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I went camping at Sterling State Park in Monroe, MI this week. Basically, the camping was more a way to stay there continuously while I did a four day stand while fishing a lot there. But, I like camping too so it was a bonus.
I pulled into the park Monday morning about 6:15AM to get a few hours of fishing in before I set up camp. I had nightcrawlers with me but I was using two poles cast out deep off the bottom with minnows and started out with another rod with a bobber about a foot above a minnow. I wasn't getting a lot of action on any of the poles with the exception of a few longnose gar bites on the two poles cast off the bottom. So about 10AM I pulled in the pole with the bobber and started using my ultra light pole with waxworms straight down off the bottom and was able to pick off five bluegills. By noon I was still getting a few gar bites and around 1PM I got into a fight with a longnose gar. I got it up to the pier and just as I was getting ready to pull it over the railling it spat the hook out and in doing so kissed the wooden railing before going into the water. Longnose gar was okay, and I'd estimate it at being about 27-29". After the bites slowed down I called it a timeout about 2PM so I can set up camp. When I got to my campsite to put my tent together someone who saw I was starting to put it together asked if I needed help, which I gladly accepted. A "six person" tent can be not so much to put up when camping alone, so I had no problem with help. After we put it together we chatted for a couple minutes, his name being Norm and being from the Detroit area. It always tickles me how many people camp and fish there from the Detroit area. Awesome!
Something that's not awesome is upsetting killdeers. After getting the tent together, and watching a fire I started I noticed a killdeer acting weird around this bush. It was stair at me, then take a few steps behind the bush making a racket. It would then get low, hold a wing low, and spread it's tail feathers out while wagging it around. After seeing it do this for a few minutes I kind of thought something was wrong with it and seeing me, so I went to the camp station to get wood and ask a couple questions. Come to find out, as I was thinking there was a nest there. The employees told me that they had known the nest had been there, but thought the birds had left. Come to find out there was a couple more killdeer nests scattered through the campgrounds, and lucky me found one of them.
After we temporarily parted ways I finished unloading the car and got a fire going and got some food in me before I decided to go back to the same pier I was just fishing on. I got back to that pier at about 5:45PM and there was a family there fishing. Guess what? They were from the Detroit area too! Weird how it seems I'm the only one from the Toledo area there. Any-who, they were picking off bluegills along the edge with their heavy action poles set up with bobbers and waxworms. I did the same, only with my ultra light. I cast out my heavy action and medium action poles with nightcrawlers off the bottom, but didn't get any bites off them. I was able to land six more bluegills with the waxworms on my ultralight. The family of six had the catches of the day though. I didn't see the first one get caught, but about 7:30PM one of their poles get thumped on pretty hard. Picture it-a heavy action pole with a bell doubling over so far down that the tip was damn near hitting the water surface. After a good fight it was a big ol' carp, and after seeing them put it on their stringer I saw the one I didn't see them catch. Both were pretty impressive, about 25" and as big around as 12-14" around. They were caught on not worms. Not minnows. Not a lure. They were both caught on corn. I'd have to say that this was the first time I had seen any fish caught on corn, but have heard it used and successful on numerous occasions. I decided to call it a night about 9:15PM when it started getting real dark there.
Tuesday was another interesting day. I went to the pier that I've often called "Rough Fish Row" or sometimes "Junk Fish Row" because compared to the other pier on the other side of the parking lot, is where for whatever reason gets more sheephead, and has probably just as many longnose gars and where I've caught a 20" bowfin before while camping two summers ago. I don't know why I've caught more sheephead there compared to the other pier, because they are connected through a small channel under a bridge.
When I was walking up there about 7:30AM there was a guy already fishing there, and had been fishing there since 3AM with no luck. If memory serves me right, his name was Ed and eventually his friend Wes stopped by from fishing another spot at the park, both from Troy, MI (near Detroit). I was using the same two poles cast out off the bottom with minnows, and a minnow under a bobber and none of the three was getting a lot of action. Even after pulling in the bobber to use my waxworms under my ultralight I wasn't getting a lot of action. The two friends were using nightcrawlers. About 10AM after Wes went back to their car to take a nap, I let Ed use a minnow and cast on my side of the pier. He was using two hooks, one with the minnow and another with a crawler. After about twenty minutes he was reeling in his pole and was feeling what seemed to be dead weight. He thought he was bring in a small log, or a root, or even some vegetation, and when getting it close found out it was actually quite the living breathing creature. It was a rather shy (comparatively) snapping turtle. Not the biggest you'll see but I'd say the shell from end to end was about 6" or so. Once on the pier it stayed in its shell, so we scooted it to the water after he took his leader off. Neither one of us wanted much ado with that. Not long after the turtle experience, I finally got my catch on my medium action pole-a 8" sheephead. Now you kind of see where I was going when I was calling the pier "Rough Fish Row". About noon I started getting quite a few gar bites on my heavy action pole, and for the most part I was whiffing on the hook sets. So I upped the pole with a 3 ounce sinker and went to a couple smaller hooks. The third hook worked the "best" because i actually got a longnose gar to the pier, before it spat the hook out. Actually, I couldn't feel it much I think because of the sinker. It wasn't as big as the one I hooked into Monday afternoon, probably not much bigger then a foot and a half long. Thing is though, after putting on the heavier weight, I was casting much further out which I'm going to start using on a more regular basis. Plus, my line is tighter. The main reason I wanted the heavier weight was because there was a bit of a breeze coming from the East, much like I was dealing with Monday. That and the current literally swirling around I thought it was the thing to do.
I called it at about 2PM after the gar bites slowed down, and I went back to the camp. After upsetting a second killdeer, the other's mate, I just continued to try and ignore it. Norm came back around to shoot the bull and helped me tighten the tent up. One of the rights on the corner of my tent was broke and missing a peg, so after we tightened things up we chatted for a few about fishing and camping, in which he told me he camps some in Harrison, MI, not too far from Alpena and not far from where I've camped almost 10 years ago.
I went back to the pier dubbed "Rough Fish Row" about 5:30PM and eventually got to talking to a fella named Jeff. Had never met him before but he was really interested in learning how to target the longnose gars, and wanted to pick my brain of what I knew about targeting them. After showing me pictures on his Facebook page via his phone I saw that he had caught himself a good number of northern pike and carp, and nice sized ones at that. But that evening we weren't having any luck with anything. He was trying a couple different lures, one of which did get a couple light taps. It was a crankbait that looked like a minnow. I was trying chicken livers on my heavy action, and nightcrawlers on my medium action off the bottom and under a bobber. The nightcrawler under the bobber did get a couple bites but nothing was caught that way. I went with my ultralight and waxworms but not much was biting off that. I did land a small bluegill with that gitty up but me and Jeff both ended up calling it at about 9PM or so.
Wednesday morning at about 8:30AM I went back to the pier I was on Monday. I got there with minnows cast off the bottom with two poles and another pole with the bobber a foot or so above a minnow. After a couple hours of almost no biting my medium action started getting some action. I landed a 7" sheephead, followed up a little while later by a 10" sheephead. While doing so I was catching a few bluegills on my ultra light and waxworms set up. I ended up catching seven bluegills that morning and early afternoon. The smallest of which was the last one I caught, it was the size of my thumb. I ended up cutting its stomach and casting it out on my heavy action rod. Within 20 minutes I found out what *may* have been hitting my line a week and a half prior while using cut bluegill as bait. I caught a 27.5" longnose gar. I meausred it, took a picture of it on my phone, and released it. I caught that about 1:30PM and ended up going back to camp around 2:30PM after not having much biting action after catching the gar.
I went back to the pier about 5:45PM and went with the two poles off the bottom with the nightcrawlers and the bobber again above the nightcrawler. There wasn't much going on that evening. In fact, nothing for me. I tried jigging along the sides of the pier with crawlers with no luck. There's literally nothing to really mention. No body was having any luck on the pier. A couple people were catching bluegills along the sides with panfish worms but other then that not a lot happening. I ended up calling it a day about 9:15PM or so after not getting a bite that evening.
After taking a shower Norm invited me to his camp and visit for a few. Even though I wasn't exactly hungry, Norm insisted I eat with them, in fact handing me hot dog after hot dog after brat. Had a few laughs in the meantime and it was a good time to be had, but about midnight I was feeling like some sleep was needed so I turned in for the night.
Thursday morning at about 9:15AM I went to the pier I've dubbed "Junk Fish Row" armed with more waxworms and minnows. Trouble was, they were biting me much like Wednesday night. Waxworms along the side wasn't working. Minnows off the bottom wasn't working except for a good jerk about noon. Minnow under a bobber wasn't working. About 11:30AM or so the before mentioned Jeff showed up. He was asking about the gars and if they've been surfacing in which I replied that a few did but not as many as normal. He brought with him a lure he made, a rope lure but not one I had imagined I would see and actually cooler then I could've expected. When rope had been brought up on one website forum or another I always figured one about the size and shape of a Tootsie Roll. Don't ask me why, that's what I pictured. What Jeff had was quite more detailed, with it being white with strings coming out of the back of it so when he cast it the ends will show up like a minnows or bait fish's tail. Quite clever and looks like it would work.
About 1:45PM I decided to take a break from fishing to close out my campsite, and I came back to the pier about 3:30PM armed with fresh minnows. I went to the opposite side of the pier at the end near where Jeff was still fishing. I took some stuff to the spot and then went back to the car to retrieve a few more things and got caught talking to a fella who was wondering where in the park to take his kids fishing. The fellas name was Terrell. I talked them into coming down and joining me and Jeff. Before I could come back to the pier Jeff had hooked into a big snapping turtle. I can't stress that word enough, it was BIG! I helped him net it up and take a couple pictures of it before it was released. I'd say in weight it had to be a good 10 pounds at the very minimum, a foot across, and about 18" long. That's just the shell! I'm sure there's other big turtles in there, and that might not the biggest some of you reading this have seen, but that's gotta be the biggest snapping turtle I've ever seen-anywhere, and certainly the biggest I've seen there. It hit on a bluegill Jeff previously caught before I left to tend to my campsite. Not long after that was when the bluegills gave me the reasoning I needed to why I decided to do some more fishing before I left the park. I was catching them like nobody's business at the very end of the pier, straight down, with waxworms. Several of them being the size of my hand if not a couple hairs shorter. Don't get me wrong folks, I was looking for some big gars, maybe some big ol' catfish too, but I love catching bluegills and catching even the little ones are fun as hell especially on an ultra light.
After catching about 15 or so bluegills lightning fast I was asked by one of Terrell's sons how I was catching them so fast and I told them my methods, and they started trying that on their end of the pier. I caught a few more and noticed they were having the same luck I was having that morning-they weren't catching anything. So I made a decision that I'm glad I made. One of the kids came by to see me catch a couple bluegills and I offered the end of the pier to them. It was quite strategic honestly, and something the fishing gods look for. I knew the kids could go three wide at the end and catch their bluegills, but I knew also that I had two rods rigged for gars, sheephead, and catfish and I can still fish a corner post near where they were and still pick off my bluegills. The biting started slowing down after 7PM (Jeff had left at about 6PM but did so after we exchanged phone numbers and pictures) but there were still a couple bluegills caught by Terrell, his kids, and me. About 9PM everybody decided to call it a day. I caught about two dozen bluegill, give or take about five, that evening.
My only regret this trip was not being able to properly say goodbye to Norm, or at least have someone tell him for me. I did knock on his camper door before I left the campsite Thursday afternoon but no one was there. All I really know about Norm is that he runs a Valvoline Oil Change and has for 26 years, and I believe it to be near Exit 37 or 36 off I-75 in Southgate, or maybe it's Southfield. Its one or the other. He's a bigger guy, and looks a lot like Rex Ryan-the head coach for the New York Jets football team. I hope one day I can bump into him and thank him for his help on my tent and for feeding my face Wednesday night.
I have to say that this was the fourth year in a row camping there at Sterling State Park, all roughly the same time a week after the July 4th craziness that all campsites see. Honestly, the last few weeks I've thought about maybe doing a different camping trip somewhere else the same time next year. I had so much fun this time around, probably the most fun I've had camping solo there or anywhere else, that I think there's no doubt that next year at this time I'll once again be camping there. For the few days of East winds the fishing wasn't that bad, not as bad as one would expect. In fact, the last night was the best by far and away in the four days and almost 40 hours of fishing. Of the 8 species I expected the catch, I caught three-longnose gar, sheepheads, and bluegills. Unfortunately I didn't catch some good sized carp, channel catfish, bullhead, smallmouth bass, and largemouth bass. But there are really nice fish still there, and like I tell people the longnose gars are thriving there at Sterling State Park. In talking with people, there's actually a couple people picking up the hobby of targeting, with a hook, line and sinker, longnose gars. In the parking lot, upon exiting the park Thursday night a guy was fishing a different pier with his kids and hooked into three gars, landing one that was about three feet long. Having seen photos of the catch, I'd say its a good estimate.
In closing, it was a really awesome trip. I couldn't have asked for a better four days. Other then a brief shower Monday evening the weather was quite pleasant for this time of year. I'd like to thank the fine folks who work at Sterling State Park who learned me a couple things about killdeers, and also for maintaining the park. There are several reasons why I go there and fishing isn't the only reason. I'd like to find a way to thank Norm, and thanks to everybody else who was camping there and fishing there. There was a lot of great conversation and very soon plan on meeting up with Jeff again there to target some big longnose gars.
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