By Howard Meyerson
To look the state’s list of Master Angler entries for the White River in Muskegon County one gets the impression the river is filled with redhorse, white suckers and carp. Only three salmon or steelheads were listed in the last 20 years and two of those were caught in 1994, an inauspicious depiction of what anglers can expect.
But, Cliff Minton knows far better than most that the White River can be an exceptional place to catch big fish. The 75-year-old Montague angler celebrated his 1000th fishing outing there last fall – on October 25th to be precise. That’s the day he landed a nice 8-pound steelhead, one of countless big salmon and steelhead he has hooked over the years on the quiet and winding river he knows like the back of his hand.
“I thought of the fish caught and fish lost; men who no longer fished the river over those 40 years…the fishless days, the fish a-plenty days and big fish days,” Minton wrote about that day in a chapter of a book he hopes to publish sometime called “The White; A River of Memories.”
Minton fishes the White every chance he gets. It is close to the home he shares with his wife, Mary. He may launch his 12-foot aluminum boat and visit dozens of holes he knows intimately. Or, he may hop in his “fish truck” and go for a drive, then don a pair of waders and set off cross-country in search of the upper river’s Holy Grail brook trout and brown trout waters.
“I am on my third boat and fourth motor on the lower White,” Minton shared. “It’s a dandy river and I do catch northern pike, walleye and smallmouth bass there, but those are incidental to the trout and salmon I catch.”
Incidental, indeed. Minton is an assiduous log keeper who documents all of his trips. Wood plaques hang in his home office. Each holds a mounted lure now retired from his tackle box, the lure he used to hook a special fish. One commemorates his 1000th day fishing the river; another celebrates the 29-pound salmon he caught there. A gold Rapala reminds him of the 9.5 pound rainbow, just to name a few.
Four other plaques each contain a mounted T-4 Flatfish, one Minton’s favorite lures
when backbouncing, a technique that involves letting the lure wiggle in the current behind the boat as he controls his downstream progress with oars. Each plaque specifies how many pounds of fish it caught. The total for the four is 1,697 pounds in just over four years. Read: 96 chinooks, 2 coho salmon and just 1 walleye – all from the lower White River.
Bill Bishop, a celery farmer with property along the river, was fishing that same fall day that Minton took his millennial outing. Minton was motoring back downstream, headed for home. He is well-known on as the guy who usually fishes alone.
“There were three of us anchored and talking, not fishing” Bishop said. “We hadn’t done very well. I saw Cliff earlier in the week. He was making his 996th trip on the river. This day I asked him how it was going. He just held up the “1000” sign.”
The son of a West Virginia coal miner, Minton started fishing for trout at a young age on southern streams. He eventually came north looking for work and enjoyed a long career in manufacturing before retiring in 2001 as General Manager of Lift-Tech International in Muskegon. Throughout those years he continued to fish. He and his wife Mary even bought property on the Little Manistee River during the salmon heydays on Lake Michigan. Minton’s first trip on the White River was in 1974.
“He’s kind of legendary on the river,” Bishop said. “He is highly respected by all the guys who know him. He cares about the river and people know he is very successful. He’s developed some unique tricks for catching fish that no one else can catch.”
Minton, a self-professed loner, says he likes to fish the White River because he often is the only one there. He enjoys learning the river’s secrets.
“I was fishing Weesies Hole once and a guy came by in a boat and said I ought to fish somewhere else,” Minton said with a glint in his eye. “He was the only other boat on the river and he was telling me how bad the fishing was. When he went down river and the sound of his motor faded, I began working the hole and got into a steelhead. In every hole down the river that day, I would hook one, hit one or catch one.”
This column appears on MLive Outdoors