The chest-deep water compresses these waders tightly around my legs and waist. I hold my elbows out at head-level and cautiously make way towards fishier water. On this cold December day, getting wet would promptly sour the outing. It’s a bit of a gamble but making the transition improves my odds of hooking a steelhead as they migrate up river, all the way from Lake Michigan. Today’s time is especially meaningful, and a fish to take home would be a cherry-on-top. I’m getting married next week to a girl who’s go me all wrapped up and tangled in love. She’s the reason for the homecoming. After a spending the previous year out-of-state, I’m home so we can be with friends & family in the days leading up to our wedding. The two of us will be heading back out to Denver in a couple weeks to start our married life there. This afternoon I’m fishing 6th street below the dam, in downtown Grand Rapids. Today’s more about reflection than anything, so what a better place to visit than to check-in at the old stomping grounds?
When I was a little kid growing up in Jenison MI, my dad was often out of town on business. At the time I didn’t know any better, but he was doing something important. In the early 80’s, telecom giant AT&T was forced by the courts to open up it’s monopoly to new competition. Michigan Bell was still the biggest long-distance provider, but this old sheriff-in-town had a rival spawning in the form of a new startup called TeleDial America. My dad was one of the original four men involved, which would later grow to become a much larger company, operating under the name US Signal. He worked 70+ hour weeks when he was home, and that wasn’t very often.
When he was home however, we did a lot of playing outside. I can remember playing catch in the front yard with him and either one of my sisters or friends. “Pickle” was our favorite, when we’d simulate a runner over-stepping second and getting caught up between the bases, forced to outrun or outwit the second & third basemen. In our case, the runner would have to cross the imaginary plane past the thrower or tagger on either side of the huge blue spruce or the driveway. It was a yellow, 4 bedroom ranch on Greenridge. I can still smell the fresh cut grass in that front yard. On the milder fall days where tee shirts could be worn comfortably, or “indian summer” days as we called them, the high school marching band would be practicing down the road. If I close my eyes, I can still hear the the brass playing over snare drums while running and laughing with my pops. I also remember him taking me fishing a few times.
Two of these memories stand out from the others. The time he took me to Maplewood park in Georgetown Township to fish for bluegills or whatever would bite. I remember thinking we’d never be able to make the jump from the bank to the concrete storm sewer grate which stood several feet into the water. Dad grabbed me up into his arms and leaped out there, he’s 6’6″, and it was probably less of an ordeal for him than me. Anyways, it was cold, windy and rainy. Not that it’s of primary importance, but I don’t remember if we caught anything.
The second time he took me fishing was with Blake Forslund of Grand Rapids’ furniture maker Carl Forslund and Sons. Also on the trip was Blake’s brother Carl, and his grandson Mark. We booked a charter captained by Jim Bennett, and I was said to have been quite a handful. An un-diagnosed case of attention deficit would later become an explaination for my having grabbed every rod and setting the hook to every fish which struck. Sometimes this meant I would try to reel in two fish simultaneously, while my gallery onlookers – 7 grown men, stood by in awe watching a little 5 year old take a shot at running the entire operation. I remember catching a bunch of Coho’s that day, and beating the daylights out of every legal fish we landed before tossing them into the cooler like a seasoned pro. I thought I was the Gorton’s Fisherman.
That’s all there was to it; these two instances were what set off the bug. I was flying on my own from there. Of course I had plenty of help in the form of gear, rides, or advice, but I was purely smitten by fishing. I learned to fly cast by age 10. Caught untold numbers of bass and crappie during the summer months spent with my buddy Nolan, (who by now happens to be quite an accomplished angler & life-long friend). My first memorable trout came above Texas Hole on the San Juan. I was participating in an off-campus semester in Rehoboth New Mexico, and had read about the blue ribbon streams up in Farmington before Don DeGraaf, our department chair drove me and a buddy the 3.5 hours north to get there. I shouldered up to department of Fish and Game officer, who showed me what the fish were feeding on. I realized here that sometimes really big fish eat really small bugs. I landed my first Redside rainbow while fishing with my cousin John at the Mecca Flats campground in Warm Springs, OR.
My senior year at Calvin I had the pleasure of meeting some classmates who had also been smitten by the fishing bug. Glen Blackwood and Great Lakes Flyfishing put on an elective course that was just as informative as it was cool. Here I realized I wasn’t alone — Steve Kool, Eric Lundy, Chris Palmer & I met to try our hand at catching fish on the fly in local rivers and streams. There have been some very close friendships forged by fishing over the years. And then, of course, all the fish that have managed to come into my net chasing trout over the past year.
As I stand here casting, reflecting, casting…fishing, I realize the strangest characteristics add to the magic of this place. Nowhere have I experienced the juxtiposition of solitude and the rat-race more than here, Downtown — in the middle of the Grand. While I’m bundled up in waders and fingerless gloves, it’s probable that somewhere within 2oo yards, at the top floor of one of these buildings, there are men and women wearing pressed suits and blazers gathering for a board meeting to review their quarterly’s.
Other anglers are out here today experiencing this too. It seems they’re all focused on the water in front of them, but surely they must be aware of the cars cruising over the bridge behind us on Hwy 196. The sound of falling water muffles everything well-enough to tune out the noise, so if you don’t want to hear it, you can just focus on the water. Take a minute to look upstream, and you can’t miss the ale-colored water, passing smooth as glass overtop the dam before it falls, shattering into the mix below. This circulation of powerful, churning hydraulics is our city’s namesake. All the airation creates a froth, not disimilar to the head on a beer, releasing the Fisherman’s Wharf-esque aroma clinging to my nose and clothes. There’s sunlight reflecting off the mirrored buildings just on the other side of the cement flood wall barrier. It’s a mixing of urban and wild — two completely opposite worlds. To me, fishing downtown is akin to a twist-flavored cone at the local ice-cream shop, where this same melding of opposites makes for such a delightful experience, you simply must try it for yourself. Oh and speaking of ice cream, my “cherry-on-top”came in the 11th hour. A lively five-pound chromer, a few days fresh to the river from it’s home in the Big Lake, took my egg pattern. It pulled hard, stripping line on two big runs and cartwheeling acrobatically before I could land it. What a momentus occasion! When I brought the fish to hand I wanted to share the story, so I called my friend Steve. He was conveniently available, and happy to come snap a photo. As ironic as it is true, he was just a few hundred yards away, working from his downtown office – at U.S. Signal.