At some point in March, likely on a day when it’s cold enough to get your attention but just warm enough to seduce the fishermen down to the water’s edge, Fred Mickle, Jr., will be back with the Betsie he adored so much.
That’s not a mistress, but a true love, indeed. Michigan’s Betsie River was a place where Fred excelled at sharing his gifts — teaching others the spiritual side of fishing for salmon and steelhead, and equipping them with the necessary knowledge and some of the finest custom-made fly rods the hands of man can produce.
John Wilburn, one of the legion of fishermen Fred introduced to the charms of the waterway, and who, like all of the others received a rich dose of humor, wisdom, and life lessons while fishing with Fred, will lead his friend into the arms of the Betsie.
Wilburn will find a nice run that undoubtedly would be holding a few cantankerous kings each fall, he’ll tip his cap, look toward that endless sky, then lose the battle with those seldom-exposed man-tears as he casts Fred’s ashes into those blessed waters.
“We’ll probably make it a fishing trip, since that’s the way Fred would have wanted it — a bunch of guys just fishing and having fun,” Wilburn said. “He went up there for 40 years and introduced a lot of people to that type of fishing. He opened up a whole new world of fishing for so many of us.”
Fred passed away in mid-December, when cancer called out checkmate and ended their unfair standoff. He spent 70 years on earth, and he did a lot in those seven decades. Fred was employed as an inspector at Columbia Gas, and after retiring he went to work at Jann’s Netcraft, building premium fishing rods and repairing the work of others. Besides being a religious angler, Fred was also a Corvette aficionado.
It appears that what he did best was conquer one of the trickiest challenges of life — he made the people around him happy. At his very informal wake held at Frickers in Maumee, there was a lot of talk and laughter, and some eating and some more drinking, but the most telling aspect was the unbridled adoration directed toward Fred.
Among the large school of fishermen who had the opportunity to share a few days on the Betsie and a few evenings around camp with Fred, he left their souls tattooed with some kind of ancient code of angling chivalry.
Fred was the Pied Piper of salmon and steelhead fishing, but also the Santa Claus, the sergeant-at-arms, and the patron saint.
“Fred loved to teach people how to fish and he was willing to help anyone,” Wilburn said, “but Fred also brought a lot of integrity to fishing — everything was by the book, but he always made it so much fun.”
Butch Stover marveled at Mickle’s skill in crafting custom-made fishing rods.
“He was self-taught, but he was one of the best anyone had seen at building fishing rods,” Stover said. “He could have been an artist, an architect, an engineer — anything. Fred built beautiful rods, and he could repair anything. Guys would break rods, and Fred would fix ‘em.”
John Jokinen worked with Fred at Netcraft, a Maumee-based supplier of fishing tackle and lure-making supplies, and said he never saw Mickle throw a fishing rod in the trash, no matter how badly it was damaged.
“He’d take that broken one, repair it, and make it into a two-piece rod, and then give it to a kid. He did that for the 10 years I knew him,” Jokinen said.
Kevin Renner, a highly skilled rod builder in his own right, said Mickle’s combination of quality work and infectious persona made him an icon in the local fishing community.
“There’s no question that Fred built a great rod, but I think it was his personality as much as anything that kept people coming back,” Renner said.
“Everybody recommended him because he did really nice work, but they remembered him because of that personality. With Fred, the first impression was a very good one, and that never changed no matter how long you knew him.”
Greg Wheeler worked with Fred at Columbia Gas for about 40 years, and although not a fisherman himself, Wheeler appreciated Fred’s affinity for the sport.
“Good fishing was a priority in his life, and it seemed like just about every weekend he was going fishing someplace,” Wheeler said. “And I’m not surprised he was so good at building fishing rods — Fred was one of those guys that just had a knack for things.”
Fred’s brother, Rich, didn’t do much fishing with Fred either, but he credits his elder sibling with teaching him so much more. When their father died, Rich was just six.
“He took on the role of my dad and did everything for me,” Rich said.
“When I was a kid, I thought he was the coolest thing in the world because he was just so much fun. He helped raise me, and he taught me how to be a man. I idolized him.”
Fred leaves behind his children, his grandkids, a battalion of fishermen armed with his meticulously crafted fishing rods, and a legacy of fly fishing converts.
“I could never seem to get the hang of it, but Fred took me up to Cold Creek one day and after a few hours, he opened up a whole new world of fishing for me,” said Brian Wilburn, John’s brother.
“Fred seemed to get more enjoyment out of teaching others than he did out of fishing. Some days he would just leave his rod in the truck. He’s gone, but he left this whole fly fishing experience with me.”
Fred took his final fishing trip to the Betsie in October. He closed his tackle box and went into the hospital a short time later, and then to hospice. There will be no more custom-made Fred Mickle fly rods, so the salmon and steelhead on the Betsie will get a reprieve.
Fred’s large circle of fishing buddies will continue to fish, but they just might leave those prized rods at home, because there will be no replacing them now.
“We’ll keep going, but we’re not going to kid ourselves — it will never be the same,” John Wilburn said. “Without Fred, there’s just an empty place in the whole picture.”
As for the upcoming trip to the Betsie in March, to spread those ashes and cinch Fred’s bond with that beloved waterway, making their union an eternal one — John Wilburn expects that will be a solemn moment when the tears and the laughter will both flow unimpeded, in an indistinguishable marriage of emotions.
“Taking him back to the Betsie makes perfect sense, because that’s where a good, old fisherman like Fred belongs,” Wilburn said. “And when I’m gone, I hope somebody will do the same thing for me.”
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