ELK RAPIDS — The key to fishing Grand Traverse Bay, Jim Chamberlin says, is playing the wind.
“It’s all about utilizing the right boat ramp to keep your boat on the upwind side,” he said.
We had a perfect day to illustrate that point. The treetops were boogying to the northeast wind, but by tucking into the northeast side, we were able to fish the calmest water on East Bay that afternoon.
“There are fish all over the bay,” said Chamberlin, a 40-year-old charter boat skipper (www.fishwithjimoutfitters.com). “It’s about protection.
“On the open lake there are days when you can’t go, especially for guys with 16- to 20-foot boats,” said Chamberlin, who fishes from an 18-foot StarCraft. “You can always find someplace to fish on the bay.”
I’d met up with Chamberlin and angler Richard Sutton for a five-hour trip toward the end of September. After a short run from the launch ramp, Chamberlin set lines in 100 feet of water — a couple of downriggers, a couple of wire-diver rigs, and a pair of lead-core lines. And it wasn’t too much longer before the first rod went off.
It was a 15-color (150 yards) lead core rig — which, by rule of thumb, means we were fishing it about 75 feet down, though there are any number of factors (speed of troll, currents, etc.) that could have varied the depth — dragging a Spin Doctor and fly. Turned out it was a cisco (or, if you prefer, a lake herring).
“They’re just starting as we get into fall,” said Chamberlin, who catches a lot of them. “They’re a good fish.”
Indeed, ciscoes, a type of whitefish, are spirited fighters — they gyrate like saddle broncs — and I personally do not know of a better table fish. They are excellent fried, broiled or smoked, but they do not freeze well.
“Ciscoes have turned into a pretty big thing for me,” says Chamberlin, who depends on them to pick up the slack after lake trout season closes on the bay Oct. 1. “There are many ways you can target them. Ciscoes are a lot more aggressive than the lake trout and are there in such greater numbers it’s easier to be successful.
“Ciscoes swim around in 60-degree water — 60, 62 even up to 67 degrees — so if you fish up above the thermocline you’re less likely to catch lake trout. You can jig for them or troll for them. You can catch ciscoes at 30 feet when the thermocline is at 50.”
One of the diver rods — dragging a Mini Streak spoon — went off and Sutton handled the rod. It was lake trout, on a lure that was no doubt higher in the water column than the lead-core line. And that fish was followed by another cisco — this one on a downrigger that was set around 75 feet on a Stinger Scorpion spoon.
“There’s zero pattern,” Chamberlin said, “which is pretty typical.”
And the lack of a pattern continued; after missing a fish on a 12-color lead core, the fifth fish took a paddle and jig off the other downrigger, a little shallower than the first. It was a small Chinook – I guessed it at around 7 pounds.
“That’s a jack,” Chamberlin said. “He was going to spawn this fall.”
Chamberlin has been fishing professionally since he was in college and he mated on a charter boat in southeast Michigan, mostly for walleye. After he got his own boat, he decided to relocate to the northwest Lower Peninsula, where he had more options for where to fish and what to fish for. He does a lot of fishing on Grand Traverse Bay.
“I don’t do much on West Bay as East Bay,” he said. “I do some perch fishing there. I think there’s more people on West Bay, especially during the salmon season — you have the Boardman River there and it attracts a lot of people. East Bay can get crowded on weekends, but you can always find someplace to get away from the crowds.
“But in early spring I prefer West Bay over East Bay. Seems like the Boardman is dumping warmer water in there. But once things get going, it’s really hard to beat Elk Rapids. Seems like more fish hold out in front of there, especially the ciscoes, and you have deep-water humps that are not very far off shore — you can be on deep-water structure pretty quickly.”
Of course you can be in deep water in West Bay right away, too. The west side of both bays drops off more quickly than the east side, and the same seems to hold true for all the lakes (like Elk or Torch) in the area, too, Chamberlain said.
We had a double going and both fish got off, one soon after being hooked, the other (a lake trout) right at the boat.
Chamberlin will concentrate on salmon and ciscoes until later in October, when he’ll get on the yellow perch. (You can catch perch now, but as the season progresses the perch fishing will get better, all the way out to 150 feet of water, he said.) When the weather gets too tough, he’ll fish more inland lakes until ice-out, when he goes back out after perch and lake trout.
We had two more bites and caught one of them — a laker. We wound up going five for nine.
“That was a pretty good afternoon,” Chamberlin said.
I’d agree with him.
Bob Gwizdz is a longtime outdoors writer and has also worked in public affairs for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.