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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. 

Continue on for the full story that originally ran in the May 2018 issue of Traverse Magazine, available at MyNorth.com.