Northern Michigan Fishing: Two men (so-called) escape to the remote and legendary fishing waters of Craig Lake State Park to seek the Fish of 10,000 Casts while recalling Life Before Responsibility.
The ax flashes again and again in the headlights as Cam hacks away at the cedar tree blocking the road. All around us the liquid night is alive in a troubling cacophony of predatory sounds. Mosquitoes whine like outboard engines, and a barred owl poses questions only the coyotes on the opposing ridge dare answer.
Among the hungry bloodsuckers and carnivores we—my friend Cam and I—bob like a couple of tasty, lumpy meat dumplings in the middle of an Upper Peninsula blue-plate special. It’s been one of those days. We’re headed to Craig Lake State Park near Michigamme for a couple of days of camping and fishing, but deadlines, family concerns and a customary lack of planning forced us to get a late start.
During the hour drive west from Marquette, crazy high winds threatened to de-canoe my pickup, but it’s not until midnight, when we finally kiss blacktop goodbye and jolt onto the park’s gnarly two-track access road, that we find the real effect of the storm front. It seems as if the entire seven miles of road is crossed with a snarl of branches and trees, easily enough to make a beaver proud. Damn.
An hour of chopping later, the ax handle is slick from blister juice, and the bug bites on Cam’s face make him look like he lost a prizefight with a pitching machine. It’s totally corny, but this is precisely the kind of thing we came here for. For a last grasp at boyhood as we slosh into that squishy phase of life that involves padded desk chairs and keeping your newborns from eating dust bunnies. Our kids are little, and our wives are tired, but somehow we’ve gotten away to kill a weekend in the woods, and by God we’re not going to let up until there’s nothing left but fur and burps.
Craig Lake makes just the right place to get our fill. At around 200 miles west of the Mackinac Bridge, it sits square in the middle of the U.P.’s Michigamme Highlands, a bouldery upheaval of piney bedrock slabs intermixed with spongy bog, dank swamp and classic canoe country lakes. To the north of the park are hundreds of square miles of wild country running all the way to Lake Superior. To the south, just the lakeside hamlet of Michigamme, and then bottomless national forest nearly to the Wisconsin border.
I realize the words “state park” might have you picturing paved walking paths and interpretive signage, but not at Craig Lake. It’s the most remote state park in Michigan and a wild stepchild of an otherwise well-mannered family. At 7,000 acres it’s not the biggest park, but it’s definitely one of the baddest. You can’t do anything here without carrying a canoe or a pack with everything you need to be self-sufficient, and there are no interior roads, no motors allowed on lakes and no handholding.
What it does have is a series of fiercely quiet lakes gashed in granite and filled with the Guinness-colored ooze of surrounding swamps. Inhabiting these waters, in Amazonian numbers, are toothy predator fish like bass, walleye, pike and even muskie—keep your toes in the boat, kids. Before becoming a state park, the area was the Northwoods retreat of Wisconsin’s Miller Brewing family. The pioneers of the High Life managed the lakes for trophy fishing, and today special regulations (no live bait and mostly catch and release) combined with the remote location and a quarter-mile portage to the only boat launch have left much of that lunker legacy intact.
That’s why we’re here. Throughout the long U.P. winter Cam and I fought off cabin fever with a monthly fly-tying rendezvous filled with fur, feathers and fish porn films from locations around the world. We’re dyed-in-the wool trout bums—dainty flies, cold clear water and speckled flesh give us a reason to live—but it was a film filled with slow-mo clips of spiked muskie jaws crushing flies the size of kittens in northern Wisconsin that had us tripping like toddlers on Thomas the Train. We watched it over and over and slowly slipped to the dark-water side of fly angling.
If cheese-eating Wiscos can catch water wolves, as the largest member of the pike family is known, surely we can get a little muskie slime on our Michigan mittens, eh? We should at least come up with some bass or northern, right? We both knew Craig Lake would be the perfect spot—I had hooked into a 40+ inch northern on a previous trip, along with skillet-sized crappies and enough bass to bore you.
Before I knew it, Cam had mail-ordered a new heavyweight rod and a box of flies furrier than a petting zoo. The fly box bristled with glittery multi-hooked concoctions with names like Conehead Rabbit Strippers (purple), Pole Dancer and Boobie Frog (some resemblance). I gingerly lifted an Arouser Dragon from the case and instantly felt Vegas flash through my veins. My guts churned with remorse and elation. Will our Trout Unlimited buddies smell the pike on us? How do I tell my wife about a weekend of fishy hook ups with a Pole Dancer and a Rabbit Stripper? How do I get this glitter off my hands? Good gawd, what have we done?
They call the muskellunge the “fish of 10,000 casts,” but we’re at least in the low 12,000’s by afternoon of our first day on Craig Lake, with nothing to show for it. Cam is quickly tiring of chucking the huge flies into a wind so strong it’s wiping our teeth clean. I’m a bit frazzled by all the barbed steel whistling past my head as I struggle to keep the canoe within casting distance of weed beds and drop offs that should hold fish. The water is higher and colder than we remember it, and the insect population is at peak production: think flesh-eating virus with wings. We know the worst is yet to come as evening approaches.
We decide to make a last ditch effort for muskie at the far back corner of the lake, where a towering granite wall squeezes the lake into a channel that becomes the headwaters of the Pesheekee River. Bass are popping against the far bank, so we switch to medium-weight rods and simple plug-style flies. Just before the current picks up through a tangle of huge logs left over from the region’s lumbering days, we land the canoe and start an overland stalk. Cam climbs up on a rocky headland where he can work out a long back cast, then slams the plug into the stumps on the opposite bank with a “smack” as meaty as a beefsteak on the barbeque. The water sizzles, and then flares up in an explosion of gills and scales. Line peels off the reel. The smallmouth gives a big show before burrowing into the submerged timber and snapping off.
Our inner Texans want more, but darkness is coming fast, and a buggy apocalypse with it. Cam re-rigs and I swap my camera for a rod to get in on the action. We lose more flies to timber, fish and our own foolishness (I’m not so good with knots) before finally landing something that may or may not be a snapping turtle. It’s heavy and wet, but that’s about all we can tell in the darkness. It’s time to go. By the time we paddle back the full length of Craig Lake the mosquitoes are so thick I can’t draw a full breath. Cam is a large, jolly fellow, and while not wanting to get into friendship-threatening details here, let’s just say he’s not known for speed. So I watch in awe as he clean-jerks the canoe over his head and, impelled by the insect horde, takes off on a quarter-mile sprint up the portage trail to the truck.
One of the few amenities Craig Lake State Park does offer is a variety of lodging. The Miller family’s lodge and guest house still stand, about halfway down the west side of Craig Lake, and can be rented from the park. Several spartan backcountry sites sprinkle the shoreline at scenic spots that remind me of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. But for this trip we’ve chosen a newer, and thankfully bug-proof option, a yurt at nearby Teddy Lake. The yurt sits atop a dome of land surrounded by buggy lowland about a mile by trail from Craig Lake. Inside there are two double bunks, a woodstove, and a table and chairs. The camp logbook reports a number of wildlife encounters including bear, bobcat and feral Russian hogs. I add our sighting of a healthy pine marten that darted through camp, stopped to investigate the park-provided two-burner Coleman stove on the picnic table, and then scuttled off to harass the local red squirrel population.
Other than a backcountry site on the other side, the yurt is the only lodging on Teddy Lake, and we’re the only ones here. Teddy is rumored to hold nice panfish, and the yurt comes with a rowboat for pursuing them, but we’re interested in bigger game and time is running out, so we move on. We head back to Craig Lake, paddle most of its length and then climb a tough portage trail into Clair Lake, the most northern of the four named lakes in the heart of the park. I’ve overheard “Clair” and “muskie” in the same sentences enough to be lured in, but after several hours of dredging it we only have a few bass hook-ups to show for our efforts. So it’s back down to Craig, then over a half-mile portage to long and lean Crooked Lake, where we pick up a few panfish and explore a chain of small, boggy lakes in the far southeast corner of the park. Bass abound, but we’re not interested.
We carry back over into Craig as dusk swarms in on the wings of blackflies and mosquitoes. Reality is reeling us back to jobs and families, and I’m fairly sure Cam needs a transfusion after the insect onslaught. We’re ready to admit muskie defeat, but Cam leaves a streamer on to troll back with—and that’s all it takes.
As we’re passing a weed bed the rod stirs in the bottom of the canoe. Cam curses, slaps at a bug, and yanks the rod through what he thinks is a snag in the weeds. That’s when all hell breaks loose. For the next 30 minutes we are towed around a weedy bay, the fish alternating rest periods directly under the canoe with slow powerful runs. It’s dark now. Too dark for pictures, and as it turns out, too dark to actually net this fish. But we’ll get the next one, because it’s also too dark to bother worrying about being late to get home. We’re already here, so we might as well stay here.
I bring us up on another good-looking weed bed as Cam tries to decide between a Green Weenie Worm and a Dirty Rat. I can’t see his choice, but filthy vermin seem appropriate for the menu tonight.
Craig Lake State Park is managed by its more refined sister park, Van Riper State Park, 906.339.4461.
September can be unpredictable, balmy to possibility of flurries. Pack accordingly. The best news: the insects are nearly nonexistent.
• Craig Lake Lodge sleeps 14; $80/night.
• Craig Lake Cabin sleeps 6; $60/night. Both are over a mile hike or paddle from the parking area.
• Teddy Lake Yurt sleeps 4; $60/night.
• Campsites are paddle or walk in only, $12/night.
Special regulations apply: Pike, muskellunge and bass are catch-and-release only; walleye are a 13-inch minimum (allowed 2 daily). Statewide seasons and limits apply for other species.