Fly Fishing for Carp in Lake Michigan

Want bragging rights for the perfect carp catch? Northern Lake Michigan anglers know a secretthe carp presents one of the biggest thrills you’ll ever catch on a fly rod. Carp are smart. Not only smart, but wary. Sensitive, too. They can hear a human voice 100 feet away. Carp are wily, alert and easily spooked. Check out our tips from a professional angler for a successful catch.
 
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Carp Fishing | Photo Courtesy of Todd Zawistowski/Midwest Living Magazine

Brian Pitser, owner of The Northern Angler fly fishing shop in Traverse City, has been working a fly rod for more than 40 years. Since 1996, he’s guided for trout and fishes for steelhead, bonefish, tarpon—all the esteemed game fish—from Alaska to Belize. He admires the carp, a species often considered “trash fish.” Europeans brought carp to North America in the 19th century, and the fish have been a nuisance ever since, known for rooting around the bottom of shallow waters. While many Europeans revere the fish, U.S. anglers tend to overlook carp.
 
In recent years, however, fly anglers have discovered a new appreciation for carp, especially in northern Lake Michigan. From late May to early July, carp weighing 10 to 30 pounds migrate from deep water to the shallows to spawn and feed. For those few weeks, stealthy anglers wade the shore hunting for pods of carp. Catching one on light tackle like a fly rod puts you on the business end of one of the great fishing fights on inland waters.
 
The fish gravitate to the “flats” around Grand Traverse Bay and Beaver Island, waters among America’s most scenic. Many anglers have noted how the clear water and blond sand appear Caribbean-like, and that carp behave much like bonefish, the prize game fish of Caribbean flats. Thus their nickname: “golden bones.”
 
This particular morning starts with few fish visible, so Brian starts the outboard, skimming the bay to a place that looks like others they’ve tried. But not to Brian. That’s why it helps to hire someone familiar with Grand Traverse’s 132 miles of shoreline. He leads his client out into knee-high water, scanning for fish. The water is calmer here, making every pebble visible. A hundred yards out, the sandy bottom drops off into watery depths, the open lake spreading in a sparkling blue plane to the horizon. As dozens of carp swim around, it’s time for more casts and slow retrieves. There’s a sudden, powerful pull, and a fish surges. It peels 70 feet of line off the reel in three seconds. This carp weighs about 12 pounds, smaller than average. The 20-pounders will take 100 feet or more of line before you can turn them. Eventually, Brian nets the fish, then kneels in the water to cradle it. Its overlapping scales, the size of half-dollars, gleam like polished brass. The eyes are oddly doglike. He releases the fish and watches it swim off.
 
The carp run usually hits in late May or early June. It pays to stay flexible with travel plans and keep in touch with the locals. When they say they’re seeing fish, head for the lake.
“Trash fish!” Brian says, grinning. “I don’t think so.” 
 
CARP SMART
 
Keep it legal
Most people may not think of carp as game fish, but the state does, so you need a license. The season goes year-round.
 
Gear up
Carp often top 10 pounds (state record: 61.5 pounds), so a typical trout rod probably won’t do. Ask your guide for tips.
 
Play the run
When big ones run with the hook, you need the right gear: a reel that holds 150 yards of 10-pound line and lets you quickly adjust drag.
 
Catch & release
Farm-raised carp can be tasty, but bottom-feeders caught wild are not safe to eat, even in clear Lake Michigan. Reel them in, then let them go.
 
For area information, contact Traverse City Tourism.