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Petoskey News-Review, Sight-fishing for carp off Beaver Island by George Rowe

***This article appeared in the Petoskey News Review on June 24, 2009.  Click here to go to the original article on the Petoskey News Review site… Sight-fishing for carp off Beaver Island by George Rowe.

A few years ago, ardent anglers from all over these United States and some foreign places traveled to Beaver Island for the fishing.

The fishing then was the best smallmouth bass fishing on the planet. The cormorants are generally credited for the demise of that fishing and it may be on the rebound despite the every-present cormorants.

Now, however, there is a new star of the islands around Beaver is it is the lowly carp. Steve West, the enthusiastic Chamber of Commerce guy of the island, calls the fish the “Golden Bones of Beaver Island,” comparing the carp of course to the bonefish of Florida and the Bahamas.

And, it isn’t a bad comparison.

This is why one might see in St. James harbor a strange looking skiff with a poling platform at the stern and a long push-pole lashed to the deck. This craft is used to move slowly along the shallow flats, searching for the fish

This fishing is really part hunting. First you find the fish, then you work to get in position for a cast then you try for the fish. The fish is apt to ignore your offering so you go in search of another fish. Fortunately, there are lots of fish so you will get another opportunity shortly.

When I heard about this fishing, I was anxious to try it. As one with a great deal of experience with bonefish in Florida and the Bahamas, it would be very interesting to sample some new flats fishing.

I did some weekend charters while in Florida fishing the upper Keys and visited many locations in the Bahamas for bonefishing. This is some of the finest fishing in the world. The skiff, set up to operate well in shallow water, is poled across the shallow flats, in gin-clear water no more than 15- 20 inches deep. The fish are often spotted “tailing”, showing their tails and dorsal fins as the root around in the soft bottom for crabs, shrimp and other tasty morsels.

You can also spot them just swimming along slowly, cruising and the fact that they are often in small schools helps in seeing them.  Sometimes, you first see a “mud” where the fish have been feeding and stirring up the bottom.

Fishing for the Beaver Island carp is exactly the same, except that the fish are easier to see. The carp are darker and larger, averaging perhaps 15-20 pounds while bonefish rarely get as large as 10 pounds.

Still, it is a good idea to wear polarized sunglasses, especially if the day is cloudy or if there is much of a chop on the water. Last Thursday, the sun was bright for much of the day and Lake Michigan was a placid as a mill pond so it was pretty easy to spot the fish.

The fish congregate in the shallows as soon as the water is nicely warm and this is when they get their spawning done. The best time is apparently from mid-June through August. The best fishing technique is to cast a fly that imitates a crayfish or some other small crustacean. The shrimp flies that are used for bonefish would probably serve just fine. 

When a fish is spotted, the boat handler maneuvers the skiff close enough so that the angler can reach the fish and drop the fly well in front of the fish. When the fish approaches the fly, the angler begins a hopping retrieve, right in front of the fish’s nose.

Hopefully, the fish will turn and pursue the fly, taking it in his mouth.  More often than not, however, the fish will ignore the offering and continue to cruise.

Sometimes, the fish will show some interest by turning after the fly and then turning away again.

Like bonfish, the carp are quite spooky and once they sense your presence, they are no longer catchable – as a matter of fact, they often scoot right out of sight. They don’t seem too sensitive to the waving of the rod or even the little splash when the fly hits the water.

They are very sensitive to sound, however, so if the boat handler makes too much noise with the pole or if a wader makes much noise with his feet, they will spook away quickly.

The tackle we used was sturdy fly-fishing gear – an eight-weight rod with a matching weight-forward or torpedo floating line. The leader was about five feet of 10-pound-test mono. The flies were large, mostly multi-colored, but dark and most were weighted slightly. One can expect to make a good cast to many a fish before hooking up.

Our guide says they are really poor predators and not very effective in chasing down prey. Apparently their vision is not great. When you do hook up, it is set the hook and hang on.

These fish will make great long runs and yet another long run after you battle them back to the boat. They are very large, of course, very strong and they have terrific stamina. The reels the guide uses are large with a good drag and there is ample backing behind the fly line and you will see it on virtually every fish. The fight is similar to that of a bonefish but more dogged.

The bonefish is all run and little else. The carp is run, run again and get sideways and resist all the way back to the boat. They are truly great fun to catch. Some of the reward is the setting – way back in some remote bay by Hog Island all by yourself in a pristine wilderness surrounded by crystal-clear water.

The cormorants are still very much in evidence, despite serious efforts to limit their impact on the area. They have created absolutely barren rocky ruins on some of the smaller islands where they have roosted, killing all the trees and other foliage with their droppings.

The new import — the goby — may have a good impact on the fishing.  The cormorants eat them and thus maybe eat fewer bass fry. The goby is also bass food.

The smallmouth bass fishery has apparently recovered somewhat – there is once again an open season for them, starting July 1 and you could sight-fish for them just as we did for carp. We spotted many smallmouths, including a few tagged fish, probably tagged by the CMU research vessel operating in the area. Until the smallmouth bass fishery has fully recovered, it might make sense to make the season for them all catch and release.

 If you want to try this fishing, contact Kevin Morlock who operates the Indigo Gide Service out of Walhalla. He also runs trout and salmon fishing charters on the major rivers that feed Lake Michigan, but he is on Beaver Island through August.

He is largely booked, but he may have a few days left in August. He is pleasant, competent, a willing teacher and very well equipped in every respect. Contact him at (231) 898-4320 or Kevin@indigoguideservice.com.  We stayed comfortably at the Erin Motel right downtown on the water and just a short walk from the ferry dock and some good restaurants.

Want to try sight-fishing for big, powerful fish in a beautiful setting?  Try those Beaver Island “golden bones."

Other Links:  Petoskey News Review, Sight-fishing for carp off Beaver Island by George Rowe (Petoskey News Review), Beaver Island Chamber of Commerce, Brandon Butler of Driftwood Outdoors, Central Michigan University – Beaver Island Biological Research Station, Kevin Morlock of Indigo Guide Service, Erin Motel of Beaver Island, Beaver Island Boat Company, Round Goby – Fish of the Great Lakes by University of Wisconsin Sea Grant, Kevin Morlock’s carp flies.

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