Occasionally, though, [the right] fish swims among the spawners. You need patience to find one and a certain stealth to approach within casting range, and at such times it is never clearer that sight-fishing to large fish, whether tarpon or bonefish, steelhead or [carp], is really a species of hunting.
-adapted from Ted Leeson
The fact of the matter is that we are dirty doggers aka lucky bastards but lucky only in one respect: we are truly fortunate regarding the time allotted to us by God, family and fortune. We are aware of this and we regularly praise and thank all said entities. We are not lucky with respect to the final outcomes of these fishing adventures once we’ve gotten the go ahead to launch. In fact, a close analysis would conclude that we are unlucky: regularly shitty conditions where ever we land on the globe. Seizing reels, decrepit wading boots, leaky waders, stinky buffs, flimsy fly selection, worn out skin on feet. That kind of thing. Through that though, navigation to a desirable outcome can be achieved by way of (1) simply walking around the planet earth (here, pertaining to fishing this translates to John Montana’s saying of keep your boots in the water), (2) persistence, (3) focus and drive, (4) fascination/interest, (5) love. And most important of these is love (did someone else say that?).
All that said, Lake Michigan being what it is, can foil you in short order. See last year’s report. If the fish aren’t in the shallow water, and you have no boat, standard logical concatenation confirms that you have no fish. Zoom the conversation regarding persistence out one level though, to encompass a strategy instead of a single outing… and you arrive at the scene: two swashbucklers driving east toward Lake Michigan for the second time in one year, with a hope and eye for carp.
What makes this special, like many facets of your life, is the sum of the parts: the setting, the fish size, the fish behavior, the method of approach, the gear used, the mode of exploration and the company kept. You could walk down to the lake and throw a dough ball in and catch a 30 lb carp tomorrow. But that doesn’t do it. You could go cast the most graceful fly rod in the world to rising brook trout but that doesn’t always do it (although that isn’t too bad of a deal). I could walk outside right now and fish to a carp in a pond. Big deal. It’s the convergence.
The setting is best communicated by maps and photos. Beyond what they convey, I will add only that it is highly desirable to stalk around flats and bays of such a remarkable body of water (steel gray horizon with no end in sight). The walking was generally very easy. Some minor challenges were posed by slippery slab rock and large boulders.
The method is multi-faceted: (1) desktop and interview recon to determine where fish will likely be; (2) scouting to confirm; (3) sorting through fish to find viable candidates for hook up (many fish were negative and simply would not eat); (4) singling out those fish and stalking to appropriate distance; (5) presenting fly in acceptable manner; (6) detecting the take; (7) handling initial jolting hook up and run; (8) managing occasional long run to backing; (9) bringing fish back, and netting. With many parts there are many opportunities to fail. We failed often. But hell, we caught a lot of fish.
The most notable thing about this trip was the difference we observed in the disposition and behavior of the carp. We all know (generally) what carp in MN do. We know what the Columbia River fish do. These Lake Michigan carp had a bit of sharkiness to them. A little more predatory. They chased flies. They broke out of formation to follow your fly. We used bunny leeches as our staple offering. That should tell you a lot about this bit. This is best communicated by recapping a handful of memorable takes. These are in my mind. John Montana has his memories and I look forward to recounting those too. And one note on this is that we quickly lost track of the great takes. Too many. Usually you have a handful to take home with you and think about but this trip was littered with them. The technical term would be “all kinds of crazy shit” out there. I’ll just say that the basic hook up went like this: find a cruising fish, estimate his speed and path and from 20-30 feet away cast to intersect it; know the sink rate of your fly, and strip at a speed needed to get the fly in front of the fish; fish will turn 90 degrees to follow your fly; watch closely and if you can’t see your fly guess at the take; set hook and cackle uncontrollably. Just roll out the cackling.
(1) We peeked out of a bay, into a hidden flat of sorts. There were carp everywhere. We had just finished fishing to a load of carp that were not in a highly positive mood. These fish though, were milling about. Looking for something. First cast went parallel to shore, and was stripped past a cruising marauder that was swimming parallel to shore… bunny fly was stripped quickly ahead of the fish, maybe 3-4 feet on the inside… and carp spun a 90, swam up toward shore to the point of nearly putting its back out of the water, and consumed the fly.
(2) On that same flat, John M and I fished apart for a while. Each catching fish here and there. I saw a group of 5-6 fish swimming in deep water at the flat edge. I put a cast in front of them and stripped past… nothing. I started to let them go, but then figured hell with that and ran to shore and sprinted ahead of them to position for another presentation. Running after fish is good. I put another cast out there, counted the fly down and stripped it past… I watched those big gray ghost shapes and there: one broke away. One fish broke a 90 and started toward the fly. All grayness and guessing then… watching the shape and figuring where that fly was… picking up the rod and finding the weight. That fish took me to my backing. Scaled at 17 lbs. Jogging after fish.
(3) Often times the fish would swim toward you. Seeing them before they see you is obviously important. So we adopted this “drop to ninja” technique which is basically get the hell down(!). So early on, a fish swam toward me… I dropped to one knee, crouched and whispered and held my rod out to the side… whispered again and dropped the fly and bounced it past the fish… six feet from me… ate it. Yep he ate it. And this became fairly common.
(4) And the most absurd take of the trip #1: I saw some ghost shapes out in deeper water. I cast a fly into them and let it sink. I began a retrieve and the fish ate the fly. This is 99% foreign to carp on the fly fishing. It’s cool but in a way it doesn’t seem right. That fish was scaled at 18 lbs.
(5) And the most absurd take of the trip #2: night was falling quickly on day three. JM had started casting to SMB. We had been pounding on tailing carp, culminating in the catch and release of a 23 lb sow (scaled). So I was cruising. I may have even been smiling through my standard stoicism. I started blind casting around for SMB. I saw in the rushes a big ruckus of carp sex. For the hell of it I cast my LOD up into that shamble and started slowly stripping it back (slow to avoid ripping and snagging). Fish on. It’s nearly dark. Must be snagged. But feels right. Fish to hand. That SOB ate the fly like candy. Blind fishing for carp. WTF.
(6) The 23 lb fish was cool but not a remarkable take. Three carp had heads together, milling around looking. I dropped the LOD in the midst of the three, and I was actually watching another fish closely… then I flipped my vision and saw a pig in a position that looked like “eat” so I came tight and found her on. I was a bit late so we had to extract the LOD with forceps. I was careful playing that fish. Tippet knots held tight. Trust.
Better stop typing now. There is a lot to remember and a lot to say. I’ll close by thanking our families for making time for us to journey a bit and engrain in our minds these adventures that we’ll surely remember forever. And thanks to John Montana for his continued guidance regarding carp fishing. Many things about this guy are much appreciated.
And The Triad: carp on the fly from Columbia River, Mississippi River, Great Lakes. What's next?
Pasted stats from Carp on the Fly:
75-80 total carp to hand
45-50 smallmouth bass to hand.
Largest fish, a 23 lb beast caught by Wendy Berrell. I got one at 21 lbs as well.
Roughly 10 smallmouth in the 17-18 inch range...we weighed one of those fish at dead on 4 lbs.
[following pics are from my camera only; have to look for JM's later on]
Yes. As the book suggests: carp are some game-ass fish. But I like that they are largely ignored. It keeps the steel-gray flats lonely.