Land of the Kings, by Aaron Becker

So, where do I stat?  I guess I’ll start how every great adventure starts...with the journey. I’ve been planning this amazing trip for the past year, but it didn’t start the way I would have thought.

Every year I plan a big trip.  With my work schedule dying down and trout season in South Carolina closed until October, I had some free time on my hands.  During slow days at work I would flip pages on the internet, reading about exotic places to fish, and I’d see all my friends on Instagram taking trips overseas.  It got me in the mood to do a big trip.  I thought back to my days in California fishing for Salmon and Steelhead and how much I missed opening day.  Especially the excitement, the stress, the Battle Royale or Hunger Games feeling that comes with opening day.

My first plan was to fish during early winter for Ohio Steelhead.  I knew I’d need to find the right adventure companion to battle the masses. The only one that came to mind was my buddy Trenton.

After doing more research on our target species I started to get less excited about what we had planned.  We were going to head north for two weeks, and I wanted a challenge. In the back of my head I knew what had to happen. We bailed from our main plan and went for the hail marry. Michigan King Salmon. If any of you have fished for Kings in Michigan, you know it’s always a risk. You either hit it too early or too late, and if you’re lucky you might hit it just right.

One thing is always the same: big crowds, and in-the-trenches fishing. Over the next few months we got everything buttoned down and were ready to go.

Game day had arrived I packed up my Subaru and drove to my buddy’s house to grab him and cannonball to Michigan. The first two days went off without a hitch. We made our way from South Carolina to our Airbnb in Iorns, Michigan which would be our home base for the next 2 weeks.

That night we got our fishing licenses, prepped gear, and tied flies. Little did I know that the first week of our trip would be the most ego shredding week of my life. It would test my sanity more than I could have imagined.

Day in and day out, waking up at 5am, getting to the river and fishing miles of water. Hopping from one spot to another… from the lake to the headwaters with not a single hook up. 12 hours of struggle every day. My mind was racing, “what are we doing wrong, what am I doing here?”

I had to keep my spirits up, the last thing I wanted was to seem down and bring the whole mood of the trip to a screeching halt. We needed a change so we rolled in to the local fly shop for some information. They had confirmed what we had thought all along, that the salmon just hadn’t made their run just yet. So we asked if there were any brook trout streams in the area. With our luck, we had to make a run up to the Traverse city area almost 2 hours away.

If we had to throw another fly in that river, we were going to go mad. So we decided to make the drive.

We got up early and hit the Boardman river. The water looked amazing. Just what you would imagine a pristine brook trout stream would look like.

As the morning turned to afternoon, then to dinner time I started to go crazy, having gotten not one bite. We kept thinking to ourselves, this can’t keep going on like this. So we stopped by the fly shop in Traverse City with our tails in-between our legs. Bug bitten, egos shattered from a week and some change with not even a bite. At this point we would take anything.

We got some information from the guys at the shop and drove the 2 hours back to our home base just shaking our heads. We were confused, sore, and beaten down, not sure what to do. We should have made a change, but we didn’t want to risk leaving the Pere Marquette knowing that any day now the fish could be there. So, we kept on the same path that we had been on for the past week.

The next morning, we hit it again and guess what, nothing, not a damn thing. On our way back to the car we ran into a group of anglers chatting up a storm. They looked over at us coming out of the bush and asked how we did. Nothing I said, not a thing. One of the older guys could see the frustration and defeat in my eyes.

He politely suggested we go fish the Betsie river. The day before they had hooked 40 fish and landed a few. I was going to take any lead I could get. So we went home, prepped again, and that morning we headed out to the Betsie.

On arrival, I had no idea what I was going to be getting into. We had yet to see a fish or hook a fish. I had my 8wt on me and some 20lb fluorocarbon and some small egg patterns. Little did I know we were about to go to battle for a week and a half.

The lower portion of the dam was stacked with anglers, guys and girls fishing over top of each other. Tangled lines, broken rods, and I wanted no part of it. Right above the dam I would have expected the same thing, people lining the banks. But there was no one there. We were confused. Why was there no one up here?

We could see fish stacked at the dam and just assumed that eventually they would need to make their way up. So, we sat our happy butts up there and waited. A few hours had passed, a few fly changes later and all I was thinking was not again, I can’t take another day of this. I made a cast up to an overhanging tree with a nice deep run underneath.

I’m keeping my eye on my line, trying not to fall asleep, and it goes tight. I was shocked. All I could think was that I was hung up. There’s no fish here. I’ve gone a week and a half with no fish. It’s just another rock or stick.

I slowly pull my line up for my next cast, and before I know it my line takes off. I don’t have my drag set. Trenton is nowhere close with the net.  I’m yelling, my 8wt rod is fully bent over, and then I see it. This big male jack torpedoes 150 yards up stream jumping. Forty-pounds and four-foot of pure muscle. As quick as I saw that fish he was gone.

I knew we were going to be battling big fish, maybe 20lbs, but nothing that big. I now know the gear I had brought was out matched, but I knew in my head I could get it done. Part of me was excited and heartbroken at the same time. I was thinking this was my only chance and I blew it, but little did I know the next few days were going to be the start of an epic battle.

We would get up, drive to the river, and get the same results. Hook ups, broken leaders, bent hooks, lost fish…all monsters. On the way back to our car I would see guys leaving with fish, you could smell it in the air. Bags of roe on the ground, guys with big salt water spinning rods all over the place. Neither one of us wanted to win that way. We came to land fish on fly rods and that’s what we planned on doing. That night I tied up a few false spawn bags on heavier hooks, changed from 20lb to 25lb fluorocarbon, and made sure we had our rods ready for the next day.

On the way to the river I could sense something was different, we had a spring in our step, the sun was rising over the trees and a cool crisp wind was in the air as we made our way to our spot and dropped our lines in the water. This time I was ready, but for some reason the bite just wasn’t there. We had a few hookups, one or two in and out of the net and then I looked over and my buddy Trenton was hooked up. I didn’t want to rush. All the fish we had hooked would either break us off in the first minute, or would sit there then decide that they would fare better in the chaos below the dam, and would just jump back over the falls.

This time it was different. We played that fish for a few minutes. He would run up then down and up again. Finally, my time had come as the net man. I was as excited and stressed as Trenton was fighting that fish. I didn’t want to lose it for him, we had come so far. This was a whole new experience for him, coming from the conventional-tackle bass world into the fly-fishing world, and I didn’t want to destroy this moment for him. I took my time and when we had that fish in the net I was more ecstatic for him than me.

We had come so far and worked so hard for that fish, it didn’t seem real. Not the powerhouse fish we had been hooking into, but a nice 10lb jack that would give a good fight any day of the week on fly tackle. Even though he and I were happy, we could both sense in each other that it wasn’t what we came for. We were not satisfied with this beautiful fish that had graced our net.

We had a couple guys join us over the next few days, and they caught a few. But the same thing for us: broken rods, broken hooks, broken line and we were exhausted.

We had to leave the next day. Trenton and I couldn’t leave this place knowing those fish were here, so I made a call into work saying I wasn’t going to be back for a few days.

Every day I would look down at my gear, my broken fighting butt on my 8wt rod, and all the broken hooks and line in my fly box. My hands were cut up, my back was stiff as a board, and I had bug bites on my face and legs.

We knew that we couldn’t leave without one last try. We packed up our stuff at the Air BnB, drove to a campsite 20 minutes from the river, unpacked our hammocks and went to bed as broken men. That was one of the worse nights of sleep we have ever had.

When we woke up, we had two older gentlemen in a nice camper parked next door. They took one look at our hammocks, no sleeping bags, no bug covers and no blankets and said “man you guys are hardcore”. We replied back, “Not hardcore sir, just stupid”.

It was the truth. I may have gotten 3 hours of sleep the last 3 days of our trip. Both of us spending the last 2 in the car at night. And we still only had the one fish to count for it.

So many fish on, I stopped counting because it would just make me feel depressed with how many chances I had. I was determined to push on. The day before we had to leave was just like every other morning. Wake up early, hop in the shower, make breakfast and drive to the river. This time I was determined to land one at any cost. This was my last chance.

Rod in hand, I decided to walk down below the dam to the chaos of the snaggers. Knowing too well there was no chance of redemption down there it was just too crazy. I made a few casts with Trenton standing right next to me with net in hand. I took a sip of water, sparked a cigarette and made another cast and suddenly my line goes tight. I set the hook, the fish takes off and goes straight for the 40 guys up stream at the dam.

All I could do was scream COMING UPPPPP!!!! With panic on their faces I could see them trying to spool their line in as fast as possible. I’m going under people and over people. Trenton is trying to net this fish but it’s just too much. He does a 180 and as fast as he went up, he went down. Then the fish goes right for the guys that moved into our spot we just left. Just like before, drag locked and this fish was screaming line off the reel.  I yelled to the top of my lungs COMING DOWWWN!!!

It looked like a scene from an action movie. People are grabbing their buddies and kids, and just jumping out of the way. At this point, Trenton had already missed two of my fish and I’m sure the pressure was on him to not screw up a third time. He was probably also worried that I was going to yell that him if he didn’t land this fish

He goes in to net the fish. He would miss and my body would tense up. I was pulling with everything I had left. The line was tangled around Trenton’s feet and the fish was flailing on the top of the water and Trenton can’t see it. I scream to him, “BEHIND YOU, HE’S BEHIND YOU!!!!”

With the skill of a MLB catcher, he spins his body and jumps on this fish with the net. I have so much respect for that kid, and these fish. He took a swim for me and I would do the same for him. I’m so pumped, but I have yet to see my fish. I drag the net to the bank. Shaking I drop my rod into woods. Probably saying some curse words along the way, with how pumped I was and then I saw it. This big nasty scarred up jack all of 19 pounds, tired from battle. I shed a few tears as I held that fish.

Even though it wasn’t the biggest king salmon I’ve caught in my life, I had worked harder for this one than any other fish over the last 20 years.

I then decided that this wasn’t going to be the end of our trip. Trenton had only caught that 9lb king three days earlier and I didn’t feel right just heading home without giving him a last chance at one. After I had caught that one fish, everyone had swarmed the dam and it was unfishable for us. So, we did what we always did and went back up above the dam.

I made a couple of casts but stood back with the net waiting for Trenton to hook up. Trenton hooks up again, this time on a jacked up 13lb hen and we land her. Same fight as the last 9lb fish he had caught. He was happy and was satisfied with his 13lb hen, but I wasn’t. This was a special trip for him, and I wanted to make it as memorable for him as it was for me.

They say “when you ask, you shall receive”, and boy did we. He was about to leave, call it quits, pack up our stuff and head back to the camp site. I told him to keep at it. He made a few more casts and hooks up one last time.

I’ve seen salmon jump, but never do a 360-back flip before. This fish was big. Defiantly a 20 plus pounder. This fish put us through the ringer. Two-hundred yards up stream and around two stumps. I would lightly lift the line off the logs and tell Trenton to let the fish tire out and to just keep some pressure.

I could see both Trenton and the fish getting tired. I didn’t know which one would give up first. But I wasn’t going to let him leave without this fish. I promised him that, and I was not going back on my promise. I got ready and dipped the net down but the timing wasn’t right, I pulled back knowing that the fish was not in the right position.

The fish starts making its way back to Trenton and I yell “STRIP STRIP STRIP!!!!” The fish darted past Trenton, I knew this was my last chance. If he went down anymore that fish was going to be gone. I told Trenton to put some pressure on the fish because he was getting tired. I got my feet planted and I could see the fish getting ready to make that last big run. That fish made one big kick of his tail ready to head downstream.

I dropped the net right in his path like Gandalf when he slammed down his staff and yelled “THOU SHALL NOT PASSSSS!!” That fish swam head first into the net pushing me back. We had him.

I drug him to the bank. Then I passed the net off to Trenton and I gave him a big bear hug and a high five, knowing how hard he worked for that fish. We got it on the scale and it weighed 22lbs. The biggest of the trip. I was so proud, because we had worked so hard. We pushed through the stress and the struggle of long days and sleepless nights. We may have lost some battles, but we won the war.

In the end, it all felt like a dream for both of us. We came up to Michigan expecting to crush fish everywhere we went. But we found something better. Sure, we could have landed some of the bigger fish on heavier rods. But that was not what it was about. We found more about ourselves on this trip and a lot in each other. The brotherhood and sisterhood that comes with fishing is something special. I see it every day guiding for trout back home or when I talk to fellow anglers at work. It’s the adventure and the perseverance that makes the trip truly worth it. If it was easy, I wouldn’t do it. I’m honored to work with such amazing companies that make these trips possible, and the brother and sisterhood we share in our common goal. Sharing these experiences with others and making the world a more interesting place. Keep pushing forward and never give up on yourself. Anything you’re searching for can be found in the Land of the Kings.