Enjoy Your Experience on the Water
And Be Ready To Be Surprised
Among the many joys derived from fishing, the most durable are the unexpected incidents and encounters one has from just being out on a body of water. Some of the most memorable have nothing to do with actually catching fish. It is sort of like angling divining, an act of discovery of things that you could not have envisaged or even anticipated. All persons who spend time in the outdoors hiking, hunting or cycling, know the experience of startling a fawn at the edge of the woods, spotting a bald eagle swooping from a high perch, or coming upon a vista where the sun, sky and landscape, for just that moment, come together to create a panorama that no artist could ever adequately capture as well as the palette in your mind can. It is the reason we spend time in the natural world, just to be there when the magic happens. However, being on the water brings a whole cavalcade of additional possibilities to entertain and thrill.
The waters around Baileys Harbor and Door County offer many unique opportunities for just such experiences. It starts with the water itself. Each time I roll down Bluff Road, boat in tow, and get that first glimpse of the waters of the lake, I am almost always surprised. Sometimes I am greeted by the most tranquil aquamarine surface reminding me of the waters of a glacial mountain lake. Other times the dappled wavelets sparkle in the sunlight creating a layer of diamonds. Often, the surface is dark and angry with creamy wavetops spewing foam with the wind. At those times I usually return home for another cup of coffee or head over to the bayside. If it is an early morning outing, I am greeted by an azure sky as I pull into the marina with the first rays of sunlight growing in the eastern horizon. Seeing the sunrise over Lake Michigan is one of the prime motivators to get up at such a ridiculously early hour. That and the prospect of a good salmon bite. A late afternoon outing offers the same salmon potential along with some spectacular sunsets. I know those communities on the bayside like to boast about the sunsets over Green Bay, but there are sunsets on this side of the peninsula as well. You just have to be in a good spot to enjoy them and I know of no better place than a few miles out on the lake.
As I leave the marina I might ponder the maritime history of Baileys Harbor as I pass before the Baileys Harbor Range Lights and cruise by the aging Olde Baileys Harbor Lighthouse with its “birdcage” just topping the surrounding trees. Once out on the lake, I can see other anglers’ boats on the horizon, lines set and searching for fish. I am seldom the first boat out. Early in the season I may be able to watch a Coast Guard cutter at station near the mouth of the harbor setting the buoys for the season. As the shipping season gets into full swing you can spot bulk carriers plying the offshore waters. 1000-footers like the Burns Harbor or the James Barker are familiar profiles on the horizon. Other, more modest boats such as the cement hauler Alpena or the storied Arthur M. Anderson are frequent passers-by. The Anderson is accorded respect on the lake for being the companion boat to the Edmund Fitzgerald on its final voyage. The Anderson’s captain and crew braved towering waves, risking their lives to make a last desperate search for the Fitz. I am able to identify any boats I might see by using the app “Marine Traffic”. This uses the AIS transponder on each vessel to locate each boat’s position and past track. The app also provides speed and destination information along with the length and tonnage of each vessel.
As the Fall season approaches and the waters cool, the whitefish nets start popping up at the mouth of Baileys Harbor up to Rowleys Bay. For much of the summer the commercial companies set their nets on the bayside, but as the whitefish start to move to their lakeside spawning areas, the nets are positioned to intercept them. Anglers and other boaters need to be alert as the nets are moved during the season and although they are usually well marked, it is easy to unexpectedly come upon a net set in the waning light or when you are focused on watching your sonar. Occasionally you can witness the “lifting” operations as the nets are emptied and boxes are filled with whitefish. Clouds of seabirds surround the fishing boats on the trip home.
Spotting seabirds is not only an interesting ornithological activity, it may even improve your fishing odds. A group of seagulls bobbing in the water ten miles from shore are there for a reason. They are often feeding on a school of baitfish or other marine life. The birds will occasionally lead you to a pod of baitfish and perhaps steelhead and salmon preying on them as well. Darting terns, endless lines of double-breasted cormorants, and white pelicans falling out of the sky to scoop up fish are all exceptional sights while trolling on the lake.
Upon returning to the harbor after a successful (or not) evening sortie, we pass the bell buoy three miles from the marina entrance positioned between the red nun buoy to starboard and the green can buoy to port. Fixing my gaze to the northeast, I can see the piercing light of the Cana Island Lighthouse standing sentinel just as it has for over 150 years. Looking toward the harbor I catch the red and green lights of the range lights. If I keep the white light of the upper range light positioned directly over the red light of the lower range light, I know I will be tracking directly down the center of the bay. Yea, I have GPS and all that, but it is still a thrill to be coming home on the same navigation aids that sailors have been using for a century and a half. I always feel privileged.
Why did I out go on the lake? Oh, yea, to catch fish. But I got so much more.
This past week I had three outings, each of which provided its own surprises. Monday, with the wind blowing from the northwest, I decided to try my luck for some smallmouth bass near Baileys Harbor. Casting around the Baileys Harbor Yacht Club marina I did manage to boat several smallies including a feisty 17-incher. The big surprise came when I sent my plastic worm towards one of the piers. As soon as the lure hit the water, it was immediately attacked by something that was definitely not a bass. I was battling a nice sized northern pike with my light bass rod. Typically, such encounters end with my line being cut by sharp teeth and the Esox Lucius swimming away with my bait in its mouth. I was delighted this time when I finally lifted a 30-inch pike into the boat.
Later the same day, Paul and I decided to explore a few of the weed beds in the lakeside bays to see if we could find some more active northerns. Unfortunately, I did not bother to check my RADAR app for heading out and we were caught in a short, but intense, rain squall. We both got pretty wet but waited it out knowing our discomfort would be temporary. Upon the rain abating and the sun’s return, we were treated to a spectacular color display as a double rainbow arched over the Lake Michigan horizon. We stopped casting and enjoyed the show. We did not catch a single pike, but it was a fishing trip that will be etched in our memory.
Speaking of rainbows, the final watery surprise of the week came when the wind finally let up later in the week and we were able to get out on the open lake. The salmon bite has been good as our recent catches attested, including a 22-pounder during the KD Tournament. However, the bite has cooled down some in the last couple of weeks. We started fishing out fairly deep hoping to catch some steelhead early in the evening and then move in a bit shallower to target a King or two. After an hour or so of fruitless trolling, we steered the boat toward some feeding seagulls and shortly got a hit on a purple spoon behind a Dipsey Diver in about 300FOW. We lost that fish, but it was the start of a surprising flurry. For the next couple hours, we proceeded to hook up with seven other fish, all rainbow trout. The astonishing aspect of the action was that caught all the fish in a surface area about 1000 yards square. Each time we turned the boat around and passed through this piece of the lake we got a hit. Unfortunately, we only boated four of the eight fish we contacted (“Four for eight” in trollers parlance), but the action was exciting and kept us hopping into the evening. All this with the setting sun providing a background canvas in the western sky.
So, I’m going fish today. Hopefully tomorrow and the next day as well. Each time my ostensive goal will be to catch fish; bass, salmon, trout, pike, walleyes, gobies, whatever. However, the real excitement is the anticipation of that unexpected surprise that will make the trip well worth it, fish or not.
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