By Max Johnston
Many people consider carp to be a “trash fish,” but fly fishing for carp is very popular in northern Michigan. This year though, guides have cancelled trips and lost thousands of dollars because they can’t find the fish.
Some blame another growing sport: bowfishing.
When carp spawn in Grand Traverse Bay, their backs actually protrude from the water like a shark because there are so many packed in shallow waters.
But 15 years ago, no one really fished for carp in Michigan.
Carp are a popular game fish in Europe, so local fly fisherman Dave McCool gave it a shot and noticed how much fun it was. McCool says carp are smart and they put up a fight, so eventually it caught on.
“Once I got a trout fisherman, who always turned his nose up at carp, to hook a carp, and then take off and take out 150 yards of line, that started to change the perception,” McCool says.
McCool normally leads about 20 carp fishing trips a year for $400 each.
But this year something changed. McCool says the fish were nearly impossible to find and he had to cancel almost half of his trips.
“This is probably the most difficult year that I’ve had in the 15 years doing it,” McCool says.
McCool doesn’t know why the carp are gone, but another guide on Grand Traverse Bay, Brian Pitser, has an idea: bowfishing.
“When I find fish with holes in them, or just dumped and broken arrows, it doesn’t take rocket science to figure out why fish didn’t ever come back in there,” Pitser said.
Bowfishing for carp
Local bow fisherman Sam James took me out bowfishing for this story.
“What you’re on right now is a custom built elevated platform, on a 17-foot boat, with a couple thousand watts of lights that are being powered by a generator,” James says.
James leads bowfishing trips for Thundering Aspens, a hunting and fishing club in Mesick.
It’s about 10 p.m. and we’re on East Grand Traverse Bay. A lot of bowfishing is done at night, when water is calmer and fish are easier to spot. When we get to shallow waters, his partner cuts the engine, and turns on the LED lights placed around the boat. They shoot out a bright white light that illuminates everything in a 10-foot radius.
Sam stands on the platform with his bow at the ready. He points out some smaller fish, then sees a carp. Sam nocks his bow, fires and reels in the wire attached to his arrow.
The carp he pulls in is about 2 feet long, with goldish brown scales, and weighs 6 or 7 pounds. Sam aimed well, and he got the fish in the head.
The whole ordeal is over in about 20 seconds. The folks at Thundering Aspens will use that fish for fertilizer on their property.
Overall, it’s a quiet night and Sam pulls inonly three fish. Sam says it was busier a couple of weeks ago.
“During the spawn, our average was about 80 a night,” Sam says.
Sam knows bow anglers have been accused of killing off all the carp. He says he saw plenty of fish this year, but holds back from shooting because of anglers in the area.
“We might see schools of carp and think ‘Oh, that’d be great’ but that’s where that guy fly fishes,” James says. “We’re just respectful about it.”
Getting rid of carp
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources says there’s no direct link between bowfishing and low numbers of carp in Grand Traverse Bay. Scott Heintzelman–a fisheries biologist for the DNR–says a lot of environmental factors like rising water levels could make the carp go to new areas.
But the DNR wants to see fewer carp. Heintzelman says they are an invasive fish that cause problems in the bay.
“They get sediment moving around and smother other fishes’ eggs, and then it hurts other species native to that lake,” Heintzelman says. “We generally encourage people to take as many as they can.”
Heintlzeman says the DNR isn’t reconsidering that rule any time soon. So bow fishers can keep filling their boats with dead carp, but that’s not making them any friends.
Bill Truscott has been bowfishing for 10 years. Truscott says he’s been harassed when he’s on the water, sometimes even with his kids on board.
“We’ll have people cast their lines into your boat, and start cussing, hollering, swearing, threatening us,” Truscott says. “It’s fairly common to have firework mortars shot at you.”
Fly anglers say they’re waiting to see if carp come back next year. If not, they’re going to the DNR to push for a change to the rules on carp, and bowfishing.
This story was produced under a partnership of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism and Interlochen Public Radio.