In this Trail Talk blog Jim DuFresne explores the Hoist Lakes Foot Travel Area in search of trophy bass and bluegills. For more on the unique backcountry tract of the Huron National Forest see our latest Trail Talk newsletter or check out the MichiganTrailMaps.com eshop for a copy of the new edition of DuFresne’s 50 Hikes in Michigan.
By Jim DuFresne
I had the cookware, tent and the six pack of beer. Jim Walters, my trekking partner, had the sleeping pads, stove and the water.
I had the fly rods and the onion. He had the steaks, coffee pot and the butter. We both had a bulging pack and the belly boats were still in the car.
If you’re serious about walk-in fishing, you need to carry in one of three things. Waders are light and easy to pack but will take you only as far as the lake’s first drop-off and never, it seems, where the fish are rising. A boat, usually a canoe, will get you everywhere and fast but is a grunt to carry more than a mile.
For our adventure into the Hoist Lakes Foot Travel Area, we chose the third option; float tubes, those canvas-covered inner tubes that are the equivalent to fishing out of a lounge chair.
With an exterior frame, Walters easily lashed the portable yacht to his pack. I had an interior frame so he eyed those fly rod tubes extending above my pack for a second and then tossed my belly boat as if he was pitching horseshoes.
It was a dead ringer. We departed down the trail for Byron Lake, a pair of Nepalese Sherpas wandering aimlessly in the middle of Michigan.
The hike wasn’t easy. The packs were heavy and awkward, the beer cans were gorging me in the middle of my back and the belly boat was bouncing off my head as if someone was dribbling above me.
After 2 miles of this, we descended a low ridge and suddenly we were there, standing at the edge of a lake that was covered with small dimples. That instinctively made us look at the sky and then at each other with the silly grins of two gold miners who finally found the mother lode. Rain wasn’t forming the little splashes on the surface. It was fish. We couldn’t launch our personal fishing devices fast enough.
Hoist Lakes is a 10,600-acre nonmotorized area lying between Mio and Harrisville in the Huron National Forest. The steep, rolling terrain is covered by a forest of pine, aspen and hardwoods and includes ridges exceeding 1,200 feet in elevation. But it wasn’t the trails or the backcountry campsites that drew us here, rather the dozen pothole lakes and ponds scattered throughout the tract.
Three lakes in particular attract the attention of backpacking anglers. From the eastern trailhead off of M-65, it’s a 2.5-mile walk into two of them; South Hoist Lake, a designated trout lake, and nearby North Hoist Lake, which supports panfish and bass.
We chose to concentrate on the third, Byron Lake. Partly because somebody once told me the smallmouth bass fishing was “phenomenal” but mostly because the hike in from County Road F32 was a half mile shorter.
Michigan, especially the Upper Peninsula, offers dozens of walk-in fishing opportunities, many less than a half mile from where you park your car. But those of us who combine backpacking with fishing do it on the premise that the longer you walk, the less the lake has been fished. You may be suffering under the weight of a 65-pound canoe but you’re envisioning a personal wilderness retreat at the end of the trail, a lake you can call your own, if only for a day or two, where all the bass are at least 18 inches and there’s not a pike under 20 pounds.
Our first decision was spinning equipment or fly rods? We decided on fly rods, carrying in a pair of five weights, a seven-weight rod for those really big bass and a three-weight to amuse us when we get bored yanking fish out of the lake with the seven weight. We had bass bugs, small poppers for panfish, dry flies, nymphs and streamers but began with rubber spiders, casting close to the shore because we were sure whatever was in there was spawning.
It wasn’t. By that evening we had changed tactics twice and were now flogging the middle of the lake with large deer hair bass bugs. We went to bed fishless.
I can handle not catching anything. I’ve had a lot of practice. Besides walk-in fishing is a crap shoot at best. Most of the information on small, remote lakes is hearsay and very susceptible to fish stories.
You forego the equipment that Babe Winkelman wouldn’t be caught dead without; electronic fish finders, motorized downriggers and pretty much your entire, 16-tray tacklebox. And unless you attract a few leeches while kicking around the lake, live bait is usually out of the question.
What we couldn’t handle was not catching dinner when there was fish jumping all around us. Nothing is more humbling than watching a kingfisher do better with its bill than you can with your new Orvis fly rod.
“I’d give anything right now for a bobber and a worm,” said Walters.
There were fish in this lake we knew that, we could see them. We just weren’t sure what kind. They were doing something but we didn’t know what. Feeding? Mating? Staging a square dance? Being a walk-in lake there wasn’t a bait shop to ask.
As our departure time drew near, we threw out those carefully planned strategies and tactics and began to drag everything we had through the water.
“What do you think about this saltwater fly” I said, holding up a white feathery thing that somebody once gave me in Florida.
“Why,” said Walters, “you think there are tarpon in there?”
I gave up at noon, accepted my fishless fate and began dismantling camp for the hike out. I just about had the tent down when I heard that distinctive squeal of delight. Walters was holding up what appeared to be a bass. I won’t embarrass him by mentioning the size but suffice to say it had a few years before it was legal.
Still a fish is a fish and my partner emerged from the lake to say those immortal words every backpacking angler says when he finally outwits an animal with a pea for a brain:
“I’m coming back!”