The River of Sand

The River of Sand

By Tom Meyer


One day in the summer of 1950 two men named George had a chance meeting near Burton’s Landing Bridge on the Au Sable River in Michigan. Both men were there fly fishing for trout and they shared concerns about problems with the river which they loved.


Au Sable is a French term meaning “river of sand.” It starts at the confluence of Kolke and Bradford creeks north of Grayling. It runs south to Grayling and then turns east and, after 138 miles, it flows into Lake Huron.


Along the way, starting in the town of Mio, about 25 miles east of Grayling, is the first of six dams. The river had been ravaged by the logging industry in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Even though there had not been a log float since 1910 when the building of railroads eliminated the need for floating the logs downriver to the saw mills, the damage was still evident. Banks were eroding from logs being slid down into the river and boulders in mid river that caused logjams were dynamited.


The Au Sable originally had a prolific population of its native fish, arctic grayling. It was thought to be a bad day if a fisherman didn’t catch 50 to 150 grayling per day. Fishermen and women would travel by railroad to catch and keep large numbers of grayling. The average size was 12-15 inches. They were good eating, and easy and fun to catch. So the overharvesting and the destruction of the river due to the logging industry caused the grayling to become extinct in the Au Sable River shortly after 1900. In 1889 the planting of German brown, rainbow and brook trout was underway. The Au Sable River was redefining itself as a trout stream and beginning a new era.


Getting back to the meeting of the Georges in 1950, the more recent concern to them were the 100 or so cabins along the main branch of the river that built break walls. The men felt the break walls were limiting the natural flow and filtration. Some cabins were dumping sewage directly into the river and some businesses in Grayling were dumping waste water and toxic chemicals directly into the river. They were also concerned with the regulations on the river, or lack of regulations. The north branch had prolific brook trout numbers but the creel limit was set at 50 fish per day. The Georges envisioned a fly-fishing-only section and catch-and-release sections.


Both Georges owned cabins on the river. George Griffith (1901 - 1998) bought a small cabin above Wakeley Bridge which he called “The Barbless Hook.” In 1950 Griffith, a hosiery salesman by profession, was the Michigan State Conservation Commissioner. He was also a part-time guide on the Au Sable and was known as a master Au Sable boatsman who could fish with one hand and maneuver the boat with the pole in his other. Traditional Au Sable boats, which are still in use today, are 22-24-foot, narrow, wooden canoe-like watercraft steered with only a long pole. While George Griffith had two good arms, he only had one eye. In 1953 he would lose his left eye while fishing in a rain storm during the hex hatch on the Au Sable and accidentally hooking a fly in his eye. The eye became infected and his doctor removed it to prevent the spreading of the infection to his right eye. (That is a good reminder to always wear some type of eye protection while fishing.)


George Mason was the CEO of American Motors in Detroit and also owned a cabin on the south branch of the Au Sable on 1,500 acres of land, covering 14 miles of river. George Mason was the treasurer of Ducks Unlimited and suggested to George Griffith that maybe he should start a “Trout Unlimited” organization to deal with the aforementioned issues. George Mason (1991-1954) died in 1954 at age 63 and never did live to see the formation of TU, but still became an important part of TU’s history. His family donated all of the 1,500 acres on the south branch to the state of Michigan with the stipulation that it never be developed and that it would be designated as catch-and-release and fly-fishing only.


The state added on to the Mason property and acquired another 3,000 acres, which connected to George Mason’s 1,500 acres. Today that section of the south branch is referred to as the “Mason Tract.” It has numerous rustic access points and a wonderful hiking trail along the river but there is still no overnight camping allowed and no development. The only building is a small chapel called the “Mason Chapel” or “Fishermen’s Chapel.” It is a rest spot for those who float the river and there is access by road as well. The south branch is a beautiful, wild rustic trout stream that is well worth a visit.


In July of 1959, five years after the death of George Mason, George Griffith invited 60 of his friends and associates to a meeting at his cabin to establish a Trout Unlimited organization in Michigan. Sixteen men showed up and it was a contentious meeting, George Griffith would later say in his book, “For the Love of Trout,” published in 1993. Some of those who attended were vacationing guests of their hosts and never again played a role in TU. George Griffith helped make sure the momentum surged and on that day “Trout Unlimited” was born.


One of the attendees was Art Neuman (1916-2016), a Saginaw Michigan toolmaker who also started a rod-building and tackle business called the Wanigas Rod Company. Art was the original vice president of TU and later became the executive director. He has been credited with taking TU from a Michigan organization to a national organization. In the town of Lovell on the north branch there is a museum which was funded by Trout Unlimited with a replica model of Art Neuman’s rod shop.


Others who attended were Fred Bear (1902-1988), known for his archery business but with a passion for trout fishing. In the town of Grayling there was a Fred Bear Museum and TU meetings and events were often held there. Today there is a display in Detroit at the Michigan Conservation Museum about the beginning of TU, which also has a replica of George Griffith’s Au Sable boat.


Also at the original meeting was Chuck Piper, Fred Bears’s vice president and Vic Beresford, the editor of “Michigan Out-of-Doors,” who was just fired for publishing an editorial criticizing the Michigan House of Representatives for not supporting the conservation agenda. The meeting at George Griffith’s cabin led to the organizational meeting on September 5, 1959. Trout, Unlimited (The comma was removed in later years) was off and running.


Rusty Gates (1955-2009) was not at the original TU meeting, but would later become an iconic figure in the area. He was a fishing guide, conservationist and author. He owned Gates Lodge, just below Stephan’s bridge on the main branch of the Au Sable. It is still called Gates Au Sable Lodge but the present owner is Josh Greenberg. It has a restaurant, fly shop and at least 24 motel-style rooms. It is a must-stop if you visit the area. In the 1980’s there was some disagreement even within the TU chapters regarding certain issues involving regulations on the Au Sable River. As a result Rusty founded a new organization called Anglers of the Au Sable in 1987. He served as president until his death. The organization took on issues such as oil and gas exploration, chemical pollution and a threatened expansion of Camp Grayling, Michigan’s National Guard training camp. Rusty Gates was the moving force to establish catch-and-release rules on a stretch of the main branch. There are currently more than 1,100 members of the organization and each year they contribute $50,000 for stream projects and clean up.


I became interested in the history of the area about 12 years ago when a member of our chapter, who grew up in Michigan, put on a program about fishing the Au Sable after a board meeting. Since then I had hoped to someday fish the Au Sable and see the historic sites where TU was started.


CWTU has a deep connection with the Chicago chapter of TU, the Elliott Donnelley Chapter. In George Griffith’s book he says this about Elliott Donnelley. “His many talents were so recognized that we elected him president of TU. He was to play a strong role in TU’s success for many years.” A group of Elliott Donnelley chapter members make the journey up to Central Wisconsin each year for one of our chapter’s workdays. They don’t have home waters themselves in Chicago so they generously put their efforts and funds into Wisconsin and Michigan TU activities.


Over the years CWTU members and EDTU members have become friends and in June of 2022 I was invited to join the group on their annual trip to the Au Sable. There were 10 guys in the group and we all stayed at the Wa Wa Sum lodge, a 125-year-old log-cabin resort owned by Michigan State University. MSU will only rent the resort, which has eight bedrooms and 27 beds in total, to non-profits such as Trout Unlimited and academic groups. The lodge is located about 2-3 miles east of Grayling on the north side of the Au Sable River.


Late May through September is considered prime time due to the associated hatches. There is a waiting list for most days in June, July and August. The EDTU group, headed by Jeff Goad and Doug Conover, have been doing this annual trip for years. For me, just being there on the famous Au Sable and staying in that iconic lodge was worth the trip.


Inside the lodge you can just feel the history. Numerous well known people have stayed in this lodge during its many years of existence. It was originally built in 1897 and owned by the Stranahan family, who owned Champion Spark Plugs. In 1964, the family wanted to donate it to Trout Unlimited, but owning it would have violated TU’s tax-exempt non-profit status, so it was donated to MSU. TU was designated as the caretaker of the river frontage.


When the lodge was built there was a vast clear-cut area that had been burned over across the river from the build site. In 1905 Chief David Shoppenagon of the Chippewa Indian tribe, who was a local fishing guide and legendary figure, told Duane Stranahan Sr. that the Indian name for the burned over, clear cut area was Wa Wa Sum. From then on that was the official name. The Stranahan’s son Duane Jr. would later serve as TU’s Executive Director.


The hope for the EDTU members who make the trip is always to hit the Hex hatch while they are there, and sometimes they do. The area is also famous for its brown drake hatches and mahogany (Isonichia) hatches during June and into July. As it turned out we happened to arrive between the brown drake and hex hatch. The fishing was tough, which I’m told is often the case. There were some fish caught during this four-night, three-day fishing trip, but mostly small fish. You always hope to catch a lot of fish and the bigger the better but it’s not always about catching fish. I enjoyed my time with new friends and exploring the historic sights.


Having said that the river looked great and I have no doubt that once you get to know the area and the diverse water in the main, north and south branches, the fishing can be great. Sometimes weather and timing are a factor. During our stay June 15th - 19th, the temperature dropped into the low 30’s each night. I have more excuses if you haven’t heard enough!


There is no doubt that the efforts and passion of the men mentioned in this article resulted in saving and protecting the Au Sable River and other Michigan trout streams. To this day there is a 12-mile stretch between Burton’s landing, where the two Georges met, and Wakeley Bridge, that is referred to as “The Holy Water.” It is designated as flies only and catch and release. The 14 miles of the Mason Tract is also still designated flies only and catch and release.


The Au Sable River is arguably considered to be the best trout fishery east of the Rockies. The Michigan State DNR has designated it as a blue ribbon trout stream. Just above Wakeley bridge is the Barbless Hook cabin, which is privately owned. If you float by it there is a plaque dedicated to the sight where TU was formed. Tradition has it to bow your head as you pass. Michigan Trout Unlimited currently maintains a number of the public access spots along the Au Sable. A sign with George Griffith’s favorite quote and what became his motto to live by was posted at the Mason Chapel after some vandalism and littering was discovered. “Don’t let it be said, and said to your shame, that all was beauty here, before you came.” Today from Maine to California, there are more than 300,000 TU members and more than 400 chapters. I think all of us are thankful for that idea that was spawned more than 72 years ago at that chance meeting on the River of Sand.  



Tom Meyer is an active member and leader in the Central Wisconsin Chapter of Trout Unlimited. You can reach him at