June 19, 2014 at 1:00 am

Sun, fish, banter provide perfect retreat on northern Michigan lake

Chuck Gerding releases most fish he catches; a few become dinner. (Courtesy of Chuck Gerding)

Traverse City — It’s a dead giveaway, the first glimpse at a lake you’ve never fished as you step into a 14-foot aluminum boat, trolling motor about to hum.

You notice how deep, how quickly deep, it gets. And then you see the shiners and chubs, the baby bluegills and bass, as they dart to and from pockets of muted green underwater weeds.

This is a fishing lake. It has depth and structure. It has lily pads along the shoreline and the occasional osprey flitting overhead. Mosquitoes are thick. A pair of warbling loons is known to swim and dine here.

Eighty or so yards from shore, a dark mossyback turtle, a foot or more across, greeted the day much as we were doing. It floated to the surface for a gulp of crisp Michigan air as Chuck Gerding steered the trolling motor, hooked to a 12-volt battery, into deeper water on a southbound course along the lake’s east side.

“Think we’ll get some fish today,” said Gerding, 63, a retired Traverse City-area teacher from Karlin, who would be leaving in a couple of weeks for his cabin in Alaska, near the Arctic Circle, where he spends summers. “Yesterday wouldn’t have worked. Too much wind (25 mph) after that front moved through.

“Charlie, not even I, with my fishing skills, would have gotten much yesterday,” Gerding said, throwing the first of at least 100 barbs at our boatmate and mutual buddy, Charlie Kehr, a dentist from Beulah who was casting one of our three spinning-rod outfits on a quest for largemouth bass and bluegill.

“That’s because the fish were too busy laughing,” Kehr answered. “They know you.”

Cold water, slow ride

On a mid-June morning, with a bright sun climbing and a sky turning deeper blue, the Gerding-Kehr zingerfest was reason enough to delight in a slow boat ride on a lake that has no official name. It is out of the way, accessible along a two-track trail, and almost hidden in a sector of the northwest Lower Peninsula not far from Traverse City.

Lake water frigid from a long, late, bitter, winter had just begun to warm in recent days. Bass and bluegills were hanging in the shallows, either to spawn or to gulp minnows and small-bodied forage.

It was with their diets in mind that Chuck and I each flipped dark plastic worms, coiled in a seductive S-shaped figure and embedded with three separated single hooks, into the chilly water, working to toss our casts close to the shoreline lily pads and weeds. We were after the lake’s crop of largemouth bass.

Charlie was opting for bluegills. He was using slightly lighter 4-pound test line fitted with a small split-shot sinker and tied to a No. 8 Aberdeen hook on which were threaded nightcrawlers.

“Ah, you released him — very sportsmanlike,” Gerdner yelped after I hooked a largemouth that splashed to the surface and decided to spit the hook from its thick lip.

This would happen to us 20 or more times on our three-hour shoreline jaunt. The bass, agreed Gerding and Kehr, who know fish and game as well as anyone who fishes or hunts in these parts, were still dealing with picky appetites as a result of the cold water and late spawn.

Temperatures were going to push 90 later in the week — and this lake’s fish were expected to respond as if an underwater McDonald’s had opened up. But for now fish were saddled with slower metabolisms that produced lighter strikes.

Not that we were being shut out.

I soon got a 15-inch largemouth to chomp a jiggling purple worm and stay hooked until Chuck netted it. The bass was gorgeous — dark green on top, gradually lightening to gold-green on its flanks, giving way to a snow-white belly. A few second later, the bass was slipped from the hook and eased into 10 feet of ice-cold water. A fast flick of its tail, and it was back hunting for snacks more edible than a worm made of purple plastic.

Gerding and Kehr were getting their share of fish, as well, when not slamming each other.

“Charlie, careful with the casts,” Gerding said, concocting an insult aimed at his dentist chum. “Didn’t appreciate those two hooks you put in my back last year. And didn’t think it was right that before you pulled them you asked for my Blue Cross card.”

“How ‘bout I put one of those hooks through your two lips?” Kehr said, playing along niftily. “Bass aren’t the only bigmouths here.”

Gerding, particularly, fishes this lake with a kind of steady stealth, sometimes twice or more a day, thanks to his retired life. Everything the two gents catch is released, save for a few bluegills that are filleted or scaled and end up on a grill or stove burner in their succulent mission.

Better 'the next day'

Kehr caught a few salad-plate-sized bluegills that were headed for his veranda grill after they developed a fatal attraction to Charlie’s nightcrawlers. But the bluegills, like the bass, were biting sluggishly, almost as if they had dived into an early breakfast and weren’t interested in our brunch invitation.

Chuck and I took turns pulling in a dozen or more largemouth, the biggest of which was a fat 3-pounder at least 16 inches long that gobbled Gerding’s black plastic worm.

“Still in the deep water after that front,” Gerding said. “Tomorrow, the way it’s warming up, they’ll be back in the shallows and hitting.

“You know how it is,” he said, with a droll grin, turning to his one-day guest. “You should have been here the next day.”

All things considered, this had been better than good. A heavenly June morning in northern Michigan’s paradise. Three hours on a lake glaciers had helped build. Sun, blue sky, birds, lots of fish — all alongside a couple of friends whose wit and outdoor wiles made this day one more treasure from an experience called life.