by John Jonelis
How does a Type A find rest from the daily barrage of demands and decisions? Alternate activity, of course! Here’s my best pick for a quick weekend retreat. This is too much fun to keep to myself.
Every year like clockwork, the big King Salmon Run takes place in rivers feeding the Great Lakes. The best of these is Michigan’s Pere Marquette. Now admit it—hooking and battling powerful fish is completely different from the daily grind. This will be a vigorous weekend of personal rejuvenation. And you can put it on next year’s calendar right now and schedule time off. It always happens the last weekend of September!
The Pere Marquette
This is not a wide river, but it haunts all those that set foot in it. There is nothing trivial about this place. Kings come here to spawn and die. Their offspring will mature in Lake Michigan and years later, return to this very spot. God stocks these waters; nobody else does that on the Pere Marquette, and the great Salmon swim in abundance.
Here a sportsman’s worth is measured in reverence for God’s creation. What do I hold sacred in this place of death and rebirth? Shall I trample through its wild waters, and in my vulgar pride debase its sanctity and my very soul? Or do I, like a pagan idolater, worship the creation—not the Creator? Let it not be so! May I worship You, dear God, who made this magnificent river and exult in Your glory! It is majestic in this place!
My Secret Spot
This river runs through the Huron-Mansitee National Forest—an area of immeasurable natural beauty. It’s designated a Blue Ribbon Sanctuary. The section I fish lies between Gleason’s Landing and Highway M-37 near Baldwin Michigan.
This is a no-kill zone. Fly rods only. Single hooks no larger than #4. No live bait. No snagging. Small nets. All fish caught here are tenderly released to spawn. The fishing is extraordinarily good. Do you wonder why?
Bueter’s Salmon Camp
Every year, on the last weekend of September, John and Rhonda Bueter run this venerated event with a tradition going back over a quarter century. Here I pitch my tent or I might rent a cabin at the adjacent Cloud9 Resort. I’m not looking for luxury. Roughing it is part of the experience.
The profane gather here and I am one of them. We are men and women from all walks of life—entrepreneurs and tradesmen, city dwellers and outdoorsmen. Every year we gather to immerse ourselves in this sacred place that is the Pere Marquette.
That and tie flies and teach each other the best ways to catch these magnificent fish.
That and consume great quantities of wonderful food.
That and spend our nights wading the river among teaming schools of monster Salmon—trying our skill with long rods.
That and sit around the roaring campfire sipping good bourbon and telling precious and highly appreciated lies.
That and sleep till noon and do it all over again. I call that the perfect weekend retreat!
A Night on the River
I arrive early to get more time on the water and on this first night, I wade the river’s currents alone. Here in the dark forest night, I peer about in the eerie glow of my headlamp at pods of rising dorsal fins. In this river, my quarry averages 20 pounds but some run twice that size.
Mine is a 10-weight fly rod and my tippet is 20# fluorocarbon—not the flimsy stuff from typical fly fishermen’s lore. I carry a small box of crudely made flies that I hope will trigger a strike from an enormous King.
All around me, big Salmon leap clear of the water. They make spectacular splashing displays as they motor across shallow gravel flats, all but their bellies entirely visible above the waterline. As I watch, one leaps an embankment and beaches itself. Really! I wade over to coax it back in the river.
This night I’m rewarded with numerous strikes but few hookups. That’s normal. Twice I fight a fish for ten minutes or more, only to lose it for no apparent reason. That’s normal too. I choose my next position and remain still a while. A Salmon bumps my legs. Then again. I glance down and watch a huge King swim between my feet.
Fish on! This one feels heavy and powerful. He fights like a tiger and it takes all my strength to keep pressure on him. I fight line-in-hand for several minutes, then he runs downstream, taking out my line. Now my big primitive fly reel sings as he peels off more and more. When he stops his run, I tighten the drag so it barely clicks as I lift the rod. I move toward the fish and methodically pump him toward me.
Now he’s near, but he moves into a deep hole. This is a problem. With all my strength, I’m merely supporting him in the main current. He’s resting. I apply lateral pressure and the fish cooperatively moves to my side of the river. But when I try to coax him toward my net, he moves back to that deep hole. It takes another fifteen minutes to work him out of that place—then I’m treated to a spectacular display of splashing and thrashing before he heads for a downed tree near the opposite shore.
I know I’ll lose him if he gets into that tangle of wood, so I wade downstream across a shallow gravel flat and tug him away from the hazard. He responds with another show of watery gymnastics, then moves back to that same deep hole. It’s his special hiding place, but this time I’m fighting him from the downstream side and I have the advantage. My pressure adds to that of the current. I’m tiring the fish.
Now he moves onto the shallow gravel and thrashes at the surface not twenty feet away. I see him in the beam of my headlamp. He’s huge—maybe 30 pounds!
Then he’s off! What did I do wrong? I never gave slack. My tackle didn’t snap. I check my fly and find the hook bent open. Tomorrow I’ll invest in better ones.
After a few minutes, my adrenaline slows and I thank God that I get to do this. I cannot comprehend how anybody can possibly land a bigger King than that on a fly rod. Yet, larger ones swim here. I tie on another fly and cast cross-stream.
Reaction from Friends
“You wade in the water hunting 40 pound fish? Alone? At night? With a fly rod?” The questions get more and more shrill. “And you let them go? Are you crazy?”
I understand that to the uninitiated, my passion may appear extreme. SO IS MY REGULAR WORK! ALWAYS WAS. WHY SHOULDN’T MY WEEKEND RETREAT FOLLOW SUIT? THIS IS ALTERNATE ACTIVITY, AND THAT’S BETTER THAN BED REST!
But I don’t say any of that. No, I respond with a wan smile. “I do this every year at this time.” Then after I sigh from the flood of fond memories, I quietly state the obvious. “Who can stay away?”
The Main Event
On Friday, official festivities begin. Campers arrive throughout the day, mostly late. They come by car, truck, and plane. John Bueter makes sure everybody is equipped with adequate gear, and if something crucial is missing…well, Baldwin boasts two fly shops.
Bueter takes the group out on the water about 10 pm. I can see my breath. Fog rises from the water’s surface. It’s unusually cold and tonight the air temperature drops to 35˚F, but my waders along with a hoodie and rain jacket keep me snug and cozy.
Bueter points out a female King Salmon and explains where the males will position themselves. “Don’t cast where there aren’t fish,” he says. He demonstrates the most effective way to present the fly and then positions fishermen up and down the stream. I asked him why I get so many strikes but so few hookups, so he watches me and soon sets me straight.
A gal fishing upstream is fighting a huge King. I try to net it, and in my enthusiasm, I take a dunk in the icy water. Her Salmon is so big, it sticks way out of my net. What a thrill!
But now I’m soaked—carrying water INSIDE my waders, and it’s really cold. You don’t fool around with hypothermia. As I fish the remainder of the evening, I keep wading the river to maintain body heat. Four hours later, we’re back at camp and I indulge in a long hot shower. Bueter throws extra logs on the campfire while everybody tells stories and passes the bourbon. Tonight they nickname me “Bobber.”
At noon the next day, I climb out of my tent in amazingly good health and spirits and meet a new neighbor. Jen is a diminutive and vivacious gal of twenty-something. She and her husband just took up fly-fishing and this is their first try at Big Salmon.
Today I make a number of friends. I learn a new fly-cast, how to tie new fly patterns and the theory behind them, and I tuck away plenty of good food.
At 10:00 pm, Bueter again leads the group out on the river. It’s another cool night and fog from the river reflects my headlamp and obscures my vision. We explore a mile upstream and find several pods of large aggressive Kings.
I hook and fight two big ones. One snaps my 20 lb. leader. The other I land and release.
I hear Jen call out somewhere downriver: “I love fishing!” Everybody catches fish this night—remarkably fat and strong fish—all King Salmon fresh from the big lake.
It feels like time to turn in when Bueter’s shouts my name. I wade upstream to find Jen bending over a huge Salmon, nursing it back to swimming strength. Fishermen surround her, flashing photos.
Then together, Bueter and Jen lift the fish and we all gasp in awe. Never have I seen a Salmon that size. It weighs out at 40 pounds on the scale! Jen is beaming, and blurts out, “This is Christmas…and Birthday…and…that’s amazing—so amazing.”
How can anybody that diminutive and petite find the skill and strength to land a fish that size on a fly rod? This is the catch of the weekend. Because a first-time angler caught it, it makes the trip particularly special—a winner for everybody.
One happy fisherman shoots a video, which is posted below.
Sunday, after a big breakfast, we honor two fishermen taken from us this year, and Bueter hangs their waders in memorial.
Oh God, they meant so much to these dear children of Yours. With deep sorrow and loss we spread their ashes across this unspoiled river given by You, dear Lord—this river they loved. Please take them into your arms for eternity and bless all their loved ones.
Call John or Rhonda Bueter and see if you can wrangle an invitation to Bueter’s Salmon Camp next year.
Phone – 231-745-3070,
Email – Cloud9Baldwin@sbcglobal.net
Website – www.Cloud9Baldwin.com
Snail Mail – Cloud9 Resort, 3360 South M-37, Baldwin MI 49304
Daylight river and forest images as well as candid shots at camp by John Jonelis.
Night fishing photos by the entire crew.
Video by Dr. Michael Wang, edited JAJ
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