Fishing for carp and smallies on the Beaver Island flats is earning renown the world round. Our correspondent investigates, fly rod in hand.
This article is featured in the July 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
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“Do you see it?”
This is the seventh time my guide has asked me this same question, and I’m trying, as I stare out over the wind-riffled water, to come up with a fresh answer. I’ve already been through no, uh-uh, nada, sorry and a few choice others, and I’m running out of ideas. It’s not like I can’t see anything, mind you. In fact, my problem may well be the opposite, that after a summer of writing assignments in India, Alaska, Labrador and Ontario, my retinal rods are in overdrive and I’m seeing too much: the green glow of land that is the Upper Peninsula in the distance, the plush flotilla of clouds overhead, the sawtoothed water the color of a gin gimlet. The only thing missing is what I came here to see, to hunt, to catch: carp in arguably the greatest carp fishery on the planet.
“12 o’clock, 30 feet. Good fish. See it?”
I scrunch my eyes behind my polarized sunglasses but it’s no dice, so I opt for a jocular, lighthearted nope. Only there’s nothing lighthearted about it. In no other form of fishing is the inability to see your quarry as much a death knell as in flats fly fishing for carp, which requires perfectly delivered flies in the face of fish that can move in and out of casting range in a heartbeat. If someone calls attention to a trout stabbing its snout through the film to eat a may fly you can’t miss it, but with carp on the flats of Lake Michigan, you can follow the barrel of your guide’s finger and still be left shaking your head.
“2 o’clock now, 50 feet. Leaving range. Needs to be a long cast.”
“I see it!” I lie, in full fake-it-till-you-make mode, and kick my fly rod into motion. In case it isn’t obvious: this is not the carp fishing I did as a kid back in Chicago. Back then chasing carp meant pedaling the bike to the nearest retention pond, often near a construction site, where we’d soak kernels of sweet corn in water the color and viscosity of hot gravy. By contrast, I got to Beaver Island on the deck of a sun-drenched ferry after a dockside margarita, and instead of a muddy hole with abandoned bulldozers, I’ve arrived at an island paradise that reminds me of Capri. Only instead of needling into grottos with a guy named Luigi, I’m trying to thread the carp needle with Austin Adduci, who takes carp so seriously he’s got them tattooed on his forearms.
I shoot the fly line as far as I can at my make-believe fish, hoping against hope that I’ve stepped on the needle in the haystack, but the look on Austin’s face tells me I’m still way, way off.
The carp on his forearms clench as he starts digging through his fly box. “Until you get your carp eyes, I’m putting you on bass detail.”
If you don’t fly fish, you might not know that Beaver Island has become something of a North American mecca for fly anglers. Let me back up a bit: if you don’t fly fish—and maybe even if you do—you might not know that chasing carp is one of the fastest growing scenes in the sport, that it’s the challenge the seen-it-all, caught-it-all guides of Wyoming and Montana seek on their days off, that having caught a carp on a fly is an indisputable badge of honor, indisputable because there is no such thing as a lucky fish. You might catch a trout by chance while swinging your nymph at the end of a poor drift, maybe even button a muskie while dragging a fly you can’t cast behind the boat, but any carp taken on a fly is deliberate, calculated, even willed.
But carp are only part of the reason why some of the best, most ambitious anglers across the whole country fly into the little airport in Traverse City every year. The other part is Beaver Island itself.
“We don’t sell fudge and we keep our horses in the pasture, where they belong,” was the curt answer I got from a local when I asked how Beaver Island was different from Mackinac Island.
Driving around town with Austin after a few good hours of smallmouth fishing, it’s suddenly clear that any comparison to Mackinac is moot as can be. Beaver Island is its own thing, and it’s a strange thing at that, with moody atmospherics that are part David Lynch and part Jimmy Buffet, with a dash of Hemingway thrown in for good measure.
“You can wear your seatbelt if you want,” Austin tells me. “But people will think you’re weird.”
When I looked at other passengers, all driving slow, all waving to each other, pickups alternating with golf carts alternating with GEO Trackers, it becomes apparent that I am, indeed, the weird one.
Here’s what’s not weird on Beaver Island: a guy with a trailer hitch on the front of his car, since he prefers to push, not pull, his boat around town; open coolers in the backseats of beatifically restored mid-century convertibles, as if Cuba had signed an advertising deal with Anheuser-Busch; a trapper who makes sure a goodly percentage of the island’s coyotes turn into fashionable headwear every year, and its beavers into beverage coozies; a neon-light martini glass the size of an NBA point guard in the window of a house built like a Spanish galleon; two trees on the edge of town festooned top to bottom in strange regalia, one full up entirely of shoes, the other of bras; and everywhere, from picnic tables in the beds of pickup trucks to the clatch of one-speeds leaning against the sides of restaurants, the signs and symbols of people who’ve mastered the art of taking it slow.
And that’s a big part of why I’m here, too. When you’ve managed a career where fishing has turned into work, it means you absolutely, desperately need a re-introduction to the art of relaxation.
“What’s the Rx for someone who has problems slowing down?” I ask Austin as he drops me off at the hotel, and without hesitation he points his finger at a bar across the street (which, I’d like to note for the record, I have no problem seeing). “Ask the bartender for a Category 5. Don’t take more than two, and I’ll see you in the morning.”
I follow the script exactly, and an hour later find myself walking through the twilight to the lighthouse, through a world that feels like a Chuck Berry song played extra, extra slow. I stop to watch a group of college students playing croquet in the yard of a beachfront house, the glowing sun almost done setting behind them. They could be carved into the side of a Halloween pumpkin, their dark forms sharp against the last flickering light. Watching them must have tuned my vision in some way, since on the way back to the hotel I see something I somehow missed on the walk out, a massive old, homemade pontoon boat at the edge of the beach, a few saplings growing through the floor boards. It looks like it could easily have danced 20 back in the day, and maybe, on certain rare evenings, still does. I climb atop and sit on the bow to watch the last light of evening drain off in the distance. Stretching my hand out in front of me with the orange embers beyond, I smile in approval at what I see: a pretty chilled-out jack-o-lantern with no particular place to go.
The next day Austin and I clamber into the boat of head guide Kevin Morlock. Heading east to one of the farther-flung islands of the Beaver Island archipelago, we’ll be testing the ancient angler’s conviction that the farther one travels from home port, the greater one’s chance of success. The long ride gives me plenty of time to scrutinize Kevin Morlock’s carp flies. I’m no stranger to hand-made carp offerings; far from it. My brother and I spent long hours in the kitchen concocting different things to feed the carp of our childhood: doughballs made from crushed cereal, sticky molasses, a dash of vanilla, maybe even some cat food. But Kevin Morlock feeds his fish something different.
His are among the most beautiful and intricate flies I’ve ever seen in all my years of fly fishing, each one an intimate menagerie of pheasant feathers and rabbit fur and deer hair and turkey marabou, some light, some dark, some imitating gobies, some crayfish. Many are jointed, some even triple jointed, which, if you don’t tie flies, is on the highest of high levels of obsession, like a baker grinding their flour by hand—with oats they scythed at dawn.
Kevin kills the motor in a calm bay and clambers high up on the poling platform, from which he’ll move the boat along more stealthily than any set of oars or trolling motor would allow. “Perfect conditions today,” he says softly from his perch. “It’s going to happen.” Clad in a white that blends in like some ethereal camo against the bright scudding clouds, every word feels oracular. And I, for one, believe.
I take up my position, strip out 70 feet of line, and prepare to apply the lessons of the prior day. I know the waves will saw the images seen below into fractals and fragments that I must piece together. I know the wind will raise a hypnotic shimmer that I must not be lulled by. Mine today is a singular mission. I want my badge of honor. I want my carp.
Today the fish are everywhere and even I am able to see them, alone and in pairs, in trios and larger pods, occasionally stopping to munch something on the bottom before cruising along. And I think to myself: this creature looks pretty darn at home for a species that didn’t set fin into North American waters before the 1880s. It’s how I imagine a Siberian tiger might look skulking across the woods of Midwest, napping in the tall corn, popping whitetails like bonbons.
It doesn’t take long before Kevin spots a target.
“2 o’clock. 40 yards. Feeding fish, not moving.”
The fish, all alone on a sand flat, and thus glowing like the first wishing penny thrown into the fountain, is impossible to miss, even for me.
“A dinner plate,” Kevin reminds me softly. “You’ve got to drop your fly on its dinner plate or he won’t see it.”
Today I do everything right, casting beyond the fish so that it doesn’t startle when my weighted fly plunks down, stripping the fly back so it’s right above the fish before letting it waft down through the water column. If my fly is on target this carp will see it as a tiny shadow slowly dilating on the bottom, now the size of a pea, now a grape, now blooming into something very much worth looking up for—a succulent morsel parachuting down from the sky.
“There it is!” Kevin cries.
I rear back to set the hook but only get halfway before the rod dives in the opposite direction and the carp takes off for the deep, splitting a pair of large boulders, bending the rod to the cork. If you’ve never caught a pelagic fish, a salmon or steelhead or a big-water carp such as this, let me help you understand: you can feel the immensity of the water in their muscles, born to surge, born to swim, to travel and never tire.
Unlike the angler.
It takes a team effort, but finally we land the fish, which I admire quietly as it resuscitates in a calm area behind a boulder. And it occurs to me that carp is just too stark and sudden a word for a creature that requires so much patience, so many overtures, such earnest effort of seduction. The Latin makes more sense, and furthermore sounds good when whispered above the shush of the breakers: Cyprinus carpio. After a few moments my fish shakes its head and starts to fin its bulk across the water, sweeping its large tail from side to side, gaining depth at its own pace, carving its way through the shimmering water at a deliberate but unrushed tempo.
Taking its sweet time, as any local would.
David Karczynski teaches at University of Michigan. [email protected]