Fly Fishing Lake Michigan With Capt.
By Joe Cornwall
of the big advantages of being invited to
speak to various fishing groups
is the opportunity to meet new people who fish different flows. Often
these serendipitous introductions result in opportunities to join new
friends and fish distant waters. I had been invited to present to the
Illinois Smallmouth Alliance
in May of 2010, and it was there that I met a fellow who’s
envelope on a body of water not necessarily known for fly fishing. The
water was Lake Michigan and my contact was Captain Austin Adduci of
Grab Your Fly Charters.
Adduci confessed he was a carp connoisseur and fished for the big copper
phantoms from his 17-foot Maverick Master
Angler flats skiff and he wanted to know if I’d like to join him
sometime over the summer. It was an invitation that I couldn’t imagine
The date was set for mid July. Gear was packed and arrangements were made
to meet at the Portage Public Marina in Portage, Indiana. Because the
trip was wedged in between business meetings, our outing was limited to an
afternoon/evening and we agreed to push out from the docks at 3PM. Days
of absolutely perfect weather had me convinced this was going to be a
cosmic event, but as with much of fishing the only absolute is that
everything is subject to change. Austin confessed at the docks that he
didn't think the trip was going to happen. The lake was rough and choppy
with strong wind gusts accompanying a passing front. “We’ll give it our
Rounding the breakwater revealed a lake full of three-foot rollers. There
was nothing particularly dangerous about it, but a flat, open boat can
make for a challenging fishing platform in such conditions. We idled half
a mile or so to the first spot, hoping the weather would break and the
black storm clouds would pass. Austin brought the boat to a section of
beach along the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore where a small creek
empties into the big lake. There was an expansive sand flat, bordered by
a sudden drop to five feet of water. The crashing waves had kicked up
enough silt to make sight fishing impossible. It was time to improvise.
Adduci is a conscientious and committed angler. He knows the waters well
and he has a deep passion for both the fish and the fishing. He confessed
that he’d often taken good smallmouth along this break on small, white
streamers. He wasn’t sure what the fish were hunting in that area, as he
told me he’d snorkeled the flat under clam conditions and didn’t really
find a tremendous amount of baitfish or cover. But he assured me that
smallmouth were, in fact, there. I opted to fish from the back of the
boat where I could lean against the poling platform and rigged up my Orvis
Zero Gravity 8-weight with a full intermediate line. Captain Adduci
tossed me a fluorocarbon leader tapered to 12lb test and turned to run the
boat from the front trolling motor located on the casting deck.
boat is rigged with electric motors fore and aft, but under choppy
conditions an electric motor “pulling” the boat is a lot more efficient
than one “pushing” it.
The gusty wind was relentless, pushing even aggressive casts in
unpredictable ways. The biggest challenge wasn’t getting distance, or
even attaining accuracy. It was controlling the loose line on the deck.
A stripping basket was quickly rigged and we got to work. While I cast, Adduci told me how he’d started his guiding business.
Lake Michigan is now known for its steelhead and salmon. This wasn’t
always so. The lake trout reigned supreme in these waters since the
last ice age. But non-native intruders, in particular the sea
lamprey, decimated the lake trout population in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Pacific salmon were first introduced into the lake in 1966 in an effort
to control another invasive species — an exploding alewife population that
had found its way into the Great Lakes basins through the St. Lawrence
Seaway. Today, fishing has become an economic engine for coastal
Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois,
spawning an extensive charter boat industry and delivering a strong,
impact to regional communities. Most of these charters are “party
As a fly fisherman, Adduci saw opportunity. Charter boats aren’t
conducive to the long rod and the miles and miles of littoral habitat were
sadly underutilized. While salmon and steelhead both frequent the shallow
zones (more on that later), the stars of this part of the lake are the
smallmouth bass and carp, both of which are prime targets for contemporary
fly anglers. Why not share his passion for these species with folks
looking for something a bit different? By his own admission, Adduci is
one of a very small and elite group of professionals. There are only a
handful of guides working these shallow waters, even as saltwater flats
fishing and guided outings for double-digit carp are on the rise.
Opportunity and ability combine to create something new.
My efforts to attract a smallmouth weren’t going well, so as is custom for
me I asked my guide to pick up a rod and show me how he does it. I enjoy
watching a guide fish, and on trips like this I always insist that the
guide do a bit of his own angling. Often I’m met with skepticism. Guides
don’t want to hook and land a trophy while their sports look on, but I’ve
touched enough fish in my lifetime that watching a talented angler succeed
is nearly as much fun as doing it myself! Adduci didn’t disappoint and it
wasn’t long before a football-fat 19-inch fish came to hand.
By late afternoon, as the sun’s rays slanted over a distant Chicago
skyline, the lake finally decided to lie down and give us some respite.
We moved from the sand flat to a long breakwater to hunt for smallmouth in
earnest. Whether it was the
front, the declining daylight or just the luck of the draw, the fishing
started to turn on. Fat, healthy smallmouth bass hit hard and
blasted towards the surface in a show of power seldom equaled in fresh
water. The crystal clear water along the breakwater dropped from
15-feet to 40-feet over a scant few yards and it took a weighted fly and
sinking line for the presentation to work. But work it did.
While we fished I asked Adduci about other opportunities on the lake. He
told me that right after ice-out in the spring, and again right before
freeze-up in early winter, there was a solid opportunity for lake trout on
a fly. Captain Adduci told me he’s marked an open water hump that rises
from 50+ feet to a shallow reef just 8 to 10-feet deep. When the
conditions are right the big mackinaw come to the shallows to hunt,
putting them in range of fly anglers. There’s always a chance for
steelhead or salmon, he said, even when you least expect it. Adduci
also told me that, unlike Lake Erie, walleye are scarce in this area.
Finally, in a nearly reverent tone he confided that all summer long, when
the weather cooperates, the big carp come up in the shallows to root for
nymphs and crayfish, aquatic worms and
young fry. And big in Lake Michigan means a whole different thing
that it does when applied to the carp I
in the creeks. On Lake Michigan big means double-digit fat and nasty
long-distance-running, hard-charging copper measured in tens of pounds.
My mind was wandering over this plethora of potential when a yard-long
shadow appeared behind my Murdich Minnow. “What the…” was the only thing
that came out of my mouth. The boat went silent as we watched the torpedo
follow my fly for 20-feet before opening its mouth and eating the streamer
boat side. A vigorous strip-strike sunk the iron home and my rod bent
double. I quickly turned my attention to clearing my fly line from the
deck as Captain Adduci reeled in and grabbed for a net. 50-feet of line
whistled out of the stripping basket and the fish rushed tight to the reel
as the smooth drag of the Orvis Mach IV reel came on-line.
Steelheads are known as aerial acrobats. When they feel the pressure of a
tether they’ll reach skyward to shake free the offending fraud. The
chrome warrior I was hooked to was no different. Angry at the leash, the
fish broke the surface in a leap as clean and powerful as any performed by
an Olympic champion. The fish actually jumped higher than the top of the
poling platform - a solid 4-feet above the water line! For a brief second
there was an arc of bright silver embellished with a glowing pink band
forming a rainbow off the back of the boat, and then nothing. Austin was
silent until my own belly laugh let him know that it was all in fun. I’d
hooked a Skamania steelhead and suffered an end to the story that is
The boat erupted in laughter and shouts of dismay, more than
a few cusses finding their way into the fading light of sunset. Upon
examination I found that I’d dulled the point by bouncing the fly off the
rocks during a previous cast. The hook couldn’t have sunk to the barb.
“It’s not my fly!” shouted Adduci as I grimaced sheepishly! Another
lesson learned – ALWAYS check and sharpen your hooks!
By the end of what was a typical half-day charter, I’d truly enjoyed a
unique adventure. More than a dozen fat smallmouth bass fell for my
fly and I’d learned a lot about the natural history of the southern Lake
Michigan margin. I’d hooked a trophy
and cast for world class carp. I couldn’t imagine that there wasn’t a
fleet of boats putting eager anglers onto this world-class fishing.
Even an off day was spectacular. I could only imagine what a great
day must be like!
Fishing the shoreline of Lake Michigan is an opportunity that is readily
available, but often not realized. Right now there are only two ways to
experience this unique, productive and exciting fishing. Do it yourself
or hire a guide who’s done the homework for you. Considering the fact
that Chicago is the third largest metropolitan statistical area in the
United States, with a population of more than 9.5 million, it’s stunning
that so few professionals have opted to make a living along the
lakefront. Captain Austin Adduci is a pioneering guide and a talented
angler. I’ve got his number programmed into my cell phone, as business has
me in the Chicago region several times a year. I’m hoping the next time
is right at ice-out in the spring so I can take Austin up on his offer to
show me how he manages lake trout on a fly. If you find yourself in the
Windy City and have a desire to get a bit of water time I can’t imagine a
better decision that to grab your fly and step onto Austin’s boat.