Visiting good friends was reason enough, but a car-ferry trip across Lake Michigan on the S.S. Badger and attractions like Sleeping Bear Dunes solidified the trip. Plus, we hadn’t been anywhere together without kids since our Yellowstone honeymoon in 2004.
It took only 5 hours to reach Manitowoc, Wisconsin, from Minneapolis—and only four hours aboard the 410-foot steamship—complete with bingo, trivia, popcorn in the free movie lounge, and a nap in a private stateroom—before we reached Ludington, Michigan. Had we driven through the U.P., our trip would’ve been nearly two hours longer each way, through Chicago, nearly three.
As with any trip, time is a precious commodity. Of course, I also planned to fish as much as possible, which meant rising early and returning before she knew I was even away.
My buddy David Rose said this wouldn’t be a problem, pointing out that the Boardman River —located right in downtown Traverse City, Michigan—provided easy access to kings, cohos, browns, steelies and lakers near minutes from the hotel.
“Spring and summer can produce fantastic walleye and smallie fishing, too. In fact, I caught my biggest walleye—just over 13 pounds—right downtown,” says Rose.
Not a lot of towns can boast that kind of multi-species fishery—within city limits, no less.
So, while my wife got familiar with our digs, Rose and I spent a couple hours bopping around town, fishing various spots on the Boardman.
“The king run is over, with exception of a few ‘Night of the Living Dead’ fish, but the steelies are starting to chew. And there are a lot of lakers up here, too, which you can legally fish in the river,” Rose says.
My second cast produced a nice laker. Within the first hour I had landed four fish and lost nearly as many. The biggest laker was about 10 pounds, although Rose says fish in the 20-pound range are possible.
The trip was off to a great start.
Dave then hooked up with a big, potentially-double-digit steelie, which jumped a good three to four feet in the air, smacking the water with an exclamation point that reverberated off concrete.
The fish fought hard and Rose worked to keep the fish from the boardwalk pylons, applying manual drag to the centerpin reel with his palm.
But it wasn’t to be. The steelie disappeared into the water below our feet, wrapping fluoro around pylons.
“Just part of the deal,” he says, unaffected. “You land one for every five you hook.”
We changed locations and I spent the next hour working on my centerpin casting.
The cool thing about centerpin reels is that they allow near dragless drifts of a float and egg sac downstream with smooth, seamless unfurling of a monofilament like Maxima or Sunline Siglon. Although built around an axel with bushings or ball bearings, they lack a mechanical drag, which means you play the fish with your palm, and often, by chasing the fish on foot.
Centerpin Gear Used
Reel – Raven Matrix Centerpin Reel
On Day Two my wife and I were given a tour of the area’s Chain O’ Lakes by David Rose. We warmed up on Lake Skegemog smallies, where I experienced another first. As we pulled tandem willow-leaf spinnerbaits over 5-10 foot sandy flats interspersed with craggy wood, landlocked Atlantic salmon swiped at blades but failed to connect.
We then motored up the turpentine-clear Torch River and toward Torch Lake. Near the south end of Torch Lake we stopped at Torch River Marina, where we met Kyle Anderson, who in 2009 caught a state record 55.13-inch, 50-pound 8-ounce muskie on Torch Lake. Since, Anderson’s fish has been trumped by a 58-pound fish from Lake Bellaire.
Here I was, with the angler who caught the fish and the photographer who took the photos.
Still, anglers question its authenticity, calling the image a Photoshop job.
“Kyle knows every fish by name and can tell you the date that he saw such and such fish. He doesn’t own a vehicle. Takes his boat to work in open-water and a snowmobile in winter. He lives on the water,” he says.
In fact, earlier that week, Anderson caught two muskies.
He filled us in on where he’d seen another fish, which we footnoted for later, and pushed off from the dock.
My wife’s face lit up as we started from the Marina up river into Torch Lake. “Look at all the salmon!”
Dozens of hefty silver specimens shifted throughout the main channel of the river as we entered the lake. Off-limits to fish in the river, but legal in the lake.
We proceeded miles up the lake to where the Clam River entered the system. We threw in-line spinners, spoons and minnowbaits.
“The Atlantics are either on or off,” says Rose.
“One of the best times to fish them is right after ice-out by long-line trolling these same areas. I’ve limited out on one trolling pass,” he explains.
After an hour or so, we turned south and spent another 45 minutes casting to Atlantics on the south shore. We could get them to turn, even chase a few feet, but that was it. And even though no landlocked salmon were boated, we (my wife especially) had a great time watching the fish in the gin-luscent waters.
Back downriver and once again in Lake Skegemog, I lobbed a giant Thunderstick, fingers crossed for a Great Lakes ‘ski.
My wife shook her head. She knew this could go on for hours—even days—if I had my way.
“When is duck hunting season?” asked my wife.
“Actually, look right over there,” Rose replied.
A portside glance revealed a hunter tucked away in cattails and brush. Then, as if scripted, a pintail flew directly over the boat. Rose shoved his fingers in ears, but no shot was fired.
We looked back to the floating blind and waved our thanks … and motored ahead.
The last day of our Traverse City trip I awoke to a 5:30 alarm. I slipped into my waders and waited in the lobby of the Fairfield Inn for Rose.
Good thing for coffee.
Bad thing about coffee; soon I was slipping off my waders.
Morning constitutional complete, I jumped into the truck with Rose and we departed for the legendary Big Manistee river.
An hour later we had descended over 300 steps and staked our claim amidst a dozen anglers already fishing the area right below Tippy Dam.
Some guys threw egg sacs on floatless bottom-bouncing gear, others eggs on split-shot dotted leaders beneath floats on spinning or centerpin gear. All fishing in a smooth choreography that allowed anglers to drift close to each other without fouled lines.
We met up with the 19-year-old river wunderkind Kyle McClelland and owner of XXL Chrome Chasing Guide Service. He had been on the river the past few days and was beginning to catch chrome after what he said was a long, epic salmon run.
A few drifts into the day and I was hooked up. I leaned back on the long St. Croix and the fish dug in. The anglers next to me began to reel in, allowing my fish to run. Then, minutes later, the fish wrapped my 8-pound fluoro leader around a boulder. Given it’s lack of acrobatics, probably a king. I reeled in and re-tied.
The three of us caught numerous brown trout amidst the occasional king. But steelhead were proving more difficult.
The hours of the clock ticked, and then a kid next to us caught his first-ever steelhead on a tiny white spoon by casting far up toward the dam. I shot a quick photo and congratulated the smiling, texting teen.
The minutes sped by as we repeated drifts, told jokes and laughed.
Soon, I knew it was 10:30 a.m. and I knew it was time to leave. The agreement with my wife was fishing in the morning, sightseeing in the afternoon.
We climbed the 300-plus stairs and stripped off waders. We drove back to Traverse City listening to Les Claypool, taking swigs off bottles of Vernon’s Ginger Ale.
Later that day, as my wife and I perused antique shops and bookstores (and a cool fly shop called The Northern Angler), I received the following text from my new friend, the young guide Kyle McClelland:
“Hey Jim, it was nice meeting you and fishing you guys! Wish they would have bit better in the morning. Right when that sun got high around 11:30 they started biting good. Ended up landing six between 11:30 and 3 pm.”
And that’s the way it goes. Precisely why I will visit the Traverse City, Michigan, area again every chance I get.
That, and good times with even better friends.
Of course, there’s also the wishful thinking of a full-on road trip around the North Shore and down into Traverse City … a 2- to 3-week bender of salmon, trout and steel, while sleeping in the back of my truck and eating out of a tin can …
A guy can dream.
Recommended Lodging And Eats