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Local angler knows Pere Marquette's secrets


By Howard Meyerson Press Outdoors Editor [email protected]

BRANCH -- It was about noon when I stopped rowing and turned my attention back to fishing. I soon found myself reeling in my first fish of the day: a seven- to eight-inch brown trout that shot out from under a fallen pine.

Unfortunately, it also would be my last fish of the day. But that wasn't the case for Chet Babcock of Grand Rapids.

Babcock, 64, who says his good health is due to his passion for cigars, already had landed and returned eight fish in assorted sizes. We eventually would stop counting somewhere around a dozen, including a few running from 12 to 14 inches.

"I think there are bigger fish in there, but I wasn't expecting to get any, said Babcock, chairman of Grand Insulation and Environmental Services in Grand Rapids. "On a clear, sunny day like this, I was expecting to catch a lot of fish like these."

Spoken like a man who knows the water and his tactics: namely, one green-colored Blue-Fox spinner and a well-developed feel for its action.

Babcock and I had joined Wayne Andersen, president of the Sable River Watershed Council, for a day of hunting big brown trout on a lesser-fished section of the Pere Marquette River.

This particular stretch is known to harbor browns running more than 20 inches. The Department of Natural Resources stocks it with 24,000 yearling brown trout each year.

The segment also has its share of natural reproduction, fish that hide from danger in the deep holes, feed on salmon eggs in the fall and steelhead eggs in the spring. They are fish that grow because fewer anglers come looking.

"There are some really nice big brown trout down there," Cadillac district fisheries biologist, Mark Tonello, said. "It's a pretty good mix of wild and stocked browns.

"There's not a ton of gravel, but there are some nice, deep holes. You won't get the numbers you get upstream, but you can get size."

We put in at McDougal Landing and floated down to Sulak Landing, a seven- to eight-hour trip if you're fishing.

Andersen graciously rowed us most of the way. In the time he got to fish, he landed a small brown trout using a countdown Rapala.

"One of the things I like about this section of river is that it doesn't get fished nearly as much as the flies water or Upper Branch near Walhalla," he said.

Andersen is a versatile angler. He loves to fish streamers on a fly rod and spinners and Rapalas on spinning tackle. His advice was to use a sinking Rapala. It excels where anglers need get down deep in a hurry.

Our approach was to keep moving, to drift continuously downstream, casting to the bank and retrieve. The lure would sweep downstream in the current and arc down deep into a hole, enticing whatever lurked there. More than once it found the sunken timber.

"Speed is more important than color," said Babcock, speaking of how he finesses spinner baits.

"The speed of the blade is very important. If I throw it out and don't feel it drop right, I bring it back it."

Babcock seemed to have the touch. While Andersen and I tried a variety of tactics, Babcock stuck with the familiar feel of his light- to medium-action St. Croix graphite rod and a spinner.

He prefers 8-pound test FireLine over stretchy monofilaments. It provides quick hook set and casts well. A 6-pound fluorocarbon leader runs from the FireLine to the lure.

"I use the fluorocarbon so it disappears in clear water," Babcock said. "The FireLine doesn't stretch, but you get more feel with it."

For two of us, the day would turn out to be a delightful day of fishing rather than catching, but it would prove to be an enjoyable day for all of us.

I had started with a fly rod and weighted streamers. The river demands a roll-cast or that anglers sacrifice their flies to the trees. I later switched to a countdown Rapalla and hooked a fish and then switched again to one of Babcock's spinners with no relief.

The weather almost was too perfect for fishing, Andersen would say by the end of the day and suggest that we return on a cloudy day next time, when the big fish might come out to play.

"I was hoping to catch a big fish or two and we didn't, but I'm not disappointed," Andersen said. "Any day you float you can get one but some days you don't."
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