By Drew YoungeDyke
This Michigan Outside column was originally published in the September 2019 issue of Woods'N'Water News.
The eroded green wooden oars pulled heavily under the surface of the lake to propel the ancient aluminum rowboat as I raced a thunderstorm back to the dock at my family’s cottage in the western Upper Peninsula last September. My core and shoulders burned like I was rowing on the Concept 2 at CrossFit. Self-propelled is a relaxing way to connect with the water and get in a workout at the same time, especially with an approaching thunderstorm.
The common denominator for the workout value of all forms of self-propelled fishing seems to be that the workout is most apparent when it’s time to come in after gradually sneaking up on you on the way out. That’s kind of what fishing is supposed to do: engage your mind so completely in the immediate activity that all your cares fade away – including, sometimes, how to get back. If you’re looking for ways to stay in shape in the outdoors, though, then fishing without a motor is probably the most relaxing way you can do it.
This was certainly the case a few weeks ago on a northern Michigan lake near Lewiston. I was fishing with my dad, my outdoor writer friend Chris Engle, and his daughter Paige. Chris paddled Paige around the lake in his canoe, I lent my dad my waders for some near-shore wading with a spinning rod, and I tried out my new used float tube for the first time, fly fishing meaty streamers for northern pike.
Float tube fishing is awkward at first, but fun. Unlike fishing from a kayak, I didn’t have to constantly paddle a little to reposition, stash the paddle securely, and then pick up my fly rod to make a cast. I just kicked the flns on my feet and slowly made by way along the drop-offs and weed edges, constantly casting and probing, micro-adjusting with my legs. And of course I got skunked, while Paige reeled a fine northern pike in to Chris’s canoe.
My dad left first; he’s not a fisherman, to which I give him twice the credit for coming fishing with me when I invited him and for taking my niece Elsa when she’s up at the family cottage. I know he’s there for us, not the fish. He told me later all that fishing gave him time to come up with some new plays (he coached football) and he wanted to draw them up before he lost them. Chris and Paige left a little later to play on the beach. I stayed out from morning to mid-afternoon, working the lake edge, working the weeds, working the lilly pads, with no bites. Paddling backwards back toward the takeout, my hamstrings had brief twinges of the cramps that I usually start to develop around the half-marathon mark of a trail race. And when you consider the constant scissor-kicking with water resistance that propels you around the lake in a float tube, it’s a similar low-impact endurance leg workout, but in reverse.
Kayaking a lake is more of total upper body workout. Last August I kayaked 30 miles from the Lake Michigan beach in Charlevoix, through the Pine River Channel, into Round Lake and around Lake Charlevoix over two days, bivouacking at Young State Park near Boyne City. Waves were high and my dry hatch leaked, so I even tipped, losing my grandpa’s old spinning rod near Horton Bay. I swam with one arm and towed my waterlogged kayak with the other toward shore until a boating family gave me a tow the rest of the way.
I drained the kayak and hugged the shore the rest of the way, fighting two- to three-foot waves most of the way. My core burned and my forearms cramped up from a workout like they’d never seen before. My back muscles pulled the paddle through the waves to relieve them, and I was glad to reach the campground where I could stop and rest in my hammock. The next day was much of the same all the way around to the South Arm of the lake.
River fishing is much more relaxing in a kayak, just letting the current carry you downstream and casting a well-placed popper to the smallmouth waiting behind a rock. Of course, if you’re fishing alone you must first paddle upstream against the current before you can coast back down. I took the float tube out on the Huron River a few weeks ago to do that, hugging the weed edge up and fishing it back, with a couple strikes but none I could set. I lost my Orvis “Predator Pounder” streamer, with my only consolation that its lead eyes are made of nontoxic material, so no water birds would be poisoned if they come across it at some future date.
It was up at the family cottage in the Upper Peninsula where I first learned to fish without a motor, though. I recently found an old photo of me rowing that same aluminum boat fishing with my Great-Uncle Bill on that lake when I was four or five years old. What I probably didn’t notice then, but sure notice in the photograph now, was the motor attached to the transom but propped out of the water. I don’t have to wonder now what he was trying to teach me on that fishing trip by having me row when he could have used the motor to get us around the lake. I understand it every time my fins propel my float tube, when my paddle pulled my kayak across Lake Charlevoix, and when those same oars rowed me to shore ahead of the storm.
Drew YoungeDyke is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer and a Director of Conservation Partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation, a board member for 2% for Conservation, a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers, and the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association, and a state-appointed member of the Pigeon River Country State Forest Advisory Council.
All posts at Michigan Outside are independent and do not necessarily reflect the views of NWF, OWAA, AGLOW, MOWA, the PRCAC, or any other entity.