The Revenant: What will it take for Michigan's wild Arctic grayling to return home?

A glittering, iridescent Arctic grayling flashing a spectacular fin along its backbone once reigned over 20 northern Michigan rivers. It’s a century gone. Can we bring it back?


before we were born

I’m looking at this black and white photograph, a view that captures the current of the Au Sable River at Grayling’s Stephan Bridge. It’s about 1900. In the foreground, the river meanders through clear-cut land dotted with logging camps. In the distance a silhouetted stand of trees seems to push the river toward me. A few shadowy figures in riverboats float through the barren landscape.

I sit a stone’s throw from where the photographer heard the sound of his shutter. Now, more than a century later, surrounded by a forest of Michigan evergreen, I’m hesitant to believe that this photo was actually captured here. But as I admire the phoenix forest, I know something important is still missing from this landscape: the once-dominant fish of the Au Sable, the Arctic grayling.

The unfurling comeback story of Michigan’s native Arctic grayling—a fish that disappeared nearly a century ago—drew me to the Au Sable’s shore. Today, more than 40 partners are working together to restore this species. But what will it take for Michigan’s wild Arctic grayling to return home? When I set out to find answers, my journey takes me from the heart of northern Michigan to the sweeping river valleys of Montana to the high offices of Lansing, and back again, to the Au Sable.

Josh Greenberg, owner of both the photo and Gates Au Sable Lodge, sits next to me. The Blue Ribbon Trout Stream just beyond the window has stories to tell. Fly fishermen have been coming here for generations to experience Michigan’s wild treasures, but the black-and-white photo, with its treeless landscape, hangs like a vivid memory on the wall of the dining room. “The riverboats that we use as trout guides were birthed here for running supplies between logging camps,” Greenberg says. “They’re an interesting connection to the logging and fishing history of Grayling, which used to be called Milltown. That’s what this area was known for [wood mills]. My understanding is that the logging practices that were used back in the day were not the best.”

cause and effect

For millennia, perhaps, no fish in Michigan rivaled the beauty of Arctic grayling. A band of gold dust outlined each pupil, a deep pool of darkness like the night sky. Just beyond the gills, a set of markings shaped like kiwi seeds. Their sleek torpedo-shaped bodies could measure more than 20 inches long. Armored in iridescent layers of silver or slate blue, no two fish were identical. But it was their sail-like dorsal fin that set them apart: a glorious crown that revealed electric striations in an array of colors like aquamarine blue.

Arctic grayling were native to more than 20 rivers in northern Michigan, including the revered Manistee and Au Sable, according to biologist Robert E. Vincent. By train, fishermen flocked north where they packed their creels. Brimful with salted Arctic grayling, barrels were loaded on to trains and shipped out. While fishermen kept their catches without limits, lumber barons cleared riverbanks. Lumberjacks cut the pines and hauled them to rivers, where tremendous loads of debris were unleashed downstream, leaving behind a cloud of sediment that smothered spawning beds. When state leaders caught on to the consequences of industrial scale logging, they organized small attempts to raise the “Lost Lady.” But without regulations for fishing and logging, Arctic grayling became extinct in Michigan. This sliver of history gives me a heavy heart.

On a bleak January day in Lansing, I comb through a bibliography about Arctic grayling of North America (composed by Robert E. Vincent in 1965). Here’s what I discover: in the 1870s, publications like Forest and Stream promoted fishing for Arctic grayling in Michigan. But by the 1880s fishing industry proponents dramatically changed their tone. As the 1900s dawned, dark words found their way into news stories that described Michigan’s dying species: “doom,” “annihilation,” “extinct.”

According to historical records, the last reported native Arctic grayling was caught in Michigan in 1936 on the Otter River in the Upper Peninsula. To put this loss into perspective, just imagine Michigan’s state fish, the brook trout, no longer existing here. If the headlines of the era accurately indicated how the public felt, people mourned.

As I talk with Josh on the banks of the Au Sable, I see a sorrowful grin take over his face. He clasps his hands and looks toward the river. The fish, he says, is remembered best in rumors. “A lot of families here have a lineage connection, and they’ll tell ya, ‘It was my great, great uncle who caught the last one,’” he says. “It seems like everyone has caught the last Arctic grayling in Michigan. In that way it’s become mythology. It’s a part of this community.”

The 40 groups joining to bring back the Arctic grayling today are not the first to try. A handful of attempts to stock hatchery-raised Arctic grayling were made in the 1900s. The most recent serious attempt was in the 1980s, when state biologists organized a project in which thirteen inland lakes and seven rivers were stocked with 145,000 young Arctic grayling. According to state biologist Andrew Nuhfer who, in 1992, wrote the Evaluation of the Reintroduction of the Arctic grayling to Michigan Lakes and Streams, they disappeared. Infection, hooking wounds, and challenges posed by introduced non-native species like brown trout and rainbow trout were factors. Perhaps most important: the planted Arctic grayling did not reproduce.

In his life, Josh is in the middle; decades that surprise us with wisdom and move us toward intention. Josh describes a day in the ’90s when he and his father went fly-fishing on Montana’s Big Hole River (along with Alaska, Montana is the only other state where Arctic grayling are native). With a small trico fly, his father reeled in two Arctic grayling. Josh was 14, and there to net them. As he recounts the story, his face lights up. “He was very excited, more excited than I was! But now, in retrospect, I’m probably more excited about it than he was. I realize how rare it is.” Josh and his father released both fish back into the river. 

montana lights the way

When I first learned about Arctic grayling in Montana, I wanted to pack my paintbrushes and fly rod, get in my car and head West, who knows, maybe to Grayling, Montana. Instead, I illustrated an Arctic grayling from this area and then found myself immersed in countless conversations with curious fishermen and enthusiastic biologists. I learned that Montana had brought its Arctic grayling back from the brink, and that Michigan was ready to mimic their plan. I called to learn more.

About 25 years ago—right around the time that Josh and his father released their fish back into the Big Hole River—biologists at the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks were on a mission to restore their own dwindling populations of Arctic grayling. Biologists focused on restoring habitat and working with ranchers to keep the program collaborative, voluntary—nearly essential in this state with legendary antipathy to federal government control. I want to know how Montana managed to do what Michigan couldn’t achieve in the 1980s. How did they get planted hatchery fish to reproduce naturally? So I called one of the program biologists from Montana’s Arctic Grayling Recovery Program.

After 10-minutes on the phone with fish biologist Emma Cayer, I can see she thrives on challenge. In the early 2000s, she hired on to Montana’s Arctic grayling recovery program. At the brood ponds, Emma would collect eggs to place inside incubators called Remote Site Incubators. Picture a five-gallon bucket filled with water and fish eggs. Inflow and outflow pipes let water pass through, but the eggs are protected inside. “Remote” means the incubators are installed in the wild, in streams within the Arctic grayling’s historical range.

The incubators required some babysitting because many factors couldn’t be controlled, like the weather. “There’d be a downpour at the upper end of the watershed that would get the flows raging!” Emma says. We’d run around to make sure the eggs weren’t getting washed out or buried in sediment.“ But the team didn’t mind the extra effort, because the incubators proved vital for raising fish that reproduce. Some scientists think that Arctic grayling imprint; like sea turtles and salmon, they probably return to their precise birthplace to reproduce, which assures them suitable habitat for their young. For Arctic grayling, this imprint process is thought to occur sometime around when they hatch in their natal stream. “Scientists are just starting to understand the role of early life imprinting,” says fisheries biologist Troy Zorn. Michigan did not use remote incubators during reintroduction efforts in the 1980s, but they intend to this time around— it gives me hope.

On idyllic trips, Emma and co-workers would ride on horseback to place eggs at incubation sites within the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. Every fall, the team returned to count how many young survived in the river. They looked at number of fish per mile and compared it to previous years, age group distribution and genetics. “We could say, Wow!” Emma says, “We’ve had nine years of natural reproduction in the Ruby River.” When they looked at genetic metrics, they discovered that some populations had doubled.

The Montana team developed a brood program, improved stream flow, researched lifecycle development, and, along the way, revived a piece of Montana culture that revolves around the Arctic grayling. Much of the work was only possible with funds from private donors, foundations, and organizations like Trout Unlimited.

Last year Emma moved to Alaska for an opportunity to work with threatened species, but she continues to share her Montana story with passion. Before our phone call ends, she shares details about how Michigan is making plans to follow in Montana’s footsteps. She leaves me with this: “Be willing to put in time.“

ripple effect

Just below the river’s surface, I envision seeing the flash of a wild Arctic grayling. The liminal space between my imagination and reality is a matter of time. I’ll be weathered—perhaps 20 years older—when this vision is possible in my home state.

In the public eye, it might appear that 21st-century efforts to restore Michigan’s Arctic grayling are new, but biologists at the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians have been working toward reintroduction for more than a few years now. Archie Martell, senior fisheries biologist at Little River Band visited biologists at Montana’s Arctic grayling recovery program. “Back in the 1980s, when Michigan tried reintroduction, they stocked hatchery-raised fish and they all went POOF! In Montana, we tested incubators, and we brought our experience back,” Archie says. Little River Band now looks to Montana as a partner.

When it comes to raising native fish, this isn’t Little River Band’s first ambitious undertaking. They’ve put in more than 14 years of work to restore native Lake Sturgeon in the Manistee River. In 2010 they received a Tribal Wildlife Grant from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to develop plans for Arctic grayling reintroduction. Frank Beaver, director of Natural Resources at Little River Band is committed: “This was an important species, a beautiful fish, a seasonal food source that Tribal members would’ve accessed, and it’s not here anymore.“

Frank and more than 60 people representing 32 organizations gathered at the Ralph A. MacMullen Conference Center, in Roscommon, on August 18, 2016. The day was historic, marking the official beginning of Michigan’s Arctic grayling Initiative. Led by the Fisheries Division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, partners begin laying the groundwork for a statewide effort to restore self-sustaining populations of Arctic grayling within its historical range.

The meeting materializes in an action plan. It spans five years and includes four focus areas: research, fish production, management, education and outreach. But all of this action needs funding, and here I have a bit of experience so I join in. Then I find myself in the last place a small-town-northern-Michigan-dweller expects or wants to be: the State Capitol.

where there is will

With a mission to help bring back the Arctic grayling, I step into the quiet office of Jim Dexter, chief of the Fisheries Division, Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He and his team oversee the many factors that make Michigan’s $7 billion fishing industry possible.

With assistant chief Todd Grischke, we talk through aspects of the Arctic grayling initiative that need to be funded in order to move forward. But before I can contribute, I need to understand the work that partners have been pursuing.

I start making phone calls. Cameron Goble, a Ph.D. student at Michigan Tech University, picks up the phone. Funded by a grant from Consumers Energy Foundation, he spent last summer researching river habitat for reintroducing Arctic grayling in the Upper Manistee watershed. Nicole Watson, a bright-eyed Ph.D. student at Michigan State University, meets me for lunch. She wears a silver necklace with a tiny Arctic grayling around her neck. Thanks to a grant from the Henry E. and Consuelo S. Wenger Foundation, Nicole will help us better understand imprinting.

Ed Eisch, a DNR fish production program manager, welcomes me to his Traverse City office where we work to find funding for a vital piece of equipment known as ultra violet water disinfection technology. This is crucial for developing a healthy brood stock at Oden State Fish Hatchery. To start Michigan’s brood stock, eggs will be sourced from Alaska. When Ed tells me that it could take three years before we see the first eggs placed in tributaries, I sigh, but let’s face it, biology is not about instant gratification. However collective perseverance can be miraculous, and now it’s evident across Michigan.

Although it will be a few years before we see Michigan’s first Arctic grayling eggs make their way from hatchery to tributaries where they will be placed in the remote incubators, we have reason to believe that this return will be much greater than the original investment.

heritage

Before I leave Lansing to head north, I check out an exhibition at The Michigan History Center. It’s called The River that Changed the World, and it highlights the history of the Au Sable. As I ponder the displays, the brighter side of history washes over me. I read about Calvin “Rusty” Gates, founder of Gates Au Sable Lodge; George Griffith, George Mason, founding fathers of Trout Unlimited, and Art Nuemann, who proclaimed, “Take care of the fish and the fishing will take care of itself.”

Their spirit is alive, still fighting in fact, for what’s believed to be the best for our fisheries. And I just can’t help but wonder, what would they make of seeing a wild Arctic grayling in the Au Sable, in the Maple, in the Pigeon, in the Manistee …? As I near the end of the exhibit, a magnificent fin catches my eye. I see an Arctic grayling mounted on the wall. Its color has dimmed, but it’s shining as if it has just been lifted from the river. For some this fish is a relic, but for me, it’s evidence of an endless story about to take its next breath.

A color photograph catches my eye and I stop to trace the faces that showed up for the Annual River Cleanup in 2013. In the heart of the photograph I come upon a familiar face: Josh. He’s kneeling with a young boy between his arms. One hundred people surround him.

When Josh and I last spoke, he told me of the ways that groups like Anglers of the Au Sable and Trout Unlimited protect wild and native trout. We both agreed that we’ve come a long way since the logging days of Milltown. I asked him how fishermen are generally feeling about Michigan’s Arctic grayling Initiative. Here’s what he shared: “There’s curiosity, and we’re just starting to get that little bit of imagination going in anglers who are thinking ‘I might actually catch one of these in my lifetime.’”

 

 

This story originally ran in the May 2018 issue of Traverse Magazine and is available at MyNorth.com.