The loose schedule goes like this … The men gather on Friday night, fish some, hang out around the campfire, fish hard Saturday, fi sh again Sunday morning and generally pack it up about noon. No entry fee. Organizers throw in a safety class and gear review, and there’s a lure swap, but that’s about as workshopy as it gets. Evidence of the let’s-not-get- too-serious-here vibe: a couple of friends wear stupid dayglo hats with things poking out. Another guy paddles with a pirate flag fluttering behind.
By 6:45 a.m., with a half hour to go till sunrise, the eastern sky begins to lighten beyond the ridge. By now, a half-dozen boats float offshore, silhouetted against the dawn, trolling for salmon. The fi shing rods angle up and out with lines trailing behind; little white and red lights edge slowly on the calm water; paddles move in that rhythmic rotation.
Right at sunrise, the radio squawks with news that somebody has caught a salmon. “Hey, they’re already catching fi sh,” says Dan Dalton, coorganizer, with the excitement of a boy. He speeds up his own preparations to get out on the water. As he’s finishing up, Cameron Wentzel, from Kalamazoo, walks by carrying the salmon, maybe three feet long. He ambles down the campground road in the morning twilight and chill; the fish, still looking shiny and alive from the lake, dangles from his left hand.
You can go light on the angling gear because your kayak is part of the drag system—while pulling you around, the fish is wearing himself out. A 15-pound test line works fine.
Dalton, comfortable that everything is underway, gets his boat to the shore and slips in. You can see across the water now, though the sun has not yet cleared the eastern ridge. Dalton picks up his walkietalkie. “Anybody catching anything?” An answer squawks back: “Just the one.”
He shoves off into the calm lake, the orange and pale blue sky reflecting in the mirrored water. In no time, he’s hundreds of yards off shore, amid a fishermen fleet now strewn across a couple square miles of Sleeping Bear Bay. A month ago, Dalton had the only kayak in a Milwaukee salmon tournament—everybody else had powerboats—and he won with a fish that weighed in at 24 pounds 6 ounces. You get the sense he couldn’t help but feel a little smug about it.
Perhaps the first thing to know about people who fish from kayaks is that they are almost invariably fishermen who’ve been drawn to kayaks; they are practically never kayakers who’ve been drawn to fishing. “I can only think of one kayaker who became a kayak fisherman,” says Gizel. A strange situation, but all agree such is the case.
Many of the fishermen have made a transition similar to the one that Gizel made. “I have fished my whole life, since I was a little boy,” he says. “And I’ve fi shed from all sorts of boats—canoes, powerboats, whatever.”
Gizel got into kayaking about 10 years ago, but he didn’t do so with fishing in mind. “I started out in a sit-in [cockpit] kayak to get some exercise. Then I saw all these fish in the rivers, and I thought, If I took a fishing pole with me, it would be ideal.”
Within about two weeks he was fishing from his kayak and loving it. Gizel runs through what he favors about kayak fishing: you can get into places that big boats can’t; it’s quiet; there’s no gas to buy; there’s no fumes to smell; for one person, it’s more maneuverable than a canoe; with the double paddle stroke and the low profile, kayaks go a lot faster than canoes and don’t get pushed around by wind nearly as much; and you get a little exercise.