The senses switch on high alert. As the river courses its way between the hills and rises, the silences seem amplified. Yet your hearing becomes more aware, snapping your attention in the direction of each chittering chickadee, scolding squirrel, drumming grouse, or the water dripping back into the river from the oars. Despite the efforts of your best insulated boots, the cold seeps in through the floor of the boat. In the hands of a good guide, the riverboat moves effortlessly, as if drifting through a dream.
John Matson is a good guide.
I learned this about five minutes into a three-hour trip down the Pere Marquette River near Baldwin a couple weeks ago. Soon into our float we came upon a would-be blockade spanning the river, a deadfall, from the middle of which other guides had cut a pass-through. At eye level, smaller branches narrowed the opening to less than three feet. I positioned myself to duck as Matson maneuvered his craft past the obstruction. Not to worry though, for seemingly without effort he steered the boat so it glided past with an equal amount of daylight between each side of my head and the branches. No clunks, no bumps, no scratches.
A fourth generation meat cutter, Matson, 37, spends much of his winter working at his family’s “M-37 Meat Shack,” about eight miles south of Baldwin. He’s been guiding for 15 years and says he splits his time 50/50 between cutting meat and piloting clients down the river.
Even so, he said, “I work more days than most full-time guides do. I do about 100 trips a year.” He breaks that down to 50 in the fall, 30 in the spring, and 20 “during the course of a summer.”
Plus at least one trip during this winter.
Matson had agreed to take me on a search for steelhead.
Admittedly, this was a bit early for any hot action, but, well, you never know. Plus as Matson added, “It’s been too long since I’ve been on the river. I was glad to have a chance to get out here today.” He could have been speaking for both of us.
We took one of the familiar floats for that area of the Pere Marquette, putting in at the M-37 Bridge and taking out at the “Green Cabin,” not quite four miles downstream. Actually, the drive from the bridge to the cabin to spot a vehicle took about two minutes tops, and that was on a snow-covered, gravel road. But the river curves so much that we spent a half-day trip navigating and fishing the water between those two points.
The chief reason there are a restricted number of float trips available through the flies-only stretch is that much of the river passes through private land, and there are few public accesses. Also, according to Frank Willetts, owner of the Pere Marquette River Lodge where Matson and I met for morning coffee, 17 of the 22 access points on the 47 river miles between M-37 and Scottsville are on federal land.
“And the feds will only allow 23 permits for guiding on the river,” he said.
Matson offered a tip for someone looking to fish the Pere Marquette: “If you fish with a federally permitted guide, you can fish more water.” Because of the locations of the access spots, he added, “You can’t guide the flies-only water without a federal permit.”
Willetts explained the appeal of the Pere Marquette River.
“The flies-only water has the most coveted spawning grounds in North America south of Alaska. The PM is the only free-flowing river in the Midwest. It’s the place where the first brown trout were planted in 1884.
“Brown trout, steelhead, king (chinook) salmon. It’s the only place in the Midwest where there are naturally reproducing populations of these fish.”
Another appealing feature said Matson, is the PM “comparable in trout fishing to the Au Sable, but there, the big fish can’t get past Foote Dam.”
To Matson, the Pere Marquette River is “a special place. Even if the PM is busy, it’s still pretty and quiet. It’s about the smallest water around that is floatable. So the draw is to catch the biggest fish out of small water.”
Noting the conditions that day, though, Matson added, “Fish are harder to catch this time of year than in April. If you catch a fish today, it’s a real prize.”
We seemed close to that prize once when a fish hit and allowed me to play it for about 10 seconds before it broke off. For most of the day, though, the only thing biting was that brisk winter air.
But that’s to be expected when you visit the river, in winter.
Fact BoxIf you go:
Matson’s River Shark Outfitters, 231-745-7213.
The Pere Marquette River Lodge sits on the banks of the Pere Marquette River; a major feature is its lounge with the massive stone fireplace. Some of its rooms feature whirlpool baths. A well-stocked Orvis shop is also on the premises. For info: 231-745-3972, www.pmlodge.com.
Also sitting on the riverbank, the nearby Red Moose Lodge offers moderately priced, clean rooms. For info: 888-939-6667, www.redmooselodge.com.