December 14, 2022
By Steven Rinella
This article originally appeared in the December 2006 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
I recently spent two weeks traveling through Michigan's Upper Peninsula, fishing several well-known trout streams, such as the Fox and Manistique rivers. One day, I drove down a long straight road that crossed dozens of small streams in the peninsula's interior. I wondered if the streams were good fishing, so I began pulling over on the bridges, looking for telltale signs of fishermen. If a bridge gets any sort of fishing pressure, you can see the little trails that fishermen make when they step over the guard rail and walk down to the water. I checked several streams and didn't see any trails, which piqued my curiosity. The next bridge spanned a creek that is named after a large city on the East Coast. The only car to come down this road in 15 minutes was a cop, who slowed down to give me a looking-over as I peered into the water. I waved.
Beneath the bridge, two fish were rising to grab grasshoppers that jumped from the roadside grass into the water. I strung up my rod and bushwhacked down the embankment. I tied on a hopper made from orange nylon rope. On my first cast I caught a 9-inch creek chub, which is a big one. The fish's mouth was broad and flat, and it had a black spot on its tail and dorsal fin. I strung the chub on a stick and caught several more. I've never personally met another person who is interested in creek chubs, but I decided to play it safe and make sure no cars were coming before I popped onto the road and revealed my catch. At night, after eating my chubs, I marked the spot in my map book with a cryptic, indecipherable symbol. Right now, I happen to be the only person I know of who has a secret chub spot.
In fact, I'm one of the few people these days who admits to having any secret spots at all. I'm sure that there are a few guys in the South who hoard secret catfish holes, but fly fishermen gave up on secret spots around the tin1e they quit wearing those multicolored beachcomber hats with a hundred flies stuck in the brim. Walk into any fly shop and you'll find all the best fishing spots written on a dry erase board. In most Western towns, they stick those signs out on the sidewalk. In Missoula, Montana, you can walk into Charlie B's, order a beer, and the local river guides will tell you, even if you're a tourist, where they fished that day and what they used. A writer friend of mine, Sandy, has gone so far as to declare secret spots immoral; if he finds a beaver pond full of trout, he'll immediately tell someone where it is, as though he's reporting a found corpse to the police. One time, Sandy found 75 morel mushrooms under an old dead cottonwood, and he directed me to the tree even though he intended on returning there himself.
Maybe I'm some kind of holdover from the past, but I can't even stomach the thought of giving up my secret spots. In this Information Age, where everything you ever wanted to know is right at your finger tips, it reems especially exciting to have an idea or two that you don't have to share with the rest of the world.
The tendency toward secrecy was instilled in me as a young child. I wasn't even allowed to tell my friends that my dad hunted deer out at the end of Ryerson Road. I was seldom allowed to bring friends on fishing outings. "You bring a buddy, he brings a buddy, and that buddy brings a buddy," is how my dad described the chain of events that would lead to the destruction of a fishing spot. So, growing up, I thought that having a few secret spots up your sleeve was the pathway to success. If I saw more than one person fishing a particular place on a lake or river, I'd write that spot off as worthless and played-out, a brand of thinking that I blame for my slow development as a brook trout fisherman. It took me two summers to catch my first brook trout on a fly. I was wasting my time in an obscure trickle called Mosquito Creek, an aptly named waterway that I loved because most map makers refuse to acknowledge its existence. Meanwhile, my friends were catching hogs on Cedar Creek, whid1 was about five miles closer to my house.
It wasn't until my late teens that I began to comprehend a simple equation: lots of people equals lots of fish. By then I'd started traveling quite a bit, and I discovered the wonders of such heavily fished areas as the Sault Rapids in Ontario and the bonefish flats of Mexico's Ascension Bay. These finds had a tremendous effect on my belief system, and forced me to recognize a painful reality. In most circumstances, if a piece of water goes unused it's not because of secrecy; it's usually because the fishing isn't any good. So I've grown more conservative about declaring spots to be bona fide secrets.
Off the top of my head, I have only about a half dozen of them, due to the stringency of my definition. To qualify as a secret, the spot must offer decent fishing at least some of the time and it must be open to the public. Just because the general populace isn't allowed to fish somewhere doesn't mean it's a secret. The best secret spot is one where all fishermen are allowed to go, but they just don't know it. I've spent a good bit of energy searching such places out. Sometimes the search ends well; other times it doesn't.
My old roommate and friend, Jay, moved to Helena, Montana, a few years ago to take a job. He knocked around the favorite local hot spots until eventually some guy at work told him about a little-known public easement to a private stretch of Hushmouth Creek. I visited Jay late one summer, and we decided to check it out. We parked the car on a farm lane, which intersected the highway, crossed a railroad track, then faded into a hay field. There were no buildings in sight except for one house, way off in the distance. Jay knew the easement ran across this hay field. We walked in a zigzag pattern past giant domes of stacked hay. I felt funny about being in the hay field, but Jay said, "Yeah, this is exactly how he described it. I'm pretty sure this is how he described it."
We walked about a mile before we hit the river. We must have climbed over a dozen fences. The river was low. Fish were lolling around in the open and weren't skittish at all. Herds of whitetail deer jumped out of the willows, and I got the feeling that no one had fished along this easement in a long time. After we fished, we began walking back across the field. I watched a truck pull up next to our car. It parked and waited. The rancher actually laughed when we explained the business about the easement.
Now I see where we went wrong. The problem began with taking someone else's advice. A truly secret spot can only come through your own investigations. Maybe you notice the same truck pulled off the road next to a bridge every couple days and you check it out. That qualifies as your spot, because you found it through intuition and nosiness. Or you notice a little pond behind the place where you buy your morning coffee. Soon you're poking around back there with a to-go cup in one hand and a fly rod in the other.
My buddy Matt was out walking his wife's dog along a public trail in Traverse City, Michigan. The dog ran into a cattail marsh, and he chased after it. In the center of the marsh was a slight opening in the cattails, and he and the dog scared up a school of big bluegills. It's a mystery how the bluegills got into the pond, but the land had been a farm before it became a green space. It's not a place most people would even think to go fishing. A lone, greedy angler could probably clean the place out in a single trip. One morning, Matt took me down to admire the pond. We tiptoed around in the muck, watching the bluegills and looking for bugs to toss in. We wondered whether or not fishermen knew about these big bluegills: probably not. We scoured the banks for some sign of fishing activity: old tracks, foam worm containers, those snelled-hook bags that some fishermen leave everywhere they go. We discussed and tried to visualize casting a small foam ant into the pond. But Matt hasn't even carried his rod down to the pond yet. He just enjoys knowing that he's got a nice secret bluegill spot waiting for him.
There's only one place more secret than Matt's spot. I have a spot way up in me Madison Mountains, in southwest Montana, on the Gallatin River side of the range. That's as much as I'll tell. It's sort of like a tributary to a tributary. One spring day I happened to notice some huge cutthroats swimming in the wide bends of this trickle, where it ran down the center of a small meadow. I was up hiking the area on a completely nonfishing mission, but I happened to have my pack rod. These fish acted like they had never seen a fly in their lives. Some of them were so big that they wouldn't have fit in the stream if you held them perpendicular to the current.
I bragged and daydreamed about the spot for a year. I talked it up to my friend Jay, and promised to take him there on what would be the one-year anniversary of my discovery. As we hiked up through the mountains I relived for him all the excitement of my first trip, and offered a few pointers about how to best approach these fish. But when we arrived at the meadow, the trickle wasn't there. I figured that I'd made a navigational error. I rethought everything. I examined the map. But this was definitely it, and the stream was gone; all dried up. It had been a fluke of aboveaverage snowfall and run-off. It could be years until the water, and the fish, returned. I was strangely relieved, and a little thrilled. A secret stream is very cool, but a stream that doesn't even exist is cooler. Instead of saying, "Give it a try if you can find it, "I can say" Give it a try–if it's there."
Steven Rinella is the host of the television show and podcast MeatEater, and author of two volumes of The Complete Guide to Hunting, Butchering, and Cooking Wild Game; Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter; American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon; and The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine.