Michigan Carp Fishing on Boardman River in Downtown Traverse City

I’ve fished some lonely places over the years: lost lakes, beaver ponds that didn’t appear on any map, nameless creeks, and more than a few forgotten stretches of backwoods stream. Stripers off the ragged coast of Maine. Bass in the swamps of Mississippi. In the quest for trout, I’ve hiked in, biked in, flown in, backpacked, bushwhacked, slipped, slid, and crawled my way over cliffs and into deep river gorges so jagged and steep that in one instance—a magazine assignment—I found myself dangling by a rope 3,000 feet above an emerald river in Colorado.

But remoteness does not necessarily equate to loneliness, and truth is, I never felt more by myself in an angling endeavor—more without a friend and totally out there on the lunatic fringe—than the years I fished for carp right smack dab in the middle of my adopted hometown.

In downtown Traverse City it’s no secret that the Boardman River gets a healthy springtime run of Lake Michigan’s most glamorous fishes. Steelhead, mostly. There’s also pike, walleye, smallmouth bass, and occasionally brown trout of the size and sort that can raise a man’s standing among his angling friends.

Even though nobody comes thinking there’s a trophy lurking behind every rock—or the occasional submerged traffic cone—the lure of possibilities along with the easy accessibility of the place means you never really have the dam all to yourself.

Carp move up into the river, too, some real monsters. But if you took a poll of the fishermen who gather here and made note of all the pained looks and furrowed brows at the word carp, you’d probably come away thinking that to put any serious effort into catching the fish was just about as pointless as trying to hock a used toothbrush on eBay.

“I’d rather catch a lawn chair.”

A guy actually said this to me once. Fishing at the dam one afternoon just above the Union Street Bridge, I was off by myself down at the end of the wooden pier, minding my own business and having a heck of a fine time hooking up with what seemed like one 15-pounder after the other. Whenever one of my two rods doubled over, I’d scrabble to set the hook, then discreetly play the fish into the shallow water out of sight around the end of the pier where I released every one.

Upstream behind the metal rail on the walkway over the dam, a line of fishermen watched. Some were casting. Others were just standing around with their rods in their hands. Nobody else was catching a thing. Finally one of them had seen enough and, itching to see what I was doing that he wasn’t, he came swaggering down the pier while I was baiting another hook.

“Looks like you’re having some luck, eh?”

“Oh, a couple small ones.”

“What are you using for bait?”

“Corn,” I said, eagerly holding up the can of yellow Niblets to show him.

“Corn! For what—steelhead!?”

When I told him I was fishing for carp, he snorted and made the usual face. That’s when he dissed the carp, which of course made me want to question if, in fact, he had ever actually caught one. But instead, trying to deflect the criticism with a joke, I remarked that—from what I’d seen him and his buddies catch that morning—hooking up with a lawn chair would at least be a start. Touché.

While he chewed on that, I recast out toward the middle, letting the line sink along the edge of a sudsy trail of yellow brown river foam. And that’s when he asked if I was friends with “that other guy—The British Guy. He’s pretty weird about those carp, too.”

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Ever been fishing and hooked something so big it yanked the rod clean out of your hands? Ever lost a fishing rod that day? How about two in the same afternoon? Do you know the difference between “trotting” and “spodding”? Have you ever seen a “snowman rig”? Ever fish “the method” or use a “boilie” for bait? And speaking of bait, do you have books in your kitchen filled with recipes that call for hours over the stove, lots of measuring and mixing often hard-to-find ingredients like sesh, salmon pellets, and hand-crushed chilies? Ground hemp seed, maple peas, soya beans, oat groats, and maize? If you think fly fishermen spend a lot of time talking about tactics and messing around with their gear—if you think fly fishermen are the most enthusiastic and dedicated anglers on the water—then obviously you never met a carp fisherman.

The serious carp fisherman is an oddball, an eccentric, and, yes I suppose, weird—they stand apart from the crowd and everything in fishing that is put-on and snooty, unoriginal and boring. They are the hardest of the hard-core bait fishermen.I’ve always loved fishing for carp and considered myself pretty good at it. But I walked away from my first encounter with The You Don’t Know Carp: Special baits made from secret recipes. Big rods and reels. And even bigger fish-safe nets. Think fly fishermen are crazy about their gear? You’ve never met a serious carp fisherman.

The serious carp fisherman is an oddball, an eccentric, and, yes I suppose, weird—they stand apart from the crowd and everything in fishing that is put-on and snooty, unoriginal and boring. They are the hardest of the hard-core bait fishermen.I’ve always loved fishing for carp and considered myself pretty good at it. But I walked away from my first encounter with The British Guy feeling small-time, a real piker. I don’t recall every detail from our first conversation, but I do remember how, when I first walked up, he got the same drawn and tired look on his face that I now put on when some other angler approaches to ask the standard litany of questions.

“You catchin’ anything?”

When fishing for carp the most prudent answer to this is “not a thing” since replying in the affirmative inevitably lead toQuestion No. 2 (“Whatcha catchin?”), which then leads either to the usual derogatory remark or, even more annoying, some story about how they used to routinely catch 60-pounders when they were kids growing up in Detroit or Saginaw.

While carp do grow to over 50 pounds, they are old and cagey and harder to catch than a 20-inch brown trout on a dry fly. Most anglers are over-informed and under-practiced and wouldn’t know a five-pound fish if it tail-slapped them in the face. But mostly the stories irked me because the whole point, of course, was to imply that carp fishing is somehow bigger child’s play than all the rest.

“Are you fishing boilies?”

I decided to lead with the most “carpy” word in my lexicon, the carp angler’s verbal wink and nod. Boilies are a hand-prepared bait invented in England, where carp is king, and it’s actually the trout that provides second-class sport. Boilies is a word only another carp fisherman would know. At that The British Guy straightened up on the five-gallon bucket he was sitting on.

His face brightened. I remarked on his gear, which included two exquisite 12-foot European casting rods and two ginormous Fox bait-runner reels. Robert was casually clad in jeans and a trendy pair of Crocs. His rods rested off the concrete in a chrome contraption called a “pod,” complete with electronic rod alarms—serious hardware—for detecting the slightest strike.

When I told him I was a carp fisherman, too, he asked me what I was using for bait.

“Corn boiled in molasses,” I said.

“Dried or liquid molasses?”

“Liquid.”

“I like the dried molasses. Or mix in some ground chilies or a little red pepper. You should try it, mate.”

Get great tips for catching Michigan carp, from bait to setting your drag

 

I thanked him for the tip, and he replied with a wave. No problem. We then broke into conversation as if we’d known each other for years. We made plans to fish together sometime. Then I asked him if there were other carp fisherman around, and he didn’t hesitate.

“Well, there’s my friend Jim. He’s new to it. And that Russian, of course, Peter, I think his name is. But he doesn’t speak a word of English.

It doesn’t escape me that every time I tell anyone about the characters in our little downtown collective it comes off sounding like a setup for a joke.

Peter, it turned out, really is from Russia. An older man and the most mysterious member of the group, he might fish everyday downtown—dawn to dusk—for a week straight and then not again for a month. He comes and goes with a wave, always walking, to where, I don’t know. He can point to where the fish are biting and tell you with his fingers and the span of his arms how many big fish he landed on any particular day. But I have not yet been able to decipher how he ended up in Northern Michigan.

Jim, my fellow American, worked for the airlines somewhere downstate. Retired now, he’s a grandfatherly type who likes to sip iced tea while he tends his lines from the comfortable shade of his rainbow-colored umbrella chair. The way Jim tells it, he was always a frustrated bass fisherman. Then one day he saw those massive carp downtown and spent many frustrating weeks trying to catch one. He eventually ran into Robert, as I did. They got talking about bait and hook rigs. Robert tied on something special for him, handed Jim’s rod back and a second later, as Robert recalls, there was a “kafuffle”—the rod leapt from Jim’s hand, hit the deck, skittered across the ground and then—plunk!—was gone, pulled into the drink.

“Well, that sure worked,” Jim deadpanned.

Jim lost three rods learning the ropes that first season, and he always smiles recalling it—the best fishing he’s ever had.

That’s just one of the stories in constant rotation on those hot summer afternoons when the fishing is slow. Another tale recalls the time Robert hooked a carp so big that it snapped in half a forged-steel, No. 6 hook. He hooked another a week later that he guessed was even bigger after it broke his 40-pound line as easily as if it were a thread. Or the time I ran into Peter fishing with little squares of Frosted Mini Wheats, a bait choice that might seem crass to anyone other than a carp fisherman who knows sometimes it pays to get a little creative.

I hooked my first carp on a dough ball when I was 8, maybe 9, and I’ll always remember that fish as a great, golden monster, a barbel-faced behemoth that actually wrenched me backward into the pond when I set the hook, my feet cartwheeling wildly in the mud like Yosemite Sam slipping on a banana peel.

That carp not only left me covered with pond scum and stinking mud, it blew out the bearings in my Zebco reel, fractured my rod at the butt section, and punched a hole through my landing net before it flopped back into the murk and escaped.I remember running home where the condition of my clothes, equipment, and incoherent babbling caused my mother to leap to the conclusion that Scotty Miller—a scabby canker-blossom who lived at the top of our street—had thrown me into the neighborhood dumpster again.

These are the sorts of stories we tell, the same stories I rehash to others whenever asked, “Why carp?” To paraphrase something Robert Kimber once wrote, your favorite fish can only be one kind of fish, and the opinion of the world doesn’t matter.

Your favorite fish chooses you as much as you choose it. The selection derives from something woven into the tapestry of your personal history.

“For Hemingway’s old man it was that huge marlin that sharks chewed to smithereens. For a kid on the lower Mississippi it’s a monster river cat.”

To the members of our little band, it’s a fish that reminds us all of where we came from and why we got into fishing in the first place. And, at least for me, it’s a fish that helped me rediscover that you don’t have to travel alone to the ends of the earth to find great fishing, that sometimes the best thing about fishing is actually the unlikely friendships you form, friends you wouldn’t have otherwise chanced to meet were it not for the golden opportunity found so close to home.

Get great tips for catching Michigan carp, from bait to setting your drag.

Bob Butz writes from Lake Ann. His latest book, “Going Out Green” presents a quirky but informative look at natural burial options in America. [email protected]

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