The wind is crazy. It’s all I can do to paddle into it. I’m pushing as hard as I can, aiming for the next flat. Because this area is currently in the lee of this peninsula, I’m pushing onward. Shift that wind just slightly to the south and I would be facing six foot seas. As I paddle my kayak back into shallower water, large dark forms take shape. Schools of them. Dozens of them. I’m looking at over 200 fish in two feet of water or less. All of them are carp, the water is crystal clear, and there are no other anglers in sight. I’m a mile from the launch, and I feel as isolated as it is possible to be in the Tip of the Mitt area of northern Michigan.
This wind is impossible, the water an impossible blue. The fish are impossible. When my fly hits the water, they run, when my line crosses them, they bolt. The smallest fish is 5 pounds, the largest are 30 pounds or more. Repeatedly, the wind whips my line sideways, away from my targets. Repeatedly my casts end in failure.
On my dozenth cast I hook up on a smallmouth. Even twelve inch smallies fight like much bigger fish- it’s a good thing they don’t grow to fifty pounds, there would be a lot of broken gear. The carp make their way back toward me, and I thrash away, ineptly, just hoping for a hook-up, for some red-headed stepchild of a carp to make the wrong decision and eat my fly. It doesn’t happen.
I’m still within sight of my truck, and this archipelago is many miles long. I am determined to make it all the way to the end. I also need a break from this incessant howling wind. Nearly a mile up the coast I spot a thick stand of trees fairly close to the water that should provide some shelter, enough so that I can cast a little. I push on, reaching this isolated stretch of beach ten minutes later. I paddle past some walk in anglers who seem to be hooking up on bass every other cast. I can hear them whoop and shout, hear the slap and splash of furious smallmouths. Large boulders, some the size of cars start to appear, and I ground my boat and prepare to cast.
I have a list. It may not read the same as yours, but it’s the same list. The dream list, those places that call to our inner angler, our fishing bucket list. South Andros for bonefish, Alaska for everything. Kamchatka. Mongolia for taimen. Montana, Colorado, heck, the rest of the west for the Trout Bum grand tour. Louisiana for redfish, Florida just because. Montauk in fall for stripers and bluefish. I’d throw in Iceland and Scandinavia for salmon and sea-run browns, and fly-in trips in Northern Ontario, Quebec and Labrador for giant brook trout. What about Christmas Island, the Maldives or the Seychelles? We all have the list.
But really, what makes a place or trip the trip of a lifetime? Does the location or the fish have to be far flung or exotic? Do you have to catch dozens of fish a day? The biggest fish of your life? Must it entail some new species that doesn’t live within 500 miles of you? Perhaps you must have a new style, new gear, or water you could never reach on your own. I don’t know, and for each angler, the trip of a lifetime can mean different things.
For some it could just be a trip with people they’re close to- childhood friends, or college chums, or the alumni of your current life. Many would answer that it would involve family- taking your kids to some special place, bonding with them in the backcountry, or perhaps with a parent or grandparent, heck, maybe even a honeymoon. Some anglers seek catered comfort and guided fishing at the finest lodges, but for others, the satisfaction of discovering something on their own, or the hardships of true wilderness, done on their own, are what trips their triggers. What I think, is that there is no way to predict what the trip of a lifetime will be. All you can do is keep going.
For me, this summer day showed me that sometimes the list is wrong. I discovered a place, in my own backyard that has the magic of all of these places- big vistas, a far-flung romantic feel, fish by the hundreds. Many miles of glass clear flats, bordered by aquamarine blue water. I found very few fishermen, and no one else in a boat. The fish were huge, both carp and smallmouth. The carp routinely ignored my flies, or worse, ran. I have long heard about the smallmouth bass fishery of Sturgeon Bay and Waugoshaunce Point. I’ve lived here all my life and never gone. I did not kill the fish the day I went- I caught a dozen smallmouth, and one carp. It was the experience that blew me away. This place is an abrupt departure from the area I live in, something I can only describe as rocky marine marsh. Acres of bulrushes, miles of shore, rocky islets by the dozen, shallow back bays of 100 acres or more with hundreds of fish. Sea birds whirl and dive, and not just gulls, mind you, but several varieties of terns and sea ducks, geese, trumpeter swans, even eagles. The rare piping plover nests here. As you proceed further out, fingers of rock run from the land out into the lake, with azure ravines in between. As you go further, deep holes in the rocks appear, oddly round and symmetrical. Later I learned that this area had been a bombing range in World War II, and that these holes in the reef are just that, holes, a relic of another time. I’m glad those days are over, and that this beautiful other-world has been allowed to go back to itself.
In the end, I only made it to the first cut- the channel that marks the end of contiguous land, and the start of the first island. I had caught smallmouth at every stop after I got that first fish. Several were in the 3-4 lb. range. Big, broad-shouldered fish that ran repeatedly and tested my gear. But I was still after my grail of the year- a carp on the fly. After hours of paddling and fishing, I made it to the first cut- the end of the mainland and the beginning of the first big island. The island continued out into Lake Michigan at least as far as I had come, and the lighthouse in the distance signaled the end of land and the start of the shipping channel. Beyond that lies Beaver Island, and the Bass Islands bird sanctuary, miles out in the vast expanse of Lake Michigan. I floated over big, fat, bloated carp, which darted away at my approach, or swam languidly beside me, obviously curious. Fish were everywhere, and after my disappointing results earlier, these fish were showing obvious signs of feeding, rooting in the soft bottom, which was pocked everywhere by their search for wigglers, crayfish and insects. I explored around the cut, spooking fish here and there, finally settling on a small rocky islet just south and west of the cut and the island. I hadn’t eaten all day, and the hunger gnawed away at me. I dug out my lunch, and sat on my kayak, contemplating the scene. It was getting late in the day, the wind was dropping imperceptibly, but dropping, a high overcast building in from the west was starting to blot out the lowering sun- there would be storms soon, and I’d have to keep an eye on the sky.
I finished my meal and walked around to the east side of my islet, over round cobbles. A deep hole lay next to shore, and a fish spooked from the shallows at my approach. Wading out on a narrow spine of rock, I climbed up on to a coffee table sized rock and waited. Soon five large shapes swam into the hole. Their heads would touch the mud with a slight puff of silt in the water as they searched for food. One fish came in shallow and spooked immediately on my cast. Others stayed deeper and the slow speed of my fly sinking made casting to these deeper fish difficult. A pattern soon emerged. It appeared there were about thirty fish, from eight to twenty or more pounds, swimming in a great clockwise circle, feeding as they went. Some would slow down and look at my fly, a couple spooked out of the hole, but mostly they swam unperturbed by me or my fly, moving languidly in the clear water. Finally, a pod of five fish approached from my right and I put my fly in well ahead of them and let it sink to the bottom. It probably only took two minutes, but it seemed like forever as they fed closer and closer, in about six feet of water. Two fish swam over to my fly. With a puff of silt and a twitch in my line, the fly disappeared and I swept my rod upward. The line came tight and after several headshakes the fish began to swim in ever widening circles. This was the deepest spot for several hundred yards in any direction- probably the safest spot he could find, and so I didn’t get the reel –searing run I had hoped for. After several minutes of this, it tore out of the hole to the north, taking most of my fly line with it, and so I followed the fish parallel to the shore, back to my kayak. After one last noble effort it came to hand- my first carp on a fly rod.
Carp are not the most glorious of fish. With an under-slung mouth and a reputation for living in muddy waters many anglers, perhaps especially fly anglers, scoff at the notion of carp as game fish worthy of serious pursuit. There is however, an increasing underground, a cult if you will, of carp fly anglers. With many miles of shallow, crystal clear flats (I saw the take in six feet of water) and hundreds of fish that can be sight-cast to, I would say that this is a special place.
What makes the trip of a lifetime? Is it the exoticism of the destination, its people and culture, or even the fish you pursue? Is it the grandness of the mountains, the vistas, palm trees, mojitos and conch fritters, the taste of salt and croak of frigate birds, the knowledge that you are a thousand, or two thousand or more miles from home and don’t care if you ever go back? For me, this day was revelatory. I had found a whole new landscape, right in my backyard, replete with clear water, big fish by the hundreds, isolation, danger, challenge and immeasurable beauty. I did it on my own, without having spent thousands of dollars on guides, travel, or lodges. I’ve been to other more famous places, this one ranks with them.
I had found my trip. Not to say that I’ve given up on the rest of my list. Hopefully my proximity to the place won’t diminish its value. I just know that for me, this day, and this trip were special, something that will be hard to repeat or replace, an alchemy of sun, wind, sand, the shrieking of birds, hundreds of fish, and the satisfaction of paddling in on my own, into a new waterscape, a new adventure.
Author - Jason Tucker lives and fishes in Northern Michigan. You can follow his slow descent into fly fishing mania on his blog, Fontinalis Rising. We highly recommend against this however.