Ryan White remembers exactly how he became a fishing guide. He was working construction — because he never could land a full-time job in wildlife management, which he studied at Michigan State — and one of the guides on the river he fished had a two-party booking and needed someone to help him.
“I got hired because I had a boat and heartbeat,” White said.
But he also knew how to catch ’em, and after his first trip, when he successfully put his clients on fish, the guide asked him if he wanted to work again the next day. Twenty years later, White, 49, hasn’t done much else since but work as a fishing guide.
White is one of eight guys who, figuratively, fish for their supper out of Pere Marquette River Lodge in Baldwin. They are all pretty much dedicated to the proposition that there is nothing better in life than fly-fishing for trout. And that’s followed closely by taking somebody else fly-fishing for trout.
Frank Willetts, who owns and runs PM Lodge, left a successful career in the auto manufacturing supply industry because he was spending too much time in Mexico and not enough with his family. He was on his way back from a family fishing trip in Alaska when he saw the lodge was for sale, lined up some investors and bought it.
Willetts, 53, has always been a fisherman. His family owned property on the Au Sable River but were not fly anglers. As a youngster, he learned from an older neighbor, two doors down on the Au Sable, who he first met when the guy was cutting through the property at 2 a.m. Willetts thought he was a prowler. He hollered for his dad, who told him the guy was coming back from fly-fishing, and Willetts was immediately intrigued. The guy took him under his wing.
“I’m the only one in my family who fly-fishes,” Willetts said.
Although he makes annual pilgrimages to fish for trout in Montana and Alaska, Willetts said Michigan — especially the Pere Marquette, the state’s longest undammed river — is the place to be.
“Montana doesn’t have steelhead (which are migratory rainbow trout),” he said. “Alaska doesn’t have brown trout. Michigan is one of the coolest states in the nation to trout fish; we have the best of all worlds when it comes to freshwater fly-fishing.”
And some of the best fly fishermen. Willetts said, “Over the last three years, we have developed a guide staff that is second to none. They’re so fishy they have gills behind their ears.”
The PM Lodge crew ranges from 23 years old to 77 years young. Some of them left other careers to fish. Some of them never wanted to do anything else.
Take Casey Hefferan, for instance. “I didn’t discover fly-fishing for trout until I was 12 or 13,” the 27-year-old said. “I tied some flies, caught fish on them and that’s what did it for me.”
He jumped in with both feet. He started tying flies for the lodge at 13, began working the counter in the fly shop at 15 and graduated to guiding as soon as he got out of high school and bought a boat at 18. As far as he’s concerned, this is his career.
“I’m having a good time,” he said. “I hope to continue as long as I can. I always thought I’d have a regular job, 40 hours a week, that I’d find something, but I never made up my mind what that something was.”
Kyle Hartman is in a similar boat, but he didn’t think much of doing anything else. A lifelong angler who has fished the Pere Marquette River since he was in fourth grade, Hartman landed a job as a guide in Alaska as soon as he graduated from high school.
“I was kind of intimidated when I started, but on my first practice trip, I put a guy on his best-ever rainbow,” he said. “That did a lot for my confidence.”
When he returned to Michigan, he relocated to Baldwin, started helping some of the local guides with their overflow and caught on with the Lodge in 2016.
Jory Dirkse, a relative newcomer to the lodge — he’s been there a year — had been guiding for 14 years independently before he joined the Lodge crew. At 22, he took a sabbatical from college, relocated to Baldwin and changed his career plans. Now at 39, he’s doing exactly what he wants to do. “I just love to fish,” he said.
Guides say their work is not all fun and games. They row a drift boat — sometimes all day long — cook meals on the river, constantly re-rig gear, fight their way over deadfalls and coach beginners on technique. It’s work. But worth it, they’ll tell you.
“The friends I’ve made and the relationships I’ve built have really been a blessing,” Dirkse said. “I meet guys, and we spend seven or eight hours in the boat and it’s like I’ve known them for seven or eight years. I really get excited when I meet a new client and I know we’re going to be fishing together for the next 10 or 15 years.”
Dirkse, who guides about 130 trips a year, said he makes enough money. So do the others, though none of them are getting rich.
“My wife says that if I put half as much into any other career as I do fishing, I’d be a rousing success,” Hartman said.
But who’s to say he isn’t? His office is located on some of the prettiest river waters anywhere, and the 29-year-old father of two is doing what he wants to do. “I’m from metro Detroit,” he said. “Trout don’t live in ugly places. I couldn’t be happier.”
If there’s a fly in the ointment, it’s salmon fishing. It is not nearly as enjoyable as trout fishing, most guides agree, but it’s perhaps what the PM is best known for nationally.
“We all hate it,” Willetts said, but that’s a little strong.
“A lot of guys try to avoid salmon fishing, but it pays a lot of bills,” White said. “And it frees me up for steelhead fishing. You get enough days in salmon fishing that you don’t have to book every day when the steelhead start because you’ve just fished 60 days in a row.”
Said Hartman: “I don’t mind it.” Added Hefferan: “It’s OK. It keeps us busy.”
Still, every day spent fishing for salmon is a day not spent fishing for trout.
Certainly, guiding cuts into personal fishing time. Willetts said when he bought the lodge, he soon realized, “You don’t get to fish much at all. You get to watch everybody else fish and talk about everybody else fishing.”
But if you ask the guides if they get enough personal fishing time, most say they’re content.
Hefferan gets his fishing in early in the cycle, like when the Hexes (giant mayflies that come out at night and bring the big brown trout out to feed) first start before the clients realize it’s that time. Then he enjoys sharing the experience. “I get the same thrill out of watching somebody else catch one,” he said. “When everything comes together, it’s the same as if I caught it myself.”
All say they enjoy the camaraderie of standing around outside the lodge after a day on the water, comparing notes and maybe drinking a beer. And all agree chasing trout never gets old.
“They are so elusive, and they live in one of the most pristine settings around,” Willetts said. “Nothing captivates a man like moving water. And nothing frustrates him more than a fish that he can see that he can’t catch.”≈
Bob Gwizdz is a lifelong outdoor writer who lives in East Lansing. He enjoys fishing the Pere Marquette whenever possible.
*Photography courtesy of Bob Gwizdz & Johnny Quirin