Josh Greenberg knew he had some big shoes to fill when he took over running Gates Au Sable Lodge near the town of Grayling. Not only did he step into the most-celebrated fly shop in the state on one of its most revered rivers, but he was following a legend, Rusty Gates, who was himself following a legend, his father Cal. But it seems as though it was almost Greenberg’s destiny; he had served a long apprenticeship, beginning as a teenager, though it was never part of his grand scheme.
Greenberg wandered into the fly shop before he was old enough to drive to buy some tying materials and walked out part of the fly-fishing industry.
“The first time I walked into Gates, I met Rusty,” said Greenberg, now 39. “He sat me down, showed me a fly and asked me if I could tie 200 of them.”
A native of Oxford, Ohio, Greenberg summered on the Au Sable River with his parents, both teachers, who owned a small cabin on the river. He soon started working in the fly shop.
He kept the job all through college at Miami University (Ohio), where he studied creative writing and journalism. After college, he was awarded a Fulbright grant to write fiction, moved to New Zealand — where there is, of course, outstanding fly fishing — and published a short story.
“The first time I walked into Gates, I met Rusty (Gates). He sat me down, showed me a fly and asked me if I could tie 200 of them.”
— Josh Greenberg
“I had competing interests that I kept separate,” Greenberg said. “I worked at Gates in the summer and was an academic in the winter. I figured I’d go one way or another, but I figured fly fishing should be part of it.”
It’s all of it now. When Greenberg returned from New Zeeland, he relocated to Crawford County and went to work at Gates Lodge in a variety of roles — shopkeeper, fly tier and fishing guide. He took over management in 2009 after Rusty Gates died and, in 2011, assumed ownership. He also tried to assume Gates’ role as an unofficial riverkeeper.
“It came with the job,” Greenberg said. “It’s a pleasure to do, but I’m no Rusty, and I never will be. Rusty was just so good at what he did, being a champion of the river. The most impressive part of it was he was really quick at deducing what was a threat and what wasn’t a threat. He could see it before anybody. I try to do that, too, but I really focus on what I think I can do best, on Anglers of the Au Sable membership and fundraising events. That kind of stuff.”
Greenberg remains a member of the Anglers’ executive committee and has edited the group’s publication, The Riverwatch. He said he is proud of what the group has been able to accomplish, especially the recent settlement of a long, drawn-out court battle over a private hatchery on the river.
“It’s always been that way with Anglers of the Au Sable, and hopefully, it will always be that way,” he said. “We’d like in the future just to be working on habitat and making the river great and just going fishing, but we know there will be other things coming up.”
The father of two, Greenberg described himself as an average guy: “A 5-foot-11, 180-pound guy, kind of gray now, rough-shaven, not on purpose, I just don’t get around to it very often.” He opens the shop every morning at 6:30 a.m. and stays until early afternoon. He likes to sneak in a little fishing in the evenings (between answering emails) and depends a lot on his wife Katy to take care of the “back-end work” — shipping, payroll, bills and taxes.
While he’s not getting rich, he said, the business pays off in lifestyle. He gets to fish a lot; he still guides some favorite old clients and donates trips to conservation groups to use as fundraisers. Personally, he rates the period between May 9-20 — “right between my birthday and my wedding anniversary” — as the best fishing of the year.
“There’s an evening spinner fall of a nice little rotation of mayflies — Hendrickson, drakes and sulphurs,” he said. “There are fewer people and more water that fishes well.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love fly fishing. I love fly shops. It’s been natural.”
Bob Gwizdz is an avid angler and career outdoor writer who lives in East Lansing.