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Chas­ing big fall steel­head in Michi­gan was a pow­er­ful ex­pe­ri­ence for a fa­ther and son after a can­cer di­ag­no­sis, treat­ments and a clean bill of health. By KRIS OLSEN

I’ve been an avid an­gler all my life, in­clud­ing a 15-year stint as a salmon and steel­head guide on Wash­ing­ton streams, which means my son, Kris Jr., was one lucky kid. When most young­sters learned how to ride a bike or build model cars, he sat in the front row of a drift boat learn­ing how to back-bounce large clus­ters of cured salmon roe, wait­ing for mas­sive chi­nook to in­hale his of­fer­ing. He learned just how to feed the beast and set the hook at the per­fect time to en­sure solid hookups. Be­tween my guide bud­dies and me, he was spoiled with the kind of fish­ing ex­cur­sions in most boys’ dreams.

Pink salmon in­vade our home river ev­ery other year in num­bers that would bog­gle your mind. When they are in thick, we put on clin­ics for all those fish­ing around us. Pinks, also known as “hump­ies” for the large hump the males de­velop, are the fish that taught Kris Jr. how to cast light tackle, fi­nesse a jig and let a fish run be­fore work­ing it back to the boat, all at the ten­der age of 5 or 6.

Many rec­ol­lec­tions of his an­gling youth have

left an in­deli­ble im­pres­sion, but prob­a­bly none more so than when he landed his first large chi­nook salmon on his own. We were mak­ing a fa­ther-son float down Wash­ing­ton’s noted Hoh River in early July 1996. With me han­dling the oars and him up front set­ting out the plugs, the magic hap­pened. After a crush­ing strike, a per­fect hook-set and a few siz­zling runs that saw us chase that big springer down­river more than 200 yards, I slipped the net un­der a gor­geous 35-pound hen that his 8-year-old arms could barely lift for a photo.

In 2002, just be­fore he turned 15, we spent a great week on the south­ern part of Alaska’s Ko­diak Is­land fish­ing for coho in the streams sur­round­ing Olga Bay. We cast spin­ners to vo­ra­cious sil­vers fresh from the bay and wore our­selves com­pletely out. And then when he was 19, Kris Jr. joined a buddy and me for a float down the Sauk River, a trib­u­tary of Wash­ing­ton’s Sk­agit, in search of late na­tive steel­head. He hooked and landed the only fish of the day, a once-in-a-life­time 25-pound buck that left me (and any steel­head an­gler) jeal­ous.

But then, in early Fe­bru­ary 2016, we got the news that no par­ent should ever re­ceive. At age 28, after deal­ing with health is­sues and a few trips to spe­cial­ists, we learned that Kris

Jr. had stage IV colorec­tal can­cer. The scans left lit­tle doubt as to how far the can­cer had pro­gressed. We were all numb as his on­col­o­gist gave us the bleak out­look.

We were in tears, but Kris Jr. was de­ter­mined to be stead­fast and de­fi­ant. He be­gan a six-month pro­gram of chemo­ther­apy ev­ery two weeks, a process that can take a lot out of any­one. He never com­plained or felt sorry for him­self — and we im­me­di­ately started plan­ning our next fa­ther-son fish­ing ex­trav­a­ganza. We weren’t go­ing to waste one sec­ond.

We tossed all kinds of venues back and forth — Bri­tish Columbia, Alaska, fresh wa­ter, salt wa­ter — and then I re­mem­bered a fan­tas­tic fish­ery I had en­joyed sev­eral years ear­lier in Ne­waygo, Michi­gan. In 2013 I’d spent five days there with my buddy Tony Rezanow, fish­ing with Betts Guide Ser­vice on three rivers, with ex­cel­lent re­sults. We fished the Manis­tee twice, the Muskegon twice and did a one­day raft float down a small, hid­den gem of a stream. The fish were as ex­cep­tional as those in the North­west, as they share the same DNA from plants dat­ing from the 1960s. Kris Jr. was all for the idea of chas­ing big fall steel­head, es­pe­cially be­cause plan­ning the trip to Ne­waygo would al­low him a chance to visit a dif­fer­ent part of the coun­try for the first time. And the tim­ing would be per­fect since the best fish­ing would hap­pen after he fin­ished his chemo and re­couped a bit.

I called Chad Betts of Betts Guide Ser­vice to ex­plain our sit­u­a­tion and booked the week of Nov. 14-18, 2016. Air­fare from Seat­tle to Grand Rapids, a rental car, ho­tel and guide fees (in­clud­ing gra­tu­ities) added up to less than $4,000 for both of us — not bad for two avid steel­head an­glers liv­ing the dream for an en­tire week.

Spring and sum­mer ahead of that trip was kind of a whirl­wind. A scan half­way through the chemo process showed that the treat­ment was work­ing, but all we could do was wait and see how the rest of the treat­ments per­formed. Kris Jr. fin­ished his pro­gram in Au­gust, and a date was set for a scan to check the full re­sults.

In early Septem­ber, un­der gor­geous blue skies, Kris Jr. and his girl­friend of four years, Angileen, were mar­ried in a sto­ry­book out­door wed­ding. She never hes­i­tated after the di­ag­no­sis.

After their hon­ey­moon, we all met with the on­col­o­gist. The re­port was noth­ing short of a mir­a­cle, with even the on­col­o­gist ex­press­ing

dis­be­lief: Kris Jr. showed no signs of can­cer. Al­though the long-term out­look re­mained a mys­tery, God had given us a re­prieve.

With that thought in mind, Kris Jr. and I boarded our flight to Grand Rapids. It was early evening by the time we landed and drove an hour north to Har­ring­ton Inn in Fre­mont, Michi­gan, which would serve as home base. The fore­cast called for un­sea­son­ably mild weather, with af­ter­noon highs in the 50s, a bonus if ever there was one.

We met Betts early Mon­day morn­ing to fish the Muskegon River, which had been loaded with big chrome steel­head dur­ing my 2013 ex­pe­di­tion. River con­di­tions this time were less than ideal, with low, clear wa­ter re­sult­ing from a lack of rain. Fresh fish had slowed their mi­gra­tion from Lake Michi­gan, and al­though we roto-tilled the runs and fishy-look­ing pock­ets, few steel­head found their way to the boat. We ended up go­ing three for four on our first sor­tie of the week.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing we tried a dif­fer­ent sec­tion of the river, but as a slow morn­ing turned into an even qui­eter af­ter­noon we were start­ing to think that maybe this just wasn’t go­ing to be our week. We’ve fished a long time and cer­tainly un­der­stand that al­though you can pick the best dates from an his­toric stand­point, cur­rent con­di­tions al­ways play a huge part in your suc­cess. We con­tin­ued to fish hard, never let­ting our dis­ap­point­ment show, but I know Betts felt bad, given the sig­nif­i­cance of the trip. After we landed only one steel­head on day two, he planned to send us far­ther north with one of his other guides to mine the Manis­tee River on day three. Wed­nes­day morn­ing be­gan with re­newed hopes as we met up with our new guide,

Chad Schaub. It was a long drive north to the Manis­tee, so we were ex­cited to see a cou­ple of steel­head roll just across from the boat launch as Schaub parked his truck. After mak­ing a few casts into our first pool, I was firmly into a large and feisty spec­i­men. It was a great start, but we failed to gar­ner so much as an­other strike as the morn­ing slipped past. By noon, it was ev­i­dent that the big Manis­tee was not the an­swer to our prayers. Schaub called a friend who was fish­ing the lower Pere Mar­quette River, heard all he needed to hear and loaded the boat back up for the one-hour drive. That’s when Schaub of­fi­cially be­came our hero.

It was 1:30 p.m. on Wed­nes­day when our luck fi­nally changed. Within a cou­ple of drifts in our first pool on the Pere Mar­quette, Kris Jr. hooked and landed a gor­geous chrome hen. He fol­lowed that by quickly hook­ing an­other, which he lost to an un­der­wa­ter branch. Be­cause we’d launched late in the day, we pretty much had the place to our­selves, and the pro­duc­tive runs had ad­e­quately rested.

As we moved down­stream, we hooked sev­eral more steel­head be­fore end­ing our day in a slow cor­ner pool. Kris Jr. set the hook into a deep­bod­ied buck whose col­ors closely mir­rored

our au­tumn sur­round­ings, with the per­fect hint of crim­son in the fish’s cheeks and flanks. I missed a solid strike but was gifted as an­other bruiser took my of­fer­ing. In four short hours we hooked more steel­head — seven — than we had dur­ing the first two-and-a-half days.

A lot of guides have the motto “stick and stay, make it pay,” but had Betts and Schaub shared that at­ti­tude, our trip may have gone much, much dif­fer­ently. We slept well that evening, know­ing we still had a cou­ple of tremen­dous days ahead of us.

Thurs­day was my birth­day, an­other great day to let our cam­eras cap­ture our suc­cesses, opt­ing for the catch-and-re­lease of our en­tire catch. We en­joyed a bo­nanza of fan­tas­tic, non­stop ac­tion and phe­nom­e­nal weather: an af­ter­noon tem­per­a­ture near 60 de­grees, which is nearly un­heard of for late fall in Michi­gan. The sun was shin­ing, the wind was nonex­is­tent, and the fallen leaves had spread thickly un­der the trees along the river­banks. The place looked as though an artist’s paint­ing had burst to life — and the best part was I got to spend it with my son, mak­ing it my best birth­day ever.

My son, al­beit un­in­ten­tion­ally, also let me have the ma­jor­ity of suc­cess on the day. Fri­day brought an­other steel­head wind­fall, al­though Kris Jr. made it painfully ap­par­ent that my birth­day was over as he put on a clinic, reach­ing dou­ble-digit hookups long be­fore lunch. Al­though I hooked a few here and there, Kris Jr. schooled me in nearly ev­ery run. To my point: I made roughly 10 drifts through a juicy run while Schaub tied Kris Jr. a new rig after a break-off on a snag. On his first drift through the same run with the new rig, my son hooked up solidly with a line-peel­ing chromer. So went my morn­ing, but how sweet it was see­ing that beam­ing smile on his face. In so many ways, no mat­ter how old he lives to be, he will for­ever re­main that happy lit­tle boy catch­ing his first big salmon.

For the record, we hooked five steel­head in the first two-and-a-half days, and roughly 40 or so in the last two-and-a-half. And we made enough mem­o­ries to last any life­time.

Michi­gan Steel­head Ad­ven­ture

Michi­gan has fan­tas­tic steel­head fish­ing, with two dis­tinct runs. They mi­grate up­river from the lake in the spring and the fall. Al­though I have not ex­pe­ri­enced the spring run, ev­ery­one says the num­bers are stupid (mean­ing lots of fish), but as a re­sult the fish­ery is known for be­ing crowded.

Though the fall run has fewer over­all num­bers of steel­head, there is far less an­gling pres­sure, and the qual­ity of the fish is su­pe­rior. Re­mem­ber that each Michi­gan stream will at some point re­al­ize its own glory, depend­ing on wa­ter tem­per­a­tures, flows and so forth. The Pere Mar­quette hap­pened to be the one on fire the week we vis­ited.

If a Michi­gan steel­head ad­ven­ture ap­peals to you, Betts Guide Ser­vice in Ne­waygo has twice done me right. It fishes mul­ti­ple rivers and tech­niques, and has jet­boat, drift boat or walk/wade op­tions. Give Chad Betts a call at (231) 519-7348 or check him out at betts­guideser­

The au­thor (right) and his son with a fat Michi­gan steel­head.

Kris Olsen Jr. with a Hoh River spring chi­nook, circa 1996.

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