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  • Robert Bruce Adams

The River Sings Its Song

"Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after." Henry David Thoreau

"Well, then what is it?" Robert Bruce Adams

IN LATE SEPTEMBER I fished the Platte River in northern Michigan with my oldest son Rob. He was visiting from Denver. The early morning air refreshed us as we fished the river from its perched and sandy banks. We stepped lightly through the dew-covered grasses that lined the edge of the river and took in the air’s cardamom-like aromas as we cast our shiny lures into the moving water. Somehow, we avoided snagging our lines. This brought smiles to our faces, acknowledging to each how skillfully we handled our fishing rods. During our brief trek, I must admit, no fish were taken, we didn’t even see any.

It occurred to me that this river had many stories to offer. I knew the river had likely been filled with salmon earlier in the month coming in from Lake Michigan where they would spawn further inland and then die, completing their life’s mission. That’s the part I thought I knew, but as I was to learn, there was so much more to this story.

I was inspired to go back and read the accounts of the salmons’ introduction to the Great Lakes. It is a tale of the adaptive nature of these magnificent fish, and about a fish biologist named Howard Tanner who had a vision to introduce salmon to our waterways for sports fishing. He acted on a hunch that these fish, native to the Pacific Northwest, would readily establish themselves in the Great Lakes. I learned that it had been tried several times before with little success.

In my discovery, I visited a hatchery east of Honor where the stocking all began and continues to this day; I then visited the man-made weir in Traverse City where salmon harvests are now performed in the fall. I wanted to experience firsthand the various sites that supported the salmons’ life-cycles.

With man’s oversight, the rivers and lakes all worked together allowing the salmon to move through the waterways to mature out in the Great Lakes. After a few short years, the salmon come back through these tributaries to where they were once released. Many of the fish will be met by man at the retention weirs with a task to collect the females’ eggs. Most eggs are destined for the handful of hatcheries throughout the Great Lakes to start the miracle again. After this late summer migration, the fish are properly disposed of having completed their life cycle. This is an awesome story. Imagine, all this right in my backyard in Northwest Michigan.

I learned that Tanner had been hired as the head of Michigan Fisheries in 1964. This assignment came after he had served ten years in the Colorado Rockies in fish management. This decade long internship would set the stage for his own maturation in his native Michigan and help in his ultimate success. The challenge was this: Invasive species had infiltrated the Great Lakes and such critters as sea lamprey and alewives were thriving as the result of human error when they were released in the waterways of upper New York in the 1930s. After a few decades, their proliferation caused a reduction in our native lake trout and perch populations, both favorites of sport fishermen. This single event forever altered the fish species that would be found in the Great Lakes.

Tanner assembled a diverse team of specialists who devised a bold plan to successfully introduce Pacific Coho, and later, Chinook salmon to our Great Lakes. It demonstrated how a single voice can bring change. Knowledge and good fortune became co-conspirators allowing a very successful introduction. Tanner’s primary goal was to make sport’s fishing fun again. Salmon are fierce fighters and when hooked their feisty temperaments add to the angler’s enjoyment.

I recalled earlier in the decade when alewives lined the once pristine beaches during their natural die-off, the result of having no major predators. The introduced salmon began feeding on the alewives. This newer food chain would evolve and soon lead to cleaner beaches, especially along Lake Michigan. The salmon flourished and fisherman began appearing in droves bringing a new prosperity to the towns and villages that dotted the shorelines and rivers of the Great Lakes. Salmon-mania had arrived beginning in 1966.

Like most bold moves, it carries with it controversy and introduces the familiar Monday morning quarterbacks. After fifty-years, there are many pundits offering their own approaches wanting to return to native species through newer management methods. It seems man is always correcting some act of their earlier doing. Have you noticed this? It is quite apparent that this newer approach will be at the expense of the salmon populations. I appreciate both sides of the issue. Regardless, all positions today are about actions that depend on man’s continued intervention, and hopefully, we will find some acceptable balance of competing interests.

I am thankful to be able to enjoy the recovery of clean water that was a requirement for healthy fish habitats. I do remember the contamination of our Great Lakes when I was a young boy. Sixty years ago, industrial pollution had gone basically unchecked, and in an advanced society this was unacceptable. Voices were heard, and the electorate demanded changes in our nation’s priorities. The importance of proper management of our waterways is essential. We must support clean water initiatives and pay for this infrastructural requirement as it is the only acceptable pact. Let’s hope our politicians, with the input of our biologists and the electorate, choose wisely.

Native Americans taught us that every creature is a member of the sacred hoop and that all actions by man should consider their effect many generations out. This is a vision that energizes me. I smile about my passion for our Great Lakes and I reflect on Tanner’s legacy. The man took bold action, and I like that trait and am thankful to be one of the beneficiaries of his hunch.

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