ON LAKE MICHIGAN – The chance we would catch fish standing in this Great Lake might have seemed slim to the casual observer. We, however, were quite hopeful. These were carp we were seeking, big ones, and on good days they maraud the shallow waters off Door County, the very waters we inhabited, with their pouty noses glommed to the bottom, looking for food.
Bobby McGraw stood a long cast from me, a picture of intensity beneath a sun visor, his fly rod cradled in his right hand like a six-gun. He’s a caster and he really want to loop some line into the air. He’s picked off carp here before, as has his grandfather, Bob Nasby, who watched over his own stretch of the big lake not far away, eyes peeled.
Poor man’s bonefishing is what this was. The Bahamas without the sand beaches. Also no Bob Marley, swaying palms, atolls, jerk chicken, skiffs on the morning tide or mojitos in tall glasses.
The bummer right now: no sun, either.
We needed the sun.
All this was a few days ago, and Bob, Bobby and I had watched the weather forecast intently in the run-up to our trip from the Twin Cities. Sun and south winds were what we wanted ... needed, actually. Carp won’t swim onto Door County’s watery flats in a north wind. And without sufficient sun, we wouldn’t be able to distinguish their depth-charge-like silhouettes as they slithered against the light-colored lake bottom.
“Three days straight, sun and south wind, five to seven miles an hour,” Bob had advised during our drive from the Twin Cities the night before. “That’s the forecast.”
Now here we were, midmorning, surrounded by water, no one else in sight.
Ahead, only blue, to the horizon and beyond.
But the sky hung low and steel-gray. And the wind was from the south. But it wasn’t 5 to 7. More like 15 to 17.
“I’m having trouble seeing,” I yelled to Bobby. “The weatherman’s a liar.”
“I can’t see at all,” Bobby said.
Along the shore, zebra and quagga mussel shells drifted like snow. Deep enough to be shoveled, the casings nearest the lake ebbed and flowed, caught up in waves that collapsed, remade themselves and collapsed again.
In time, Bobby and I met up with Bob. Each of us had waist packs, and in them, peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Tucking our rods beneath our arms, we ate the sandwiches and considered our predicament.
In the distance, the lake rose up in whitecaps.
“We can live with the wind,” Bob said.
“Not the clouds,” Bobby said.
Standing for hours in Lake Michigan can be a refrigerating experience, even in summer, and we wore waders and warm fleece jackets.
Bob hoped for a weather change, and looked northwest.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said.
I didn’t think so, either, and I stepped off in the direction of the beachhead where we had left my truck.
Then, peeling line from my reel, I false cast once, before torquing a blind cast to no location in particular; a shot in the dark.
There were no takers.
“Let’s go catch some salmon,” I said.
• • •
At 4:30 the next morning, we found Capt. Mike Rathsack and his first mate, Kurt Johnson, ready to cast off. The night before, Bob, Bobby and I had driven from Door County, Wis., south along the lake to Two Rivers, Wis., and soon, in the darkness, we felt the lake’s chilled breezes as Rathsack throttled up, the lights of Two Rivers diminishing in our wake.
In the 1980s, Lake Michigan, particularly the area in and near Two Rivers, was the destination of choice for Minnesota anglers. Chinook salmon were the primary reason: They were big — 10 to 20 pounds, commonly — and plentiful.
As were other species, including lake, brown and rainbow trout.
Then a sad thing happened: The number of salmon in Lake Michigan, boosted by continual stocking, rose and rose some more, before, finally, exceeding the number of available prey fish.
Disease followed among the chinooks, and following that, a downturn of the fishery.
Suddenly, many of those big-water boats Minnesotans had purchased and outfitted with downriggers sat idle, and many soon were for sale.
Adding to the lake’s problems, the introduction of exotic species, particularly quagga and zebra mussels, further crippled the number of Lake Michigan’s smaller fish, especially the alewife.
Consequently, what once was a really, really booming charter-boat business along the Lake Michigan lakeshores of Wisconsin and Michigan is now just a booming business.
A charter operator for more than 20 years, Rathsack has seen it all, and on this morning, he and Johnson spared no effort to find fish, running multiple lines through the entire water column, bottom to top, as we trolled first in about 40 feet of water, then much deeper.
“Each angler is allowed three lines,” said Johnson, a headlamp illuminating his work in the still-dark of early morning.
This wouldn’t be a great morning by current Lake Michigan catch standards. But it was a good morning. We returned to the dock about 9:30 a.m. with four fish: two chinooks and two rainbow trout.
“On a real good half-day charter we’ll come in with 10 fish,” Johnson said.
As he spoke on a dockside table, he drew a fillet knife to our catch, joining a half-dozen or so other anglers who cleaned their trout and salmon nearby.
Meanwhile, rows and rows of RVs were encamped a stone’s throw away, many owned by Minnesotans who were pleased enough with the fish they had brought to port that morning.
Even though none was a carp.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org