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The Heron’s Notebook

by Tom Hazelton
photos by Tom Hazelton
Fly Fishing for Lake Michigan Carp

“Be the heron. Take the shot.”

July in mid-Michigan is hot. Humid sticky hot. Trout gasp in the deepest undercuts and conservation-minded anglers leave them alone. Beets and other sugary crops are pressed out of the land and the air is thick with sweet and heavy agricultural smells. The fields are dusty and flat, and do not resemble at all the greatest freshwater wetland on the continent, which they would still be if it not tiled and drained.

But just past the fields is the shore of Lake Huron and in some places there remains a thin strip of marshy, muddy estuary, alive with every conceivable freshwater shorebird and beast. Most impressive are the great blue herons, steely and deadly in their stalkings, perfectly designed for hunting the baitfish and gamefish of all types that teem in the nursery wetland shallows.

The enterprising trout angler would do well to spend some time among the herons, with a seven weight and a sunshirt. For midsummer is also when thousands of Huron’s giant bluewater carp swarm into these inlets and bays to spawn.  They circle muddy the bays and breach like armored whales and are mostly preoccupied with procreation. But an angler should be thinking: they have to eat.

And they do, and will eat a fly. But it will not be easy to get them to do it. In addition to technical precision and artful presentation, the angler must possess or learn a powerful, observation-based predatory skill set. It is one thing to read the current and cast a fly to a rising trout. It is another thing—not necessarily harder, but very different—to spot a cruising carp, read its behavior, and feed it a fly.

Luckily for us, sight fishing tends to awaken some prehistoric predatory region of the brain. An inner heron. To succeed on the carp flats, the angler must find and nurture it.

I spent one memorable bachelor summer wading and paddling the windblown Great Lakes flats on both sides of Michigan. I did not become a master carp angler or even an average one, although I fished with and learned from some of each. I think I landed fewer than ten fish. But the learning was intense. These are some of those lessons.

Too bright, clear, and calm is just as bad as overcast, muddy, and windy. If you can see them, they can see you.

Note the sun and wind direction when planning a stalk. You can see through one side of each “wave” but not the other due to glare. At the 45th parallel in mid-July, an east wind is better in the morning, and a west wind is better in the afternoon

Groups of cruising fish are a waste of time. They will not eat. Single cruisers, on the other hand, are prime targets.

If there are lots of cruising fish, don’t chase them. Find a favorable casting position and let them come to you.

Assess the mood of the fish before you cast. Positive/Neutral/Negative?

Recognize the positive fish. The players. Gills and mouth working. Looking around, not moving in a straight line. When you can identify these fish, they are yours to waste.

Large groups of neutral and negative fish—especially spawners—can be major time sinks during limited favorable-light hours. They will not always flee from you and will often even chase flies. But if you are not getting eats, move on. It is hard to do.

Positive and neutral fish will become negative if they are spooked—if you cast over them, strip the fly too quickly in front of them, touch them with the line, cast an errant shadow, etc. They might not flee, but they will never, ever, eat. Move on.

Recognize the eat. Watch for leader or line or tail-tip twitch. Place your fly slightly to the side so he has to turn his head to eat it. In muddy water or at long range, you have to sense it some other way. Your eyes can deceive you. Stretch out with your feelings.

Fly design is 10% color, 20% size, 70% sink rate, and 10% confidence. Eschew the San Juan Worm at your peril. 

With all these things in mind, I still blow most of the chances I get.  But statistically so do most predators. Even herons.  And each blown shot teaches a lesson, if we are open to learning it.

In these ways fly fishing for carp is like hunting. You are not casting to a riseform or to a likely-looking holding lienot “angling”but casting to a specific targeted fish. It is personal and vulnerable. You are looking your quarry in his face, reading his mood, reading the wind, and deciding whether or not to take the shot.

Be the heron. Take the shot.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Northern Minnesota native Tom Hazelton fly fishes, writes, and photographs his way around the Upper Midwest, trying to stay above the 45th parallel. He also occasionally updates a blog that can found at
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  • Bill Anderson

    You got me. I’ve seen the carp cruising in my river and now I am going to take a shot.

    • Tom Hazelton

      If everyone who overlooks or looks down on carp had to go out and catch one on a fly, pretty soon nobody would overlook or look down on carp. Good hunting!

  • Millington Guy

    Two of my son-in-laws on Grand Traverse Bay (MI) during a Memorial Day weekend. Great fly rod action and Woolley Buggers were the ticket.

    • Tom Hazelton

      Very nice fish. A double!

  • Rusty

    I find the best success with carp is in the May/June period. If you can identify locations with reliable numbers of fish, early season success can put them down for the rest of the summer in that location – they seem to have a “group consciousness” or awareness of anglers.

    I have found that if you target them where they have not been faced with anglers before, they can be very forgiving of your presence. However, once they recognize that a human is a potential threat, getting a take can be very difficult.

    My most reliable success comes with a black #8 Wooly Bugger cast about 3 or 4 feet ahead of lone cruisers. However, I have had some success with long casts to “sleeping” carp in the late afternoon, especially if the water is still a bit cool and conditions have a slight ripple.

    Many commentators talk about using flies that sink to the bottom, but I have found most bottom feeding carp are in very murky or muddy water, where they won’t even see the fly.

    • Tom Hazelton

      Agree on all points. For whatever reason I had my best success in early-mid July for the Great Lakes fish. However I suspect that many master carp anglers find and hunt resident fish in local waters, rather than transient spawners.

      • Rusty

        Funny though how addictive trying for carp can be, even when you have terrible results. Some days, all you get is a near miss, or not even a sniff, but you keep going back for more. I did have one day where I caught three from the same pond within about an hour, but multiple fish days have been rare for me.

        At least I can fish for carp without having to go away for a few days!

  • Taylor Creek Fly Shops

    Thousands of miles away and a common thread evolves; “storkin’ it” as we’ve called it out West over the years is apparently “being the heron” out East now. Too funny. Check it: