Gina DiPonio

Fish On!

Cast your luck into the lively waters off Onekama and reel in an unforgettable adventure.

The first steps aboard the vessel are rocky. The motion throws our equilibrium and our stomachs threaten attack. But we fall into the roll of it. My three friends and I are surrendering our bodies to the waves, our hopes to what dwells beneath and our trust to the veteran crew of Just Fishing Too. Today we charter fish the Onekama waters, known as some of the best fishing in Michigan.

Charter captain Frank English commands the helm. He’s been fishing Onekama for 20 years. “I’ve always been a fisherman,” he tells us, steering his 1972 Trojan out into Portage Lake. The grey waters shimmer in the first yawnings of morning. Onekama hugs her every shore, silent in the veil of sleep. Captain Frank turns on the Lowrance Fish Detector.

We can hear them. The bleep, bleep, bleeping of the fish finder alerts us that fish are passing below. Schools of black, digital fish swim across the screen. The lower the tone the larger the fish. We listen, hoping for a bass note, and we watch our captain.

Captain Frank passes command over to First Mate John Martuche. John steers the boat from the bridge while Captain Frank prepares his lines before we hit the big water.

The seasoned angler ties a dipsy diver to one line, a dodger and fly lure to another. With a rubber band he wraps three small folds of line into a rubber-band release. When the fish tugs, the band will break, easing his resistance for a moment, then hooking him fiercely.

We motor slowly through the channel, leaving Portage Lake behind. Lake Michigan races out to the horizon and as we pass the breakwalls we race too. We rush the waves, climbing and curling over them. We cut across the fields of blue as white patches flower out in the path of our wake.

About a mile offshore we slow to a 2-mile-per-hour troll. Seagulls glide low over the cresting rollers. We breathe in the misty winds as they sweep across the great expanse. Captain Frank adjusts the lines, attaching 12-lb. downrigger weights. He casts all seven lines, running them 30 feet behind the boat.

“Hey John,” Captain Frank announces, “take her south and take her in a little bit. Circle and let’s see what happens.”

The sun is busy rising over the forested bluffs of Michigan’s shore. We wait, relaxed yet expectant, watching the orange and yellow hues beam a straight sword across the water.

Without warning, a long-docile line bends into a spastic arc. “Fish on!” Captain Frank exclaims. I jump up and take that Shakespeare Ugly Stick in my hands. Its butt presses into my side as I wrestle with the reel.

“Crank it in,” somebody says. The fish fights. It tugs and jerks at the line, swinging the rod every which way. My friend helps brace the pole as I wrap the line over and over around the spool.

Fifteen feet out the warrior surfaces, whipping its tail in the air. I’m dragging it atop the water. Captain Frank hangs over the edge of the stern, two hands clenching the pole of his net. Just a few more winds of the reel!

Captain Frank swoops the proud chinook salmon out of the water and onto the deck. Everyone is cheering, laughing, patting each other on the back. We cannot even feel the boat swaying beneath us now; only the tight winding of our hearts and the racing electrons of exhilaration.

My catch slaps its body against the deck. Captain Frank grabs it around the gills. With a mini club, he delivers it one swift bonk to the head.

I hold it in my hands, my thumb protruding through a slit at the gill. My prize: a beautiful, silvery, 3-pound salmon. At this moment, I am a fisherman. The cooler is the proof, hanging heavy with fillets.

We are all fishermen by the time we step on land again. Victors at sea. Our lungs still heave with Lake Michigan’s breath as we bid farewell to our captain.

For your own charter adventure, call Just Fishing Charters, 231-889-6111.

Make it a Day Trip

You catch ’em, they’ll cook ’em. That’s the deal at Portage Point Inn (231-889-4222) on the northern shore of Portage Lake. Experience the inn’s luxurious early 20th-century feel while esteemed chef Tim Ortbring transforms your fresh catch into a gourmet feast.

The dining room is spacious, the tablecloths are white linen and the meal is exquisite. They’ll start you off with a salad of fresh local greens served in homemade dressing and a loaf of warm bread.

Just as you’re looking over Portage Lake and reveling in the day’s victory, the waiter delivers the fish. There’ll be an assortment of flavors. One might be cajun or blackened and another lemon pepper—with a vegetable medley for balance on the side.

Over dessert, toast to the victorious day behind you as you dig your fork into the final scrumptious reward.

From Traverse: Northern Michigan’s Magazine.