Michigan Carp & Smallmouth Bass article from Eastern Fly Fishing, Beaver Island, MI – Northern Island Angling Paradise by Brandon Butler. This article was published in January/February 2010.
Beaver Island, MI
Northern Island Angling Paradise
by Brandon Butler
Standing knee-deep in a pool of clear, aqua-tinted water, I look to my left, then to my right. Nowhere , as far as I could see, was there any sign of mankind — not a road, a building, another angler, not even a boat. True Wilderness.
Located 32 miles offshore from Charlevoix, Michigan, Beaver Island is the largest of the archipelago bearing its name. Garden, Hog, Whiskey, High, Gull, Squaw and Trout islands loom on the horizon, but only Beaver is civilized. To this day, the rest remain mostly devoid of people. Perhaps Piggy and his clan from Lord of the Flies could have carved a life out of the rest of the archipelago's wilderness, but so far, no one has.
The village of Saint James, located on the northeast corner of the island, is the heartbeat of Beaver. Now, if you've ever been to Mackinac or the Bass Islands, take what you know of Great Lakes tourist traps and throw it out the window. There isn't a single fudge shop to be found in this quaint community. Main Street has the essentials: a grocery store, a hardware store, a handful of restaurants and taverns , and one gas pump. Bicycles outnumber cars, and pedestrians stroll down the middle of the road with no worries. Defining the locals as easygoing is and understatement.
As I settle into my seat on the Emerald Isle for the two-hour boat ride to Beaver, anticipation gave way to acceptance. Month after month had been crossed off my calendar as I awaited the arrival of this July 4 expedition. Still, I did wonder about the relative sanity of driving more than 500 miles to fly fish for carp.
But I had been guaranteed by a fisherman I trust that this experience would be unforgettable: Kevin Morlock, a well-known salmon and steelhead guide on the rivers of western Michigan, is not your average fishing guide. He seeks adventure and pushes limits. His work ethic and Knowledge of fish and fisheries drove him to seek a unique fly-fishing experience in Michigan — his chance to be a pioneer. But when he told me he was designing a flats-fishing boat to target carp and smallmouth around the Beaver Archipelago, my initial thought was, he's finally spent one to many days in the sun. As I listened to him outline his plan for revolutionizing Great Lakes fly fishing, though, I know doubting him would be a mistake.
So as the ships engines began to rumble I took heart, yearning for the unknown.
Like most of us who harbor champagne dreams on a beer budget, I have longed for the Caribbean since first reading about flats fishing. Yet, I've never come close to saving enough money to go. Diapers and milk have taken precedence. The idea of steelheading maestro, perched atop a platform, pushing me around in search of tailing carp, was something of a substitute, an obtuse realization of a dream.
Carp fishing improves later in the day, once the sun's warmth has heated shallow bays. If your not a morning person, carp fishing is perfect. Wake up when you want, enjoy a late breakfast, sip coffee, and scan the headlines before heading out to fish.
On the first afternoon of my trip, Morlock and I left Saint James on a southerly route under the comfort of a bluebird sky. Hugging the eastern shore of the island, bouncing over 1- to 2-foot waves, Morlock know the south winds would be pushing waves of warmer water into the bays along the sparsely populated southern tip of the island. The water temperature in the main lake was in the low 60s — a bit too cold for aggressive carp. In the sand-bottom bays, though, where water depths range from 5 feet to mere inches, temperatures would be as least 10 degrees higher.
In the shallow bays, even from a 100 yards away, the big fish stand out as bottom hugging, ghostlike shadows. Pods look like islands of darkness against light-colored sand bottoms. Morlock hunts for carp by slowly motoring along drop-offs and scanning the recesses of the bays. Once he finds a pod of fish, he kills the motor , perches atop his platform, and begins silently poling toward the feeders.
Individuals and small groups of carp break off from the masses and go on runs in and out of deeper water. Go after these fish first. Casting to these cruisers from the bow of the boat is one method of targeting them, but I prefer anchoring the boat and setting out on foot. Sight-fishing for carp is a lot like hunting. Sneaking up on these fish isn't easy, though. Carp are extremely sensitive to sound and vibration. Slow, monotonous movement toward fish is essential to success.
Fly Placement is also crucial. Carp have poor eyesight, and they rarely chase prey, so the fly must be within the strike zone, which means within about a foot or 18 inches of the fish's head. However, you don't necessarily have to cast to the area right in front of the fish. Target where the fish will be, not where it is. Once the fish approaches to within a foot or so of the fly, your offering is in the strike zone. In other words, decipher a carp's route, then drop the lfy a few yards or so out in front of that individual fish. Don't drop the fly on top of a carp or the fish will spook. When the fish gets close — within a foot or so — pop, pop, pop the fly along the bottom to get the carp's attention. When the fish turns on the fly, get ready. Maintain a slow, steady retrieve, until the fish sucks in the fly. When your fly disappears, set the hook, and hold on. You just hooked a tank.
Carp feed heavily on gobies, and also eat a lot of crawfish. Flies immitating these two prey, such as Morlock's own creations — Morlock's Carp Breakfast and Morlock's Craw Bunny — are top producers.
On my first stalk, I slipped behind a large boulder, posistioning myself 50 feet or so from a pod of six carp. Based on sheer numbers alone, I figured these fish would be easy to catch, but they weren't. I worked this little pod for nearly an hour before, finally, a fish took. The moment is still fresh in my mind. I was growing anxiously annoyed when I targeted a carp cruising the outskirts of the pod. The cast was a few feet beyond the fish, perfect for allowing my goby imitation time to sink the necessary 2 feet to the bottom. As I popped the minnow along the bottom, allowing for a pause just in front of the fish's face, I watched with amazement as its mouth opened and inhaled my fly.
As the 30-incher ran for deep water, I tightened the drag on my reel a bit. Water continued to spray from the reel as the fish kept taking line. We struggled for 15 minutes before I finally brought the carp to hand. As I cradeled the fish, I realized that never before in nature had I so poerfully experienced the righting of a wrong. Carp are amazing. I released the fish back into the aqua water as carefully as I would have a 25-inch Au Sable "Holy Waters" brown.
I hadn't anticipated that a single trip could change my perception of an entire species. Going into my Beaver Island excursion, I knew little about carp. Many people shoot carp with a bow and arrow, then simply throw them to the wayside as if they are worth nothing more than a moment's excitement. Could you imagine if someone did that to a steelhead or a largemouth bass on its spawning bed? How carp ever came to be such a disrespected fish is beyond me.
Although carp fishing begins to turn on in early to mid-June, bass junkies are better served planning a Beaver Island trip sometime after July 1.
The smallmouth bass fishery around the Beaver Archipelago was once considered to be top-notch. Years of heavy fishing pressure and the population explosion of cormorants — waterbirds that can consume a pound or more of fish per day — have been blamed for a serious decline. In an effort to reestablish the bass around Beaver, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) instituted a restricted-time-frame season running from July 1 to December 31. The DNR's efforts seem to be working, because my personal experience with smallmouth here is that they are both plentiful and large.
The water clarity of Lake Michigan around the archipelago is amazing. You can see fish 40 feet below the surface. In the bays where the smallmouth flock to feed alongside carp, you can sight-fish for them. Imagine standing in the bow of a boat, looking into 10 feet of water littered withe dark shadows. You cast your fly to the largest, let it sink for a few seconds, and then begin stripping line. Almost immediately the shadow savages your offering. You have to muster the mental resolve to somehow wait for the strike before setting the hook. When you do, another 4-pound-plus smallmouth is on the line, bouncing like an acrobat across the surface.
Smallmouth, like the carp, feed heavily on gobies and crawfish. Flies that imitate either of these work when the smallmouth are on the bite. The difference in fishing for smallmouth, as opposed to carp, is the speed of the retrieve. When targeting "bugle mouths" (carp), slower is better. Smallmouth are much more aggressive. Retrieve the fly fast.
Bays and inlets are prime places to find feeding smallmouth, but don't neglect to fish deep water, especially over rocky humps and along points. A long point that looks like a tail protrudes into the lake from the southwest shore of Hog Island, and it holds bass like mud holds hogs. Take the 5-mile boat ride over to Hog from Beaver, moor your boat, and hike the shoreline, casting for smallmouth. The fishing can be fast and furious.
The archipelago offers lots of potential for trophy-class smallies. One day in the summer of 2008, Morlock and I boated five smallies that were more than 5 pounds each. I caught one fish that measured 23.5 inches long with a girth of 17 inches — more than 8 pounds of bass. The Michigan-state-record smallmouth, caught in 1906, weighed 9.25 pounds. The next state record is likely swimming offshore around the Beaver Archipelago.
While all the amenities of home are available on Beaver Island, staying here can make you feel as if you're a million miles away from the world. You can stay in a beautiful room at Laurain Lodge, (231) 448-2099, www.laurainlodge.com, or pitch a tent right on the lakeshore at one of the island's two campgrounds. You can pick up food for your grill at McDonough's Market, www.mcdonoughsmarket.com, or you can dine on lacal whitefish in the comfort of a local Irish pub, the Shamrock, (231) 448-2278.
The people who call Beaver Island home are a special breed of easygoers. They welcome you to visit their home, but won't tolerate your ideas of changing it. Unless you want to take a quick trip home, don't mention your "brilliant" epiphany about moving to the island and putting up some condos or opening a fancy new restaurant. Things are the way they are because that's how the locals want it.
When you leave Beaver Island, I'd be extremly surprised if you don't have "snad in your shoes." To find out what that means, you'll have to ask a local.
Brandon Butler is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Bloomington, Indiana.
Kevin Morlock spends fall, winter, and spring chasing steelhead and salmon down state, in Michigan, but summer on Beaver Island is what he looks forward to most.