Kayak Fishing Weekend in Sleeping Bear Bay for Legendary King Salmon

One weekend each September, kayak fishermen gather in the Sleeping Bear Bay in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, seeking the legendary King Salmon. This weekend is not a competition; there are no prizes. It's a celebration of kayak fishing.

Though the clock reads 6:15 a.m.—technically well into morning on this mid-September Saturday—the pitch black of night still prevails here at Glen Arbor’s D.H. Day Campground. High above, the constellation Orion the Hunter spreads his broad, glimmering stance across a moonless sky. And on the ground, lights from headlamps float and bob and meander in the dark as fishermen walk trails from campsites to the shore of Sleeping Bear Bay or hover over kayaks fiddling with gear.

Depending on where the fishermen aim their gaze, the headlamps light up fragments of fishing poles, paddles, tackle boxes, patches of kayaks. Near a trailhead, three fishermen lean over their kayaks, the headlamps spreading the bluish orb
of LED light onto whatever it is they are prepping. A lighted hand shoves the butt of a rod into a boat’s rod holder. Another man’s hand presses a button on a fish finder and the screen pops to life, a rectangle of blue-green glow in the blackness.

Get a Lipper. It’s like pliers that grab the lower jaw of the salmon, which immobilizes the fish and allows you to dehook him and handle him in the water—calmer and safer than having a big fish flopping around your lap in a kayak.

Perhaps out of respect for campers still sleeping, the men work in near silence. The only sounds are lures clattering around in tackle boxes, voices whispering about the coming day’s fi shing, the occasional thump of something bumping a plastic kayak. Somebody asks, “Has anybody seen Lucian?” And a voice from the dark responds, “He’s already out on the water.” Around them, the scent of pine mixed with Lake Michigan’s big water exhalation floats thick and sharp and sweet in the damp morning air.

The men, about 20 of them, are camped here for the weekend in search of king salmon, a k a Chinook salmon, the iconic game fish introduced to the Great Lakes more than 30 years ago and reared in a hatchery a half-hour south of here. Of course, it’s not unusual to see fishermen drawn to the fall rush of salmon near the mouths of Lake Michigan feeder streams, but what is unusual is that everybody here is heading out on a lake you can’t see across in tiny boats—minuscule compared to a basic charter boat—to reel in fish that commonly grow to 15 to 20 pounds. Has anybody told these guys this bay is part of a shipwreck graveyard?

The gathering is an annual rite, with the 2010 event marking its fifth year, and it’s one of the year’s red letter weekends for the small but growing band of people who have become devoted to fishing from kayaks, that ancient and peculiarly seaworthy craft.

These kayaks are, however, modified designs: everybody fishes in a sit-on-top rather than a closed cockpit kayak. Unlike many fish get-togethers that are fueled by competition for a big prize, this weekend outing is more a celebration of kayak fishing, so a friendly camaraderie prevails.

When somebody catches a fish, he radios out what lure he was using and what depth he was fishing—unheard of in tournaments. “A lot of people aren’t into tournaments,” says Lucian Gizel, one of the organizers. “So we just run it like a get-together.” This weekend’s get-together has drawn people from Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois and Canada.

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