Long fights, tired arms, beautiful views, smiles, and cheers! This was why we made the trip. The scales and pink flesh were only icing on this wavy, blue cake. My oldest daughter gained bragging rights after landing a 25-pound plus king that would be the biggest of the day.
Our Captain demonstrating the proper way to pose with the biggest salmon of the day.
To celebrate the day my mother delivered me to this world, my family decided to take a short vacation to South Haven, MI for some sand and water therapy. Being the enthusiastic hunter/fisher I am, immediately my thoughts turned to one of our nations most valued aquatic resources better known as the Great Lakes. Specifically, in this case, Lake Michigan.
Spending most of my fishing life using light spinning gear, hitting the big water has always been a novelty. Having had the chance to set sail on Lake Huron and once previously out of Leland, MI, whenever possible I make arrangements to try my luck on much larger freshwater fish than I'm accustomed to. This quick vacation gave me just the opportunity I needed to sneak in some salt and shark free Great Lake fishing.
Always wanting to involve my kids with my outdoor pursuits I searched for a charter that could handle a crew of two adults and three kids. As a usual do-it-yourselfer there are certain situations in which a guide, or in this case captain, just makes sense. Owning a boat large enough to handle a body of water as vast as Lake Michigan has never really been on my radar of things I plan to purchase and maintain. The cost of all of my current fishing gear is probably equal to or less than the cost of one rod/reel combo used during a charter trip. Just to put things into perspective, at one point during this particular adventure while I was assisting my daughter bringing in a fish, the captain was maneuvering poles to free up the back of the boat. He asked if I had an extra hand to take one of the poles and move it under my daughter’s line. Thinking he was talking to her she reached out to take his pole. Fortunately, I had a hand on her rod as the captain informed her to keep a tight hold as it was a $1,000 setup. He easily had over twenty rod and reel sets on board. Needless to say, shelling out a little dough for a certified Captain and all the needed gear is small in comparison to the DIY option. The other fact is I have no business driving a boat (especially with my most prized possessions on board) on a lake that can be as tricky as Lake Michigan.
After some research and phone calls I landed on It Il Do Charters as my vessel for this particular cruise. I actually tried to go out last year with them but 7’ seas kept us on dry land. My family would be meeting Captain Jim Bard at 6:00 a.m. at his dock along the Black River. Lucky for us, the It Il Do was within walking distance of our cottage saving us the hassle of finding parking.
Arriving only 10 minutes late with three kids under 12 and my wife who only decided she was going 10 minutes prior, I felt like I had scored a moral victory. Captain Jim and his first mate Dennis had everything ready to go and the boat al-ready warmed up. Rods protruded in every direction from any surface a rod holder could be attached. The smell of twin Chevy big blocks burning a bit rich welcomed us to the dock. The Captain offered a helping hand getting everyone loaded onto the stern along with drinks and snacks. Peering into the cabin the only thing visible was fishing lures. Lots of fishing lures.
The key to a great fishing excursion is clearly evident in this photo. Fun and smiles make for the most memorable trips.
Appearing shy about conquering the seas, each family member grabbed a seat on the 33’ Tiara Flybridge preparing for the idle down river. The crew was a bit groggy and I’m not speaking about the Captain and First Mate. Thinking they would perk up during the brisk ride out I held on to my youngest to shield him from the cool morning lake air. We passed the lighthouse and Captain Jim hit the throttle. He had been scouting so he had a pretty good idea where he wanted to start the hunt. Targeting approx. 120’ of water we motored past most of the boats already out. Taking notice, the Captain said he thought they were fishing too shallow based on his recent observations.
If you’ve never been on a big water fishing trip it’s quite an orchestrated effort by the official crew during the initial set up. Dropping downriggers from the rear, setting the Dipsy divers off the sides, and getting planer boards going off the upper rod holders. Tying dual spoons, flashers, and meat rigs to cover the full gamut of offerings to find out what the fish like that day. Working with little discussion, depths were set based off the fish finder data and line was peeled off in a calculated manner ensuring even spacing of the planar boards to avoid any tangles. It was evident the two had done this before and it wasn’t particularly long before the Captain was back in his elevated perch intently watching the fish finder.
The kid’s moods were not improving as we trolled along anticipating our first bite. I knew I was in trouble when the first fish hit and no one but me jumped up. Attempting to coax my youngest into taking the rod he was having nothing to do with it and we missed our first attempt. Expecting more bites I took the proactive approach to trying to recruit someone to reel in the next one. With no takers I was forced to man up and take the rod a short time later successfully bringing in our first fish of the day. A respectable king salmon put us on the board. Due to the excitement of getting a fish on the deck I was able to convince my oldest to work the next fish. With a little coaching from the Captain and some encouragement from her dad another nice king joined the party.
Following our morning out my family took a moment to admire the variety of our catch. We completed the day with king salmon, one coho salmon, a couple steelhead, and a decent lake trout. Only a brown trout kept us from completing the summer slam.
Then the rain started. What were almost smiles turned to cold and wet frowns. My son decided he wanted to hang over the side of the boat dry heaving and my daughter took my sweatshirt. This was not going as planned and I almost hit the panic button. Lucky for me my supportive wife chimed in and said “We paid for this trip, we’re gonna fish! Time to suck it up.” I gleamed with a touch of pride and felt more confident about continuing the excursion. As if a gift from God, the fishing turned white hot. Just when I was about to toss in the towel the fun started and the fish were biting. Both daughters were now taking turns reeling in fish. My wife and I were swapping back and forth between keeping my son from going over the edge head first while he tried to empty his stomach contents and bringing in some chrome beauties. Captain Jim jumped on the horn to let the rest of the fleet know where the fish were and that they were too shallow. “Come on out to the fun zone and put on something with some orange in it,” he exclaimed.
Observing, I started to realize that if a bite occurred on a downrigger, the pole would actually snap up briefly then hammer back down. This was the result of the fish taking the lure and the line releasing from the weight. The newly created slack would take most of the load off the rod until the fish decides it has plans to retreat with its new found artificial meal. Then the fight begins. I have to admit I never really did master identifying a bite on the poles with planer boards. Try as I might I had to simply rely on the first mate or captain to point out when a fish was on. The rods seemed be in a constant mode of flux always bouncing fore and aft. When a fish finally hit a meat rig on the Dipsy diver out the back it was pretty evident with my wife and I both instantly calling out as a rod doubled over.
Spoons were the preferred lure as well as a derivation called the Coyote. The Coyote is similar to a traditional spoon but with a slimmer body, single hook, and an additional blade attached at the toe of the spoon. The most unique and one of my favorite aspects was the names of the colors of lures. I admittedly can’t remember all that we used but with a little research I found names such as Whacked Bubblegum, Super Dave, Purple Martian, Potato Farmer, Red Headed Stepchild, the list goes on. I’d like to think that the guy that gets to name the patterns might truly be “living the dream”!
At peak excitement levels all but my youngest had finally started to have a good time. Fish were entering the boat at a pretty good clip and the damp chill had worn off. This was what I had came for. Of course, I looked forward to freshly smoked salmon but most importantly the Great Lake experience was taking place with my family. Long fights, tired arms, beautiful views, smiles, and cheers! This was why we made the trip. The scales and pink flesh were only icing on this wavy, blue cake. My oldest daughter gained bragging rights after landing a 25-pound plus king that would be the biggest of the day. A steelhead and lake trout rounded out our catch thus far. Unfortunately, regardless of the color, depth, speed, or location eventually the bite started to wind down. My son had been a trooper but it was time to let him off the hook and get him back to dry land. Letting Captain Jim know it was time, he aimed the boat toward the visible light house but decided to leave the rigs out for most of the ride in. Turns out this was a great decision. That’s why he’s Captain.
As everyone began to lighten up a bit knowing they would be off the water soon the Captain noticed a fish on one of the rods. Leaping into action my daughter began reeling. Realizing this was not the monster she had previously wrangled there was an initial dip in jubilation until we were able to identify the fish on the other end. Turns out it was a nice little coho to round out our haul for the day. Captain Jim was super excited explaining to us that in other parts of the world this little guy would be turned into high priced sashimi and considered a delicacy. Thinking I would treat myself to this newfound savory culinary media, he was quick to inform me that most of the raw fish eaten comes from the ocean rather than fresh water. The salt tends to minimize the potential for harmful bacteria. Adhering to his warning I opted to save it for a later date.
Other than the chance to spend a morning on Lake Michigan with my family, this gem of a steelhead was the highlight of my day. It was a long way out when hooked and it put on quite the aerial acrobatic show on its way in!
Thinking this was our last hurrah the crew starting bringing the rigs in for the last leg into port. As I had started to relax and cradle my finally coming back to the living son, First Mate Dennis yelled “fish on!” Something had hit the bait on the retrieve. Knowing I was on my own this time I didn’t even ask if someone else wanted this one. Springing into action I knew I had something special on the end this time. As line began getting spooled off rather than in, the captain shouted, “Steelhead…and a nice one!” For the first time I could see the fish leaping into the air several hundred yards behind the boat. Initially I had looked directly behind the boat but eventually cast my view further back. He put on quite a show for us to cap off the morning. Surprised at the remaining task at hand and burning forearms from all the days previous reeling I hunkered down and fought this one in. Due to the nature of steelhead and the size of this fish some finesse was need get it into the boat. This wasn’t a just a case of straight reel it in which really added to the fun of the day. Putting my hands on this beast was a treat. I’d landed several steel head in my day from the MI rivers but never one of this beauty and size.
Once back on the river heading to dock everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Even my son. He now couldn’t stop talking and was mesmerized by the size of the fish in the cooler. I suppose in the end it worked out and will be an experience we talk and laugh about as a family for years to come. Captain Jim made short work of the filleting process and before long I had a cooler packed with a year’s worth of top tier fish meat. The heavy cooler made for a slow trip back to the cottage but after smoking my first filet I’d carry that same load ten times over again for just a taste. If you’re around the Great Lakes anywhere from late Spring to early Fall and you’ve never hit the bit water I would highly recommend giving it a try. Grab the family (hopefully they don’t get sea sick like mine did) or even a group of friends to help split costs and give it a go. You’ll have a new experience under your belt, exercise your smile, and make lasting memories. Oh, and if lady luck is on your side you’ll have a freezer full to make any seafood aficionado jealous!
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