Saturday, June 16, 2012

Beaver Island Jurassic Carp

I just returned from Beaver Island, Michigan. It was a last-minute thing, where the frequent flier mile gods smiled upon me and more importantly, my wife and mother of our 2 very little boys smiled upon me and gave me the go-ahead. Thanks Honey! It was a great trip.

Starting from Santa Cruz, it was a couple of plane changes, rental car, and sweet 20 minute puddle jumper flight over to Beaver Island. Michigan is so alive and green in the summer, so once I touched down in Traverse City, it was all good. Beaver Island itself is a beautiful wooded island with white sand beaches, clear water, friendly people, and an infestation of 20 lb. plus carp. I fished with Indigo Guide Service, where guides Kevin Morlock and Steve Martinez know how to put you on carp. The whole thing was put together by, and included guiding, food, and housing, all of which were excellent.

The carp fishing here is a bit like bluegill fishing in that they are abundant, the main difference being that they are about 50 times as big as bluegill and 50 times harder to catch. Heck the carp were so plentiful this time of year, they would even be cruising around the docks when we returned in the evening. I took advantage of that as well as the fact that the sun sets after 9 PM to partake of some dock fishing. Guide Steve Martinez has caught a slew of carp off the docks, and I came close but no cigar to a toad shortly before my plane was to leave on the last morning (of course that won't bug me for the next month...).

The Beaver Island carp experience is unique. In a nutshell, 1-2 fishermen and one guide pile into Steve or Kevin's well-equipped boats at the civilized hour of 9 AM on a bright sunny day and head out of the harbor. A 20 minute boat ride takes us out to one of the many islands in the archipelago. The water is clear and the bottom rises to about 5 feet deep as we shut off the motor and start rowing/drifting closer to the islands and flats where the carp are congregating. Soon we start to notice the large dark shapes under water cruising by. As we approach they become more vivid as well as plentiful and soon we're surrounded by hundreds of carp over 15 lbs. There are no small carp here.

The Approach. Caribbean in Michigan.

It was unbelievable. There were large spawning carp dogpiles going berserk in a foot or less of water while the non-spawning carp were cruising all around. They definitely seem to be more active and less guarded during the spawn.

My boatmate, Evan, a skilled fly fisher from St. Louis, was up first, and I watched what he did as well as learned from Kevin directing him on what he needed to do to get his fly in front of the carp. Once it was my turn I started warming up on the 8-weight rod Kevin set me up with. I had never casted a rod larger than my 7 weight so I wanted to practice. Well, after a couple practice flogs, I started tossing a few casts in front of the carp, and a few minutes in I was rewarded with my first fly-caught carp ever. We all watched him follow and suck up the fly clear as day 25 feet from the boat in 3 feet of water. The line came tight as I was slowly working the fly in front of him and there he was. He bolted for mainland Michigan and the reel started spinning. I was even trying to horse him a little bit and he was still into the backing pretty quick. After a couple minutes I had him back on the fly line, and after a couple more, he was in the net.

First Carp Evah! He liked me, note him trying to spawn with my arm.

Very cool. Actually my mind was blown. These are huge freshwater fish, sight fished in clear water, that will take you into your backing almost every time, all in mainland USA. How cool is that? And a bunch of firsts for me. First fly caught carp, biggest fish I've ever caught, and my first fish to ever run me into the backing. Kevin eyeballed my fish at 18 lbs, which at the moment I thought was the biggest fish the world had ever seen, but he offhandedly mentioned that it was a below-average weight fish. So the carp here are huge. And Kevin said their average fish size has been increasing every year as the carp gorge on the invasive great lakes Goby.

Evan's first fish, the one in the above video, weighing in at 26 lbs.

We continued fishing from the boat till lunch and caught a few more. The wind picked up so we ran back to Beaver Island for some beach fishing. While boat fishing is like fishing in an aquarium, with an elevated casting platform, clear water, and oodles of fish all around you, the beach fishing here is a bit more of solo man hunting fish. The carp here like warm wind-driven surface water, so they concentrate on windblown shorelines where the waves buffet the shoreline and the water clouds up as a result. However, it's still clear enough to see plenty of fish once your eyes adjust to picking out the shapes. The trick is to find a carp cruising path and to post up in the waves and cast to takers as they pass by. I hooked up to one carp this way, but he popped off less than a minute into the fight, probably due to a dull hook, since I had snagged the bottom a few times in the casts beforehand. I continued to take shots at a steady procession of fish after that, but my crude carp skills did not win me another fish. So after a spell of that, Kevin had me change tactics and start casting an unweighted rust-orange tarpon toad at a pod of sunbathers, picking around the edges. While I was not sure if it was going to work out, given what I had heard about sunbathers being hard to catch, I gave it a serious go, popping the fly on their noses from 30 feet away as best I could. Shockingly, after about 15 minutes, I popped one carp almost on the head and he ate. How cool is that? He ran out of the cove but alas popped off within 15 seconds. This time I checked out my hook immediately and the dang thing had a point that was dull and bent backward. So, another lesson learned to check my hooks after snagging. Either way, I was stoked that some fish was actually fool enough to fall for my hack presentations.

One off the beach!
Day 1's score for me was 2 caught fish from the boat and 2 fish lost from the beach. More importantly, I learned a ton of new skills to apply to my carp fishing back home. Kevin's repeated but patient coaching was drilling into my ears "Cast ahead of him, strip strip strip, STOP, work it, work it!" and repeat. Once I started to figure out where the fly was in 3 dimensions I started to be able to internalize his instructions and move the fly as well as stop it right where he wanted me to with less instruction each passing hour. I also learned how to cast better in the wind. Wind is a reality up there. It's not crazy windy but it's often a presence so I learned some strategies to cast into, across, and with the wind. Guide Steve Martinez had great advice that really worked for reasons I still don't quite understand. He said that when casting into the wind to backcast hard and then forward cast easy. Well, that seems to work. I'm guessing because you load the rod so hard with the backcast that you don't need to push as hard on the forward cast because the extra rod flex you created on the backcast returns you more line speed. Plus, if you don't push your forward cast so hard, your stroke stays smoother, keeping your loop tight. For whatever reason, it worked. Thanks Steve!

Evan's second fish of the day.

Day 2 and 3 were similar to the first day, with great boat and beach fishing, and similar fish quantities. The highlight for me on Day 2 was being on the beach stalking a carp that Kevin described as "the biggest carp I've ever seen", which means something when Kevin says that. It looked like a shark swimming around. Kevin eyeballed it at about 55 lbs. It looked twice as long as all the 20 lb carp around it, so I believe him. The world record fly-caught common carp is apparently 42 lbs, and Kevin is pretty sure they've already caught larger carp than that several times. And he says the carp are still getting bigger. Kevin had me stalking and casting to this fish for 30 minutes as it circulated around the pool/flat near the beach. It was a bit nerve-wracking to cast to a singular carp like this, especially with a hack like me pulling the trigger. I tried to give the rod to Kevin so a pro could take shots at the fish but he said "not a chance." Although I learned a lot, I think I aged several years trying to get a well-presented fly to that fish without letting Kevin down. While we didn't outright spook it, we didn't get it to eat, and Carpasaurus eventually moseyed out of range.

Stalking Carpasaurus.

One other note is that this place is thick with smallmouth. They are like little suicidal maniacs that will dart out and grab your fly while you are chasing carp. We were joking about these "trash fish" that were grabbing our flies. Compared to a 20 lb. carp a 2 lb. smallmouth (although there are much bigger ones here) feels like a bluegill, but they sure could provide a lot of fast action once they're in season up there, which they were not while we were there.

Good luck snakes we see most mornings leaving the dock.

And a butterfly on a beach fishing day.

Evan from Feather Craft set up this trip and we stayed at the comfortable Fisherman's house right in town across the street from  the beautiful harbor. Evan is a class act and put together a great trip. Cameron from The Fiberglass Manifesto also came and was a great guy to hang out with. I would fish with them again in a heartbeat. Both of these guys were excellent fishermen and I learned a lot from them a well as from Kevin and Steve.

Kevin hard at work!

Kevin is very passionate about conservation and improving the fishery in the Michigan Upper Peninsula. He maintains that, properly managed, Michigan would be the "Alaska of the Lower 48." And I believe him. The carp are a good example. Nobody fishes for them and nobody eats them, so they are growing to huge proportions. If the other gamefish in the lake were minimally harvested I believe the Smallmouth and others would thrive and grow even larger and more abundant than they are. The Smallmouth are just starting to bounce back up there. They are quite large but there aren't lots of them. Official tallies have just 600 adults in the Beaver Island Archipelago. That's only 120 5-fish limits, so they could be wiped out in a week of catch and keep in-season fishing (July and August), not to mention the poaching that goes on. If they were on strict catch and release I think this resource would explode and make Beaver Island even more attractive to fishermen. You can clearly see this with the carp.

These fish are thick and healthy.
And I have to talk about Kevin and Steve from Indigo. They are the visionaries that opened this place up to carp fishing when everyone else was questioning their sanity and why the heck they were bothering with carp instead of fishing for smallmouth. And these guys go the extra mile big-time. They work their asses off on the water to get you lots of good shots at fish, they supply all the flies and gear if you need it, and pick you up and drop you off as well. They also hung out with us for breakfast and all evening, even tying some flies for us. They have a blog post about the trip here. These guys did more than any guide I'm aware of, and they really know carp. Thanks for everything guys.

I recommend that you get your butt to the Beaver... or something like that. Carp are never easy to catch, but I submit that they are a easier to catch there than anyplace else that I know of. The water is clear, the fish are abundant and aggressive, the shots are plentiful, and the guides know how to get your fly in front of the fish, so if you're going to catch carp, this would be the place. You get hundreds of casts per day, and every single cast is to a large carp, something that is not possible in any other carp fishery I'm aware of. So any of those hookups and runs are rippers when they happen. Great for both novice and expert.  I'm *definitely* going back next year.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

(Almost) Carp De-Virginized

I've been pretty absent from the blog world for the last few months. We had awesome son # 2 in December and things have been pretty lively around here with 2 little guys under 2. I finally got some breathing room and snuck off for a short trout trip to the McCloud a month ago. It was my first time there and beautiful. It was a ton of fun and super relaxing to be immersed in such a beautiful place while fishing all day. However, after driving 7 hours each way I thought that I really needed to get serious about learning to carp. Driving less than an hour to fish for readily available carp that were multiple times larger than trout seemed like a good deal to me.

I've been wanting to get into carp for a long time but never put in the effort till now. So, the last few weeks I've been scoping my local lakes for carp, sometimes not even bringing a rod. Well, after 7 trips not even seeing a carp I finally struck pay dirt. Today, I ran into a shallow bay that was littered with tailing carp. They were tailing so hard that after a while I couldn't even see them through all the mud, and had to move down the bank.

I made a bunch of decent as well as crappy casts and pushed the limits to see how spooky these guys were. Surprisingly, they were so engrossed in mudding that they didn't see me unless I got way too close on the edge of the bank or I moved way too fast. But for the most part, if I moved slow, I was able to cast at will. The only thing that spooked them was dropping line or fly on them, which I did plenty of.

I started out with a #10 birds nest but that seemed to be completely ignored, even when I made a good cast. I then switched to a #8 olive and black wooly bugger and that got more attention. I finally got one big 'ol boy to suck it up, at least as far as I could tell from his body language. But I wasn't sure, so I made a half-hearted strip strike so I wouldn't pull the fly too far if I was early. But lo and behold, fish on! But it only lasted a second or so. He took off with my fly in his mouth, put a bend in my rod, and then he was off. My hook set was weak and didn't stick. I would have struck harder but I could barely see the fish. Even though he was only in a foot of water, it was muddy enough that I could only see his tail, so I had to guess when he took it.

I'm definitely chalking up today in the win column though. I hadn't even expected to see carp, much less hook one. I'll be back for sure. No photos though. I was too engrossed to even think about photos. Next time. Very excited. It was really cool to be able to sight fish for decent size fish in my backyard.