Don’t laugh. Here are 15 reasons why the serious shallow-water angler should head north to find epic (and affordable) action in skinny water. FlyTalk bloggers Tim Romano (photos) and Kirk Deeter recently visited Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, and here’s what they experienced.
_For many anglers, sight fishing is top of the game. You see your quarry, you plan your approach and, with any skill (and luck), you make that perfect presentation and get bit. This is the realm where fishing meets big game hunting. It’s all about stealth and the stalk. And the best reward is a massive fish pulling on your line. For years, fly anglers have beaten worn paths to places like the Florida Keys, Laguna Madre in Texas, the Louisiana Coast, the striped bass waters around Long Island, even the tropical flats of the Hawaiian Islands, to find this special thrill (with very good reason). And yet, as wonderful as the tarpon, redfish, and bonefish flats are (and make no mistake, they all offer amazing opportunities and are laden with traditions that define shallow water angling)… pound for pound, cast for cast, and minute for minute, one of the best flats fishing experiences to be had in the United States might very well be had far from salt water, rather, in the skinny shoals of the islands in northern Lake Michigan. Click on to find out why…
#1 Clear water – The thrill of shallow-water casting lies primarily in the angler’s ability to see the fish before the cast and before the hook-up. The northern reaches of Lake Michigan offer some of the cleanest fresh waters on the planet. From the air above Grand Traverse Bay, along the southern edge of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and certainly around the islands in-between, the complex patterns of azure, turquoise, and sandy colors bear uncanny resemblance to anything you’d find off the Bahamas, the Florida Keys, or in Belize. In many places, the actual visibility is well beyond 50 feet. In these shallows you see the targets cruising well before you ever pick up the rod. That’s both good and bad, because while you see many targets, it doesn’t take much for the fish to see you.
#2 Big Fish – The trade you make when fishing these flats is that the quarry you seek is the common carp. An invasive species, considered by many anglers throughout America to be trash fish. But these fish are large (averaging 10 pounds and often exceeding 20 pounds). And when hooked, they pull hard. Really hard. The bottom line is, with a carp making your reel scream, the fight is comparable to battling a Louisiana redfish, a Florida bonefish or even a Montauk striper.
#3 Big Rewards – In one afternoon (between 1 and 5 p.m.) off Beaver Island, Michigan I landed six carp averaging 20 pounds. All hard fighters, all tough casts and presentations. That’s well over 100 pounds of sight-hooked fish, on the fly. And that didn’t even raise an eyebrow from guide Steve Martinez of Indigo Guide Service. When it’s really on he said, “This fishing can blow you away, and leave you with rubber arms.”
#4 Technical Fishing – Carp aren’t predatory by nature. They’re classic bottom feeders, and as such, they aren’t apt to wheel around and hammer a baitfish swimming through their peripheral vision. The presentation must be perfect every time, without exception. It takes a great cast, and a great retrieve with a solid fly choice, to solicit even moderate interest from a big carp.
#5 The “Omnivore” factor – Carp eat other fish. They eat crayfish. Just what they’re tuned into on any given day is a welcome challenge that forces the fly angler to be smart about pattern selection. We nailed the carp on Hammerheads and Geezus Lizard flies.
#6 Complete solitude – There are literally hundreds of miles of flats and shoreline around Beaver Island and Garden Island. Yet, on the busiest day, fewer than a handful of guides, boats, and anglers fish these waters. If you’re sick of the zoo show that you often find in the Florida Keys or the Long Island waters during the striper blitz, you’ll be stunned by the complete solitude you can find on a virgin flat near the islands in Lake Michigan.
#7 Affordability – A three-bedroom house rental on Beaver Island now runs around $1,000, for a week. Stack that up against anything you might find in the Keys, or Laguna Madre in Texas, or on Maui, and the value factor is readily apparent.
#8 The Graduate School of Flats Casting – I won’t lie to you. Northern Lake Michigan isn’t an easy place to cast a fly line. You should be prepared to pay a 60-foot cast as your price of admission, and understand that the winds here, while nearly constant in 10-mile-per-hour-plus velocity, can shift on a whim. It puffs from the east, then shifts west, then dies, then howls. You need a versatile casting A-game to consistently reach the targets you chase. And if you don’t have that when you get here, trust me, you’ll learn quickly.
#9 The Water Temperature Factor – Thankfully, it’s no great mystery finding where the big carp want to cruise into the shallows. They are almost magnetically attracted to warm water. Find a bay where the wind is blowing surface water from the cooler depths into the skinny shoals, and you’ll find carp. The deep water might be 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but pushed against an edge under sunlight, that water quickly warms 10-20 degrees in a matter of minutes or hours. And the big carp follow warm water. You’ll see a single sentry fish at first, then a pod of three or four and before you know it, you’ll be literally surrounded by schools of dozens.
#10 A World-Class Sideshow – And by that, I mean massive smallmouth bass. When the sun isn’t shining (bright sun is apt to come and go, even on ideal Michigan afternoons), the angler always has the option of chasing smallmouth bass on flies. Big ones. Decades ago, this region was known for producing amazing volumes of smallies. Today, for a variety of reasons, the sheer numbers are not what they once were. But the average size of these fish (now fueling up on the invasive goby) is nonetheless impressive. In three days, we caught many smallies over five pounds and we weren’t really trying that hard. Many bass aficionados predict that the next world record smallmouth (a fish 12 pounds or more) will be caught in these waters, soon, and we saw no reason to doubt that.
#11 Weather Comfort – Any angler who has toiled under the high sun, sweating with every cast, will appreciate a place where the average temps are in the 70s, minus the swarms of bugs (on most days).
#12 The Cultural Thing – Okay, so you might like fishing the flats, and being met at the dock by a bikini-clad hostess with a tray of mojitos. That ain’t gonna happen here (at least I didn’t see that). But if you’re cool with being handed a pint of Smithwick’s or Guinness (the island still maintains a close connection with its Irish ancestry, and is called “The Emerald Isle” of the Great Lakes), and a smoked whitefish appetizer at the Beaver Island Lodge, then you’ll fit right into Lake Michigan culture. All the food at the Beaver Island Lodge is amazing. We recommend the “mushroom martini.”
#13 The Family Factor – Time and time again, I am asked by would-be travelling anglers: “Where can I go, where I can bring the family along? I want to fish, but I want to bring the rest of the clan.” Florida is always a solid option. Hawaii, if you can afford to go there, is stellar. But dollar-for-dollar, and if you want to be in a place that isn’t a lonely “outpost” for the intrepid angler, Beaver Island is a very safe bet. There’s plenty to do, including, hiking, biking, sailing, kayaking, and even hanging out at the beach (in the warm summer months).
#14 Fishing the Rest of Michigan – On the FlyTalk blog , I recently ranked Michigan as the top all-around fly fishing state in America. And I meant what I said. It’s easy to link trout fishing to a Beaver Island carp flats trip. If you want to chase trout on classic “Hemingway” waters, Michigan is the place to do that. If you want to cast at pike, or bass, or panfish, you can do that in Michigan too. The fly traditions run very deep in Michigan, and the opportunities are literally limited only by the imaginations of the anglers who fish here. Big trout on a fly? Try throwing mouse patterns at night on the Pere Marquette, the Little Manistee, or the Au Sable. It will blow your mind.
#15 It’s Only Getting Better – The bottom line is that this place offers a rare opportunity to see, fish, and experience something that’s just now rounding into form. Sure, legendary icons of fly fishing, like Dave Whitlock, Flip Pallot, and others, have been dialed into the carp flats of Michigan for years. But the flats fishing here, (especially around Beaver Island), is still in its infancy, and the phenomenon is only gaining momentum.
Some Disclaimers: While squarely inside the continental United States, Beaver Island is not an easy place to get to. (Like all great fishing, it takes some effort to find virgin opportunity. You can fly commercially to Traverse City, then take a charter connection via Fresh Air Aviation to Beaver Island, or you can drive an hour to Charlevoix from Traverse City, and jump on the two-hour Beaver Island Ferry to reach your destination. Weather can be fickle, even in summer. Plan to layer, and plan for rain. But when it’s on, Beaver Island is easily one of the most comfortable and beautiful vacation destinations in America.
Seasons: Prime carp flats fishing runs from mid-May through early August. June is prime. As the lake waters warm, the carp are less predictably attracted to the shallows. But the local guides can reliably find shots (sight casting) throughout the entire season.
The Skinny: All flats adventures have their own attributes, and on any given day, they can change an angler’s life. Is it possible to rank Florida against Texas, or Louisiana, and come up with a “best?” Realistically, of course not. They’re all wonderful. But it is time to factor Lake Michigan in the mix. For any angler willing to take the blinders off, a flats adventure that rates right up there with anything to be experienced in the United States is waiting.
Don’t laugh. Here are 15 reasons why the serious shallow-water angler should head north to find epic (and affordable) action in skinny water. FlyTalk bloggers Tim Romano and Kirk Deeter recently visited Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, and here’s what they experienced.