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Grayling/Fish Conservation in Michigan

Grayling Railroad Line

Click here for enlarged image

The image featured above is a promotional map of the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad's "Fishing Line." This railway transported many 19th-century tourists to Michigan's fish-abundant waters. From the state's earliest days, it was renowned as a fishing paradise. This tradition continues, as sportsmen and sportswomen await the last Saturday of April, when Michigan's fishing season begins.

Perhaps today, we'll know not to take such wonderful resources for granted. The story of the Michigan grayling (depicted in the image above) remains as a cautionary tale. This fish existed nowhere else in the Midwest, but thrived in Michigan. Some 19th-century accounts describe grayling lying in the Au Sable River "like cordword." Sadly, the species has vanished from Michigan's streams.

The booming 19th-century lumber trade has been directly linked to its extinction. Harvested logs were floated down the river to saw mills. Frequent logjams destroyed grayling spawning grounds, while log sediment caused serious silting on the river bottoms. Tree removal also brought shade removal, and rivers soon became too warm for the cold-climate fish. Although some species of grayling still exist in parts of the Western U.S. (including Alaska) and Canada, grayling haven't been seen in Michigan since the 1930s. (The Michigan Department of Natural Resources maintains a Web page with more information. Click Michigan Grayling Only a Memory to visit it.)

The need for fish conservation thus became evident fairly early. A gentleman named N.W. Clark established a private trout hatchery in Clarkston (in Oakland County) in 1867. Michigan Public Act No. 124 of 1873 established a State Board of Fish Commissioners. This Board was charged with "the artificial propagation and cultivation of white fish and such other kinds of the better class of food-fishes as they may direct…" Later that year, the Board established the first state fish hatchery at Crystal Springs (about six miles from Niles) in Cass County. (Powers and duties of the State Board of Fish Commissioners were transferred to the newly formed Department of Conservation in 1921. This agency was renamed the Department of Natural Resources in 1968.)

The Board stepped up its fish stocking efforts in 1888, when it acquired its first railroad car. With this, the Board was able to transport fish from its hatcheries to lakes and rivers throughout the state. Another rail car, nicknamed "the Wolverine" replaced the original in 1913 and was operated until 1938. By then, the prominence of motor vehicles - and the greater number of fish hatcheries - largely made the car unnecessary. (For further information on fish hatcheries and fish cars, see "The Fish Who Rode the Rails" by Mark Harvey, Michigan History, March/April 2003, pp. 19-27.

Michigan's private citizens have also taken up the cause of fish conservation. Among the most prominent is Trout Unlimited. TU formed in Grayling, Mich., in 1959 and is now a national organization. On its Web site, the Michigan Council of Trout Unlimited notes that it "works with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the United States Forest Service, the county drain commissioners, and others" to "conserve Michigan watersheds that support wild trout and salmon." For more information, click Michigan Council of Trout Unlimited and visit the MCTU web site. Click Trout Unlimited to visit the Web site of the national Trout Unlimited organization. Those interested in the origins of Trout Unlimited might also enjoy reading the book For the Love of Trout by TU founder George A. Griffith. A copy can be obtained at the Library of Michigan.

The Archives of Michigan houses a number of materials on fish conservation in Michigan. State Board of Fish Commissioner records date back to 1888, and fish hatchery correspondence and reports begin in 1886. Records of the Department of Conservation/Department of Natural Resources are available for research, and the Archives contains relevant private collections, as well. The latter include records of the Michigan Council of Trout Unlimited.

-Bob Garrett, Archivist

Click Archives of Michigan to visit the Archives of Michigan home page.

Click Archives Image of the Month to see archived image pages.

Archives of Michigan
Michigan Library and Historical Center
702 W. Kalamazoo Street
Lansing MI 48913
Phone: (517) 373-1408

This page was the Archives of Michigan Image of the Month page for April, 2006.

Updated 07/31/2006

Michigan Historical Center
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