Beyond skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, skating and winter zip-lining, the latest tourist attraction in northern Michigan is getting in a float boat and having "A River Runs Through It" experience in the dead of winter.
"People say, 'What?' They think the river freezes," says Ethan Winchester of Boyne Outfitters. He is head fly-fishing guide at Boyne Mountain, which for the first time is offering winter fly-fishing as an activity for its guests. "Rivers don't freeze up like a lake. The trout don't leave. They become somewhat dormant and slow down, but they're still in the river."
This time of year, steelhead and trout are theoretically there for the catching - but they are elusive.
Winter fly-fishing has other challenges. If it's sunny and in the 30s, conditions are glorious. Great waterproof waders keep anglers dry. Gourmet lunches and hot coffee keep them warm.
"But a lot of times when you come out here and it's 10 or 20 degrees, the rods get covered up with ice, and the reels freeze," says Tom Menas, another guide. "It adds a different element to it."
Which may be the understatement of the year.
On this January day, we start at Chestonia Bridge, a few miles south of East Jordan.
We are lucky. It is above freezing. And it is sunny.
Winchester backs up the Jeep and its trailer to a snowy embankment and slides the boat downhill like a sled, where it gathers speed and splashes into the water of the Jordan River. Soon, we are floating in the Hyde-McKenzie- style drift boat, with paddles like a river raft. Winchester guides the boat past low-hanging branches, eddies, swirls, minor rapids, sharp limbs and fallen trees. We dodge hollers and shadows, dark water and open areas.
We fish at holes the anglers know, murky spots called Two Logs, Brown Trout Alley, Lawyer's Lounge, Sucker Hole.
We fish. We fish. No bites yet.
The day is all crystal ice and melting snow, at times completely silent except for the sharp cracking snap of our drift lines. A merganser duck honks and flies overhead. The burbling water calls out its winter song. My feet feel warm in their waders with boots, waterproof as a tarp on a roof. I sip hot coffee. I cast my line, again and again. The guides show me how to flick my wrist, cross over, then repeat until it becomes automatic, even beautiful.
Winchester and Menas are ardent fly -fishermen. They have caught plenty of trout in winter. But not every day. Perhaps not this day.
"The fish keep you humble," says Winchester, 25. He used to be a fly- fishing guide in remote Alaska. He grew up in Charlevoix and knows this area like the back of his hand. Still, he doesn't always get lucky.
The Boyne guides prefer to take clients on the Jordan and Sturgeon rivers in winter, adding others in summer. The Jordan is a favorite. Rarely above 52 degrees even in July, it is clear, fast-moving, and the banks are quiet and forested.
"There are a lot of proverbs about fly- fishing, and one says that each river has its own soul and character," Winchester says. "This river has just about everything to put you at ease."
Today, the 3 1/2-mile route takes us six hours. We stop many times to fish from the boat and wade in the water. We stop longer on a riverbank to eat lunch and fish some more.
Winchester grills steaks, asparagus and new potatoes and heats brownies on a portable grill. The sun shines. The river shimmers. Menas and I walk slowly downstream through the frigid January water, casting our lines. You don't want to fall into the river this time of year. We are so careful, especially walking back upstream against the tugging icy current. My boots feel like they weigh 1,000 pounds apiece. But they are stable. It's the oddest feeling, to walk through water up to one's knees in the middle of January and not be cold or wet.