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The Problem With Fish: An Essay
Silver Carp in the Illinois River
The problem with fish is they can be so damned antisocial. On one visit to Shell Lake they’re nowhere to be seen and the next time they’ll practically be jumping into the boat. There are a few places in the world where the fish actually do that, you know.
Take, for example, the Asian carp in the Mississippi River. The name tells you right away that these fish don’t belong anyplace near the center of the continental United States. When a motorboat goes by, these fish get frightened and jump right out of the water, occasionally landing in the speeding boat.
My Fishing Kayak
But there aren’t any Asian carp in Shell Lake up here in northwestern lower Michigan. This lake is so small, even most locals have never heard of it. But it’s my lake of choice when it comes to bluegill, or brim, as some people like to call them. Shell lake is pretty well hidden in the forest near Lake Michigan on the property of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. A dirt road winds through the forest canopy for a couple of miles, then you go another half mile on a two track or, as it’s known farther north in the upper peninsula, a two-rut-road.
And there it is, a sparkling, blue jewel nestled in green, forest foliage where no internal combustion engine is allowed to sputter around in the clear water. A few will use battery powered motors, but I choose to silently stalk my prey in a me-powered kayak.
Shell Lake, Looking South With the Moraine on the Right
Like I said at the beginning, the problem with fish is they can be so damned antisocial. I pack up all their favorite little morsels, like night crawlers and red worms, and as likely as not, the finicky fellows will be no-shows to the picnic being held in their honor. I paddle around, fishing deep here, shallow there, searching for the best tasting delicacy that fresh water has to offer, the bluegill. There are those days though, when no matter what you try or how long you try it, you leave empty handed.
But that’s the great thing about Shell Lake. You don’t have to catch anything to be completely satisfied with the time you spend paddling, floating and napping in the sun. On those days, my attention is sometimes captured by movement in front of the forested moraine on the west side of the lake. A bald eagle, camouflaged by the backdrop of the Laurentian Mixed Forest, soars as it searches the water for an unwary, smallmouth bass. Or it might be a pair of great blue herons moving to the north end of the lake to search the shallows for the same bluegills that have been eluding me.
Shell Lake, Looking North With a Sand Dune in the Distance
As my eyes follow the flight of the herons, a distant, golden crown arrests my attention. Perched sand dunes along the Lake Michigan shoreline rise hundreds of feet against blue skies, reflecting the morning sun, while the honking of Canada geese and the song of the loon combine in a duet serenade for any who have ears to hear.
The plastic, red and white bobber dips, becoming a blurred, impressionistic image beneath the surface. I respond by setting the barbless hook, and the bluegill counters by fleeing into the cold depths. It never ceases to amaze me how much of a fight these relatively small fish can manage, but their flat shape allows them to slice through the water, resisting my efforts and bending my pole as would a bass or pike. But the eleven inch member of the sunfish family is soon in my fish basket which I drop over the side. I rebait the hook and hope that the school hasn’t been frightened away by the battle just waged.
A Pair of Loons
I relocate to a cove that reaches inland from the main part of the lake. The water is deep in the middle of this protrusion, and I allow my line sink to the bottom, then pull it back a foot or two hoping to find the fish resting in the cool, deep water. A loud sound of something slapping the surface of the water startles me from my daydreams. I recognize it as the warning from a beaver who is protecting her lodge and very likely a couple of kits inside. I spot the four foot long beaver circling my kayak from about fifty feet. The lodge is hidden in cattails at the back of the cove. Again the female beaver slaps the water, and I take the hint. I’m not wanted here, and I in turn don’t want to upset the little family unit. I move out and decide to call it a day.
With any luck, I’ve overcome the antisocial tendencies of the bluegill and filled my basket. I paddle toward shore, offering a silent prayer of thanks to the lake and to the fish in tow alongside my boat. Behind me the goose honks, the loon sings, the eagle soars, the herons wade the beaver feeds her kits and the dunes reflect the sunlight of another day in paradise.
Shell Lake, Seeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Leelanau County, Michigan
I thought about changing the name of Shell Lake in my writing in order to protect the fishing......But I trust you. ;-)