Bass Fishing at Wilderness State Park

A father and daughter set out on their annual bass fishing adventure in Wilderness State Park with thoughts of her departure for college at summer’s end on his mind. Find the original spread in the June 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.


As Sadie pulls her Subaru into the last open parking space at the end of the road, we share a complaint that we don’t have the place to ourselves. Sure, word travels fast when the bass are in the shallows along Waugoshance Point, but when driving three miles on a dirt road to the far west end of Wilderness State Park, it’s easy to fantasize you are the only one who knows this secret.

We get out of the car and survey islands of trees amid a sea of sedges. The end of the road at Wilderness is the beginning of the trailhead to some incredible fly-fishing for the scrappy smallmouth bass. Most Michigan fly-fishing takes place in close quarters, rivers and streams where you have to battle the brush on your back cast. The open space of Waugoshance allows you to breathe. This vista of shore and big water is one of my favorite mental postcards—an image that I call to mind in late March as an antidote to cabin fever. The light wind carries air cleansed by the expanse of Lake Michigan and tinged with a hint of cedar and mint, full of the promise of bent rods and stout fish in the net.

Sadie, my youngest daughter, is already changing into her fishing gear. This girl is all business. Although I’ve fished Waugoshance with others, I think of her as my fishing partner here. For the past decade, this has been one of our “must fish” places every spring. I wonder if she feels it too … that this might be the last of our Wauga-wauga trips for a few years. College got in the way of my own fishing back in the day. I remember sitting in a study carrel flipping through memories of lakes and rivers. I wonder if she will do the same?

We plan our strategy while putting on waders and assembling rods. It’s most likely that the guys in these cars just walked the half-mile to the nearest pools. There’s plenty of fish there, but the farther you walk the less educated (and bigger) the fish are. Since it’s just before summer solstice, we decide we have enough daylight to walk the two-and-a-half miles out to the Big Cut and fish our way back along the south shore. She looks at me in anticipation of a quip that she has heard since the first time we came out here. Knowing that the trip would be a bust without uttering my traditional Waugoshance Point puns, I oblige. “We’ll just have to hike our basses off,” I say. She rolls her eyes, but I see the hint of a smile behind her feigned look of annoyance.

The recent rains have turned the flats near the parking lot into mud puddles. Our wading shoes spluck through heavy silt left behind during high water levels. Our trail narrows as we pass the cutoff to the near pools. Hawkweed and Indian paintbrush nod in the light breeze. Leopard frogs leap ahead of us as we traverse wet spots. The light greens of new growth on the sedges contrast with the deep greens of the cedar trees. As we shoulder around a stand of cedars a mile from the car, the trail has dwindled, and there are no fresh boot marks. We have the shoreline from here to the Big Cut to ourselves.

The Big Cut—I’ve always loved the name—is the channel that severs Waugoshance Point from Temperance Island. Combined with Waugoshance Island, those are the landforms that shape the finger pointing to the Beaver Island Archipelago from the northwest corner of Emmet County. The dolomitic limestone bedrock was laid down at the beginning of the Devonian period (400 million years ago) when a sea covered most of Michigan. This cusp of less-erodible rock withstood the scrapings of two million years of glaciers during the Pleistocene and creates the foundation for a wonderfully rich ecosystem. Shaped by wind, waves, and changing water levels over the past 12,000 years, this landscape is a unique combination of cedar copses, open marshes, low dunes on the north side, and pools open to Lake Michigan on the south side.

The pools and nearshore shallows are where the smallmouth bass congregate in spring and early summer to spawn and feed on the minnows, crayfish, and frogs that thrive there. Because they warm up before the rest of Lake Michigan and provide protection from scouring waves, the Waugoshance Point shallows become one big bass bordello. Smallmouth bass are members of the sunfish family, which includes largemouth bass, rock bass, crappies, and bluegills. When the water temperatures hit the mid-50s, the smallmouth move into the shallows. Males use their tails to sweep away silt and decaying vegetation to create a nest in the gravel or coarse sand. After cajoling a female to lay eggs in the nest, he fertilizes the eggs and then guards them with his life. After the eggs hatch, he will try to protect the fry until they disperse in search of food and safety.

Sadie stops to admire the orange blossom of a wood lily.

“You won’t be seeing many of those out in California,” I tell her.

“Don’t you worry about me. I’ll get into the backcountry,” she says, sharing her plans of rock climbing in Yosemite and hiking among redwoods.

We each take a sip of water and keep walking. Sadie has chosen to go to some school out in California. Instead of the tenacious wolverine, the mascot at her school is a tree. We always thought her blood ran maize and blue, but I guess everyone’s blood is closer to the color of a cardinal in the winter. She’s going to trade the Mackinac Bridge for the Golden Gate Bridge; the sweep of Sturgeon Bay for the bustle of San Francisco Bay. I stumble over a rock in the middle of the trail and she asks if I’m okay. Still in my reverie, I say, “It’s a long way away.”

“Well, we don’t have to go all the way to the Big Cut, we can head to the last pool this side of the cut and start fishing from there,” she says. I agree, glad to not have gotten caught worrying.

One of my favorite places to fish is about a half-mile shy of the Big Cut. There are some deeper pools just offshore, that fish well on a calm afternoon like this. Bald eagles often cruise the shoreline here, adding to the mosaic of water, rock, trees, bulrushes, wind, clouds, and sunshine. Sadie heads toward a deeper depression just offshore, and I position myself to work a pool that’s connected to the big lake by a little channel. A group of five carp, each nearly three feet long, cruise through the pool like submarines. Like the bass, they are called to the warm and food-laden shallow waters to feed and spawn. Some folks come from all over the country to fish for Lake Michigan carp. Although there’s something to be said for having a 20-pound fish on the end of your fly line, I try to avoid the non-native beasts.

Sadie goes through her fly box and selects a “Waugoshance Special,” a fly I created to imitate a round goby. Talk about non-native beasts! The round goby is native to the Black and Caspian Seas and is just one of 180 or so alien aquatic species (including mussels, fish, plants, and zooplankton) that have disrupted the biology of the Great Lakes. Hitchhikers in the ballast water of ocean-going freighters, gobies were first found in the Great Lakes in the early 1990s. Their population exploded, displacing native species and sending ripples through the entire food chain. Depending on your perspective, some of these ripples are not all bad. Although gobies gobble the eggs of spawning smallmouth bass and other native fish, the smallmouth bass gobble the gobies—a new and plentiful food source. As a result, smallmouth bass populations are on the rise throughout the Great Lakes.

All photos: Todd Zawistowski

By the time I select a fly, Sadie is already stalking a fish. She makes a few false casts to get the line out so she can hit her target. Unlike a typical fishing rod, where you cast the weight of the lure, with a fly rod you actually cast the heavy line. The bit of fur and feathers tied to the end of a delicate monofilament leader simply goes along for the ride. I peer over my “cheaters” (which I need to see my knot-tying up close) to watch. The arc of the rod, the sunlight glinting off the looping line, her focus on the water, all come together into a perfect cast that puts her fly two feet past the shaded side of a submerged rock. She waits for the fly to sink and then strips it into the shadow. The fish attacks, she sets the hook, her rod arcs back, and a beautiful bronzeback clears the surface, spraying drops of sun across the water.

He jumps again but does not throw the hook. Gently, but assertively, she brings him to the net. She removes the hook and holds the fish up for me to see. Then I laugh as she brings him up to her face and puckers her lips for one of her traditions—kissing the season’s first fish for good luck. I take another mental snapshot for my collection of postcards from the point. The sun has angled toward the horizon; the backlit cedars in the distance look mysterious. The water in the deep pool from where she pulled the fish has an aquamarine glow. The exposed rock belies the harshness of this landscape, but the bulrushes nodding in the breeze soften it. The water surrounding Sadie sparkles. Amid this splendor, a young woman tenderly releases a fish back into the water.

I move the reading glasses up my nose and tie on the crayfish imitator I created a few nights ago. I started tying flies when I was about 8 years old. Although I won’t be tying for Orvis anytime soon, the fish don’t seem to mind if my flies are not catalog-quality. Just as tomatoes taste better when they come from your own garden, there’s a particular sense of satisfaction when you catch a fish on your own creation.

As I cast to a promising spot, Sadie hooks another fish. This one’s a bit smaller, and I notice that she releases him without lifting him out of the water. She wades over to where I am, careful to avoid my back cast. After my third unsuccessful cast, we walk to the next likely spot with the sun at our backs. We take our time fishing our way back to the car. After she’s lost a fish, and then caught and released another, I decide to change from my crayfish fly to a Waugoshance Special. We take turns fishing spots that might hold fish—submerged rocks, deeper holes in the pools, areas where cobble gives way to sand. As we come around a bend in the shoreline, we startle a merganser and her ducklings. They skitter across the water in a melee of wings and webbed feet. By September, the young will be flying on their own.

Fly-fishing is one of the best excuses to get out and experience the beauty of Northern Michigan. Although it might be a bit pathetic that I need an excuse to visit places I love, the fact is I wouldn’t be here right now but for the fish. With the fish comes everything else.

We both hear it at the same time—the winnowing of the male snipe.

“Love is in the air,” I say, and Sadie smiles at my other Waugoshance Point pun that she’s heard many times. You see, common snipe (Wilson’s snipe for you serious birders) are actually quite rare in Michigan but thrive in the expansive marshes along the Waugoshance shoreline.

One of the highlights of hiking your bass off is to see, and hear, the snipe’s aerial mating display. In an effort to attract a mate, a male snipe will spiral high in the air directly over his territory. Then, when he is only a speck in the clear blue, he points his long beak to the ground like a dive-bombing Stuka. The wind whipping through his wings makes a distinctive “huhuhuhuhuhuhuhu” sound. Alas, the sound of love in the air.

“Ah, the stupid things boys do to get attention,” says Sadie. “Speaking of stupid, have you seen any snakes this evening?” I smile, remembering the time when I tangled with one of the very plentiful northern water snakes that reside on the point. It was bigger than I’d guessed, and I grabbed it a bit farther behind the head than I should have. Northern water snakes are tough little critters—while hunting fish and frogs they have to fend off eagles, herons, raccoons, and coyotes. This particular snake twisted itself around and sank his sharp little teeth into my hand. Another postcard from the point.

As the evening settles in, we’ve nearly fished our way back to the pools near our car. The cedar trees are glowing orange, and everything is bathed in the dreamy soft light that photographers love. It looks like the other anglers have left the near pools, and we have all of Waugoshance Point to ourselves. There are a few places here that always hold fish, and Sadie asks if we should keep a fish for tomorrow’s dinner. Blackened smallmouth bass is just as good as any redfish I’ve had, and a lot more sustainable. My mouth starts to water thinking of blackened bass and red beans and rice. By the time the sun sets behind the trees, we have the main course.

As we walk back to the car in the twilight, our waders rustle through the sedges and make a familiar and comforting sound. We’ve made this walk before, always quietly, as if not to disturb this place any more than we already have. It’s a walk of gratitude. Nighthawks will be out soon, their pointed wings silhouetted against the blue-black sky as they dart in search of prey. I know that this should be enough, that I should soak this in and simply be here now with my lovely daughter. But my mind races ahead to when she will go off to Palo Alto. My little girl, my baby … now a woman … a continent away.

“Will you send me postcards?” I ask her.

“Huh?” she says, surprised by the request.

“Postcards. I’ve never really been to California. Send me postcards, okay?”

“Sure,” she laughs, “So long as you send me some from here.”

“Okay, I’ll make sure I bring a camera, and I’ll take pictures, and I’ll make my own postcards to send so you never forget this place.”

“Don’t worry. I won’t forget.”

Kitchen Fireworks

If you keep a Waugoshance bronzeback, treat yourself to something special and blacken the fillets. Blackening is more than a seasoning, it’s a way of cooking (it may be a way of life). Doing it right will generate a lot of smoke, so do this outside. Fire up an outdoor burner and heat a cast iron skillet on high to where it is very hot (it will have an ashen look). Do not oil the pan … keep it dry. In the meantime, dip your bass fillets in melted butter and cover them with a generous portion of blackened spice mix. You can make your own blackened spice mix (lots of paprika and then equal parts of cayenne, salt, black pepper, white pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, thyme, and oregano) or you can support the Northern Michigan spice mavens down at the Alden Mill House Spice Company (in Alden, on the shore of Torch Lake). Their blackened spice mix is sublime.

When your pan is ashen-hot, drop your buttered and spice-covered fillet into the pan and watch it sizzle and smoke. Flip it over after two or three minutes (depending on the thickness of the fillet) and cook for another two or three minutes. Remove to a plate and serve with red beans and rice, some cole slaw, and your favorite Northern Michigan ale. Better than any blackened redfish from N’awlins!

Wilderness State Park

Wilderness State Park is due west of the Village of Carp Lake. In addition to spectacular smallmouth bass fishing in the early summer, the 26 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline is great for exploring and bird watching. The park is home to rare birds, such as the piping plover, and rare plants, such as Pitcher’s thistle, Lake Huron tansy, and dwarf lake iris. If you plan to spend the night, make reservations ahead of time for the campground, one of six rustic cabins, or one of three bunkhouses. 231.436.5381.

 

More Northern Michigan Fishing

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The Age We Season: An Essay on Northern Michigan Fishing

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Old Au Sable Fly Shop Gets a New Look: Interview with Andy Partlo

Article Comments

  • NateW

    Great story. Just found out my first child is going to be a girl and makes me happy thinking we can share a passion for fly fishing. Any chance you would share the recipe for the Waugoshance special? Heading up to doing some smallie fishing in June. Thanks for the read.