Unlike any secretive river or flashy blue ocean depths, Waugoshance Point in Emmet County’s Wilderness State Park holds its own particular form of fly fishing magic. Experience these waters of enchantment for yourself, but be warned, you may never want to leave.

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The Mitten State is many paradises within a single boundary, a truth understood by perhaps no one better than the fly angler, who in a single week might find themselves fishing trout in Crawford County, muskies in the Upper Peninsula and steelhead on the west-coast tributaries. Today, I’m leaving one paradise—my trout camp near the Manistee River—for another: A big-water bass bonanza at the end of the road. Emphasis on end. My destination is Waugoshance Point in Emmet County’s Wilderness State Park, where I’ll be fishing for smallmouth bass with Captain Ethan Winchester of Boyne Outfitters. Waugoshance is a peninsula’s peninsula. If Michigan is the Sistine Chapel, Mackinaw City is only Adam’s head; Waugoshance Point is the business end of Adam’s finger, reaching out to God.

Driving a boat at Wilderness State Park in Emmet County

Photo by Dave Karczynski

Two men fishing on boat at Wilderness State Park in Emmet County

Photo by Dave Karczynski

Man fishing at Wilderness State Park in Emmet County

Photo by Dave Karczynski

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I meet Ethan and his friend, Matt Mates, at the boat launch at 9 a.m. as the cool of the night is lifting and a proper summer heat shoulders in. “The wind is perfect today,” Ethan assures, looking out across the Straits toward the bridge and the U.P. beyond. I’ve known Ethan for years, and together we’ve explored big and small trout streams alike. But we’re here to ply the Lake Michigan flats with the new boat he acquired for the mission, a Hog Island skiff with a poling platform.

The boat is a manifestation of Ethan’s latest obsession—or rather his first. Long before he spent a decade developing Boyne’s inland trout opportunities, he was on the big water every day, working in rescue and captaining private vessels. As we curve into our first cove, I ask Ethan whence the change.

“I love the river,” Ethan says. “But the feeling of vulnerability and the prism of blues here can’t be replicated anywhere else. Maybe the Indian Ocean.”

Looking out over the expanse of water beyond our island cove, I realize he has a point. This could be the Seychelles, except for the fact that we’re surrounded not by bonefish or permit, but smallmouth bass, pike, drum and muskies. And that’s Ethan’s other draw to this lake life—native big-water fish.

“It’s not until you get out here on a boat that you realize what’s around in fishable numbers. There are some big muskies hanging around, as well as freshwater drum. Much like permit, they’ll gladly eat live bait while snubbing the fly.”

Then there’s the lake trout, a puzzle Ethan looks forward to solving.

“The challenge with lake trout is timing. Seas are rough in the spring and fall when lakers are closer to shore and at depths we can access with a fly rod. But we catch them in Little Traverse Bay and northern Lake Huron early and late in the year. They’re here.”

View on the water at Wilderness State Park in Emmet County

Photo by Dave Karczynski

“Strip… strip… strip,” Ethan chants down from the poling platform to Matt, who is up first on the casting deck. His song is an attempt to impress the right cadence on a proper flats smallmouth presentation, and Matt’s line hand moves slowly and rhythmically, as if he were darning a tear in a blanket. A trout angler accustomed to mixing up long quick strips with short stitches and rod tip quivers might have a hard time with this presentation, but in order to whet the smallmouth’s appetite, a slow, steady approach is essential. All three of us stare intently at the stark blackness of the marabou leech, visible at a great distance as it inches over the sand flat. Suddenly another, larger dark form appears behind it. The bass, perfectly attuned to its surroundings, looks like nothing more than a phantasm of sand.

But it’s towing a dark slice of shadow with it across the flat, and in the next moment that shadow eases up just inches behind Matt’s fly.

“Stop, stop… set! Set!” Ethan implores, and Matt is fast to his third fish of the day.

There’s a special beauty to this collaborative, communicative way of fishing. It’s an approach born of saltwater fly fishing, with a guide or seer high atop a poling platform, looking for fish and moving the boat carefully with a push pole, which is far stealthier than a set of oars. But the seeing works both ways— fish can spot a boat at distance, and so casting distance is at a premium. There’s no creeping in close like on a trout stream, using broken water and riparian obstacles to camouflage your presence as you work a rising fish. Out here on the big water, which at times can feel like one huge aquarium, casts must have good distance and decent form. Land your fly directly on top of a fish, and it will certainly spook. Cast too short and it might see the boat before it seals the deal. But gracefully plunk a fly down at 60 feet in the direction a spotted fish is swimming, and you’re in for a moment of beauty.

Then there’s the hook set.

There’s a tendency when sight fishing to jump the gun. The art of flats fishing for smallmouth requires a real sort of grace under pressure. Anticipate the eat and you will set the hook too early. React to the eat and you can set too late.

I ask Ethan how to get the timing right. He smiles and pushes off toward fresh water.

“Be one with the fish.”

Fish in a net at Wilderness State Park in Emmet County

Photo by Dave Karczynski

Boat on the water at Wilderness State Park in Emmet County

Photo by Dave Karczynski

Water view at Wilderness State Park in Emmet County

Photo by Dave Karczynski

After lunch, it’s my turn up on the casting deck. I strip out more line than I think I’ll need, gather the wet marabou leech up in my hand, and start scanning the water. Fly fishing, at its best, feels like a form of enchantment, and staring over the sand and stones, the glittering lattice of light on the seafloor, I’m on full alert for magic. The folk literature of the north associates conjurings, gnomes and elves with the dark understory of pine forests, but as I get my flats eyes, it seems otherworldly things are hiding just out of sight.

“Bass,” Ethan declares, knocking me out of my stupor. “Four of them.”

It is a quirk of fish in general, and smallmouth bass in particular, to gravitate toward anything that stands out in the environment. In this case, a boulder the size of a bowling ball and tuft of reeds no larger than a bouquet of roses holds four good fish. I identify the largest and drop a long cast off to the side, hoping to peel it away from the group.

But then something strange happens.

Like a cartoon elephant stepping out from behind a lamppost, an even larger fish untucks from the reeds and, with a few easy tail strokes, eclipses my original target and inhales my fly. The confusion has me late to my hookset, but it’s no matter: The hook drives home and the rod bends deep. The act of fighting my fish is a dinner call to all other bass in the area, who swarm my fish, hoping that the tussle will cause it to cough up an earlier part of its lunch, a habit of smallmouth bass. Finally, we get the fish into the net. It’s a beautiful specimen, pale with fine striations and subtle markings, a perfect big water bass, and I stare at it for a minute.

Fly fishing has been described in many ways. There’s the literal: standing in the water swishing a stick. And the comical: standing in a tub of ice-water casting 100-dollar bills into a fire. Looking at my first bass of the day, I find myself favoring the late Gary LaFontaine’s slightly more philosophical version, that fly fishing is the pursuit of perfect moments. As I release the bass, which yaws slowly across the flat as a pair of monarchs flutter over the surface in the opposite direction, I wonder: can I stay in this perfect moment forever? Could I, at the end of the day, decline the ride back to the launch and instead make a stand on one of these unnamed islands, chasing fish all day every day like some bass-bewitched Caruso? I take quick inventory of my provisions. There are a few White Claws. An uneaten brownie leftover from our too-big lunch. In my dry bag, there’s a raincoat I could use for shelter. I’d have to borrow a lighter and a knife. Could I find enough driftwood for nightly fires? How are the black flies? I’m still scheming when the boat swings around on its axis.

“Fish,” Ethan cries. “2 o’clock and 60 feet… 55… 50…” And so I leave my machinations aside for the time being and begin working some line into my cast, edging my bare feet out to the very edge of the bow, squinting, waiting, for the next perfect moment to swim into view.

Fishing at Wilderness State Park in Emmet County

Photo by Dave Karczynski

Dave Karczynski is the author of “From Lure to Fly” and co-author of “Smallmouth.” He splits his time between teaching writing and photography at UM-Ann Arbor and chasing the bugs Up North. Follow him on Instagram: @davekarczynski.

Photo(s) by Dave Karczynski