was watching us. In the next hour, I was on fire! I had decided to go for numbers instead of size and pounded 10 to 12-inch fish, doubling up twice, though I never landed two in the boat at once. With every fish, we became louder in our celebration. Currier would turn and look and give us a grin. Stanifer stayed tight to them. After an hour, I had added seven fish to our count.
Currier road their raft to the streambank and said he needed a beer and a shot of Yukon Jack. Of course, we obliged him. We chatted for about forty-five minutes and were off again. I now had the hot had and soon took what would be my biggest smallie of the trip. We screamed and high-fived like we just won the Super Bowl. Currier shook his head and grinned from ear to ear.
We now had a commanding lead. Not even the great Jeff Currier could make up that many fish in what we estimated to be an hour and a half left of our float.
I took the sticks back and cranked the music up. G&R. AC/DC. Black Betty. All the classics. We drifted back a bit but did catch up to the raft to see them release a large fish and high five. No worries, biggest fish is the tie-breaker, not the contest. Stanifer caught a couple more fish, just to pad the lead a bit and all three of us missed fish in the last quarter of a mile before the boat ramp. Stanifer had a pig on for a few seconds only to lose it.
Uncle Mike was already on his way back to the cabins when we landed at the ramp. Terry's group was pulling their boat out as we approached. We met at the conference center at D-Loop for dinner with Dave and Amy, the owners of D-Loop. Uncle Mike was making fantastic grill steaks, and Terry made his famous Voo-Doo Shrimp. We by the time we got there, dinner was almost ready, and the guys were willing to pay us. Currier said he had switched to a Chernobyl Ant on that final stretch, but still on managed to land a total of seventeen fish, the exact number we had brought to our boat. The large fish happened to be a Northern Pike that was big by normal Esox standards, was over 20" and thus, the greatest fish of the day. We opened our wallets.
Currier later admitted to me that he had pulled over during my hot streak to try and cool me off and see what we were using. Tactics I sure he learned competing for Team USA in the World Fly Fishing Championships.
I told him I was glad he won. "After all" I added, "How could I go home and tell Carter that we whipped his hero's ass in a fly fishing competition!" We had a good laugh, a beautiful meal, and a fabulous night.
We do want a rematch.
3. Variety is the Spice of Fly Fishing.
Currier almost always fished two flys. And when the bite was off, he didn't hesitate to change his fly or technique. At the end of day two, all three boats were having success with small popper patterns. Currier went one step further by switching to a Chernobyl Ants, and by doing so, closed the gap and won the competition. Sometimes I find myself sticking with a fly, or more often a technique for too long and limiting potential success. Call it stubbornness, arrogance or laziness, having the wear with all to make subtle or significant changes to your tactics can often be the difference between a good or terrible day on the water. I find myself stuck in ruts on our local waters. There are days I will not take any nymphs with me so that I have to commit to fishing a dry fly or streamers. Variety is the spice of life, the artist, and fly fishing
4. Get to Know Your Environment.
Jeff Currier is a Naturalist. Legit. That was his major in College. When he tells his fishing stories from far away lands, he speaks as much about the environment as he does the fish. The plants, the bugs, the people. Even the smells. Currier was telling the group one of his tales during a beer break when he stopped suddenly and said: "Are there eagles here?" Terry said yes, to which Jeff replied smells like an eagle is close. We laughed. "NO, seriously!" he pleaded "don't you smell that musty odor? That smells like an eagle." Right on cue, a beautiful bald eagle soars over our heads.
Currier loves the outdoors and respects animals more than anyone I think I've ever met. The next day, We walked out of the Kozy Kitchen together, and I stopped suddenly. He looked at me, and I'm sure my face looked like someone who had just seen fire for the first time. He smiled and said, "You smell it, don't you?" I said yes as we looked over our shoulders to see an eagle cruising overhead. I am still amazed.
Know your target fish's habitat is always essential, but understanding the whole ecosystem and environment will only make you better at fishing, and a better human being.
5. Always be Gracious.
Jeff has fished all over the world at places whose names I cannot pronounce catching huge fish with names I cannot pronounce. I had to ask myself, why would he want to fish for smallies in Michigan? I think Jeff would fish for anything, anywhere. And it seemed that there was nowhere he would rather be. As big as Currier is in the fly fishing industry, he was just one of the guys on and off the stream. He wouldn't hesitate to bust your balls and seemed to like having you give it back to him. Day three, we had one more epic breakfast at Annie's. Stanifer and I packed up for home. The owner of D-Loop, Dave, offered to guide Jeff and Terry down the Pine River, one of my absolute favorite Michigan streams. If I had to describe Jeff Currier in one word, it would be gracious.
The trip though short will go down as one of my all-time favorites. I am grateful to have friends like Terry Witorp who puts these marvelous outings together, and I am proud to call Jeff Currier my friend.
As far as Jeff's stories, you must check out his amazing art and follow his blog!!