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Hidden River
By Jim Heil

Trout fishing and golfing might make for strange bedfellows in northern Michigan, where the line between angler and golfer seems clearly defined. But propose a 18-hole golf course along one of the region's blue-ribbon trout streams, and you're bound to bring the two together. Just don't expect an instant lovefest.

When Hidden River Golf and Casting Club in Brutus opens for public play this season, fly fishermen who view the Maple River as holy water will undoubtedly have a keen interest in how the golf club affects the site's most precious natural resource.

The Maple, which originates in central Emmet County and meanders southeast to Burt Lake's Maple Bay, is considered one of the region's better brook and brown trout streams. Its cold temperatures and heavy coverage provide an ideal trout habitat, and upon the first mayfly hatch in late spring, it becomes an evening refuge for many a stream angler. So it hardly took developers by surprise when a small army of outdoorsmen filled the chambers of county planners in early 1996, intent on protecting the river from any byproduct of golf course construction and upkeep. Planners gave the project the green light. But the anglers' concerns didn't fall on deaf ears.

Ever since the first piece of earth was moved on July 22, 1996, Hidden River Golf and Casting Club developers have employed a host of safeguards to assure that the river retains its reputation as a fine sport fishery.

"They want to ensure that the fishing stays there," said W. Bruce Matthews, the Lansing architect who designed Hidden River's golf layout. As its name implies, the club caters to anglers as well as golfers, with its members willing to pony up a membership fee and the annual dues that follow. However, while the public will be able to play the course at about $60 to $70 a round, the 1 1/2-mile stretch of scenic river running through the club's property remains a free public domain.

The club, which sold out 25 founding memberships at $10,000 a pop in two months' time, could end up drawing two distinct clienteles. Chances are anyone who appears outfitted by Orvis would opt to spend his free hours casting a dry fly over a natural flowing stream, rather than chasing a dimpled ball over a manufactured sea of green.

"It seems that probably 40 percent of the members who have signed up so far are more fly fishing-oriented," said Hidden River golf pro Darin Philport. "I think they signed up because they were interested in learning how to do it and it seemed like a neat hobby that could fall in line with golf as they retire."

A fly fishing lodge has been built a quarter-mile downstream from the clubhouse, and is accessible only by foot or by golf cart. Otherwise, the Maple's fishing environs should seem unchanged to anglers. "There's a 40-yard stretch where the trout fisherman is going to notice the difference," said Matthews, referring to the clubhouse. "You get past that 40-yard stretch and there will be no change to his fishing pattern, all the way through." Any red flags waved by the likes of Trout Unlimited over the project have long been furled away. Most acquiesced after Matthews purposely routed the golf holes away from the river, creating a buffer that takes it out of view on most every hole.

The par-72 course winds its way through open grasslands, hardwoods and evergreens reminiscent of Pinehurst. But none of the holes cross the Maple, and only on No. 9 - a pretty par 3 - can golfers actually see the river unencumbered by land or foliage. "We could have pushed it toward the river but it wouldn't have looked right and it wouldn't have played to the challenge where it is now," Philport said. A number of spectacular vistas overlooking the river were passed up in the design phase. Most importantly, the project spared trees that shade the river.

"We didn't want to clear off the bluffs or design it in such a way that you expose the river. That destroys the cover for fly fishing," Philport said. "Our stretch, at least, is very protected from sunlight throughout the whole day." Among the safeguards built into the project are rentention basins between the golf course and the river. Matthews said the basins appear to golfers as grassy hollows, but from an environmental standpoint, they're designed to keep leachates away from the river.

"We've reversed the flow into our own ponds," he added. One natural safeguard is invisible but crucial: an 8-foot-wide band of impermeable clay runs beneath the holes of the bluff south of the river.

A golfer's closest contact to the Maple will come on No. 9, where from the back tee Philport must use a wedge when the wind's at his back. Golfers who use too much club might find themselves somewhere in a 100-foot buffer between green and river.

Matthews said the turf management practices for maintaining Hidden River's holes are chemical only as a last resort. A voluntary monitoring program takes water samples monthly, and has shown the Maple to be cleaner where it exits the golf club site than where it enters, Matthews noted. That should satisfy groups like Trout Unlimited and the Tipp of the Mitt Watershed Council, whose suggestions were incorporated into the design after four months of meetings with developers.

Hidden River could face greater scrutiny as it becomes the only club in Michigan where the presentation of a fly line is as important as the mechanics of a golf swing. Sportsmen far and wide are bound to take note, and so will environmentalists.

Perhaps a sign of the developers' resolve to protect all that is natural is their desire to maintain a habitat for the rare Michigan monkey flower along the Maple.

"We haven't found one yet," Matthews said. "When we do, we're going to make sure everything stays intact." 1-800-325-GOLF.

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