Fishing the Chain

Fishing Photo

Whether it’s participating in the numerous Bass fishing tournaments, simple bobber and worm fishing for pan fish or everything in between, the Portage Chain of Lakes offers good fishing for everyone. As I write this during early morning, already there are bass boats crisscrossing Portage Lake in search of the best locations. Among the most popular game fish are Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass, Northern Pike, Walleye, Sunfish, Bluegills, Rock Bass, and Crappie, all of which are certainly catchable, however Walleyes can be somewhat of a challenge.

Each lake and their connecting waters offer a variety of ecosystems. Some lakes are deep water structures, sand and gravel bottoms with sunken islands, providing plenty of drop-off contour where most fish feed, and some are very shallow with gradual contours and extensive vegetation growth with adjoining deep water canals. The variety is endless, and after fishing these waters for over 50 years I’m surprised year after year with yet a new fishing discovery, be it huge largemouth bass caught in a couple feet of water, or giant bluegills suspended just a few feet deep over thirty foot depths. There’s always something new, something that “doesn’t make sense” – but works. It’s constantly interesting.

Being a popular chain with plenty of boat traffic, like most public lakes, choosing the right time of day is important. Avoiding the busiest times, usually weekends from noon to about dinner time is advised. Those who will get up early and start fishing about dawn, or heading out just before dark, have the best chance to catch fish. Plus, April, and May, September and October, are wonderful times to fish on the Chain, as fish are very active during these “off season” times. It’s peaceful, cool, and it just takes a little bundling up to stay warm, but it’s so worth it.

The Portage Chain is a type of fishery requiring a somewhat different approach than usual. This fishery breaks the rule about “being patient”. To figure out how to catch fish on any given day requires, well, a rather impatient approach. Perhaps more than other lakes, changing locations, depths, lures, bait, time of day, etc. frequently is the best bet. Staying in one place, watching a bobber for hour and waiting for the fish to come to you rarely works (by the way is a sure way to discourage a young angler). We rarely stay in one place longer than five to ten minutes. There have been times when we’ve tried many combinations of techniques, depths, and locations, only to abandon the entire lake and fish in the connecting river waters and had great success. This is Portage Chain fishing.

It’s also important not to get caught up in the “magic lure” idea. There isn’t one. Simplicity is best, and catching fish on the Portage Chain has far more to do with changing locations, depth, time of year and time of day rather than using the perfect lure. Experimentation and trying different approaches is the key to this fishery, and perhaps many others in this wonderful state.

We do use simple plastic lures such as worms, tubes, lizards, crayfish, and live bait often too. When we do we always use circle hooks for conservation purposes. The circle hook is a wonderful invention, and hooks fish in the corner of the mouth an amazing 97% of the time, allowing easy release of unharmed fish you do not intend to keep. Plus, they are safer, as they don’t snag things and people nearly as often as the traditional “J” hooks do. Circle hooks are highly recommended in almost all fishing conditions for all lakes.

The time honored method of trolling can be effective too, but early or late in the year are advised times, as like many other freshwater lakes in our State the motorboats tend to chop up aquatic vegetation which floats on the surface making it difficult to keep the weeds from sliding down your line and tangling lures. Ice fishing the Chain is fun and productive. For some reason, the bigger lakes go sort of dormant, are difficult to ice fish successfully, so we concentrate on the smaller lakes, bays, and canals to catch fish consistently.

Interestingly, and even more importantly, the same rules apply as for Spring, Summer, and Fall, that being the importance of moving frequently, trying different locations, depths, etc., and again especially if there are kids on the outing. Long gone should be the days of sitting on a bucket in one spot, freezing, not catching any fish.

We often recommend individual conservation responsibility when fishing the Chain. Mostly, we release unharmed all Bass, Pike, and other top level predators, as they keep the fish population balanced and healthy. The State of Michigan’s possession limits of 25 pan fish have been in place for generations, but it doesn’t mean we have to keep that many. We suggest a self-imposed limit, that of keeping what you need for a good dinner as opposed to “limiting out”, or “filling the freezer”. We enjoy the honor and healthy fish populations from those before us who
would say “leave some for someone else”, and just took what they needed. It just makes sense to pass that on to our future friends, Children, and Grandchildren, doesn’t it?

We love our Portage Chain of Lakes. It’s ours to enjoy, improve, and protect. An essential part of fishing or any type of recreation on these waters has to include a consciousness of being a good steward as we enjoy this wonderful and fragile resource we are borrowing from future generations. We need to return it to them in great shape so they can enjoy it as well. There are simple things you can do when fishing the Chain which will help. To prevent transporting destructive invasive species of weeds to and from the Chain, such as when launching or removing our boats from the water checking and making sure we don’t have any weeds hanging from our boat, props, or trailers and clean out our live wells. Never dump our extra bait out in the lake. Check out the Michigan Lake and Stream Associations website for more.

There are so many other things to enjoy when fishing the Chain. It has been said that fishing is an excuse to get out into great places with great people. Well, it’s true, and the Portage Chain is a great place, we’ll leave the great people part up to you. While fishing the Chain, you will also notice your aerial fishing partners such as Bald Eagles and Osprey. During your navigation from lake to lake, it’s not uncommon to see deer, turkeys, and an array of other wildlife, flowering trees and bushes, and a natural wild setting along the Huron River connecting waters, much of which is protected. After 50 years of very active living on this Chain of Lakes, this writer believes he’s just getting started in discovering all it has to offer.

This article was written by Craig Kivi, a Club member and professional fishing guide. It appeared in the winter, 2017 Michigan Riparian Magazine.