Lake Michigan 2013
This morning I saw two carp come to an intersection on 11th Avenue and make facing left-hand turns; domed heads swerving just past one another - weaving in a spawning formation. And so I think the rest of 2013 will go well for me. Fourth year now of attending Lake Michigan and we are dangerously close to figuring it out. Year 1 was a giant whiff - even a backward K meaning struck out looking... year two was a home run... year three a series of base hits that maintained interest but lacked drama... and year four was probably a grand slam. Possibly a three run homer, calling it so to leave some room. Been going for four years now: no boat, no guide, no big money spent. No really reliable information on which to pivot. It amounts to prying off the time, being supported by our families in the effort, making the trip east and looking around. Driving to water and looking. There is no one to tell us where the fish are holding until we get there. And goodness of all goodness it is not like trout - the most automatic fishery known to mankind: if you go to a good trout stream and conditions are there you will catch the fish if you understand the necessary mechanics. You will never, ever in your life walk up on a trout stream and find... to your surprise all the trout have gone somewhere else for the next 10 months. It's as simple as that. Trout are caught the second a guy gets the green light to fish them. But in this case - the case of carp in a giant water, one must drive out and look. So there is a long lead up - a weaving together of anxiety and hope. Reassuring one another that the fish will be there. If the bass guys are seeing fish in shallow water, the carp must be there. This boils and rises to a peak as the car bumps further and further east. Because the strikeouts have happened. Three guys have walked for four days and caught zero carp. That is on the books. What better way to bond with someone and some place than to dive into mystery together and come out on the far side in good shape? And like I said: we are getting close to pegging this deal. And if it can get better the world might blow up because it's pretty good right now riding this high on this cloud at this moment after hitting things just right and logging maybe the best trip in our history of swashbuckling with 7 wts.
One Note on the Carp
From the Bulletin of the United Fish Commission, 1884: CARP IN LAKE ERIE. Mr. C. Sterling, secretary of the Michigan State Agricultural Society, writing from Monroe, Mich., December 10, 1883, reports that one of the Monroe fishermen had found in his catch of whitefish a fine specimen of German carp, which weighed 3 3/4 pounds. The pond [net] from which it was taken was located in Lake Erie, about three-quarters of a mile from the mouth of the Raisin River.
I'd like to think the debate regarding carp as gamefish is over (here referring to the common carp). The history has been written, copied and cited sufficiently. Folks who pursue carp for various reasons understand their quality. And I suppose the handful of people who may stumble across this note don't need convincing so I won't go on too long on the subject. I will say one thing I've said before though: I'm hard pressed to imagine another freshwater fish that offers the carp's combination of (1) availability/access, (2) sight-fishing opportunity, (3) athleticism, (4) endurance, (5) size distribution. Carp don't read this as far as I know and like WW said never in my life did I swear allegiance to him. I don't have a stock in lauding the carp other than simply professing the truth. And maybe defending the down-trodden. There's a lot to say on the matter; a lot to say about a fish that hit the Great Lakes ~80 years before salmon became established in those waters (according to my Living Great Lakes book anyway). It's 11:23 PM though and this is sufficient: for anyone who may question the gameness of a carp, go hunt one down. After you blow the first dozen, break off the first six you hook and then finally land one after seeing your backing only to find out it's a seven pounder, register your comments.
Several Notes on the Outing
I. The carp were spawning. And we'd hoped they would be because it's a beacon. Say the word cacophony and think of the phrase white noise. When we did find the spawners, it was an absolute debacle of froth, to the point of being comical. We quantified a bit and figured at any given glance, we could see ~50 groups of fish, those being 3-7 individuals each. And likely the case that we were seeing 1/3 to 1/2 of the fish at most. It was fascinating to deliberate whether or not this constituted all the carp in the area, all the carp in the immediate area around the bay, all the carp in XYZ. Or 10% of any such domain. No one knows. Just like no one knows where the carp go at certain times of year. I suspect that no one knows because most people don't care. Back to the spawners though... we appreciated them. We were given a grand entrance, when after exploring one bay and finding only SMB and a few ghosting carp, we parked the car at location #2 and met a bass guy coming out. He had a stringer of heavy fish and we talked a bit; within 60 seconds he guessed at our intent and asked if we were looking for carp. I don't remember exactly what he said because we knew what was coming and to be honest I was already thinking past this guy to the water he had just left. The moment you know you are going to find success... only a matter of putting in the work. We would not be barred from fishing to carp. They were there in the water - thousands of them he said - or something like that. We wanted to push this guy to the ground and jump up and down on him we were so damn happy. Instead we just walked to the water and started a 3.5 day stretch of looking at carp and fishing to them with flies.
II. I like being unencumbered. Go on foot (after you drive six hours one way - ha!). No boat, nothing to f**k with, nothing to slow you down between exploration stops. Your bodies, your immediate gear and your fly rod. That is the approach. There are certainly waters that would open up to a guy with a boat, but for now, we are decent proof that the bipeds are in the game. Yes sir, yes madam, I entreat you, get out of those motorized wheelchairs, get off your foam rubber backsides, stand up straight like men! like women! like human beings! and walk -- walk -- WALK upon our sweet and blessed land!"--Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire (1968). And don't bring any food or water either because the focus on the carp overrides everything and you don't feel any pain or need so it'd just be dead weight. I did eat one half of one bacon sandwich though, because I couldn't hammer it down fast enough in the car so I stuffed it in my chest pack.
III. The carp were approached in various manners. These are the situations and corresponding styles of takes we encountered:
(1) Picking off spawners. Tough, but possible. Floating/levitating flies in front of the formations, hoping one fish will snatch the fly from the water column. We got this a few times.
(2) Searching the throng for stationary fish, single cruisers or groups of fish that were not actively spawning. These fish could be got with (a) a blind cast and strip through a group (JM did this with great success in a few instances), (b) a fly set out to intersect a path, resulting in a turn and follow, take, (c) dapping flies, (d) "shock dapping" flies - in which the dap is loud and sudden, right on the fish and the carp seems to turn over its shoulder in annoyance and reflexively eat the fly.
(3) Going to the edges of the spawners - to the mouth of the bay and even to the rocky shoulders leading out into the lake. After day one of pounding on the spawners and their associates we sat down and talked a bit and basically said - we've read enough and seen enough - we have to abandon this fish mass and hunt the margins for more willing targets. This was a deliberate and moderately difficult decision: it's tough to walk away from a 1000 fish. But it was the pivotal decision in our adventure, IMO. It put us on great fish - aggressive fish that would prove to be marauding destroyers.
IV. Recollection of notable sequences. There were many fish caught; couldn't remember them all let alone recount all the catching; further, JM will have to describe his best takes; wouldn't be right for me to do it but I may make mention of few starting with: (a) day two, JM worked various techniques and eventually used a "targeted blind cast" approach (i.e. finding the right group of fish and stripping through the middle of it) to land 28 lb and 24 lb fish, (b) day two, after leaving spawning fish I approached a rocky shore and within a span of about 40 minutes hooked four 20+ lb fish, the middle two of which broke me off; the bookend fish though turned out to be 25 lb and 26 lb respectively; these fish broke 90 degree turns on a retrieved fly (FYI pattern got the 25 lber, blue/black clouser the 26 lber), ran it down and sucked it up after the fly was killed on the lakebed; in short, this series of fish blew me away dead; if you think about the fact that this all happened before my very eyes in dead clear knee deep water you will understand why it might blow a guy away, (c) day three we bumped it up a notch by starting out in the morning on a rock point adjacent to the bay of spawners; there were big fish around; by 945 I logged this odd-number sequence of fish: 21, 23, 25 lbers and JM got a 22 lber to hand meaning four 20+ fish before brunch was served in the nearby beach houses. These fish broke out of groups in the rocks... left their groups because they saw flies that were tied in the hotel the night before; one being a black marabou tail with a palmered bunny strip; they broke out at extreme angles while my heart bashed around and I stared in the water... while they followed a fly to within 20 feet of my person in each case... then the fly was killed - set down on the lakebed... and carp mouth was set down on top of the fly. Wrap it up right there I was ready to retire I thought because I wouldn't see anything better, until (d) the same thing happened later in the day, only with a 31 lb carp who liked that fly enough to leave the male she was swimming with; screw it, we're really done know, except for (e) on the last day JM broke out his Columbia River savvy and stuck a whole load of ultra-subtle fish with his branded hybrid fly; this included specimens weighing in at 26, 23 and 21 lbs.
Pretty well wrecked now for a while. There are a lot of images and feelings to sort through. We came away with these tallies too, in the spirit of loosely tracking fish numbers:
- Total hours fished: ~35. Total hours fished in water that offered serious carp engagement: ~25.
- Total carp to hand: 135 plus/minus 10.
- Some number of bass that doesn't really do much for me but we both caught some really nice ones, including 18-19 inch fish.
- Number of 17-19 lb fish that we didn't scale or photograph: untold, many.
- Number of 20+ lb fish: 20. We logged the 20x20; and in fact it worked out to 10 of those for each of us. Wondering if it has been done before; please comment if you have knowledge of such an affair. This is mentioned only out of fascination at the possibility. But we do enjoy scaling fish - we both carry digital scales. This is because we appreciate frames of reference and we like to talk back and forth on weights. We can compare Lake Michigan fish to those of Columbia River, to those of MN. And so while we released most fish without scaling or photo, we did log these totals, day by day:
- Day 1: 20, 20
- Day 2: 26, 25, 21, 21, 28, 24, 24, 23, 21
- Day 3: 25, 23, 21, 31, 22
- Day 4: 27, 26, 23, 21
That's 471 lbs of carp, just in the top 20 fish to hand. Like I said, we are pretty well wrecked for a while.
We'll keep at it though. An outing with JM is a good outing; important time and something we both value. He deserves his title as the Carp on the Fly front-runner; he owns it by way of hard work, skill and commitment. I appreciate the fact that he maintains this tradition; that he travels across the country to fish. Interested to read his report; I know I have to stop here, as it's pretty late and I'd better walk out and look at the fire under the walnut tree. This evening we burned some split maple, drank gin and tonic while the boys and their good buddy made smores. Rained on us a bit, wind blew. Most sounds were pleasant and we were surrounded by gardens and relative quiet. And for someone like me - a person who can't really ever relax and stop worrying... riding the wake of an adventure like this is serious therapy that amplifies all the good things in the standard ambient condition. Good medicine, I mean.
|JM Memorable take out on a rock spit.|
|The rocks through which the 31 lber came to a leech pattern.|
|One of the 20+ lb fish; hard to keep track.|
|31 lb salute.|
|Heavy double, morning of day three out on a rock point.|
|Another 20+ lb fish.|
|Eggs and milt were present.|
|Sow fish. JM broke his own record by logging five (5) 20+ lb fish on day two.|
|27 lb tank. Nice photo by JM. In fact worth noting that all the good photos are to his credit.|
|The water, the sky, the cast...|