While many anglers fish to keep fish, other fly fishermen approach their sport with reverence for the location, and those who came before. Often, the fishing and the fish become irrelevant.
I practice that Zen approach at my home water, the Au Sable River’s South Branch, in the northeastern Lower Peninsula. For Ethan Winchester, director of operations of Boyne Outfitters, it’s on the stretch of the Boyne River named the Everett Kircher Preserve, for the late founder of the Boyne Resorts empire.
The northwest Michigan property that Boyne Mountain Resort occupies was Kircher’s first purchase, purchased for just $1 in 1947. Boyne now boasts 12 ski and golf resorts, spas and attractions. But, Winchester says, fishing was Kircher’s real outdoor love. He built his house along the Boyne River where he could relax, fishing the clear, cold waters for brown and brook trout.
And, he’s buried alongside the Boyne. When Winchester brings anglers to cast, it’s with more than a bit of veneration.
“In his autobiography, he said he was looking at Walloon Lake once (it’s nearby, and famed for its Ernest Hemingway connection), and said, ‘Why would I live on a lake when I always end up here?’ This is where he built his home and raised his kids. Everett is kind of watching over us when we’re out there,” says Winchester.
Longtime fishing companion Dale Crawford and I surveyed the river as it flowed below us at the lip of a bank, left to right. Branch and log-strewn, the shadow of a small trout was here and there, using them for cover. We walked upstream, watching as the water bent and wound its way through and along the edge of a large stand of cedars. On the stretch we’d fish, Winchester’s crew had kept an area clear so our back casts and flies wouldn’t catch an errant bush or twig. It was perfect. Just the way Kircher had planned—and what Winchester, who knows what fly anglers need, wanted.
Winchester grew up not far from here, eventually going to college and earning a degree in criminal justice and public safety. But the rivers, not the streets, called. He attended guide school in a Valhalla of fly fishing in Livingston, Montana, where scenes from “A River Runs Through It” were filmed. He guided in Alaska, having about as many grizzly encounters as you’d want in a lifetime—on one memorable day, it was 43.
Returning to the Charlevoix area, he thought he’d work in his family’s funeral home business. But as sometimes happens, the universe had other plans, and he ended up at Boyne.
On the Kircher Preserve that day, Dale headed downstream while I went up. We both tried fly patterns that worked on other streams, such as caddis flies and grasshopper imitators. Fish hang along or even in undercut banks, waiting for a tasty bit blown onto the surface by wind or simple insect miscalculation. But nothing I could do, and later Dale equally reported, brought any interest. We commiserated over a streamside steak lunch prepared by our guide.
“Everett Kircher’s passion was traditional sports, fly fishing and upland hunting,” according to Winchester. “He said, ‘I’d rather be known as a great fly fisherman.’
“My own dad was an avid outdoorsman. We didn’t watch football or baseball. We went into the woods.” By the time the Boyne shop opened, Winchester knew the territory.
“In guiding, we wanted to focus on streams that make northern Michigan unique, where others weren’t operating. So one of the big caveats I had is that we wouldn’t guide on the Au Sable,” one of North America’s most famous angler destinations. He would, however, include the upper Manistee, a surprisingly secluded and productive river that Winchester calls the “red-headed stepchild” of trout-dom.
“That’s as far south as we go. Then it’s the Jordan, the Boyne, the Pigeon, Black and Sturgeon and a little on the Maple, too. It’s not uncommon for us on a trip to fish the Black for the day and jump over to the Pigeon. If you fish them you can go back and forth because they’re so close. The Black is the only river in northern Lower Michigan managed for brook trout. And, it’s also pretty nice having access to the only private commercial trout fishing water in the state in the Preserve.”
Fly, Fly Again
After lunch, Dale once more headed down to fish the deeply shadowed areas laced with cedars that had succumbed to the water decades ago. Trout use their nooks and crannies to hide, rest and wait for a passing fly.
Led by our guide—Winchester employs up to seven—I headed up, to a large bend where he was sure trout were hiding under the bank or logs some feet below us. I made a few casts, and finally following his advice, put the hopper inches from the bank for a drag-free float, making the fly look as natural as I could. Out from the undercut, against the bottom, a shadow darted. With a splash the fly disappeared. My line pulled taut, then raced out a bit as the fish ran up against, then down with the current as it fought to throw the fly it had thought was real, and was now in its lip.
After a minute or two, I brought the beautiful brown to the net for photos, quickly releasing it unharmed—but perhaps a bit embarrassed—back to its home water. One fish, but it made the trip. Catching that fish did not matter at that point. It was the experience that made our visit a success.
Winchester says he takes care in picking his guides. “A lot of people can be good anglers, but not everyone can be good at guiding. They’re totally different. I look more at communication skills and their passion and how well they can share it. Then I look at whether they’re a good angler.
“I like to share this experience with people, because at some point you switch from being a guide, to now you’re fishing through somebody. I might not get to fish, but every day on the water I’m still fishing. Sometimes you’ve got to just set the rod down, and appreciate what’s around you.”
We wandered upstream along that cleared bank to where the Boyne emerged from the woods. Making a turn here and there through those trees, the water disappeared from view. Near where we stood, Everett Kircher’s grave, solemn and white among the trees, kept vigil over his river.
Winchester’s words hang over the memories of that day. Sometimes, you’ve got to just set the rod down, and appreciate what’s around you.
Photo by Bill Semion
This article originally appeared in the 2019 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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