Destination, Shell Lake, Northwestern Lower Peninsula, Michigan
Fishing out of a kayak has its ups and downs, especially if the waves are rolling. My son, Dan, and I headed out to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore which perches on the corner of the northwest lower peninsula of Michigan. Numerous kettle lakes are scattered over the National Park land including Shell Lake, our destination. The roads diminished from state highway to county road to a National Park gravel road to a dirt two track. We parked and unloaded the kayaks. Clouds blocked any view of the blue morning sky, and the sun was but a bright spot behind the vaporous curtain.
Northern Pike in Shell Lake?
The wind would be manageable, we decided. The whole summer had been especially windy, so we had learned not to postpone our outings in lieu of a better day. Northern Pike was the species of choice. It felt strange to declare Northern Pike as the target of the day because up until that particular summer, no one I have talked to had caught a Northern in Shell Lake. If the NPS had stocked the lake with Northern Pike, you might have expected to have caught a small one now and then. But we had been catching mature fish well above the legal size limit of twenty inches. Many were twenty-four to twenty-eight inches, which is not huge for this species, but it does raise a pertinent question. How had these fish gotten into Shell Lake?
Nestled in the seat of my fourteen-foot kayak, I headed for the deep, black water on the south end. My son paddled his kayak toward the north. The wind was steady but bearable. We could drift and still fish for Northern Pike. I tied on a silver Mepps spinner with red dots and cast it with the wind. The lure sailed in a high arc and disappeared below the choppy grey surface.
A fish on the first cast is usually a sign of good luck even if this olive colored fellow with yellow bar-like spots was slightly under the legal limit. I set him free and resumed casting and retrieving. It wasn’t long before I got another hit. A bass will run horizontally, but a Northern Pike likes to dive straight to the bottom. My pole bent, and I let the powerful fish run for a few seconds until he neared the lake bottom. I pulled him up a few feet, and his response was a statement of determination. The pole bent until it closely resembled a circle. The monofilament line strained, and I once again let the big guy have his way. During the fight with the fish, I didn’t notice the change in the wind.
I pulled him to the surface, and he chose to keep going up, out of the water. He twisted his long, slender body in the air and fell back into the water. One thing about Northern Pike is that, because they fight so hard, they tire quickly. He swam on the surface with his back just above the surface. I guided him toward my net and lifted him from the water like a baby in a cradle.
That’s when I finally noticed the wind and the waves. I had to get the lure out of the elongated mouth of a Northern which was filled with sharp teeth. Luckily the lure came out quickly, and I had a decision to make. It was past time to be headed to shore because of the sudden change in the weather. Would I paddle into the wind and waves with an angry Northern Pike on board?
Shell Lake covers only ninety-three acres, but fighting what had become a twenty-five mile per hour wind made it seem like I was in the middle of nearby Lake Michigan. Six hundred yards looked like miles. The twenty-eight-inch Northern Pike had lucked out. He swam free, straight down where the wind and waves could not touch him. I, on the other hand, had to fight for my life, much as he had only moments before. I shoved my tackle box and fishing pole under the kayaks bungee cords and slid the net behind my seat. Then I paddled using every muscle in my body.
I had learned how to paddle a kayak years before. The technique proved its worth as I strained against the elements. The waves alarmed me. How could such a small lake become so dangerous? My boat plowed ahead. Waves broke over the bow. The wind drove water into my face and drenched my clothing. Was I even moving? Would someone on the shore see a boat suspended between advancing and being blown to the shallows on the south end?
I could see my goal, a piece of sandy beach under the trees along the right side of the lake’s mid point. As I pushed forward, I scanned the north end for my son’s yellow kayak. I thought I saw it, but couldn’t be sure. I had to save myself before I could help him.
I crept forward by inches with each stroke of the paddle. The white sand grew closer. If I let the front of my boat wander even slightly to the left or right, I would be whipped sideways, and the waves would roll me over like a toy boat in the ocean surf.
Shell Lake on a Much Nicer Day
My kayak struck the sand, and I tossed fishing equipment onto the beach. I lifted myself from the cockpit and pulled the boat to shore. My son. Where was he? I scanned the lake, shielding my eyes against the driving rain and spotted his boat near the opposite shore. The tell-tale swing of the kayak paddle was missing. Were my eyes playing tricks on me? Could I see my son in the boat or not?
I got back into my kayak and paddled north. When I got to my son’s boat, he was lounging with his hands behind his head, letting the wind drive him along. He boasted that he hadn’t used the paddle since the wind had picked up. I copied his position, and we both sailed back to the white sand of the beach.
The day held two mysteries. How could a small lake become such a violent, life threatening place? And where had all those Northern Pike come from?
Once again, nature has proven herself to be a beautiful, awe inspiring ally, yet with the tendency to unleash her sudden contempt upon the unwary. As for the presence of the Northern Pike, I must plead ignorance. But the sudden gale and the ire of the Pike were a fitting pair.
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on August 24, 2017:
Sounds like a lot of fun!
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 24, 2017:
A fun trip! Thanks for taking us along, Chris! I've tried flyfishing from a kayak before and I can attest to its difficulty.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 23, 2017:
Well it's been awhile since I had a real struggle with nature. Time for a back country hike.
I love the story. Kayaking is so fun and yet makes my butt pucker the time.
I think that kind of action is really hard to write - you are one of my favs.
Ann Carr from SW England on August 23, 2017:
What a great adventure, Chris!
I've seen pike in a lake in France and they looked formidable; something of the prehistoric about them!