By Matt Dunn
The waves grew larger as we ran out of St. James Harbor into the open waters of the Beaver Island archipelago. It was a wet ride. Our small boat’s hull slapped hard on each wave. After turning north around Whiskey Point where the red metal roof of the old Coast Guard station reflected the bright sun, we picked up a following sea and the hull stopped slapping and the spray let up.
I was running to the sheltered waters of a large bay on Garden Island to fly fish for carp with Indigo Guide Service.
Most people mistakenly think that carp are “bottom feeders,” fish that eat only “muck,” but they are actually opportunistic predators that eat just about anything that fits in their mouth, including crayfish, aquatic insects, baitfish and even mulberries. Yet despite their rather indiscriminate palate, extreme sensitivity to vibrations in the water make them quite skittish and hard to catch. And while everyone loves fishing for dumb fish, it can get old after a while.
Common carp provide the challenge that many experienced anglers seek out.
Arriving in Garden Island’s bay, Indigo guide Steve Martinez climbed his poling platform, 20-foot-long push pole in hand, and began poling us silently around water’s edge. I stood on the bow of the boat with my nine weight rod at the ready, 80 feet of fly line stripped off the reel at my feet. We were both scanning the crystal clear turquoise sand flat for fish.
“There. Two o’clock. Moving left to right. About 50 feet. See ’em?” Steve pointed to a small group of blurry dark spots moving slowly across the bay.
While changing light conditions made the fish difficult to track, wind made it hard to keep my fly from smacking Steve, the boat, and myself. But after a third or fourth false cast, I shot the line.
“Nope,” Steve said. “You’re behind them.”
On my next try, the fly landed directly over the fish with a soft “plop.” The dark group of blurry spots exploded in every direction.
“Well,” said Steve, “we’ll have to find more fish.”
In addition to the challenge of catching these wary fish, Northern Lake Michigan — particularly the Beaver Island archipelago — offers anglers some other incentives to chase carp. The first and most obvious is that this region looks like the Caribbean (though it isn’t always quite as warm).
The second is that we have some of the largest carp in the world.
Thirty-pound fish are not uncommon, and fish over 40 pounds are a real possibility. This makes them pretty much the largest freshwater fish most fly anglers will ever encounter on a regular basis. And because they are adapted to oxygen-poor environments, carp give an extremely tough fight. They will take several hundred feet of line in a single run, often making two or three or four long runs before finally tiring.
The third incentive — and the reason carp aficionados from all over the world come to Beaver Island — is that our carp have adapted to the dominant benthic forage base of Northern Lake Michigan: big crayfish and big gobies, which are relatively large and a challenge for the carp to hunt. This makes these more predaceous and aggressive than anywhere else on the planet.
Huge fish that will chase down large flies in shallow, crystal-clear if everything is done just right? That’s about as good as it gets.
After another 10 minutes of searching, Steve spotted a group of fish heading very slowly away from us about 60 feet directly off the bow. “Lead them by about five feet,” he said, as he turned the boat perpendicular to the fishes’ track so I had a clear back cast.
The steady wind was blowing directly across my cast, luckily from left to right. My fly landed just a little to the right of their track. I let it sink. When the fish were about at my fly, I slowly began crawling it back towards me with small, gentle strips of the fly line. Tensed, I leaned slightly forward as the boat bobbed softly in the small waves, all of my focus on the fly, which I could barely just see at bottom.
One of the fish peeled off the pod and began following.
I would stop the fly and the fish would stop. I would strip the fly and the fish would follow.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of stops and starts, the fish tipped down, sucked in the big crayfish pattern, and the line went tight in my hand. After a couple long runs, I finally managed to get the fish boat side.
For me, the reward was in touching what had been — just a few moments before — a blurry dark spot in the water, heading slowly away.
THE NEXT DAY WAS dead calm as Steve and I ripped out of the harbor under the hot, yellow, mid-morning sun of a cloudless, windless, early July day. Along with incredible carp fishing around Beaver Island, the archipelago is also known for world-class smallmouth bass fishing. The average fish is four to six pounds, though eight-pound fish are a possibility every day. And, just like the carp, one can sight fish to them on crystal-clear, shallow water flats.
But — unlike the carp — they aren’t terribly difficult to catch.
We crossed the deepwater channel in a few minutes, and as we neared Hog Island the lake bottom climbed up from the dark cobalt depths, changing to the bright aquamarine and turquoise of the shoals and flats: Here in 40 feet of water, we could make out boulders and the sand patterns on the bottom.
As we moved quickly from 40 feet of water to 30 and to 20 the water became shallower and the objects on the bottom flew by faster and my sense of our speed became ever more acute. Rounding Hog Island’s westernmost point, a vast expanse of white gravel flats just two to three feet deep opened before us, running the entire length of the island for four or five miles.
Steve slowed the boat until we dropped off the plane and the bow dropped gently into the water. He cut the motor, leaving only the quiet pulse of water lapping on the hull.
Once Steve started poling us along the flat, we spotted a solitary cruising smallmouth, shimmering and distorted through the water. I made one or two false casts, dropped the fly a few feet in front of the fish, let it sink for a couple seconds, strip…strip…BANG. Five-pound smallmouth.
Within three hours, we’d hooked about 20 over four pounds, most nearer to six, including one beast with a huge spherical white belly pushing the magical eight pound mark.
The Beaver Island archipelago has it all: endless turquoise flats, the challenge of sight fishing for huge, predaceous carp, and the joy of sight fishing for trophy smallmouth bass.
That evening, we docked the boat back on Beaver Island and walked a few blocks under low sun to The Shamrock, but didn’t head straight into the busy pub. For a while, we just stood on the curb watching St. James Harbor and the sun, barely still reflecting off the red metal roof of the old Coast Guard station.
Steve knocked his hat up a few inches and said, “Pretty all right, huh?”
“Yep,” I said. “Pretty all right.” ≈
Freelance writer Matt Dunn is also head fishing guide for Wolfe Outfitters at Crystal Mountain Resort.