Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Lake Michigan 2016: Seven Years

These are the numbers, averaged on monthly scale:
August 2010: 578.21 feet [some Great Lakes datum] (0.6 below avg)
June 2011: 578.12 (0.7 below avg)
June 2012: 577.66 (1.1 below avg)
June 2013: 577.66 (1.1 below avg)
June 2014: 578.67 (pretty much right on avg)
June 2015: 579.69 (approx foot higher than average)
June 2016: ~580.2 (approx foot and half higher than avg; monthly data not yet complete)

578.8 is the long-term average (1918 to present).  The highest June average was 581.79 (1986).  The lowest June average was 576.64 (1964).  So to be clear these data indicate, provided I am reading everything correctly, a water level range of 5+ feet since 1918.  That's elevation; not any measure on shore or "inundation distance horizontal."  The 20x20 year was 2013 and it appears we were fishing a water level that was only one foot above the lowest June on record; and a foot below the long-term average.  The 2011 deal was silly good too, and that was pretty low water.

2010: sacrificial learning year in which we stood no chance whatsoever; good note there that we never got any explicit instruction regarding places to go, times to fish, etc.  We literally, three guys, walked around in fishless water for four days, doing our time, learning our lesson.  Thinking about 2011.

2011: bombshell year with great water levels; we reported 75-80 total carp to hand and a lot of lost flies.  We lit it up pretty well but in retrospect, if we had a redo, we'd probably have caught many more fish and a lot bigger fish (we topped out at 23 lbs).

2012: we took a beat down, and noted: Why the carp beat us: (1) water level: it was down. So good water last year (two places in particular) was reduced to unsecured holding areas, i.e. I don’t think the fish felt safe on those flats so they simply weren’t there. We had to regauge some things. (2) Timing was off just a bit. Most of the carp we found were neutral to negative. Big groups of cycling/circling carp were present. But getting them to eat… you know how it goes. It was possible: we knicked a couple of them for sure. But ratio of work to fish to hand was too high.  (3) Cloud cover.  It was an issue.  We caught eleven carp total, three guys in four days.  This trip was saved by 100+ big smallmouth bass caught in knee deep dead clear water striking dark flies without mercy and catapulting from the water.

Basically we believe that we were not fishing correctly in every situation here too, and should have caught more carp than we got to hand.

2013: the afore-linked, record-setting year in various respects.  Approx 135 carp to hand with these bigs:

  • 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

2014:this trip (apparently the average water level) I recall was revving up really well, and then we got chopped off by weather, as noted: First 40% of the trip we did well, I think 44 carp to hand.  Cool air, gray, mist, rain came.  Specific heat of the bays such that they did not warm well and thus there came no reason for the fish to ascend them.  Day three we sought out wandering black shapes and we got some (only four total).  By day four they were gone to us.  No longer known in the shallows.  We resorted to bass fishing, which was successful.  Day five we assembled a triage approach and we made it work.  Some new water, new setting.

2015: the first "high water" year (on our relative scale) that made for a tough go: As noted we ended the log with thirty carp to hand.  I can't remember the day by day totals, but because there were so few caught, I do remember this was my sequence: 3, 3, 2, 2, 1, 2.  For a total of thirteen carp (but I logged that extra scouting day).    Not a big number.  But that includes  22 and 24 lb fish.  I know JM got seven in one day.  We all caught some fish; got some great takes.  Overall we got five 20-24 lb carp to hand.

And so this was our feeling coming into 2016.  All that recently-inundated land area to consider; the greater volumes of water in the bays, requiring more heat to keep maintain whatever temperature is key; we needed to adapt; adapt or die maybe.  That segue ways to how we basically saved our trip this year: we spent time studying, and we gave up fishing time at known waters in attempts to understand and study new waters (...for in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it...  - J. Holden).

Study episode #1: exchanging Google Earth images of two key prospective carping waters; zooming in, Googling for folks' snapshots; looking at access points.  We found nothing written on either location; nor did we speak with anyone on the matter of these possibilities.

Study episode #2: I scheduled my arrival one day early, not so I could "pre-fish" but so I could drive all over hell looking at water.  I focused on one of the two waters we had discussed, hoping I might confirm back-up status; that it would be a viable carping destination should the fickle Michigami deal us a cold front or a long row of iron gray clouds or a wind that would push cold water into known havens.  I concede that I did stop at one baitshop and proceeded under the guise of one looking to buy aquaseal; I heard from one spinfisherman that "there were a lot of carp thrashing around in area XX last week."  As I left the store the proprietor saluted with "we've got plenty of new spearheads if you break one" but I'm immune to even chuckling at such sentiments anymore.  She was dead serious but so it seems was I and thus I continued.  High hopes were apparent; water looked good via imagery study; carp were around, per locals.  I looked the place over and saw nary a carp.  Come and go they do.  But the main survey I executed was not for absence/presence of carp; rather, the access, fishability, and general "fishiness" of this place.  All ranked pretty low.  Cross it off the list as a place we probably won't visit again.  I looked at some more water nearby; no hits; wonder why Christmas missed us and I got the hell out of there.

Study episode #3 is detailed below in the text for days three and four.

I noted that I went a day early, but that day was split over two calendar days.  Meaning after the cold scout was done, I checked on the condition of some of our "known backup water."  That interaction resulted in the first two fish of the trip:

Day Zero

This fish was in a group of cruisers; tough go; low probability but play the numbers and it can work.  The parallax and geometry and sink rate were all in play and with all considered I got a black and purple leech down into the intercept; she broke off but did not eat.  Rather, she abandoned her group and started milling in the rocks.  I switched from stripping to dapping and on the third presentation she very slowly moved over to a 45 angled rock face and set down on the leech.  From above she looked to be of epic proportion and it was quite a good feeling.  This first fish to be so large.  I imperiled myself somewhat severely to land her and the netting was not particularly easy but it was done.  Very excited but after seeing her up close I could see she was a tank, but not the tank.  Digital scale read steady at 26 lbs.  Pretty good start.  In fact tied for the third largest carp I've ever gotten to hand (31, 27, 26, 26).

Second fish, same place, same deal.  Not an aggressive eat; a dap on a miller.  At only 15 lbs she pales in terms of size; tough act to follow but her athletics were markedly better: probably half the backing was given a breath of air and a tour of Lake Michigan.  Not a bad run if you can get it.

Day One

Key decisions must be made.  Often it takes retrospect to fully understand the gravity of some decisions (gravity used here in the context of our fishing endeavors; not to say that such decisions are especially important on grander scales).  We studied the weather; we knew it was not favorable in terms of fishing the shallow bays; the water we love.  Cool front, full cloud cover; some rain.  So we opted for a backup location to start things off.  Pretty good idea because we would have been stoned on our normal water.

Instead of getting beat down JM landed two carp up to 19 lbs.

We caught unlimited drum; those rat-a-tat rapping fish that really want to be athletic but just can't do it.  They have strength and their geometry seems to give them staying power sometimes but they cannot run; not when compared to the gamer carp.  That said, they are very interesting predators.  I suggested to JM that if one could take the forward-facing mouth and the predatory striking character of the drum and join it to the power, endurance, propensity for grand runs, and size of the carp...  you'd have the greatest freshwater gamefish frankenstein.  The fish pictured here was the biggest we caught; also the biggest I've ever brought to hand, scaled at 10 lbs.  

JM found that sinking the fly in the deep plunge was a good means of hooking catfish.  
We each got one 5 lber to hand; nice whiskers.

The story of this fish won't be forgotten; a top memory in our long log book.  We were fishing maybe 40 yards apart and JM had been battling an unseen fish for a few minutes.  I was stripping aggressively and bouncing the leech up up up on final retrieve thus hooking the common drum.  Pretty fun.  But I was watching JM somewhat closely.  Do you need I net I offered.  No, I don't, just keep fishing.  This is common for us - bring two nets and net your own fish is the general rule.  There are exceptions but there have been untold, uncounted numbers of 15-19 lb carp netted and released solo, without pictures, while we stood at our own stations in the water.  JM figured this was such a case and so he kept fighting on this own.  I don't know the details or feelings associated with the battle; all I know is that after maybe 8-10 minutes something changed and he said I need a net.  I looked up.  I was fighting a drum.  He said get that little pisant drum off your line and get over here.  So I did.
Standing firm for the last couple minutes of the fight, I saw a black tail break the surface.  This was only a clue for JM had stated nothing about the fish; he was quiet.  But this information confirmed it was a catfish and in my head I  was thinking oh yeah a big cat - maybe like a lifetime cat on the fly of 15-20 lbs even.  

And then I saw the head come up and the water broke on a flat mottled head that looked to be 15-18 inches across; maybe more.  At that point I understood and I started babbling and yelling; cursing past and present and the fish came into the net remarkably easily.  Good thing too because I had to grab the tail and curl it into a fetal position to situate in the bag.  When I reached to touch the single barbless hook bunny leech the damn fly simply fell out of the rubber lip.  There were no treble hooks or barbs to offer any favors; it was a well-fought fish by all accounts.

We were very careful in weighing the fish; it was 34 lbs of dinosaur flesh and bone.  Should have measured the whiskers.  The IGFA world record for fly rod 20 lb tippet is 34 lbs 15 ounces.  JM was fishing Orvis 0x which is not 20 lbs.  There was no registered record for any tippet class that approximates his 0x.  So in a word this is one of the biggest flathead catfish ever caught on the fly, apparently in recorded time.  

Day Two

Day two we made the wrong call and went to our prime water; still too cold and gray; no fish seen; not even bass.  We fled to the backup water of Day one, only to find it unfishable. So we tried contingency #2; that water gave up one fish to each of us, including the smallest-looking 20+ lb carp in history, pictured above.  Scaled at 21 lbs.  

Day Three

This was the day we hoped would be our transition into goodness.  Fishing the bays; the flats.  But in the back of our minds was the fear of the inertia: water doesn't warm instantly; nor do fish move immediately even after the conditions do change.  Our great fear was that we'd have our best sunlight day (which we did) and have no targets.

After it became apparent that our normal flats were empty, we did two things (1) we each took pause to catch one SMB, both pretty big [in fact I used handspans and marks on my rod to estimate this fish at 19 inches; some would say these methods are not passable but time and again they are accurate; I just checked the mark on my rod with a tape and found that the gnarly many-times-caught fish was 18.75 inches long], (2) we abandoned the bays for rocky points on the edges of the bays and we did find a few targets, one of which JM hooked and broke off due to rust in hookeye.  Early afternoon and no carp to hand; full sun; what to do.
At this point then we examined our options.  Figuring in fact tomorrow would be the best day; this being the transition day.  Should we go explore.  Uncharted, unwritten water; the water that JM identified and we discussed; it constitutes study episode #3.  We opted to check it out; to leave our known quantities.

We ended up with only a few hours of good light but we landed a combined eleven carp after together identifying the best method and fly for the situation.  More importantly we were there long enough to understand the value of the find: (1) many carp present, in various settings and moods, (2) diverse habitats in which to fish - ranging from silty bays or cul de sacs like the one pictured here, through patchy vegetation pocked with silt, out to rocks and shelves holding predatory carp.  In fact while JM was in tight working over these shallow fish, the first I hooked whirled 360+ an ornery hunter that after locking in on the black leech just flat out ran it down before my eyes. 

The judgment and observation from those stationed afar were as those offered to the one David Brown, we thought you were in the juzgado.  And as he sat his horse draped in rawhide strips his neck encircled by a grisly scapula he could only pause and reply I was.  But I ain't now.  And so we knew where we would be fishing on day four.

Day Four

Last day, best day.  We covered a lot of water.  We fished various settings:

(1) Spawning fish and fish sleeping up in the spawning areas.  These fish can be had via reaction bites and Flycarpin/JM have a nicely tuned method that increases the eat percentages.  I employed it beyond the typical "shock dap" that we've used in the past and it went 3/3 on first three attempts.  This is the shallow theater, holding steady, detailed presentation work.  JM used it very successfully to locate and pry all the big fish from the shallows.  There amongst the lesser 15-19 lbers.

(2) The transition from the shallows out toward the rocks; it was marked by vegetation and little pockets of fine deposition; occasional bigger deeper "alleys" that held fish.  Good eaters too and we even found some half-heartedly tailing (all of which were caught on first or second presentation).  Getting the fly into the lanes in the maze of veg was an engaging challenge.  Figure where that carp is headed, look to find the intersect and get the fly there before the fish; don't snag anything; move it as needed when the time is right.  The eat is the payoff.

(3) The rocks on the outer depths of our accessible range showed many circulating/traveling fish that wouldn't eat, but also showed the meanest carp and probably the most dramatic takes.  Big fish turning circles, charging.  Sometimes strip setting and just coming tight as carp moved on the fly.  Has to be supreme fishing theater for anyone, anyone who appreciates quality angling.  All this with black leeches, so the visual is optimized 100%.  Seeing everything that is happening.

Our estimates for the day were 30+ and 40+ with JM getting ahead by way of a couple flurries in the shallows in which he strung together a lot of fish in short time.  Seventy carp and in my estimation it's an absolute minimum.  I stopped counting my own fish at 22 and that was around 11 AM.  I back that up by looking at the rate of catch: we fished probably nine hours minimum and there is no way in hell either guy went one hour without catching at least four fish.  The math flows from that point.  JM logged eight 20+ fish, breaking his old record of seven in one day.  Once he got the feeling he could do it, I figured it was over because he was up shallow just hunting down the big sows and singling them out with his lariat like an old vaquero there leaving the younglings behind.  I couldn't get away from the drama of the rocks and those silly takes.  As such I logged only two fish 20+; I probably should have focused in on the bigs but I liked any carp that would charge a black leech in dead clear water.  Notably "talking down" about unlimited fish 15-19 lbs as they compare to 20+ lbers.  We scaled many fish that were a shade under - the18-19 lbers - released with little thought or any marker of intersecting them in time or space.

That's about the text for it; pictures below.

Outer rim water.

The transition.

What was once shrubland now inundated.

Think this was the record-setting eighth 20+ fish for JM.

The word ideal comes to mind.

25 lber.

Think was 24.

49 lb double.

This was a particularly angry carp that moved great distance and with great authority to eat a black leech.  I think only 14 lbs but I liked the scale pattern.

Another nameless sow.

One of many doubles, with camera lashed to a non-aquatic woody plant and fishable flats rolling to all sides.  Deep color of Michigami in the absolute background.
Day Five: Walkout Day

We had half a day as we exited.  Didn't need much at all but we went ahead and got fourteen more carp, fishing with another friend, taking it pretty easy.  Of those carp a few were 20+ including this milt-dripping 21 lber.  We didn't take many pics on this day.  One good memory though, for concluding 2016, was closing the door on the vehicle, walking up to the water and peering in....  JM saying there's one, and instantly hooking a carp....  looking in the water myself and immediately spotting a slow moving carp...   dropping dark fly in dark water and seeing only mouth pulse...  setting hook on final double to the amusement of our companion: he literally turned around after walking 50 yards from the vehicle to find two bent fly rods.
It stacks up there in the top few trips of all time.  Can't match 2013 and we had a silly year on the Big C in 2014...    but this one can hang.  Basically saved by JM using his eye to find good water, and then two of us being willing to risk it, walk it and then fish it well.  As I've known for approx eighteen years, good guy to have on your team; he doesn't like to lose.

To sum up numbers:

Day zero: 2
Day one: 2
Day two: 2
Day three: 11
Day four: ~70
Half day five: 14

Three catfish, many drum, fair number of bass without targeting them.

Some of the new water will be kept close and there is a reason: the work to identify it and get there and figure it out is a significant part of the substance of the success and the memories.  Shortcutting won't feel as good.  The pics would look the same but the frame in which they'd rest would bring only a hollowish echo.

The final statement is only to laud the common carp.  Big fish in dead clear water in various environs and moods.  Sight fishing with black leech patterns 2-4 inches varying (to be clear sometimes it can be tough using smaller flies or colors that don't contrast well in the water; the black leech was just ridiculous; could be seen in almost any light from any distance; couldn't get over it).  Everything playing out in the form of a hunt: spot the fish, stalk it, present without spooking, watch the eat, set the hook.  No encumbrance (i.e. no boat, trailer).  Big fish.  Average size such that dozens of fish in the teens are released without comment.  Not clear to me what else one would want in terms of a freshwater fishery.

Heck of an adventure.  Makes everything before and after easier.  Thanks JM for keeping at it; we're building a good book here; more to come.  Won't be long and kids will be in waders alongside.


Anonymous AdamP said...

Excellent write up Justin! You guys rocked it hard! I'm sure JM was loving it with that green 10wt!

3:00 AM  
Blogger Wendy Berrell said...

That 10 wt glass is all he fished. And I he did love it far as I could tell. Cool rod.

7:05 AM  
Blogger Johnmet said...

Hi, thanks for all the work in this post. What brand/model net do you use?

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Anonymous Jason said...

Few things in life inspire absolute focus and I couldn't imagine life without them. Good work all around, and congrats! If you had to pick between a family trip to Yellowstone or Beaver Island, where would you go first? ;)

9:08 AM  
Blogger Wendy Berrell said...

Good notes. Thanks.

Johnmet: I have three nets:
(1) The fold-up extendable by (I think) Frabill;
(2) A big hoop, short-handle model by Frabill that I bought for $19 at Scheels. This one only lasted one year and JM had a carp bust through the bag on this trip.
(3) An extendable really deep bag $19 net by South Bend, bought at Fleet Farm. JM hated it, said bag too deep.

It's hard to find the perfect net. I might try post pics and reviews/comments on the various models. Good topic. Because a net is deadly serious in carping as you know.

Jason, at this point the family trip would be Yellowstone because it's a lot friendlier (for kids, wives) than is carping. However, we are getting close. Might not be long and the kids will be sight fishing to pigs.

3:06 PM  
Blogger Johnmet said...

I look forward to your net review. I hope JM and others will weigh in with their opinions.

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