From the Monday I received Kevin Morlock’s email inviting me to fly fish for carp on Beaver Island, to the Wednesday when the wheels of the Britten Norman Islander barked on the island’s rolling, old blacktop runway, I had barely 9 days to prepare. I was supposed to be meeting four fellow anglers – Cameron Mortenson, Alex Landeen, Dan Frasier (Media editor at USACarppro), and John Arnold (scumliner Media/owner of Headhunters Fly Shop) – and our three guides – Kevin Morlock and Steve Martinez (Indigo Guide Service) and Austin Adduci (Grab Your Fly Charters). All great fishermen and great dudes to lose track of days on and off the water with. I arrived a couple days after the rest of the crew with one full duffel, more than enough fly gear, no carp experience or clue what to expect, and (since the guys were out chasing carp) no ride into town. Sitting on the concrete stoop outside the one-room, whitewashed terminal/shack at Welke Airport in the close-ringing mosquito buzz and heat of the island afternoon, I could not have been happier.
It’s a special place that greets you in a way that’s more familial than hospitable, and makes you feel at home, even though you’re nowhere near home. From the “Hey! You made it! Here, give me your bags” when I arrived at the Island Airways terminal in Charlevoix after a 9-hour drive, one minute before take-off, and the “Hey! You made it! Close the door so you don’t let the mosquitos in!” when I landed and walked into the rustic island terminal; to the impromptu and gracious 3-mile ride into town from the airport and fully narrated history and tour of the sleepy bayside town of St. James by Chuck and Sheila, a couple who thought nothing of helping this weary, ride-less traveler get to the Fisherman’s House; to the smiles and waves that came from every car, truck, bicycle, pedestrian, storefront, coffee shop, and residence I passed on the street the entire trip; to the graduation party invite we received from an island family who wanted to include us in celebrating their daughter’s milestone; to the amazing dinner prepared for us at the Stoney Acre Grill and great table- and bar-side conversation with Liam and Marylyn, the chef and his wife, who are also the owners; I had found America in one postage-stamp-sized village, on a slightly larger than postage-stamp-sized island, just a 15 minute flight out into a far larger than postage-stamp-sized Lake Michigan.
Of course, just as there is no one way to describe all of America, the town and the island are fittingly tough to pin-down as well. In town, cottage-homes, shops, docks, picket fences, fishing nets, weather vanes, lighthouses, dunes, fog, old boats and older marine artifacts reminded me of whitewash-and-cedar coastal New England. A pickup ride into the interior showed me a rambling maze of dirt roads, close-arched hardwoods and pines, dappled sun and heavy shade, hidden streams, sudden-appearing lakes, deer, turkey, cabins, and small, homestead farm plots that hinted at the Adirondacks or (oddly enough) Virginia or the Carolinas. Running the boats out of the bay, an archipelago of pristine, brush-tangled islands with names like Fox, High, Hog, Garden, Whiskey, Hat and Squaw, miles of almost-azure water, skinny, white-sand flats, lakes within giant, windward-side bays, tidal movement, cruising, tailing or laid-up fish, terns and gulls, a horizon and sky that are one-in-the-same, weather out of nowhere and an ever-present wind out of somewhere had the Keys on my mind. The island is one glorious juxtaposition. Like I said, America.
And then, of course, there’s the fishing. Not only is Beaver Island a beautiful getaway, it’s a world-class carp fishery where it’s not uncommon to have dozens of opportunities to spot-and-stalk or pole after 30+ pound fish on those Keys-like flats or deeper bays with a fly rod. Not to mention the inadvertent 5 – 7 pound smallmouth that often steal your fly just before your intended target noses down on it. Oh, and there’s pike, too. Diversity is a wonderful thing.
An it’s a diversity (both from a fish and situational/topographical standpoint) that Kevin, Steve and Austin are uncannily in-tune with. Not only do they know their fishery like the back of their weathered hands, they are also respected members of the community that they call home for 3+ months each year. In the two days before I arrived, the guys touched a decent number of fish (Alex, Cameron and John each covered those days very well on their blogs and Vimeo pages). In the days after, between the weather, visibility, wildly fluctuating water temps and spooky, finicky fish, there wasn’t a damn thing we could do but soldier on, and I managed to account for the only two carp hoisted.
This being my first time after carp with a fly rod, here’s what I learned: they’re a pain in the ass to catch.
There are days where they grub like pigs in a full trough and your backing sees the light of day all day long, so I’m told. But then there are days, many days, days like we had at the tail-end of this trip, when those rubber lips are zipped and you can’t buy a sniff or follow, let alone an eat.
The difference between the two outcomes can be as simple as rising water temps, a falling barometer, some chop and some cloud-cover. Of course, favorable conditions don’t mean a thing if you can’t put the fly 5′ past and 5′ in front of the fish 20, 30, 50 feet away, as often as not into a 20 – 30 knot wind. Drop even the quietest blip of a cast inside that window and see what happens. I’d tell you, but it would ruin the surprise.
We waded, poled and rowed the windward side of points and bays, which sounded counterintuitive until I learned that the waves churn in the warmer water, and churn up the crayfish, gobies and other bottom-dwelling buffet items, which carp dig.
Poling or rowing around the bays we’d see unmistakable pods of them from 60-80 yards away, some cruising in pairs, some laid up by the half dozen. Standing on the shore, we’d watch big submarine-shadows appear in the troughs of the waves, or catch their silhouettes in relief against the light bottom as they patrolled the shore in string after string after string after string after frustrating string of non-interested bogeys. Hundreds of non-interested bogeys.
On our last day out, blue-bird skies and air temps heading into the mid-to-high 70’s arrived. Cameron and I were out with Austin and we spent the morning running from likely spot to likely spot trying to simply find fish. It wasn’t till after lunch that they finally started to materialize. Anchoring the boat and wading to shore, we snuck up to a small cut-back bay that held at least 80 fish tied in a giant black and golden-brown knot between the deeper mouth and the shallower backwater. After a couple hours, at least a dozen fly changes, and several futile moves to other spots along the point beyond, I managed to fool one that immediately headed for Traverse City. By way of Chicago. Thankfully he changed his mind and returned, grudgingly, for his photo-op.
Beaver Island was a stellar fishing trip, but just as stellar a place to simply get away to. And it really is a special place that combines the two as seamlessly as the island does. As our time wound down Sunday morning and we were all packing and cleaning the place up, I don’t think any of us were really ready to give up the ghost. But I can tell you this: while I may have left grudgingly, I knew that I would return, happily. And if I’m lucky, with the same crew we had this go-around.
Thanks go out to the generous sponsors of this trip:
William Joseph, Simms, Montana Fly Co., 12wt, Fishpond, Smith Optics, Patagonia, Howler Bros., Scientific Anglers, Bozeman Reel Co., Angela Lefevre & Island Airways, Liam & Marylyn at the Stoney Acre Grill, Steve West & the Beaver Island Chamber of Commerce, the Dalwhinnie Bakery & Deli, Bill McDonough who hosted us at the Fisherman’s House, Cameron Mortenson at TFM who co-hosted the trip with Kevin, Steve and Austin who put us on the fish that we did and did not catch.