Most of the fishing guides you go with are fun and entertaining when the fishing is decent, and absolutely great to be with when the fishing is phenomenal. What separates the really good guides and charter captains from the great ones, though, is how they keep their clients enjoying the trip when the fishing is terrible.
Yours truly has had the pleasure of fishing with Captain Mark Chmura of Pier Pressure Charters on several occasions, and each time, the fishing was superb, whether we were drifting floats on the Big Manistee River for steelhead, trolling shallow water for browns, or offshore in Lake Michigan for king salmon. And Captain Mark’s quick wit and quirky sense of humor made each trip even more fun.
But then we went fishing on the “Big Man” on Monday, April 8. And the fishing was terrible. Not only was it getting a bit late in the season with the bulk of this river’s massive steelhead already spawning, but recent rains had swollen the river to an angry brown.
“I’ll be really happy if each of you guys catch one fish today,” said Chmura, who always seems like he just winked.
Chmura had invited our mutual friend Matthew Sawrie, of Torpedo Products, and me for a day of steelheading. The day before we’d taken his big Tiara offshore on lumpy and cold Lake Michigan to check out the new Smart Troll device that attaches to your line ahead of your lure and beams back depth and water temperature. A fascinating device that worked well, but that’s another story. Monday’s trip was all about relaxing and having fun.
Chmura, however, isn’t the sort of guide who ever relaxes. We were supposed to meet him at his downtown boat dock at 7:00 AM, but were running a few minutes late. At 7:01, Matthew’s cell phone rang. It was Chmura.
“Where the heck are you? You’re late!”
About 15 minutes later Chmura gunned his 20-foot Custom Weld jet boat upstream in the early morning light. We flushed ducks of all sorts, giant Canada geese, and even a pair of sandhill cranes that were on a mid-river hillock and took flight with surprising quickness and grace for such big birds.
“There’s an eagle,” Chmura said, pointing ahead through the windshield to an enormous bird flapping hard to gain altitude.
“What kind?” asked Sawrie, who resides in London, Ontario.
“A Canadian Bald Eagle,” said Chmura with great authority. “Except it went to the Bosley Clinic and isn’t completely bald anymore.”
Maybe you had to be there.
A few minutes later Chmura toggled the switch that made the electric winch (which he designed and built himself) to drop the massive chain anchor to the bottom. Knowing most guides have nicknames for their favorite river holes, I asked Chmura if this spot had a name.
“My Spot,” he replied, not missing a beat. “It’s right next to My Other Spot.”
Well, My Spot and My Other Spot didn’t have any biters present, but at the third spot (I didn’t bother to ask it if had a name) Matthew hooked up three times and missed two other strikes, without landing a fish. Amidst no small amount of good-natured kidding from our captain, we accomplished a fruitless milk-run, stopping at a bunch of Chmura’s best spots without success. Somewhere about half way through our trip, the heavens opened a torrential downpour, and still we fished on, watching our bobbers drifting downriver, fresh spawnbags suspended beneath. Matthew and I took turns staying out of the rain while the other fished, while Chmura made sure the bait was fresh and the atmosphere was light with hilarious guide stories. One, in which a 10-year-old kid amped on Mountain Dew and Three Musketeers candy bars ended up hanging by his ankle from a riverside tree, had tears streaming down our faces from laughter.
Finally, about seven hours after we started, my bobber sucked under, which Chmura saw before I did.
“There you go, Dave! Bobber’s down!”
I swept the 13-foot centerpin rod back and—yes! The three-pound steelie put up a respectable tussle, but we soon had it on the deck. After a brief puppet show in which Chmura assumed the role of the fish, it went in the cooler. Matthew caught one about a pound bigger two spots later and we decided to call it a day.
Although the Big Man did not supply as many fish as this fine river usually does, Captain Chmura made it another great trip–the mark of a great Michigan fishing guide.
Image by Dave Mull