Art Neumann: For the Love of Trout

Art Neumann, a founding father of Trout Unlimited that was established on the banks of the AuSable River in 1959, died last week at the age of 99. Even if you’re not a fly fisherman, you should give thanks to one of Michigan’s greatest environmentalists, who dedicated his life to cold, clear streams and fish that were truly wild. In this Trail Talk, Jim DuFresne writes about his most memorial evening with Art Neumann.

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By Jim DuFresne

Art Neumann, one of the original founders of Trout Unlimited, was rambling down the road near Selkirk when he suddenly applied the brakes and did a double take at the side of the road. “Good lord look at that,” Neumann said. I looked, but all I saw was an open gate.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

But what is simply an open gate to one person is an invitation to Neumann. “That’s my old access,” he said. “I’m going in and play ambassador.”

There are those who say nobody knows Michigan trout streams better than this Saginaw angler, and there is probably no stretch of water Neumann loved more dearly than the Rifle River. He could have caught more trout in the Holy Water of the Au Sable or bigger trout in its South Branch, but it’s the Rifle where Neumann as a youth mastered the rudiments of fly fishing and eventually came to appreciate everything that a trout symbolizes.

Of all the holes and pools within this river, this is the one stretch Neumann liked to fish most. And he did until he lost his access to the water when the cottage owners he knew either died or moved away. But that evening the gate was open.

Neumann turned down the dusty dirt road and stopped at the first cottage. “There is a good pool just downstream from here,” he said, but nobody was home. So he drove to the next one, and I watched him enter a beautiful log cabin where he played ambassador for at least ten minutes. I wasn’t inside, but I could just hear Neumann tell the owners about the days when the Rifle was a top trout stream, or how Trout Unlimited was formed, or how he served as TU’s first executive director. And when he finally stepped outside and had a little spring in his step, I knew this master fly angler had received what he so dearly possessed in the past.

Permission to fish.

“Were they fly anglers?” I asked.

“Nah, they just dangle a worm once in a while,” Neumann said. “But when I get home I’ll send them some flies and an instruction book. That’ll get ’em started.”

Art Neumann, a founding father of Trout Unlimited, fishing on the Rifle River.

Art Neumann, a founding father of Trout Unlimited, fishing on the Rifle River.

We drove down to a spot on the river, stepped out of the car, and walked past the trunk filled with our gear. Neumann, who had fished this river since the 1930s, first just wanted to see the Rifle flow through his favorite stretch.  It was a thing of beauty, then and now. “It’s pretty clear,” said Neumann as we stood on the bank watching a few trout rise upstream. “I caught a 20-inch brown in a pool around that bend once.”

When Neumann finally did open his trunk, I discovered I’d grabbed the wrong metal tube at home and now had my eight-weight rod when what I needed was a five-weight. It might have been a problem any other time, but not with Neumann.

Always somebody who was dabbling in reel repair and rod refinishing,  in 1948 Neumann converted his garage in Saginaw into the Wanigas Rod Company, where he built his fiberglass fly rods and sold only the flies and equipment you truly needed to catch a trout in Michigan. For the next 42 years that shop, which had enough room inside for only three customers, two if they walked in wearing vests and waders, was the pulpit from which Neumann preached what was then a revolutionary concept: catch and release. You catch a trout, you put it back. The trout is then there to catch again. Neumann like that concept, preserving the resource for what he really enjoyed: catching trout on a fly.

What I discovered that night on the Rifle was when your fishing partner is a rod builder; you’ll never lack a rod. Neumann unzipped a black case that held almost a dozen of them and selected one for me, a fiberglass rod he had built years ago. “I’m going to spoil you with this one,” he said.

Next he gave me a leader, a Neumann 60-20-20, after he saw the knotless leader tied to my line and lectured me on the benefits of tying your own. And then just before we split, with him heading downstream to try and find that 20-inch brown again and me upstream, he gave me a few flies. “Not much is hatching right now,” he said. “Try the pale blue dun.”

A wild brown trout.

A wild brown trout.

I did, and the first fish I caught was so small I couldn’t tell what it was. But half an hour later I floated that fly over a dissipating ring, and the fish returned to take it. It jumped three times before I gently lifted the eight-inch brown trout out of the water.

It wasn’t another 20 minutes later when the current took that fly, swept it along the bank, and gave me my hardest strike of the evening, almost catching me off guard. But not quite. I kept the tip up, working the fish away from the brush along the shore and into the middle of the river.

The trout never jumped, but there was little question it was large. When it finally tired and came to the surface I saw the largest brown I had ever caught on a fly in Michigan in the short time I had been fly fishing. It was 15 inches long with a band of reddish dots along the side. I marveled at the fact that I caught it in a river I never expected to catch such a fish.

Then again maybe I didn’t catch it. I was using an Art Neumann rod with a leader he tied and flies he selected. And I was fishing in his river. Knowing all this, I gently took the hook out and watched the trout return to the depths from which it came.

It was, after all, Art’s fish.

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