Southern Michigan Musky Spot; This cloudy, fertile southern Michigan lake is known (by a few) as a great place to see or maybe catch a stocked musky. Other species vary as year classes cycle in and out, some years produce reliable catches of big bass or channel cats. It has tons of carp, small bluegills and small crappie.
Opening day Musky excursions have always been futile for me. No fish of any kind to be found. Spring sunshine and wind can pile up warm water on the north (South facing) side of a lake where the food chain is primed to explode. This can apply to February Pike or May Bass. I was using plug casting tackle to cover lots of water, maybe fish deep, trying find some fish. I settled on a 5/0, #7 Gold Colorado blade Thumping, black spinnerbait with a long worm trailer. Even slow rolling the big thumping blade, It would pull back enough to move the kayak along as I cast to shoreline drop offs or counted it down when casting to deeper water.
The water was not muddy as usual, I could see 4 feet down, no fish. I fished down the north shore, through the inlet channel to a huge, shallow backwater bay, which has a north bay. Nothing alive anywhere, I was hopeful entering a very shallow east facing cove of that north bay. The west wind and morning sun would warm it up a bit. The frogs were singing here. Something grabbed the extra long tail of my Spinner Bait. A fish too small to see as I slow rolled the #7 flashing gold blade along 3 inches under the surface. Painted Turtles were just now climbing out to get some sun, their backs wet and shiny black. The Great Blue Herons were perched in overhanging branches or standing in the shallows, waiting, watching hopefully.There was a 3 foot wide old beaver ditch going back through the bare trees to a half acre of open water. It was shallow in there, 18 inches in the center mostly a foot deep, inches deep along the marsh edges. It was darker water and warmer here, some lily pads were up, other weed clumps growing upwards. I was hopeful of catching one or two of that class of 8 inch bass that were so plentiful last year. 20 fruitless cast later, I had thoroughly cover have half of it. Something heavy ate the spinner bait as it flashed along 3 inches under the surface. It fought stubbornly, giving no ground to my obscenely strong tackle. The kayak surged forward. The fish rolled. Black backed and grey steely sides, is that a Channel Cat? No, I know this fish. Bowfin!!, a good sized one. Two cast later another one hits, gets off quickly. Another hits and misses 3 feet from the rod tip, I attempt a clumsy figure 8 and briefly hooked him.
I have caught Bowfin in the shallow tributaries to Saginaw Bay. They hit the Purple EstazBunny Leach that I used there for Largemouth, Pike and Walleye while catching an occasional Channel Cat or Sheephead. My strategy for Bowfin water is to catch 100 bass and you will get a Bowfin along the way. When I learned how to get the bass on surface flies, the Bowfin were game for that. Bowfin are great game fish, bigger than bass, they fight hard and hit on the surface. I remember being desperate to get a picture of one but they were always getting off while I tried to corral them at the shore. I resorted to trying to lip one, a bloody bad idea I know, they have teeth that will easily slice up your thumb. You do not need a bite leader as their teeth do not cut your line like Pike or Musky will. They are frequently hard to hook when they hit, and when you do hook one, they get of easily. They never inhale a fly deeply, they always bite down ON the fly and you lip hook them in their bony jaw with soft membranes that tear easily. Bowfin are much under appreciated and much abused. It is legal to spear them without limit. An ancient fish, they are everywhere, never having been stocked anywhere. The males guard their young similar to what male largemouth and many catfish species do. Old timers will tell you small ones make the toughest bait, an inch of water in a coffee can will keep one alive. This is now your "pet Bowfin". You can take him fishing, maybe catch 4 or 5 Pike, bring him home and give him a week to recover and take him out next weekend. When you do meet a Bowfin in the wild, it may be lurking invisibly in a foot or 2 of water or swimming near the surface in clear water or snooping along the shore in inches of water unconcerned about your presence a few feet away. Once I came upon one and I dabbed a rabbit leach in front of its nose. It looked at the fly with a little interest in but didn't eat. It looked back at me with that Bowfin attitude as if to say, "I've been here 250 million years. What the fuck are you."
In the few minutes it took me to land and photograph that first Bowfin and get back in the water everything had changed. I was getting hit every couple of casts, There were hungry bowfin in the water I had just thoroughly fished through minutes ago. I managed to land a second big bowfin and a surprise 12 inch bass, I must have hooked 4 bowfin at least briefly for each of the two I landed. When you miss a hit very close to the kayak you should get the lure back into the water quickly to get a second chance. Another bowfin hit the Spinner bait about 4 feet from the rod tip. In the steely black water, an invisible steely black bowfin opened his bright white mouth and bit down on the spinner bait. I towed him over to the side of the beaver channel for his picture. I left before the bites stopped, planning to come back later with the fly rod and small musky poppers or whatever might work. It would be a blast to get these big fish on small walk the dog, top water Musky lures.
Outside that little back pond, I got an 18 inch bass in water I had fished on the way in. I didn't find any more fish until I got much further back into the main lobe of the big shallow backwater. There I met a couple with their preschool girl. They were anchored and spin casting 2 inch poppers and working them back quickly. The little girl was talking up a storm. She would hook the weed slop that was everywhere here, her parents would tell her "Oh reel it in you got one." She would shout "Its a Musky" I got a bigger bass in a pocket back in the green slime slop across the channel from them. I thought they would be impressed but they had just landed and were taking the picture of a bass clearly over 20 inches, It was the biggest, or one of the biggest bass I have ever seen in the lake. I asked them if they had seen any Musky, The Mom had hooked one on a small surface lure and it got off.
I moved on past them and tried other lures and fly rod Musky poppers before going back to the SpinnerBait. They were getting hit by small-medium or larger bass but mostly only the small and medium ones got hooked.
When I got back to the bowfin pond a 4/0 diving musky popper would only get hit while retrieved in diving mode. I couldn't hold any of them. Nothing would hit the popper on top. I tried a small flies that caught some small bass. There were now a lot of bass that would hit the popper but not on the surface. I cut some foam off the popper to better keep it under the surface but nothing was working well. I put the sinner bait back on and the bass and bowfin were all over it. I landed a bunch of small to medium bass hooked a bunch of Bowfin, landed only 2 more of them. I hooked one male that was starting to show his chartreuse belly spawning colors. I really wanted his picture. He first hit inches from the rod tip. I dangled the lure back into the water and he hit again, I got him enough out of the water to see his colors, before the hook came loose.
I learned something about my beloved poppers today. They don't work well in extremely shallow water when there is no nearby deeper water to allow the fish to feel secure. I love them because I am confident they will draw fish up from deeper water or draw fish from further away in muddier water. I originally used a simple, quiet Foam Diver before I switched to my Popping Wedge diver. It was the quiet diver that I used to catch most of the Bowfin that I got on the surface.
Hypothetically speculating: the quite Sneaky Pete type non popper or a quiet Foam Diver or barely floating, barely diving leach fly could have produced spectacular results yesterday. In reality that weed cover is exploding this time of year and a week later, only a Rubber Frog fished on top of the weed mat will work. Todd Schotts has a Weedless Frog Fly for that. My Hook Up, Bass Choker Popper will work for that.