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Fly Fishing Lake Michigan With Capt. Austin Adduci

By Joe Cornwall

One 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 pushing the 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 resisting.

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 best shot…”

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.  His 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, welcome economic impact to regional communities.  Most of these charters are “party boats”.

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 passing 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 chase 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 nothing new.  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 steelhead 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.


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