BENZONIA — This little town on U.S. 31 just west of Frankfort in Benzie County hosts a spectacle every fall that’s about as odd as the town’s name. King salmon fishing below the dam on the Betsie River might be the weirdest thing I’ve ever observed in the outdoors.
Two large parking lots are at the dam and when my fishing buddy Jeff Gilliland and I got there Tuesday, both were nearly full of cars, vans and pickups.
We walked the path towards the river under a clear, sunny sky with little breeze. Suddenly we hit a solid wall of dead fish odor.
It emanated from a few barrels in a utility trailer. A wiry, nut-brown guy cleaning fish in a wide-open trailer next to it was tossing salmon carcasses, guts and spawn skeins into the 55-gallon plastic barrels. The trailer he worked in was the base of pop-up tent campers—all the canvas long gone.
He told me he had a permit to operate the business at this site as he filleted a king of about 18 pounds for a guy from Georgia, one of a group of Georgians who had driven up to spend the week. All these fellows wore new-looking waders and clean fishing vests.
“I’ve been coming up here since the 1980s when it was legal to snag these fish,” said the southern gent, adding that he usually takes the filets to a nearby business that brines and smokes them, but that he planned to take most of them home and smoke them himself this year.
We continued walking toward the river, which was packed with anglers of all shapes, sizes, ages and both genders.
The river is neither wide nor deep here—it’s easy to wade all the way across. The salmon were thick, their urge to swim upstream and spawn eliminating any fear of the line of anglers that formed a gauntlet the fish had to pass through.
The anglers were four to six feet apart, all of them in constant motion. Some used spinning gear, several had fly rods and a few even had baitcasters. All of them made short lobs, mostly underhand casts with different kinds of artificial flies. Their lines were weighted with a large split shot or two to move downstream near the river bottom. A few guys had large chunks of spawn skein below bobbers, but they, like their cohorts, also fished just 12 to 15 feet of water in front of them before pulling their bait up and lobbing it slightly upstream again.
Every few minutes someone would cry “Fish!” or “Fish on!” and the hooked salmon would make an incredible splash mere feet in front of the person who’d hooked it. Then the fish usually would burn downstream, the angler in hot pursuit, threading his or her way through fellow anglers. The fish often pulled off or broke the line, but we witnessed a lot of success, too. It took cooperation among strangers, someone always trying to net the hooked fish for the lucky person who’d hooked it.
The fish that didn’t get caught soon reached a short stretch below the dam that was off limits to anglers. Here they milled in shallow eddies, dorsal and tail fins easy to see, eventually charging through the foamy shallow water below two levels of dam spillways. They leaped out of the foam, some making it up the first level and eventually up the even higher level where they could continue upstream.
Here’s where I found my personal challenge for the day: Photographing one of these fish in a full jump. It was about as easy as hitting a Justin Verlander fastball. The fish milled out of sight, tyen one would suddenly rocket upwards through the white foamy mat. Most would hit below their target and fall back in the pool; lots never cleared the falling water when they jumped, and the torrent always pushed the fish back into the pool.
My reactions ain’t what they used to be, and it was a frustrating endeavor getting a picture of an airborne fish. I tried for about 45 minutes with a new-to-me Nikon digital camera and really didn’t think I’d come close to accomplishing my goal. Perusing the images later, I had lots and lots of pictures that simply showed foam. Fewer photos showed part of a fish, usually the tail. I was totally surprised to ultimately find the one that accompanies this article.
The whole scene of so many anglers lobbing their offerings time after time made me think of what it must have been like during the California gold rush, grizzled men seeking their fortunes by panning for nuggets in sand and mud.
Normally, with so many fish around, I would have wanted to have a fishing rod in hand, trying to hook one of the dark brown beasts myself. But Tuesday, watching the controlled mayhem was so entertaining, I wasn’t tempted to fish. Taking pictures and enjoying the whole scene (aside from the scent near the cleaning trailer) was more than enough fun.
Outdoors columnist Dave Mull lives in Paw Paw. Write to him at email@example.com.