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1988 awardee, Grayling (Crawford County), Au Sable River
boat builder and guide
Jay Stephan's great-grandfather immigrated to Grayling from Rouen, France. His descendants, like those of many other European immigrants to the region, chose to remain in the Grayling area, where, as Jay puts it, "you can be close to the out-of-doors." (1) Many of the early immigrants found work in the lumbering camps or as hunting or fishing guides along the AuSable River, famed for its natural beauty and its steady supply of trout.
Today the river is still a prime place for trout fishing and the need for fishing guides continues. Jay is considered one of the best by clients and by other guides. He started guiding at age 11 and has guided full and part-time ever since. He quickly learned how to read the water and become familiar with every bend and twist in the river. In the early years he had to do everything for his client--"You had to teach them how and where to fish," he says. (2)
Because the river is shallow and studded with logs, the most efficient boat used for several generations for fishing has been a long, narrow, flat-bottomed type called the AuSable Riverboat or drift boat. Unlike a canoe that easily tips over, a drift boat is stable enough for a fisher to stand, cast a line, and even reel in a fish. Approximately 20-26 feet long, the boats are designed to drift in the water and are steered by a punt pole. A built-in wet box in the middle ingeniously allows water into a reservoir to keep catch fresh.
Jay began building riverboats in 1963 at the age of 35 when he saw his cousin Norman "Bud" Stephan build and sell them. There were no written plans or drawings. "Bud had everything in his head, just as I do," says Jay. (3) The original boats were made of pine planks that became heavy when water-sodden, sometimes weighing as much as 400 pounds. By the time Bud and Jay began making them, marine plywood coated with polymers and epoxies was used, and that is what Jay uses today.
Jay has been generous in teaching his fishing and boat building skills both locally and at special events like the Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C. and the Festival of Michigan Folklife in East Lansing.
(1) Stephan, Jay. Interview with C. Kurt Dewhurst and Marsha MacDowell, Grayling, Michigan. 20 August 1986.
(2) Stephan, Jay. Interview with C. Kurt Dewhurst and Marsha MacDowell, Grayling, Michigan. 20 August 1986.
(3) Stephan, Jay. Interview with C. Kurt Dewhurst and Marsha MacDowell, Grayling, Michigan. 20 August 1986.
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