For many years I’ve found ways to get away from late summer in South Florida for at least a month. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend the last three in Chicago. That is the perfect time to be there. It is still warm enough to get outside and be active, but cool and dry enough to enjoy doing so without sweating like crazy. Most nights you can sleep with the windows open and on some it’s even chilly enough to enjoy a drink by the fireplace. I guess it goes without saying that I’m a water guy. While Chicago does not have an ocean, Lake Michigan offers quite the diversion in the warmer months.
Last year, I decided that I wanted to take advantage of my time in the Midwest and plan a camping/fishing trip. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Boundary Waters on the Minnesota-Canada border and I considered heading up there. I had heard good things about Wisconsin from friends in Chicago and I started looking into planning something there. Then one day on a whim, I typed “Best fishing on Lake Michigan” on a Google search. What I saw caught my attention to say the least.
The website pictured huge salmon swimming, splashing and free-jumping up a river while a fisherman in waders looked on. There were photos of a beautiful, shallow water lake surrounded by a picturesque meadow. One showed a sturdy little dam with water cascading down both sides and trophy salmon working their way up towards the base of it. There was also a quaint and historic-looking lighthouse, which jutted out over the lake above massive, rolling sand dunes. Finally, there was a stunning shot of a shallow river, which cut through a white sand beach and emptied quietly into the majestic Lake Michigan. The place pictured on the site was Luddington State Park in Western Michigan.
My friend Boris had offered to join me in whatever camping/fishing trip that I planned. I put in the time, did my research and booked two nights at great site in one of the campgrounds in the park. When the day of our trip finally arrived, we packed up our gear and drove the five hours to Luddington State Park. We arrived, set up camp, grabbed our fishing rods and took and exploratory hike. We walked along the banks of a pristine interior lake, casted the shoreline and felt the tension of city life begin to melt away. It was early October and a front was just descending on us. We spent an hour ambling along the lake front, casting out lures and taking it all in.
I caught and released a small mouth bass and Boris did the same with a little northern pike, but the bite was pretty slow. It wasn’t hard to guess why. As the sun got lower in the sky, the air was getting noticeably colder. In a shallow lake like the one we were fishing, the fish were laying low. We made our way back to camp, put on some layers of clothes, started the fire and tried to keep warm. After dinner, we pulled ourselves away from the warm fire, headed into the tent and zipped ourselves in. As the wind ripped through the trees above and around us, the first real cold front of the year rolled through. We bundled in our bags, said our good-nights and drifted off to sleep.
As the morning light made its way through the walls or our tent and I became conscious of my surroundings, my first thought was, “Oh wow, its cold.” My second was, “How the hell are we going to fish today?” After starting a fire and brewing some coffee, Boris and I had a sit down. We knew that the bite at the inshore lake from the evening before was shut down. Judging from the howling, arctic northwest wind, Lake Michigan-front fishing was not an option. “We need some deeper, moving water, off of the lake where we can target salmon. They aren’t affected by the cold.” Boris said. I leaned closer to the fire, pulled out my iPhone and mulled over a map of the area. After a minute or two, I spotted just what we were looking for. About ten miles south of us was the Pere Marquette River. I found what looked like narrow (and most likely deep) bend in it that looked promising. I was hoping that it was far enough off of Lake Michigan that we’d have some protection from the wind.
After about 20 minutes of driving, we came to the spot on the river. It was exactly what we had hoped for. It was deep and flowing swiftly, with accessible, sandy banks that looked fishing friendly. The temperature had actually dropped since we had woken up and the wind had gone from howling to roaring. While I am a South Florida boy, I feel like I can take cold weather as well as the next guy. On top of that I was decked out in thermal underwear, thick socks, layers of clothing, a heavy jacket, a hat, gloves and even a mask to cover my face. When I opened the car door and stepped out into the whipping, frigid air I thought, “Alright, I think I can do about ten minutes of this, tops.” Boy was I wrong.
As we made our way down to the edge of the river, it began to snow. As the flurries blew by in the gale-force wind that screamed along the bank, my Florida boy mind tried to process the fact that we were actually fishing in the snow. It was a bit mind boggling. We began casting out our crank baits (which I had used for snook in Key Largo) far out into the fast -moving water and started retrieving them. The gloves made it difficult, but taking them off was not an option. My fishing-fever was in a pitched battle against my survival instinct as my body was wracked with the blasting cold air that shot along the river bed. If it weren’t for the movement involved in casting and the ability to pace along the bank and stomp our feet, we would have had to abort our pursuit of Michigan salmon there and then.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an enormous crash in the river, near a spit of beach and a small eddy on our far left. It was so big that it was hard for me to accept the fact that it was actually a fish that had made it. We were in fresh water after all. “Big fish this way follow me!” I bellowed to Boris, over the steady thrum of the wind. We tramped down to the beach to the point where I saw the action. This spot was even more exposed than where we had been and I began to seriously question our sanity. I made a cast to our right and began reeling when I felt a tremendous yank on my line followed by a scream from the drag of my reel. It was everything I could do to hold on as a monster of a salmon breached the surface and skied over head with in a backwards somersault. My Rapala lure sailed one way and the fish another as it managed to spit it out of its mouth and land with a tremendous spray of frigid water. Suddenly, the cold didn’t seem so bad.
Several minutes later Boris hollered that he had had a big hit. Not long after that, I had a solid one myself. By this point a few local anglers had set up on either side of us, a respectful distance away. I was reeling the last of my line in and watching the Rapala swim a few feet in front of me, when an enormous salmon darted up, turned sideways in the shallow, clear water and chomped down on my lure. I was a bit taken aback by the proximity and ferocity of the strike, but I didn’t have time to ponder it as the monster locomotived at a diagonal from me, fifty yards into the center of the river. The power of the run was awe inspiring and I worried that my light tackle may not be able to take the strain of the fight. Suddenly the fish took a hard right, blazing a trail straight at the bank and hurled itself six feet into the air. The fish crashed into the chest of a startled fisherman, knocking him out of his chair onto the rocky bank where he had set up. His rod, tackle box, gear and cooler flew in every direction and he cried out expletives in utter shock and disbelief. The fish flipped and flapped in frenzy, bouncing down the steep bank until it rolled back into the water and shot back into the depths.
Boris had joined me on the beach at this point and he screamed encouragement while he photo documented the epic battle. A few minutes later, I was straining to contain the fish’s mighty runs, when something totally surreal occurred. A twenty pound salmon, not anywhere near the fish that I had on, free-jumped up onto the beach a few feet away from me. Over my shoulder, I could see the behemoth rolling and sputtering on the sand in an effort to get back into its natural domain. After a few more slithers towards the river and it was able to dig its head into the shallows and shoot back into the fast moving water. Boris and I locked eyes and I said, “Did that just freaking happen? Ya man, I think it actually did.” he replied. Meanwhile, my struggle to subdue the fish continued.
Twenty minutes later, the fish was weaving back and forth in close proximity to where we stood on the bank. Normally big fish like that are scooped up with large, heavy-duty landing nets, but I opted to try to land it by hand on the sandy, sloping beach. I pulled it into the shallow water, stepped to the edge of the water, gripped the fish up under the gills and dragged it up on the bank. It was enormous and we were ecstatic. We took several photos of the beautiful salmon, got the hooks out and put it on a stringer. I tied the stringer to a branch and eased the fish back into the water. With I celebratory hoot, I high-fived my friend, put my glove back on my numb right hand and stomped my damp, frozen feet. I welcomed the warm burn in my bicep and shoulder as we went back to casting.
We continued fishing throughout the afternoon as local fisherman came and went around us. The next fish was caught by Boris who fought it gallantly for twenty-five minutes before landing it and adding it to our stringer. We caught and released several more large fish before I took a break to make us some hot toddies (Scotch, water, lemon and honey) on our packable Jet Boil stove. The hot liquid in our bellies was a fortification against the bitter cold of the swift-moving arctic air. To the west of us, a truly magnificent sunset was lighting up the endless grass meadow lands around us into a cacophony of glowing earth tones. The darkness that followed did not slow us down as we continued to cast, hook, catch and release trophy salmon after salmon.
Nine hours after arriving at the scene of this fantastic fishing spot in the heart of the Michigan wilderness, we decided to pack it up. Our upper bodies were stiffening and sore, we were exhausted, hungry and numb with cold, but nothing could dampen our spirits. We were warm with a glowing, natural high that only avid fisherman could understand. Our chapped lips cracked with perma-grins as we did our best to bag up the two salmon that we had decided to keep, pack up the car and head back to camp. We drove in silence as we both pondered what we had just experienced; the best day of in-shore salmon fishing that either of us was to likely experience in our lifetimes.