River guide strives to pass along history of renowned riverboats
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
(Jay Stephan Sr.) was probably the best modern day boat builder that there was. He made a lot of refinements and a lot of tweaks to an already good pattern. They run well. They’re built really solid. For a guide, that’s what you want is a Stephan boat.” – Tim Riley, Grayling river guide
Just weeks before the opening of fly-fishing season, Grayling river guide Tim Riley is looking forward to providing memorable moments to anglers as well as sharing the rich history of the river country.
An avid fly-fisherman, Riley has served as a river guide for several years, booking trips now through the Old AuSable Fly Shop.
“I tinkered around with it for eight or nine years as a side business, and the last two years, I have really gone all in with it,” he said.
Riley has taken particular interest in AuSable riverboats that were crafted by the renowned local builder Jay Stephan Sr.
Stephan built his first riverboat in 1963, carrying on a family tradition.
“He was probably the best modern day boat builder that there was,” Riley said. “He made a lot of refinements and a lot of tweaks to an already good pattern. They run well. They’re built really solid. For a guide, that’s what you want is a Stephan boat.”
Riley said Stephan’s use of marine plywood and modern epoxies moved the riverboat building craft into a new era.
“His thing was, he was a guide, so he wanted a boat that looked good, but was also functional and easy to maintain, because you have to refinish them every year,” Riley said.
Riley has owned a dozen riverboats. His Stephan boats were built in 1965 and 1966, and were the sixth and seventh boats Jay crafted.
“There is a lot of history with some of them and that’s one of my concerns is it’s getting lost,” Riley said “Getting these boats, digging up the history, restoring them, and keeping them on the river I think is important.”
Riley enjoys passing on the history as he floats down the AuSable River with his clients.
“There is a lot of history there and stories to be told,” he said. “I’ve caught plenty of fish, so it’s kind of nice for me to help people catch fish and to catch a memorable fish.”
Riley attended Michigan State University, where they have one of Stephan’s boats on display in a museum and have documented the significance of the riverboats on the AuSable River.
“These boats are a big part of it,” Riley said of fishing on the river. “They’re nowhere else in the world. This is where they’re at.”
Riley strives to track down the location and history of all of the 39 riverboats Stephan built. Two of the boats were destroyed in the Stephan Bridge Road wildfire in 1990, which consumed eight miles of vegetation in four hours and destroyed 76 homes and 125 out-buildings. Riley has two of the boats, which he does not plan to part with.
“In 20 years, I’d hate to say they won’t be here,” he said. “The next generation has got to pick up the torch and keep it going.”
Riley met Stephan, who passed away on July 13, 2013 at age 87, a couple of times. He has also picked up some tips on restoring riverboats from Dave Wyss, the owner of Jim’s Canoe Livery.
“He kind of apprenticed a little bit under Jay and a lot of his boats show some of the characteristics of Jay’s boats,” Riley said.
A technician for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources who conducts surveys to manage state lands for wildlife, Riley can also use his educational background to highlight facets of the river.
“With my degree, it’s nice to be able to point out other things on the river, wildlife and fisheries related to folks,” he said. “It makes it a well-rounded experience.”
Riley said trout that are 13 to 15 inches long will provide a good test for his clients once trout fishing season begins on Saturday, April 29.
“It’s going to make it nice and it’s going to be a lot of fun for folks,” he said. “These mild winters we have had the past couple of winters has made it easy on them.”