In continuation of the “Guide Life” series I reached out to Michigan’s Brian Kozminski of True North Trout Guide Service to discuss aspects about the guide lifestyle and pick his brain on topics such as introducing new people to the sport of fly fishing. What struck me early on with Brian when we connected on Facebook was how down to earth and personable he is. In an industry where egos can seriously get out of control, here is this guide doing his thing and loving it. He was happy to discuss fly fishing and tying and when I thought about continuing this series it was a no-brainer to reach out to him.
What is it about fly fishing that made you want to make it a career?
So many things. Some small, the intricacies of learning how to tie a baetis nymph and knowing the life cycle of many macro invertebrates and how to present an emerger mayfly that might be crippled. To the bigger things like the rivers and watersheds that connect us from one side of the country to the other, those same rivers that unite many anglers when they get in a room and talk of fish stories and ‘the one that got away’ and the gear that gets us motivated to try new techniques and the challenge of ever changing river conditions. To the more spiritual aspects that keep my psyche in the right frame of mind. The ability to get out on the river and totally reset my disposition on many facets and a variety of levels of whatever chaos might be going on in my daily life~ my clarity and my serenity wrapped in one specific, detailed package, ever evolving and challenging: fly fishing.
For those that aren’t familiar, tell us about True North Trout and how you ended up getting involved?
About a decade ago, I was chapter President for Miller-VanWinkle Chapter of TU in our area. I would regularly donate trips to local non-profits like the Women’s Resource Center, Habitat for Humanity, Crooked Tree Arts Council, and local Chamber directors, etc. My goal was to introduce other groups who might not be familiar with Trout Unlimited and the work we do, why we build river bank protection/revetments, remove culverts that prevent fish passage, plant saplings and native plants on former sand trap areas, and keep a record of aquatic bug populations among many other projects. Seems to me, the Trout Unlimited groups are already well versed on the issues we face, but getting more exposure through other non-profits was a no brainer and pretty cool to get others outside that live Up North, but never realized the amount of wildlife that exists in their very own backyard.
Through one of these channels, a gentleman out of Traverse City emailed me and asked if I would be interested in taking over his blog “TRUE NORTH TROUT”. He would still have an admin role, but he felt I was connected and had a pulse on the hot issues we, as anglers and conservationists, were facing. I was hesitant; I had no interest in writing – my literary skills are dismal at best. But my wife encouraged me and said it would help make me a better writer, to be able to get down on paper some of the things that were already heavy on my mind. And she was right, as good wives often are. Here I am, a few years down the road, and True North Trout is synonymous with Brian Koz. It is me and I am it. Through my increased social media connections, I have also been involved for 8 years with Salmon in the Classroom at a local elementary, where I go in each month and talk about fishing, guiding, TU, and watersheds, We dissect baby salmon, tie flies, conduct on-stream macro invert surveys and release some 150 salmon parr each spring with the students of Sheridan Elementary School- it’s pretty cool – it is my calling.
Guide Life can be an interesting lifestyle. How do you maintain balance to keep up with the demands without burning out or letting frustration take over?
It can be overwhelming- especially after a long season of hatches: from Drakes to hex and into mousing, it really never ends. I try to dedicate one day to my family each week, we make it a beach day. But life happens. There are many 5 am early rises in order to get things done. We had a working farm for several years, goats, sheep, alpacas and over a dozen chickens and ducks. Keeping up on feeding, collecting eggs, watering, cleaning up the barn and yard on top of kids, family and painting a full guide docket can wear you out. On occasion, you can see someone post that they have been on the river 58 days in a row, guess what? I don’t want to to be that client on day 55, 56 or 57. I want to go out every day excited and pumped to go chase trout, seems a little difficult when you can barely remember to hook the anchor to the stern. We have all been there, especially after three weeks of ‘up-all-night hex’—> chasing monster browns. I had a recent opportunity to take a desk job for a major fly(line) fishing company, it wasn’t meant to be right now, but eventually I will likely rep for a company I am passionate about and spread this fever to others.
Tell us what organizations you have been involved with in the past, and any companies or organizations you are currently working with?
I am very proud to represent some of the best companies in the fly industry. First as an Elite Ambassador for Temple Fork Outfitters, I get to work with some of my long time mentors and idols here in Michigan and Midwest- Ray Schmidt and Kate Smith, along with Jeff “Bear” Andrews, Austin Aducci and Patrick Campbell, what a phenomenal and knowledgeable crew. I am also on Pro Staff for Scientific Anglers in Midland, Erick Johnson, Brad Befus, Josh Jenkins and Jeff Pierce tend to bring out the best the Midwest has to offer. The Pros in that group are far too many to mention but really appreciate the team at SA who pull this together. SUPontheFLY is taking fly fishing to new places and John Rounds asked me to help spread the passion of SUPs in Michigan a few years ago as midwest ambassador. All of this would not have happened if it weren’t for ADIPOSE BOATWORKS and the fact I had the first ADDY FLOW in Michigan back in 2012. The gang in Helena, Montana worked very hard to get me into the boat I use more than 100x a year for guide trips and a few dozen more for personal enjoyment. I truly believe that was instrumental in setting True North Trout apart from other guides at a critical time in my career.
There is a desperate need for new blood in the fly fishing industry, and I think for the first time in a long time, we are starting to see an influx of new fly fishermen and women, along with new fly tyers. How do you cater to new, or less experienced anglers to maximize their experience on the water?
I strongly feel we need to help nurture the newcomers and welcome them with positivity and constructive criticism. Some are afraid to get involved, fear being ridiculed, and I aim to get newbies in my boat and have a good time on the river. Make it fun, interesting, show them rocks, logs, bugs, give them history of the rivers and how much we have destroyed and rebuilt, why we work so hard to protect these resources. My region has a healthy dose of retirees who have decided to pick up a fly rod as a “bucket list” item. I actually have a lot of beginners, they come to me because others say I have the patience and time to help people understand the mechanics of casting, the life cycle of bugs and its not always about catching monsters — sometimes an eight inch trout is a monster in the eyes of an angler who never caught a trout. We need these anglers for the future of our sport. I am glad and excited to see so many women taking up the fly rod and the energy the new ‘Flat Brim’ generation brings to the industry. Fortunate for me, I am at an age in between appreciating the knowledge and wisdom of the old timers and incorporating the updated styles and techniques of this new younger generation. Back when I was managing a restaurant in Petoskey, I would host a monthly ‘Tying Night’, not unlike many Suds & Bugs or ‘Tie One On’ nights, now days I can send out an invite for some of the local tyers and newbies in my area and have them over to tie and talk shop without the concern of patrons nearby choking on collateral deer hair flying in their Chicago Burger.
Where do you guide primarily and what makes them unique and rewarding for anglers? What species will clients encounter while on the water- and what are your favorite techniques for fishing for them?
The ‘Tip of the Mitt’ region- northern Michigan, around and above the 45th parallel. Miraculous amount of water. Besides the myriad of choices along the lakeshore of the Great Lakes for carp, smallmouth and anadromous species looking for a familiar scent to migrate into, we also have hundreds of rivers and small creeks that feed into larger lakes which eventually dump into either Lake Michigan or Huron. Spring brings the run of steelhead into famous rivers like the lower Manistee and Au sable- both require federal permits to float, so I target smaller rivers near my home town of Boyne City. The Boyne, Jordan, Pigeon and Sturgeon see a decent number of chrome bullets, but downstate anglers have to understand that these rivers are much smaller than counterparts like the Pere Marquette River that can see almost 100K Oncorhynchus mykiss- the Jordan is only 32 miles long and with less than 5-7K steelies, they can get to where they need to spawn in less than a couple days. The Pigeon (longest river at 67 miles) & Sturgeon Rivers have a decent run of gorgeous iridescent emerald green lake run rainbow that can test your rod and river maneuverability. Early spawning carp will be found along the bays of Wilderness State Park near Mackinaw City, if they aren’t visible, I will put on a deceiver and stir up some smallmouth bass. The warmth of summer brings some of the best hatches in the Midwest- notably, and my personal favorite, is the Drake hatch in the first part of June- often just before the masses of ‘Fudgies’ migrate north for their seasonal residency. This hatch brings the best of the best browns out of their deep cover to be noted for future encounters. The Hex follows, along with it’s benevolent herd of worshipers, lining up along many favorite muck-riddled purple iris adorned shorelines. There are evenings where 6- 12 boats can line up at the take out with a couple dozen or more empty trailers in the lot patiently waiting for the owners who stay past my 2 am curfew(I still have kids and early morning chores to knock out before returning the next evening). The heat of summer gives you choices- Terrestrial daytime hopper country for beautiful brook trout in the PRC or upper Jordan/Manistee or late night Red Bull/coffee driven mousing for big browns. Autumn runs of salmon have the trails on nearby rivers well prodded- I prefer to avoid this less than picturesque ‘Hook em and drag them in’ style of angling and head out for fall browns eating articulated Circus Peanuts or Hog Snares. We also have a special lake with a hybrid of lake trout and brook trout- Splake. These aggressive and fun trout will chase a streamer all the way to boat in highly visible cold water in November often leaving you wondering why they didn’t take that perfect presentation. Sometimes they turn on and get after it, only one way to find out. Winter months- you will see me at shows across the midwest talking the benefits of a high modulus quality rod with unreal customer service and unbeatable guarantee for Temple Fork Outfitters.
I am a fan of dry fly approach, watching a fish take a fly you tie is the reason why we do this, streamer junkie at heart, it is hard to turn back once you see the turn or flash of a large trout that darts out from under cover as it checks out your articulated whatever. The take can leave you trembling and often, we swing for hours to make those connections. Lately, though, I have been getting down and dirty with Lance Egan and Devin Olsen’s Tactical Fly Fisher- Euro Style nymphing, it is very effective and can produce numbers as well as decent size trout in places where we often blow right on by. Give it a try, straight line nymphing has many benefits.
In your experience, what do clients spend too much time focusing on, and conversely, not enough time focusing on, while preparing for a trip?
Flies. Do I have the right flies? Are these good? What should I bring? A well prepared guide will have the flies and terminal gear for any day on the river, but if your drift is less than desirable, your trout will pass that gorgeously tied upwing sulphur and choose the plethora of others in his lane over yours. The wrong fly at the right depth is better than the right fly at the wrong depth- ALWAYS. I think we concern ourselves often with the fly. We make excuses, ‘They don’t like this fly’, ‘this fly isn’t working’- If you place a fly in front of a potential trout, especially in a feeding lane, he has a millisecond to decide Food/NotFood and take a closer look. Obviously, tailwater fisheries and slick smooth surfaces do demand the best in presentations, but that is only half of the equation. Especially in nymphing, getting a fly down to the desired depth is critical, when you do bounce bottom, you will lose flies, but you will also connect with more fish.
Casting, Casting and casting. Get the fly where it needs to be, NOW! Everyone has seen ‘A River Runs Through It’ and they visualize themselves a young Brad Pitt(casting double-Jason Borger). Pick the fly up, dry it off, and deliver. You get one shot, then its gone. I can hold the boat in position, but we will never reach our destination in the next twelve hours of we do that for every piece of LWD (large, woody debris) or juicy undercut bank. I see anglers plop the fly on the water two or three times before they are sufficiently satisfied with alerting nearby trout to their intended casting locale. Bad casts CAN CATCH FISH. Leave your fly and retrieve, it may surprise you. As humans, we see a target, place a fly near that hopeful locale under a tamarack or cedar, but first cast isn’t quite ‘good enough’ and we recast once, perhaps twice more, and in reality third cast was only marginally better that the first cast by an inch or two, or worse yet- you accidentally wrap a favorite Bears Iso pattern around those tiny buds on the lower cedar sweeper and the fish have boarded next flight down stream. Don’t get me wrong- work on your casting before getting in a boat and deal with moving targets and wind, but make your shot count.
What advice would you give to guys looking to get started guiding?
I am a people person, and I love interacting with and introducing people to the rivers. I look at my boat as a floating table in a restaurant. Customer service is number one. Knowing my rivers is number two. Having a passion for bugs and trout only come naturally- I am a science major, have been volunteering doing river bug surveys since High School at Kenowa Hills when we sampled Sand Creek some thirty years ago. The fishing part comes when all these pieces fit together. For me, the nature of the bug cycles, an ever changing river and feeding habits of trout give me the challenge that makes me click. I have been asked why I don’t guide for ice fishing- beside the fact it is primarily a drinking leisure sport many take up to get out of the house on a blustery January day, I find it difficult to drill a hole and place a wax worm on the end of a line and instruct someone ‘to watch’ for the next hour or so, let me know if it moves.
From my experience, Michigan guides can be somewhat opinionated- very passionate, but also very competitive. Do you think this ever goes too far and becomes detrimental to the Michigan fishing scene?
Really? I’ve never noticed.
Ha! Just kidding. Personally, I have been harassed and threatened by one guide in particular who believes he owns the river. Despite requests to him and conversations with his boss, his plight continues and the annoying texts keep coming. It is what it is and I let it go. The advent of Social Media has magnified the opinion of many guides and anglers alike. Holding a fish wrong, giving away a secret honey hole, killing a trout by gilling- a variety of other offenses that may be totally legal on certain rivers at specific times, but we like to hide under the anonymity of our laptop and throw darts across the country at some twelve year old who just caught his first pike.
Yes. It has been detrimental. There will be collateral fish killed, it is a blood sport. Some will keep a trout- hopefully not out of season or in a Flies Only section of river. But there has been benefits of the Facebook generation, a certain alliance of guides and fellow anglers who work to protect a vital resource under attack, or coming together to aide in misfortune of lost goods on the river or even more important – family tragedy.
There are many guides who will point out exactly what ‘traditions’ have been allowed and how they were taught by guides/shop owners for decades prior, who may not longer be with us. We can choose to harbor those sometimes archaic notions, or move on and focus on more important matters, like potential fish farms or hydraulic fracturing in our headwaters.
Lastly- what would you say to a prospective client looking to book a Michigan fly fishing trip for the first time, what makes you the perfect guide to give them that introduction?
I recently spoke at a Trout Unlimited meeting downstate, and questioned the attendees how many had been on guide trips, of those showing their hands, I then asked how many had been skunked on a guide trip, most kept their phalanges dangling in the air. I felt a sense of relief. I thought I was the only guide in the northern hemisphere who has had a couple days with nothing but stories and memories of a beautiful day on the river. No guide goes out in the morning with the intention of coming home without a few fish in the net. We really want the client to have a memorable experience. I want to make it more than that. It should be fun and educational, learn about the rivers, bugs, fish biology and perhaps put all the pieces together with a fish that takes a fly and seal the deal for another future advocate of this great pastime. A client should have an open line of communication with the guide, be honest about experience level and have a common ground for expectations. The fish are often a bonus. I used to beat myself up about a scoreless day on the water, later realizing, we don’t go out to ‘keep score’.
Brian was recently visited by Joe Cermele, Field & Streams Hook Shots creative director behind the hilarious and sometimes controversial video series. Joe and the Hook Shots crew were looking to do some mousing in Michigan’s infamous timber strewn waterways. This was the result!
Brian, I am extremely appreciative of you taking the time from a still very busy guide season to answer these questions. I think after reading it, I’ll probably be sharing a boat with you next season and making my maiden voyage to Michigan! So much good information, and someone who is a representing the fly fishing industry with passion and positivity!
You can contact Brian for a guide trip through the True North Trout Facebook page HERE, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also check out his wonderful website True North Trout HERE!
Lastly, I wanted to share the partner companies that Koz represents as the manufacture/guide relationship is certainly critical to providing proven, progressive technologies that help make all of us better anglers.
You can also watch more adventures by the Hook Shots crew on the Field & Stream Website HERE