I slung my pack up on my back, listening to the ferry chug off towards the mainland. It’s just a bit of a surreal feeling, knowing your connection to civilization is gone. I felt excited about adventure on the one hand, and on the other, I couldn’t help but feel like I was Robinson Crusoe, marooned on a distant shore.
The Ultimate Adventure: North Manitou Island
North Manitou Island is 10 miles off of Michigan’s coast, across waters in the Manitou Passage that are more often angry than not. I’m here with my best buddy Adam, ready to hike our way into the backcountry for some of the most amazing fishing we’ve ever experienced. 3 years earlier, we discovered there was a bit of treasure on this island.
About 8,000 paces west (that’s 4 miles for those who haven’t been on a treasure hunt in a while) towards the interior of the island is the beautiful Lake Manitou. Sparkling like a chest of gems waiting to be discovered. The plan is to stay 4 nights out in the wild, with 2 of them spent at Lake Manitou.
The forest grew thick and dark as we made our way into the interior of the island. The buzz of mosquitos reminded me of a plane taxiing down a runway. With a 40 pound Mountain Alps pack on my back, I was beginning to get worn down at about mile 2. We abandoned the main trail after 2.5 miles and went into thicker woods.
It was entertaining to follow behind Adam and watch his blue Abu Garcia bass rod, tethered to the side of his pack, catch on one twig after another. He looked like a radioman from that old sitcom MASH, catching his antenna. I couldn’t resist taunting him by singing “Limbo Rock” as he did the limbo under brand after branch.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
North Manitou Island is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (Lake Michigan). While a park ranger lives on the island part of the year, it is otherwise uninhabited. At over 22,000 square miles there are thick forests, tall dunes, and stretches of shoreline that rival the best beaches in the world.
As we emerged from a canopy of old-growth White pines, Lake Manitou finally came into view. Crystal clear and surrounded by forest, its waters transport you to the pristine lakes of northern Minnesota and Canada. Sometimes there are beautiful places that can’t be reached by cars, or ATVs. To see and experience them you have to hike and be willing to go further out, even when it gets tough. The payoff is always worth it. Lake Manitou is one of those places.
Setting Up Camp & Fishing On North Manitou Island
Meandering up the shore another half mile we came upon a grove of Hemlock. The tall slender trunks were perfect to hang our hammocks and make camp right on the water’s edge. But first, fishing.
The August temps were hitting the low 80’s, and we decided to change into our bathing suits and cool off while we cast. Wading out to about knee level I tried a Pumpkin Seed colored tube worm first. Chompers are my favorite brand. I’ve had a lot of luck with the Watermelon Seed Salty Sinker as well.
I tossed out towards a patty of wild rice. Manoomin is a species of rice grass in the Great Lakes area that grows in shallow, quiet waters. Here there are small patches of rice with about 30 yards of deeper waters between them. On our last trip, we found that landing a bait on the edge of the rice and letting it sink for 3 to 4 seconds into the deep, before reeling, is irresistible to these Smallmouth Bass. The task now is discovering what bait to throw.
Figuring Out What Bait To Throw - Trusty Football Jig
Adam and I are both tall guys, at 6’5″ and 6’2″, so when the bass wasn’t grabbing we waded out to chest level for better access to our target area. Still nothing. Switching through all my favorite bass options I went through colored tubes, then craw jigs, and finally the trusty football jig.
I cast that sucker as far as I could between the reeds, pulling a bit of extra line out as the bait fell. This bomb and drag approach involves letting the bait sit on the bottom for a couple of seconds, then reeling up the slack. When the line is taught I quickly sweep my rod up from the 6 o’clock to the 12 o’clock position to make that bait jump off the bottom like the opening kickoff at the Lions game. (I live a sad existence and have been a Lions fan my whole life.)
My pole then goes back to 6 o’clock and I repeat until I catch the biggest fish I’ve ever seen. At least that was the plan. Smallmouth usually attack when the bait just begins to rise. We started about 4 pm, and it is past 6 pm now with no action at all. After all that excitement, and a long trek, frustration that we might be denied a catch was starting to creep in.
When you’re looking for treasure, it’s always worth it to keep going. It was no different here. We decided to stick it out, now wading out to our armpits to give us the ability to cast further from shore. I was out of bait options. When you backpack into your fishing spot you tend not to bring your whole tackle box. Adam had another suggestion. He tossed me a white fluke, I dropped it, but then fished it off the bottom of the lake bed.
The angle of the sun showed we had just a few hours of daylight left. The colors of the sky changed from bright blues to greys and pinks. Across the lake a loon chased a fish, diving under every so often only to emerge here and there to dive under again. Must be he finally caught his prey. He floated and called an eerie, wavering call as he soaked in the beauty around him.
Finally, The Fishing Treasure We Have Been Waiting For
Rigged with our last option we pinpointed the locations on the edge of the rice once again and let those flukes fly. They were simple, shaped like a minnow, and solid in color. Could it be that easy tonight? The fluke hit the water, dropped for 2 seconds, and on the first turn of my reel lightning struck.
The tip of the pole bowed its head thankfully, I sank the hook and watched the show. A jump, a splash, line pulling left then right, all the way to my knees. Grabbing the line just above this guy’s mouth I carefully pulled him out of the water only to hear Adam yell, “Got one!” He reeled in quickly, and when his fish neared him I already had another. It was a cadence of success. Back and forth in a perfect wilderness rhythm, we landed fish after fish. With Smallmouth ranging in size from 14″ to 22″, and over 40 catches that evening, I’d have to say we finally found the X that marks the spot.
North Manitou Island fishing regulations state that a Smallmouth must be 18″ to keep, and there is a limit of one per day. The truth is we weren’t really out there for keeping, and eating. The treasure here is found in the beauty and excitement of this place. Backpacking and fishing North Manitou Island has gone down as a legendary experience for us, and hopefully, someday it will for you also.