How to drink your way through the fishing day: Upper Great Lakes

Your guide to the best beers, wines and spirits in the upper lakes of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan
bent paddle brewing
Photo: Tom Hazelton

It doesn't really feel like summer up here until the solstice hits; I've always felt a little righteous about that. First day of summer, both on the calendar and outside. And in the Upper Great Lakes, the longest day of the year generally coincides with the start of the best fishing of the year. So we—myself and whoever I can drag along; this year, my wife—pack the truck and hit the road for a week or so.

Chasing fish in the Upper Lakes in the summer is really more about chasing insects. The big bugs of summer are Ephemera simulans, Isonychia bicolor, and Hexagenia limbata. There's other fishing to be done but these guys are the headliners and the schedule-makers. The hatches generally move from south to north, so a well-timed weeklong trip, with a little windshield time and a lot of luck, can hit all three.


We start with Ephemera, the Brown Drake. They're just winding down now on a certain northern Wisconsin stream. It doesn't get truly dark up there until nearly 11, and if a spinner fall's going to happen, it'll be around then.

Which means that even if we leave after work, we'll still have time to stop at Duluth's Bent Paddle Brewing Company. Last year, Bent Paddle was blacklisted from a number of northern Minnesota liquor stores and bars after joining a business coalition in opposing the foreign mining interests that are trying to introduce hard-rock copper mining to the water-rich wilderness upstream of Lake Superior. Like Bent Paddle, I'm generally pro-water, and anti-acid mine drainage, so they're a must-visit.

bent paddle Kanū
Photo: Tom Hazelton

We get one of their Hydroflask growlers filled with the 14° ESB, a balanced carmely British-style ale that's pleasantly dry-hopped. We also grab a twelver of their newest release, Kanū, an approachable and refined session pale ale. At 4.8% ABV, it's nice for tapering off the stronger stuff as night goes on. Have to be sharp when the bugs pop.

And that night on the river, they do. Just as the last of twilight gives way to starlight, the brown drakes come out of the cedars, rustling like a delicate breeze, and do their spinner thing invisibly over the run. The fish aren't far behind--also invisible, but sounding anything but delicate. In an hour it's over, and we're muddy, bug-bit, and plenty sober for the swamp-slog back out to the dark road, where that growler (still tap-cold) and our sleeping bags await.


The Isonychia bicolor, introduced to me years ago in lower Michigan as the "White-Gloved Howdy," is the reason for the next evening's planned stop just past Escanaba. There's a stretch of tailwater that, despite its hatchery fish and heavy foot traffic, is just too fun to drive by. The fish are smart, selective, and fat--and besides, our six weights are still strung up from last night. The day's been hot and we'll get there just as the sun hits the treetops. Perfect Iso weather.

But as we roll up along the western edge of Green Bay and into Escanaba, a roiling black thunderstorm looms. On the radar it stretches in a red band from Menominee to Munising. So we make a right onto Ludington Street and wait out the storm at Escanaba's oldest brewery, Hereford & Hops. I get the Redemption IPA and my wife gets the Blackbird Stout. Both beers are good--the solid, if not exciting, kind you find at a small-town brewpub that's been around since long before the craft beer boom. They do have other local beers on tap, and if you're picky, the Blackrocks 51K IPA is an excellent alternative to the housemade stuff. The real reason to go to Hereford & Hops, in addition to the historic building, friendly staff, and surprisingly fishy locals, is their house-smoked corned beef, which comes stuffed into one hell of a $9.00 Reuben sandwich.

We step outside into golden sunset-light illuminating a ship graveyard and the towering stern of that thunderstorm, now heading east out over Little Bay de Noc. Highway 2 takes us the same direction. The Isos will have to wait; we have a date with the big lake in the morning.

lake michigan stranded ship
Photo: Tom Hazelton


We meet up with Dave Karczynski at a remote northern Lake Michigan reef and proceed to put some beach-miles on our wading boots. Luckily, a Grayl-press of cold Lake Michigan water and a pint of Two Hearted Ale takes them off again. Carp are present in ones and twos, cruising mostly out of range. The ones we get shots on do not eat. Luckily, there are a few smallmouth bass around, terrorizing the rocky flats in erratic fashion like schools of small trevallies. If presented a small enough Clouser minnow with a long enough lead, they will eat, as Dave found out after finally peeling a fish off of a pack of fast movers as Amy and I watch from the beach.

Bottles of Two Hearted Ale used to have a blurb on the label about "Hemingway-esque adventures in the U.P." Too bad they changed it, given the nature of this trip--but then again, we're not in the U.P. any more. And then again, Hemingway wasn't really writing about the Two Hearted River anyway.

lake michigan carp
Photo: Tom Hazleton

Honestly, I'd forgive Bell's just about any sin so long as they don't change Two Hearted. This 100% Centennial hops American IPA just bumped Pliney the Elder off the coveted top spot on the Zymurgy "Best Beers in America" list. I forgave them when they changed the art on their cans from brook trout to a carp, especially after I learned the story behind the label art, which involves native brookies and Judge Voelker. There's probably no beer more spiritually-connected to the U.P. than Two Hearted.

bells two hearted ale
Photo: Tom Hazelton

But today we're in the Lower Peninsula, drinking Two Hearted from trout-painted cans while fishing for carp. We can see the U.P. though, across a strait that's in the news a lot lately. If you need another reason to grab a fourpack of Bell's next time you see it, they're a founding member of the Great Lakes Business Network, a group that advocates for the shutdown of an Enbridge Energy pipeline. Line 5 is 63 years old, and threatens hundreds of waterways on its route across the U.P. and lower Michigan, and crosses the very heart of the Great Lakes, the Straits of Mackinac--carrying 540,000 barrels of crude and natural gas per day. Even a small spill in the Straits would certainly oil the beach we're on right now.


So began a few days of double-ender candle-burning: fishing the flats during the high sun and then setting up on a stretch of sandy river at dusk, hoping for big bugs. And it's mostly about hope, if you're not able to be on the river every night. A hot day--and it's been hot--helps to get the Hexagenia limbata going, but they're ultimately on their own schedule. Occasionally you wish so hard for bugs, and then you get bugs, but no fish show up. Some nights that still feels like a win, and some nights you feel stupid for wishing for the wrong thing.

 icecold Death's Door gin
Photo: Tom Hazelton

After all day in the sun, we're now waiting for it to set. Helping are ice-cold Death's Door gin and tonics from our camp coffee mugs, and we're doubly refreshed as a breeze from the cool alder swamp replaces the dusty pine forest air. The gin is unassuming but well-regarded and drinkable, especially for being one of the first craft gins on the market and priced below $30. It's distilled in Wisconsin, using red winter wheat and juniper berries from Lake Michigan's Washington Island at the mouth of Green Bay. The Island, which we'd have been able to see from the flats today if the Earth were a little less round, is separated from the mainland by a small passage called Porte des Morts--Death's Door, after native tragedies the French learned of when they showed up in the 17th century. Today it's a charming ferry route for tourists and farmers, and in case the Death's Door Spirits needs a karma boost for taking the name, they focus on local, sustainable farming and are a member of the green business network 1% For The Planet.

Wisconsin brown trout night
Photo: Tom Hazelton

Bottom line: the coriander and fennel make for a citrusy yet smooth time-passing G&T, which is good. It'll be several more hours before the Hex go. If they go. Pour me another.

Other Mentionables

When 20-knot winds blew us off the flats, we avoided the crowds in Traverse City and wandered into Petoskey, where Petoskey Farms Vineyard and Winery had just opened a small, modern tasting room. We favored their Romance full-bodied red and Late Harvest semi-dry Riesling (both 2016s). According to Amy, who (unlike me) has learned a lot from our visits to New York’s Finger Lakes and California’s Sonoma and Napa regions, recalibrate your notion of “dry” and you’ll enjoy the experience.

A quick stop in Wisconsin’s central sands region for some last-day trouting means a last chance at a gas-station six pack. We chose the Rift IPA from Central Waters Brewing Co. of Amherst, Wisconsin. It might be Wisconsin’s best new IPA and, if we’ve learned anything on this trip, it’s that when possible, your beverage should come from the same watershed as your trout.


An immensely entertaining paean to undrinkable beers.....