The headwaters of the Maumee gather in Indiana and converge at Fort Wayne, where the river proper begins. It meanders northeast through upper Ohio makes its way to Toledo, where it empties into Lake Erie. Every year the Maumee sustains one of the largest walleye migrations in the country; these fish make their way from the lake into the river beginning in March, and through April thousands of anglers converge on the cities of Maumee and Perrysburg to try and catch some walleyes on their way to the spawning areas upriver.
I first fished the Maumee last spring, making a few trips here and there in my quest to catch my first walleye. I finally did catch a walleye last April, and this year I decided to go more frequently. It was a disappointing year for steelhead on my home river, the Clinton, and the Maumee was my only real option for catching big fish this time of year. I also had another goal: to learn the river techniques and locations well enough to guide my brother when he visited at the end of March. AJ is one of the best fishermen I know, but he had never caught a walleye. We had one day to spend fishing during his visit, and I wanted to be prepared to catch some fish.
Over my dozen or so trips the last two years I’ve seen literally thousands of fishermen on this river, and every one of them fishes the same way: they drift floating jigs with plastic worms. This method—drift fishing—is the one I prefer most for any type of fishing, and it’s my go-to technique for steelhead and salmon. Over the last decade float-based approaches have become more common for salmonoid species. Those techniques vary widely, but consist of the bait attached to a floating device, so that the fishing is from the top-down. It’s a sight-based technique and can be very effective. Fly fishermen targeting steelhead almost always use an “indicator”—a float—as do centerpinners. By contrast, drift fishing is done by feel. The fisherman casts slightly upriver and allows the presentation to drift naturally downriver with the current. A weight attached several feet above the lure bounces on the bottom of the river, touching rocks, snags, and fish. The art of drift fishing is to sense the often-subtle bite of a fish and to set the hook immediately. For me, there’s nothing more exciting than drift fishing and setting the hook in the fish’s mouth.
I use the word “fisherman” advisedly here. In spite of its maternal-sounding name, I have seen very few women fishing the Maumee, unlike, say, the Betsie River, where I fished for salmon in the fall. Whereas the Betsie has a substantial presence of women anglers, the Maumee is by far the most diverse fishery I have ever seen. This is grounds on the fishing message boards for a lot of thinly-veiled racism, tied closely to linguistic superiority. On these boards the anxieties of twenty-first century America—class, race, “values”—present themselves as they do on, I’m sure, any internet discussion-based communities. The persistent message of most posters is that the Maumee is a “zoo,” a place where drunken fishermen engage in fistfights and buffoonery.
My experience on this river has been the opposite. There are a lot of people fishing the river on any given day during the run. And almost without exception I’ve had positive interactions with all of them. Fishing this close to other people you’re bound to get your line tangled in someone else’s pretty frequently. But it usually doesn’t take long to get untangled, and the calls of “clear!” can be heard at regular intervals as one angler tosses the disentangled lure of another back into the water to be reeled up.
AJ and I woke up at 5:00 am and drove to the river, stopping at Dunkin’ Donuts on the way. The Maumee is a big river; it has the largest watershed of any river flowing into the Great Lakes. Its average discharge is roughly equivalent to the Rogue River in Oregon. But unlike the Rogue, the Maumee is in a population-dense area: it’s only a few miles from Toledo, one hour from Detroit, and two hours from Cleveland. As a result, it’s crowded. And while I normally like to fish in areas with as little pressure as possible, I really don’t mind fishing with others here. It’s in liminal spaces like these that people encounter the environment in ways they might not otherwise. Even though both sides of the river are lined with highways and towns, it’s a natural space. Bluegrass Island, which has become my favorite place to fish, sustains a population of deer (I counted 18 on one of my trips), nesting Canada Geese, herons, egrets, hawks, vultures, snakes, and other critters. The river is also full of fish, and not just walleye. Sheephead, white bass, buffalo (a kind of carp), suckers, quillback carpsuckers, and other fish make up a majority of the catch. Last year I caught a 7-pound channel cat on the river in May. Last week I watched a prolonged struggle between a snake and a frog. I didn’t stick around to see if the frog eventually escaped, but my guess is the snake eventually won this battle, even if this frog was a little bigger than it bargained for.
Fishing with my brothers is something I don’t take for granted. We grew up fishing the McKenzie River together. We would walk or bike down Thurston Road and through a field of absurdly aggressive cattle to a place on the river where we could stand waist deep and catch trout. Then we would swim. We would fish Salt Creek and Salmon Creek and the South Fork of the McKenzie: my Dad, Ty, AJ, and me. And my Mom would sit on the bank reading a book. Now that I live in Michigan I feel estranged from that history. I fish alone more often than not, less successfully than my brothers in Oregon, but it makes me feel better to be on a river. So when AJ came, it didn’t really matter if we caught a lot of fish or not.
In the end, we did catch a lot of fish, including six walleye. Of those six, AJ caught five, and I caught one. As I said, he is a better fisherman than me. We fished from sunup to sundown, shoulder to shoulder with the Maumee locals, and AJ outfished them all. “Fish on,” he said. And then a few minutes later, “fish on,” again. And again.
I’ve been back to the Maumee several times since AJ left. Twice my friend Sparrow met me on the river, driving from Cleveland. But mostly I’ve fished alone. I’ve gotten better at catching walleye, and I enjoy talking to strangers on the river and standing in the water. Last week I took a break from fishing and sat in the woods of Bluegrass Island, when a herd of deer walked by me. One walked up to me, barely an arm’s length away, and watched me take its picture for a minute or so.
But this river is also a sadness for me, because it isn’t one of the cold rivers of Oregon, one of the rivers of the Coast Range or the Cascades, crystal clear, swift and strong. And I can’t call my dad, or my brothers, and have them meet me there. But I still love the drift, the contours of the river rocks felt through the weight, across fifty feet of monofilament, to the cork handle of my fishing rod. To fish like this is to experience the world differently, to feel it through my own right hand. And it is a kind of consolation:
Bottom of the river.
Bottom of the river.
Bottom of the river.