Jac Ford–The Old Man of That River Up North

By John Kass

There is a river up north and it’s calling my name. If you’re lucky, it calls your name, too.

As I write this, a cold rain pelts the river and the woods around it in northern Michigan. Though icy, the rain is extremely inviting.

Because it calls the steelhead upriver.

There is nothing like a watching a big steelhead fresh from the big lake  on your line. It grabs the fly, turns, ripping off your line, leaping and ripping off more line, 20 pounds or more of big rainbow trout with huge shoulders from its time in Lake Michigan. It is like hooking into a jet.

The man who knows most about all this, the old man of that river up north, legendary fly fisherman and guide Jac Ford should be up there, too. Because this is his time.

The View From the Middle Seat: Lessons Learned From a Lifetime of Guiding” is Jac Ford’s first book. It’s excellent. And the middle seat? That’s where the guide sits.

He’s been fly fishing for more than 70 years. He’s 81 now, and still spends 10 hours a day rowing his boat, up and down the trout rivers of  Michigan, and out where he also works in Montana. He holds his boat against the current so that his clients have the right angle to cast. I’ve been fortunate to have been in his boat. And I hope to run into him again on that river in the next few days. Maybe someday he’ll let me hold the oars, because what I’d really love to do is watch that man fish.

 I’ve bought his excellent book. And if you know anyone who loves fly fishing, or is thinking about beginning this amazing sport, full of intricacies and demanding concentration, you should buy it. You’ll find it in fly fishing shops, or you can get it online at his website www.countryanglers.com  On his website, you may also book Jac as a guide on a trip. Women are flocking to the sport of fly fishing, so “The View From the Middle Seat” would make a great Mother’s Day gift. Or a Father’s Day gift. Don’t forget to get the book and do yourself another favor and book a trip.

What is it with fishing?

The quiet river is sometimes misty at dawn. And it’s like a church. It’s that place where where I forget everything, the words of men, their deeds, their sins, and my deeds and regrets and failures. All that is washed away.

And the weight of the universe is concentrated, shrinking down to that point where the line touches my index finger. Feeling the tension of it, waiting for a strike, you forget everything, even your own name.

On some mornings on that river up north, the sound of the rushing water is a choir. I thank God for the beauty of his creation and whisper “Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”

I might tell you about it in a few days. Or I might not. I don’t know. What I do know is that I won’t be bringing my laptop up there. I’m going fishing.

We caught some nice fish with Jac Ford last year. He taught me how to cast streamers for steelhead, and though I’m a beginner too, a clumsy beginner with the thick hands of a butcher and fingers where the nerve endings have been ruined by decades of typing in the news business, I want to learn. There was only one thing wrong with me being in his boat. I broke one of his rods.

The friends I was fishing with up there, expert fishermen all, like Steve the Pilot, Ross the Baker and John the Builder bestowed upon me a fish/porn nickname that I earned all by myself:

Johnny Two Rods.

Because I broke two rods on that last trip. Only one was his.

“That’s when I should have thrown you out of the boat,” said Jac Ford the other day, while a guest on The Chicago Way podcast. “…that name does fit pretty well. I didn’t know about the first one. But I did know about the second one.”

Some of you have noticed that I never use the name of the river in my column. People come from all over the world to fish that river when the steelhead run in the spring, and during autumn for the salmon. Readers have been bugging me for the name for years.  But I promised Jack Fuller, my late friend and publisher who first brought me up there some 30 years ago now, that I’d never use the name of the river. And I won’t.

“You not only don’t write about it, I don’t even tell my best friend where I fish,” said Jac Ford on The Chicago Way.  “It’s a good way to lose a friend. That happened to me once, I had a spot that I fished since I was a kid, a lot. And pretty much nobody ever got back in there. One day I took this guy there and fished with him. Then a couple weeks later, I went back there to fish and there was a car there I’d never seen before. Matter of fact in my whole lifetime I’d never seen a car there before.

“I got on the water and walked down the river and ran into a guy. He told me the guy (the one Ford had shown the spot to) not only told everybody where I was fishing but drew them a map on how to get there. That was the last day that guy was ever in my vehicle or in my boat. Ridiculous…”

He began to fly fish at the age of seven, at Wiggins Lake near Gladwin, MI., with a nine-foot cheap Japanese bamboo rod that cost him $4.45. He bought his second rod in high school. That one cost him the princely sum of $11.97 cents.

Top rods these days cost hundreds of dollars. How does he remember the exact amounts?

“Back then if you were a kid, and you wanted something, you went out and shoveled sidewalks, mowed lawns and did whatever you did for money because your parents wouldn’t buy it for you,” Ford said. “That’s the reason I never forgot. I remember that it took a lot of sidewalks.”

“The View From the Middle Seat” is printed on glossy paper, filled with photographs, tips on tying flies and Jac’s Tips on casting. The idea isn’t just to catch fish, but trophy fish, a prized fish that you’ll remember years after you catch and release it carefully into the river, so other may catch that great fish.

“My favorite type of fishing is fishing with a streamer for predator fish,” Ford said. “Big fish, mostly Brown Trout, but I will also fish for Smallmouth bass, Pike or Musky. That’s my favorite. I like to see the big fish come and eat the fly. And the best way to do that is streamer fishing, there are a lot of retrieving techniques in my book. It makes a difference between who catches the fish and who doesn’t.”

Out on the water with guides, whether you’re fishing the Midwest for big trout, or in Southwest Florida fishing for snook in the mangroves, or tarpon, you may notice how guides react to one another. They’re competitive. Some, not all, keep each other at a polite distance. They’re not recreating. They don’t get up at 3 a.m. to drive 60 miles to meet their clients at dawn just to goof off. People are hurting financially all over the country. Fishing guides too. There isn’t much money in Northern Michigan. And some areas are quite poor. And so, you may see a polite, taciturn distance between many, especially among the younger guys starting out as guides.

But Jac Ford knows everybody. And they all wave to him, young and old and call out to him.

“All the young guys know him,” said Ross the Baker who’s organizing this weekend’s trip. “He’s the grandfather figure on the water. The young guys see each other on the water, they kind of nod their heads curtly. It’s competition. But Jac’s not in competition with anybody but himself. And he doesn’t give a [fig].”

It was Ross who was recording the saga of Johnny Two Rods last year. He was at one end of the boat. I was at the other, casting a streamer for steelhead under Jac’s direction. By luck I hooked a nice one. Jac wanted me to raise the rod over his head to bring it closer to the boat and scoop it up with the net. I didn’t want to, but that’s Jac Ford!

I broke it.

His beautiful thousand-dollar rod (happily insured and guaranteed by Orvis) snapped like a gunshot. I was mortified then, and now.

But Ross had the video evidence.

And Johnny Two Rods was born.

If you insist on watching the epic moment of my everlasting shame, just click on this link.

“John hooked a steelhead,” Jac said on The Chicago Way, the perfect gentleman letting me off the hook without damaging the skin or dropping me into the bottom of the boat. “We were fighting it. Everything was going well, but when it got close enough to the boat, unfortunately John did exactly what I told him. I instructed John to pull back pull back harder. He pulled way back, which put too much pressure on the rod and broke the rod…That’s why you buy guaranteed rods.”

He was so gracious that he wrote an inscription in my copy of his book, “The View From the Middle Seat.” Here it is:

“John Two Rods, please don’t break too many rods.”

What else is there to say?

He should have thrown me out of the boat.

But I’m glad he didn’t.

Hope to see you on that river up north Jac Ford.

Tight lines.


(Copyright 2022 John Kass)

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