top of page


with Alex Lafkus & Russ Maddin


     As I sit at 336 East Front Street in Traverse City, Michigan at Nolan’s Tobacco & Cigar bar, I feel as if it is my Valhalla after completing my first Michigan smallmouth bass adventure.  It was also an accomplished feeling as I look back to the difficulties and obstacles of my trip north from Arkansas.  It had obviously been a trip I had looked forward to for quite some time and I “thought” it was set up as easy of a travel trip I could schedule.  I would get on the plane in Northwest Arkansas at 9:00 a.m., then connect in Chicago O’Hare, and be on the ground in Traverse City by 3:30.  This would allow me plenty of time to get adjusted, lay out my gear, prepare my rods and reels, and then get a good night sleep to prepare for meeting Alex and Russ at 7:00 a.m. at the boat ramp.  The weather was clear, and all planes were on schedule.  This is going to be easy.  NOT!  My plane at XNA was delayed 4 hours due to improper tread on one of the tires and it had to be replaced (this was the first flight for American that day meaning this plane had been there overnight with ample time to repair).  Regardless, I knew I would not make my connection in Chicago.  So, I immediately went into “save” mode and tried to think of every possible scenario that could have me at that boat ramp by 7:00 a.m. the following day.  After exhausting every possible scenario, I knew what I would have to do; unfortunately.  I had them pull my bags off the plane, restamp them to be taken to baggage claim in Chicago, rented a car online in Chicago for a drop in Traverse City.  

     We finally got on the plane headed to Chicago at 3:30 (it was scheduled for 9:00 a.m.) and the long trek began.  We landed at 4:45, I grabbed my bags at baggage claim, and was in my rental car at 5:15.  Now, I had to drive through the worst possible Chicago traffic from the north side all the way through the south.  It went as expected – it sucked!  Then driving around, the southern end of Lake Michigan and turn due north and begin the trek to Traverse City; all 343 miles.  I rolled into my hotel around 11:00 p.m. exhausted.  But, as many of you know, the anticipation of the opportunity to fish in this new environment was all the motivation I needed.

     Another part of my anticipation was to see my old friend Alex Lafkus.  For years on his winter journey to guide my former home water (White River, Arkansas) he had told me stories of these bronze-colored giants and the beauty of his home waters.  I had been looking forward to the trip for years and now it was happening right in front of me.  

     I awoke on May 19th looking out my hotel room over Lake Michigan to a whopping 38 degrees.  I immediately realized I probably underestimated the temperatures and had left all my cold-water gear back at home.  I layered up with everything I brought knowing I would be removing layers as the day moved forward.  I was freezing my ass off as I drove past folks wearing shorts at the gas stations and filling their cars for the day. I googled the nearest Walmart and went in to find some backup clothing for warmth.  You know, at least a stocking cap.  I mean it was 38 degrees right.  I found a worker in the clothing department and asked where I would find the “warm” clothes and maybe a stocking cap.  She laughed and said, “that stuff was put up 2 months ago.  It’s Spring”.  I could only laugh at the sincerity in her voice that 38 degrees was Spring-like.  After completely failing to add to my heat preservation I stopped into a local shop for a cup of coffee.  I was pleasantly greeted by everyone I saw and felt completely at ease with everyone’s hospitality.  The drive to the boat ramp was gorgeous with a full green tree canopy covering nearly every road.  Traverse City couldn’t be any cleaner and pleasant to the eyes on this May morning.  The drive then turned due north on a 2-lane road leaving town.  Every blade of grass was an emerald green and I swear I did not see one damn weed in a single yard I drove past.  These people take a great deal of pride in their properties, and it showed as I passed each one.  But, then again, they only have three months of the year to mow it.  Only a few minutes up the road was a modest boat ramp with only two lanes of parking.  I was early, as usual, so I parked the truck pointed toward the Lake and watched the sun come up while waiting on the boys to meet me.  The sky was a weird hazy red color.  I wasn’t sure if this was the usual or not, but it looked funky.  Later I would learn that an outbreak of Canadian wildfires had pumped the local skies with clouds of smoke that were literally blocking out any sight of the sun for weeks.

     Then behind me I recognized Alex’s Tundra pull up with his boat in tow.  The 2025 Lund Impact XS with a 200 Mercury 4 stroke engine, Hummingbird Helix 12 with Mega Side Imaging, and Minn Kota Terrova 36 volt trolling system was a little different from my 3-man FLYCRAFT back home.  A beautiful boat and as expected, Alex had it cleaned to where you could eat off the carpet.  I said, “That is a little different transportation for chasing’ smallies than I’m used to”.  Alex replied, “It’s a different game up here”.

      Then a full size white 4X4 truck pulls up next to me and I look across the window and see a smile I had seen before.  The man, the myth, the legend, the O.G. himself, Russ Maddin had just pulled up.  (It’s hard for me to call someone younger than me an O.G., but in the fly-tying world, he is the man!)  As Alex backed the boat down, Russ and I caught up quickly, grabbed our gear for the day, and headed to the dock to load up the boat.  As I walked down the ramp and up on the dock, I took a moment to soak up just what I was seeing for the first time.  Lake Michigan was in all its morning glory.  My predetermined mindset had always pictured a gnarly grey and dark lake that might be featured in a Gordon Lightfoot song.  But to my amazement it reminded me more of waking up on South Andros preparing to chase bonefish (except it was 49 degrees).  The sand was as white as that in Akumal, Mexico and the dark blues of the water looked like something you might see chasing roosterfish in the Pacific Ocean.  I immediately commented on the water and Alex said, “Just wait until we get going and the sun comes up.  You will be amazed at the colors.”

     Alex Lafkus has been a fly-fishing guide in Northern Michigan since 2000, but he’s been a fishy dude much longer than that.  He caught the fly-tying and fly-fishing bug early in his adolescence and it stuck to this day.  He began his “professional” career as a kid in 1994 commercial tying for Gates AuSable Lodge in Grayling, MI.  He started on dry flies and the smaller stuff focusing on trout.  He has evolved in to, in my opinion, one of the true innovators of the streamer game.  For more than 20 years, Alex has been part of the group of northern Michigan fly guys who have revolutionized the fly-fishing industry.  There is a short list of “Dudes” in the fly-fishing world, and he is one of them without question.  He is the owner of his own guide service and can be found at and on Instagram at @alflyfishing.  Alex is a member of the Sage Elite Staff, is an Ambassador Guide for Simms Fishing Products, and a member of the Flycraft USA and Flymen Fishing Company Pro Staffs. He does a good job of sitting in the shadows, but he is one of the most respected guides on the planet.  In my opinion, he is responsible for the streamer evolution and explosion that began blooming on the White River in Arkansas over 10 years ago.  It was his unique perspective that he brought from Michigan that changed the game in chasing the monster brown trout of the White River.  His line expertise and musky/brown trout hybrid flies blew our minds.  His 20+ years of knowledge chasing steelhead, pike, musky, smallmouth, and trout in the north was an absolute revolution to the cold tailwaters of the White River.  I was blessed to be part of a small group of folks who benefitted from his knowledge and new ideas.  He partnered with some likeminded folks in Arkansas, and it just grew legs and seemed to change daily.  We began experimenting with lines, leaders, tippet, rods, flies, and began thinking outside the box.  It was awesome to be part of that explosion and it was due to him gracing us for 3 months a year guiding on the White River.  I’ve often considered writing a book on the evolution of the streamer game on the White River.  Trust me, it would be a novel illustrating the constant growth and development of the process with some very colorful characters as the main actors.  I consider myself blessed that Alex and I crossed paths and became friends.

     Russ Maddin’s story at times has mirrored that of Alex or vice versa.  They have been best friends for years and, in many cases, followed the same path.  He began his obsession of fly-tying at the age of only eight years old.  He quickly evolved and was working in a fly shop in Southfield, Michigan by his thirteenth birthday.  He continued his commitment to the sport throughout high school.  As soon as his high school graduation commencement was over, he began his guiding journey.  He hasn’t stopped fly-tying or guiding to this day.  He is a highly sought resource to his Michigan waters.  Russ has an amazing outlook on his daily routine of tying something unique and different each time he picks up the bobbin for that first turn of thread (I encourage you to follow him on social media and see his daily creations).  He likes to describe his fly tying as “weapons manufacturing” and “one of the last great advantages one can have while on the water”.  Russ states, “I believe confidence begins with the first thread wrap”.  A firmly planted part of each of his days is multiple stops at his kitchen table where he loves to do most of his tying.  In my mind, I like to think of this as being very similar to a songwriter always having a notepad or recorder on their bedside and in their constant possession.  Russ simply has a fly-tying vise always at the ready for any inspiration he may have come into his head.  Many know Russ for his revolutionary fly the Circus Peanut.  It created a unique tying platform that you now see copied and implemented in 90% of the streamers in the market.  At the time he said, “Initially, I just wanted to tie to hooks together and see what it would do”.  Russ is a BIG Research & Development guy.  Once he took his newest creation out to water test and fish it, he knew he had something special.  He has continued to evolve from that platform and is responsible for many of the streamer patterns you see in your local fly shop.  Chances are if they are not one of his original patterns, it is tied on his platform.  Unfortunately, in the fly-tying industry we have those people who feel that they need to have “their own” pattern, so they change a type of feather or material and then rename it thinking that makes them a “fly-tyer” in the industry and beat their own chest.  Trust me, the real ones see right through them.  There are countless flies that look pretty but don’t catch and damn thing.  In my opinion, the standard patterns in the industry are Lefty’s Deceiver, Bob Clouser’s Clouser Minnow, and Russ’s Circus Peanut.  You will be hard pressed to find many flies that don’t utilize these 3 platforms.  Russ is one of the most respected fly-tyers and guides in the industry with many pro staffs and sponsorships to his credit.  He is constantly relied upon by the industry to assist in the development of flies, vices, fly rods, fly lines, and tying materials.  Just a few of the big ones are his representation for Renzetti, AHREX hooks, Scientific Anglers, Scott Fly Rods, Dr. Slick, and Montana Fly Company.

      Once we got all of the gear situated and organized, it was go time!  Alex quickly got us up on a smooth plane and we set out for our first targeted location. We motored about 10 minutes and were in the first predetermined spot.  It was pre-spawn time in Michigan and Alex had pre-fished a few spots prior to my arrival and felt that he had a good plan for the day.  The water was as crystal clear as any water you will ever fish with a white sandy bottom and ZERO structure.  It literally felt like you were fishing the ocean.  You could see Alex’s mind working as he was trying to balance current, depth, structure, wind, and water temperature.  

      As usual, I brought along my Temple Fork Outfitters Axiom II’s in 7 & 8 weights lined with the new Cortland Streamer 15’s Intermediates.  But, as I always try to do, I wanted to fish the way the guides normally fish to help me understand the whole process better.  The main difference is that we were going to fish a new proto-type line that Russ had been developing with Scientific Anglers for this specific type of fishing.  It was simply outstanding in my opinion.  But then Russ began breaking down every character of the line.  It was a dissertation in taper, belly, running line, sink rate and many other descriptions that I am completely unqualified to comment on.  Despite not being in a river, I was surprised at just how much current the lake had subsurface.  It was just odd being in a boat in the Lake and swinging flies like you were in a river with moving water.  This was not going to be drifting down a small river, casting, stripping, and repeating.  There was a lot going on and I literally watched as they both were in full “guide-mode” as they constantly talked discussing every aspect and factor of the process.

      The MOST SHOCKING part of the trip was when it came to fly selection.  I had thought about this for some time.  Here I am fishing with 2 of the most influential fly-tyers you could fish with.  With anticipation, I was excited to see just what amazing pattern these two guys would have created for today’s quest.  And then it happened.  Alex pulls out the fly.  I immediately did a double take and asked if he was kidding.  He had handed me a leech pattern that consisted of black marabout tail and black marabou palmered to the eye with a very small set of black bead chain eyes.  I looked at it and asked Alex, “is this it?”  He laughed and said, “do you want to catch smallmouth today?  Then tie it on.”  Both Russ and Alex were interested and fully supported in some of my patterns I had pre-tied for the trip.  But, as I always try to do, I followed the guides plan and tied on the fly.  Russ would be fishing with me, and he grabbed one of his custom fiberglass rods painted in the colors of the Miami Dolphins in that orange and teal.  He had sat at his kitchen vice this morning and tied up a unique but simple Clouser pattern to match the local baitfish.  It was a standard plan to throw two different types of flies to see what they were interested in today.

      The water pattern that Alex was looking for was 5’ – 8’ of water, white sandy bottom, and up current of the fish he had marked on his fish finder.  We began working our way across the water and dissecting it in columns as we moved along the flats type area of the lake.  His boat setup was perfect for this type of fishing, and it was easy to see he had a routine that would maximize our opportunities and put the fly in the right zone.  There was literally ZERO cover in the water and with the smoke-filled sky (from the Canadian fires burning north of us) it was producing a unique glare on the water that made it difficult to see the fish.  I pride myself in being able to sight fish in these conditions, but I was really struggling to find them.  Not Alex and Russ.  They were spotting fish and seeing spots where there were indentions and areas that would likely hold the smallmouth.  Once again, listen to your guides and especially those who are on their home waters.

      Following Alex’s instruction, I was the first to have success.  She hit like a MACK TRUCK and my 8-weight rod was bent in a similar fashion to hooking a large bonefish.  I had never felt this kind of power in my short time chasing these bronze beasts.  As the smile greased my face and I turned my rod to the side to put as much pressure on the fish as possible, my reel began to scream.  This didn’t faze Alex or Russ at all.  It was just a standard take and run that they were obviously used to and had seen hundreds if not thousands of times.  As the fish got within eyesight Russ said, “that looks like a good one”.  If I had to base my expectation on the power and run of the fish, I thought this would be a monster that would break any Ozark record in length and girth. The week prior I had caught a 21 ½ inch Ozark stud.  This one was kicking my ass and it was AWESOME!  As I got it closer Alex grabbed the net and successfully captured the beast and said, “that’s a good start”.  I’m like, are you shitting me?  It was clearly the heaviest smallmouth I had ever caught but only measured right at 20”.  I really thought it would be much longer but realized we were not in Arkansas anymore.  I had heard many fishermen say, “Michigan smallmouth are shaped like footballs”.  I had even said that on a few occasions back on my Ozark water.  But, DAMN, this fish was truly shaped like a football.  The fish was an easy 7 pounds (I’m trying to “shortchange” that number because she felt like over 8 easy to me) and I still can’t believe how thick the fish was.  It was obvious right out of the gate that Alex and Russ were used to seeing fish like this and simply told me that I could count on that type of fish for the trip.  I could wipe the smile off my face and as I write this my smile has returned just thinking of this experience.  After a few pics, the fish was quickly returned to the water for a release that showed just how powerful and fast these fish were.  I could have ended my trip right there.

      With the smile still on my face we continued to look for some more of these giants.  Russ was quickly tight with what would be the first of many 4-6-pound smallies that just seemed like a normal day in the neighborhood for him.  We did recognize that his freshly tied Clouser was really productive – imagine that LOL.  So, Russ gave me one of his flies and I began to try and immolate the way he was fishing it. THIS WAS THE “AHA” LEARNING MOMENT of the trip for me.  Russ didn’t miss a single hookset.  You’ve heard the old saying, “less is more”.  Well, he was as calm and nonchalant with his cast, pause, slow steady strip, and then hookset.  I quickly got a freight train type of hit.  I strip set and it wasn’t there.  I recast to the same area and had the same result.  Powerful hit – strip set - and nothing there.  I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Alex and Russ were getting a kick out of my failure.  But I could tell they knew something they were not sharing or knew I was doing something different from what Russ was doing.  After a few more failed attempts to set the hook, Russ politely said, “you wanna know what you are doing wrong?”    He said, “it’s your hook set”.  I did my best to let him know that the fish were not there when I strip set.  And I may have thrown in the regrettable phrase of, “I’m telling you the fish aren’t there”.  Russ then went into a dissertation type of explanation which clearly shocked me and eliminated the problem.  But, most of all, he taught me a lessen I had never thought of and will remember it until the day I die.  He said, “you are used to fishing in a river or creek.  In those settings the fish have a very limited number of options.  It may be a cast where they only option is for the fish to swim one way or the other, or away from you.  You already have a pretty good idea of where they will run if hooked and you factor that into your cast and boat set up.  You’re basically in an ocean here man.  Remember, nearly half of the time the fish may be running right at you.  You’ve seen how fast and powerful these fish are when taking the fly.  Smallmouth normally take the fly from behind.  When they do, they are moving quick.  So nearly 50% of the time they are swimming right at you.  You are only strip setting one time, not feeling them, and then giving up thinking they aren’t there.  If you get hit like that again, just keep stripping.  Chances are the fish has it in their mouth and are letting their momentum from the take move them directly toward you.  A few more strips and you will catch up to the gap they created and stick the fish.”  HOLY SHIT!  I had never thought of that, and it made perfect sense.  Then he said, “also, there is a lot of current down there already moving your fly.  Less is more when retrieving – just relax. Here, watch how I use the current and let the current do the work.” 

      I put my rod under my arm and watched Russ from beginning to end.  The cast was the same as I was doing with each being 70–80-foot casts.  But then he turned and was talking to Alex for a few seconds and not doing anything with his line.  Then once the line had settled, caught up to the current, gotten down in the strike zone, and he had a straight line and contact with the fly he began short gentle strips.  He made it look like I was working, and he was relaxing.  Then his strip set was an easy deliberant pull.  Not the tarpon strip set I had been doing.  And BOOM!  There was another 4–6-pound smallmouth bending his fiberglass rod and it was quickly followed by a smile from ear to ear.  For as many fish these guys had caught in their lives, I was surprised at how much they enjoyed each one.  So, after a couple of failed attempts to immolate what he had shown me, it clicked in my mind, and I completely understood what he was saying and the concept of this unique style of fishing.  Alex and Russ are teachers just as much as they are guides.  There I am a 55-year-old man with over 40 years of experience being taught a completely new concept with a teaching style that was relaxed, educational, and positive.  I’ve since tried to explain this process with some friends, and they just don’t get it.  They simply say, “oh yeah well that’s how I would have fished it”.  And they wouldn’t because you simply had to be there with the open water, boat drift, current, sink rate, and the entire situation.  I love to learn new things and to me, this was the highlight of the trip and one that I will stow away in my arsenal of tactics moving forward.  After this, once I got a hit, I would continue to strip set as many as 5 times before I would feel the fish.  But it worked every time I thought the fish had hit and ran.  It seemed like every fish after that was swimming directly at me.  It was an awesome feeling to continue to strip awaiting the one strip that would set the hook.  I can’t explain it better than that and it was amazing to me.

      We occasionally would lose the fishes location and they both agreed the primary reason was the water temperature and wind.  They identified that the water we needed to look for was at least 53 degrees.  Anything colder than that was not producing fish.  Alex now had another variable to go with the 5-8 feet of water; the constantly changing wind directions.  He did a masterful job of finding those exact spots on a seemingly endless area of Lake Michigan.  They put me back in them and I managed another 20” fish that had to be 8-9 inches in width and kicked like a mule.  Everything that they had shared with me was working in sequence and felt completely natural.  I had “got it” and was completely dialed in.  I didn’t want the day to end because I had graduated to their type of understanding and wasn’t sure if I’d ever get back to that “dialed in” feeling.  My smile remained on my face, and I was as giddy as a schoolgirl. It had been everything I had expected.  No, it had been better.  But we all have that sinking feeling on these trips when we realize the story must have an ending. The wind did another change and really picked up, so we called it a day and headed back to the ramp.

      You would probably expect me to say the fishing and catching these monsters was the best part of the trip, but it wasn’t.  CORNY ALERT -> The best part of the trip was spending time with my two friends.  The conversations were nonstop about the flyfishing industry and its changes, similar acquaintances in the flyfishing world, how we were Blessed to have the wives we have, other family members, dogs, and our likes and non-likes about everything from materials, hooks, rods, reels, lines, flies and even some people.  This may be one sided (I hope not).  But there is a special bond that was improved upon because it was already there.  It’s rare when you find those humans that fit into the same tribe, and this was one of those times.  New dates are set for 2024 already and I can’t wait to chase the fish and see my friends again.

You can find these two amazing dudes below:

Russ Maddin                            Please follow us @
Al Fly-Fishing                           Smallmouth Chronicles

russmaddin                              Please like us @
alflyfishing                               smallmouthchronicles


@russmaddin                            Please follow us @
@alflyfishing                             @SpauldingMick
                                                 Smallmouth Chronicles

bottom of page