This cloudy, fertile southern Michigan lake is known (by a few) as a great place to see or maybe catch a stocked musky. Bass and Channel cats vary in size as year classes cycle in and out, some years have produced big bass or channel cats. It has tons of carp, small bluegills and small crappie.
Opening day Musky trips have always been futile for me, typically 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.
Using plug casting tackle to cover lots of water, I had on a 5/0, #7 Gold Colorado blade, 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 cover.
I saw no fish in a shallow north facing bay. In a very shallow east facing cove of that north bay. 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, inches deep along the marsh edges. It was darker water and warmer here, some weed clumps growing upwards.
20 fruitless cast later, I had covered half of it. Something heavy ate the spinner bait as it slow rolled along, flashing 3 inches under the surface. The big fish 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, Bowfin!!, a good sized one. Two cast later another one hits and also 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. If you catch about 100 bass, 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. Their teeth will 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 don't inhale a fly deeply, but bite down ON the fly so 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 some catfish species do.
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, I must have hooked 4 bowfin at least briefly for each of the two I landed. If I missed a hit very close to the kayak I got the lure back into the water quicklyoften getting a second chance. 6 feet from the kayak, 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 top water flies.
Outside that little back pond, I got an 18 inch bass in water I had fished on the way in. I found more bass further back in 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, 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 tried other lures and fly rod Musky poppers before going back to the SpinnerBait.
When I got back to the bowfin pond a 4/0 diving musky popper would occasioonally get hit while retrieved in diving mode. I couldn't hold any of them. Nothing would hit the popper on top. Small flies caught some small bass. There were now a lot of bass that would hit the diving popper but not on the surface. I put the sinner bait back on and the bass and bowfin were all over it. I got small to medium bass and hooked a bunch of Bowfin, landing 2 more of them. I hooked one male showing 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.
My poppers 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 they draw fish up from deeper water or draw fish from further away in muddier water. In years past, a quiet Foam Diver caught most of the Bowfin that I got on the surface of those shallow Saginaw bay tributaries.