Tag Archives: fish

Restoring Fish Populations on the Boardman, 1920 to the Present

Image of The Shack on the Boardman River, surrounded by a landscape devastated by human influence., ca. 1915. Image courtesy of the Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection (3315).

by S.A. McFerran, B.A. Environmental Studies, Antioch University

A cognoscenti of fishers met at “The Shack” that was located on the Boardman River near the community of Keystone. Operated by Traverse City Fly Club founder and barber, Art Winnie, and frequented by nine of his friends, The Shack was a fishing camp that encourage anglers to fish stretches of the Boardman River, South of Boardman Lake. There was much to discuss at The Shack meetings because the grayling were disappearing and the banks of the river were in tatters due to logging and dams.

A diary of activities at The Shack was kept. The first entry was March 3, 1913.  Visitors such as conservationist Harold Oswald Titus and Remington Kellogg of the United States Biological Survey joined members for fishing trips on the Boardman River. Also noted in the Shack Diary was the planting of fish in the Boardman River and its tributaries. (1)

The milk cans that were dropped off at the Keystone train station each contained 2000 trout. The water in the cans had to be changed hourly until the fish were released into the Boardman and its tributaries. Creeks flowing into the Boardman River such as Beitner, Thorpe, Bonath, Jaxon, Sleight and Hogsback all received trout raised in the state fish hatchery.

With the forest gone, erosion washed sand into the Boardman and the sun warmed the water. Dams also warmed the water and blocked the movement of fish up and down the river. The elegant structure of the Grand Traverse ecosystem was reduced to a shack, and the grayling died. Self-appointed architects of the ecosystem at The Shack did the one thing they could think of: add fish to the water so that they could catch fish.

The Shack Diary entry dated April 3 – 4, 1920: “Planting Liberty Brown trout as follows: Thorpe Creek,10,000. Shack below the bridge, 10,000. Shack Creek above the bridge, 10,000. From Umlor down in Hogsback Creek, 4,000. Boardman River, 20,000. Between Summit City and Keystone there were planted 294,000 trout of which 112,000 were brook and 182,000 were Liberty Brown.” (The name “German Brown” was changed to “Liberty Brown” in response to anti-German sentiment related to World War I.)

Fisheries meeting are always contentious. Image from the Hanley Wilhelm album, Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

The Shack members had a shortsighted view: If the fishing was good, all was well. The State of Michigan provided the fish to support the efforts of these sportsmen, but not to create an environment in which these fish would naturally thrive. In retrospect the answer is: river restoration. The answer still is river restoration that takes an ecosystem view and includes fish stocking as one measure of the restoration.  If the river ecosystem is functioning and habitat cared for the fishing will be good.

River restoration seeks to link ecosystems. The Grand Traverse Bay once teemed with fish and some moved from the Boardman to the open water. Coregonids, a very important and numerous mid-tropic level fish that were preyed on by the trout spawned in the open water of the Bay. The Shack cognoscenti were well aware that the elegant structure of the ecosystem had been lost. Art Winnie: “But here’s where we always put the conservationists…let the perch spawn . . . once every two or three years. Let them spawn and get a new breed in. Then they’d be comin’ pretty good. Look how they used to come up the river.” (2)

Looking downstream from one of the Boardman River Electric Light & Power dams, undated. Image from the Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

Captain Boardman built his dam in 1847, and the electric power Boardman Dam was built in 1894. The Sabin dam was built in 1907. The Keystone dam was built in 1909. In 1921 the Brown Bridge dam was built. The Boardman dam was rebuilt in 1931. Each of these actions were major disruptions to the ecology of the Boardman River. Dams were also built on the upper reaches of the Boardman River in Kalkaska, South Boardman and Mayfield’s Swainston Creek. (3)

There was disruption of the river ecosystem and disruption of the large Grand Traverse Bay that once teamed with whitefish, herring and cisco. The bay was host to “pound nets” that devastated corigonids.  The State of Michigan managed the river and open water separately. Progress is now being made in raising coregonids in the state hatcheries. There will be another attempt to re-introduce grayling.

With the removal of the Boardman Dam and the Sabin Dam the only barrier that will remain to upper stretches of the Boardman is the Union Street Dam. The restoration of the Boardman River could mean the restoration of fish populations in the Grand Traverse Bay.

A fisherman of The Shack. Image from the Hanley Wilhelm album, Traverse Area District Library Local History Collection.

A cognoscenti of fishers will meet January 18, 2018 to consider the passing of fish from the Bay to the River and River to Bay. Restoration of the elegant structure that once rested on both streams where small fish were hatched and the big bay where fish grew big will be considered. Architects of the ecosystem now have access to resources that Art Winnie and the boys who built The Shack could only dream of.

But will an elegant structure that resembles the ecosystem that once stood be able to be built? I think not.

For more information on the FishPass Project, visit the Great Lakes Fishery Commission website. The next meeting of the Boardman River Implementation Team will take place on January 18th,  from 1:30-3:30 p.m. at the Traverse City Governmental Center, Commission Chambers, 400 Boardman Avenue, Traverse City, MI. Meetings are open to the public.

Stewart. A. McFerran teaches a class on the Natural History of Michigan Rivers at NMC and is a frequent contributor to the Grand Traverse JournalMany of his contributions, including this piece, are written as a direct result of interviewing people with stories to tell.


(1) Grand Traverse County Historical Society. Currents of the Boardman.

(2) Art Winnie interview

(3) https://gtjournal.tadl.org/2017/jack-robbins-and-the-tortured-landscape-of-the-boardman-river-valley/

Fisheries Heritage Trail forms to link Michigan Historic Fishing Villages

Fisheries Heritage Trail Inaugural Meeting, Fall 2017. Image courtesy of the author.

by S.A. McFerran, B.A. Environmental Studies, Antioch University

A new group recently met at Fishtown in Leland to initiate the Fisheries Heritage Trail. The trail will link historic fishing villages throughout the Great Lakes. It will provide access to historic archives relating to commercial fishing as well as the sites occupied by shoreline communities where fishers lived.  The effort is sponsored by Sea Grant, Michigan Maritime Museum, the Pokey Huddle Institute and NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and others.       

Fresh Great Lakes fish bought in the market are caught by commercial fishers, sports fishers are not allowed to sell fish they catch by hook and line. Commercial fishing operations still use classic high deck tugs that can protect the crew from the weather all year round. The tug I worked on had a coal stove that really kicked out the heat. Trap net commercial operations use vessels with low decks and generally only fish in good weather.

It was decreed with consent that the sports/commercial fishing divide would be defined by kinds of fish caught as well as fishing methods. Commercial fishers catch coregonids, whitefish, chubs, cisco and herring. These native fish of the genus coregonus live in all parts of Great Lakes waters and throughout colder regions of the globe. Sports fishers catch large predator fish that are raised in hatcheries and have biometric tags inserted in their heads as they are released.

As the 20 year period of the consent decree approaches the end, it is apparent that the fisheries resources pie has changed since 2000. While some species have declined others have increased such as walleye in the Saginaw bay. Many feel it would be appropriate to allow commercial walleye fishing in the Saginaw Bay. Randall Claramunt of the DNR has recently talked about “paradigm shift” due to changing fish populations. 1.

The catch of native whitefish (coegonus cupaliformis) in Lake Michigan and Huron is still substantial, 2.2 million pounds in 2015. The trap nets whitefish are caught in stand on the bottom of the lake in shallow areas and are pulled up and checked for fish. The tugs set gill nets that can stand at depths of hundreds of feet.

Commercial fishing vessel at Leland, Fall 2017. Image courtesy of the author.

Aquaculture in Michigan is in service of sportsmen. Sportsfishermen are fishing harder with their hooks and lines for the non-native game fish raised in State of Michigan Hatcheries. The State government has a firm hold on aquaculture and an enthusiastic constituency of sportsmen. As the ecosystem changes and the “consent decree” expires it is time to rethink how fisheries in Michigan are managed. With an eye to history, thoughtful decisions can be made with the consent of stake holders. Many who buy fresh Great Lakes fish in the market recognize the efforts of commercial fishers. Efforts to expand aquaculture operations in Great Lakes waters are long over due.

The Great Lakes Fisheries Heritage Trail can provide perspective on how the fisheries resource has changed. The Consent Decree renegotiation is an opportunity to envision a new paradigm. Former commercial fishers and others knowledgeable in fisheries issues support the expansion of commercial fishing and aquaculture in the open waters of the Great Lakes. State governments have the expertise to manage such operations without interfering with sportsmen as they take their boat rides in fine weather.

1. “King salmon reign becomes more precarious on changing Great Lakes”; Keith Matheny, Detroit Free Press Published, Oct. 23, 2017

Stewart. A. McFerran teaches a class on the Natural History of Michigan Rivers at NMC and is a frequent contributor to the Grand Traverse Journal.

Darwin’s Finches of the Great Lakes: Whitefish before and after commercial fishing

By Stewart A. McFerran, Benzie resident and instructor of The Natural History of Great Lakes Fish for Northwestern Michigan College’s Northern Naturalist Program.

Nets, nets and more nets. Image courtesy of the author.
Nets, nets, and more nets. Image courtesy of the author.

I took a job as a deck hand for Lang Fisheries of Leland Harbor. Ross Lang operated the Joy and the Frances Clark, both commercial fishing boats. As one might expect, a commercial operation means catching fish for profit. Unlike charter fishing operations, we worked until the ice clogged the harbor and the steel hull could no longer break a path through ice packed into Leland Harbor.

The Frances Clark was a classic high-decked Great Lakes fishing tug. Everything inside was dedicated to the lifting of nets. Nets could be set in the deepest part of the lake. When the net came in through the side near the bow, fish were taken out and put in boxes. The net was carefully stacked in a different kind of box ready for “set back” out the back of the boat.

"Lifter," equipment used in Michigan tugs to pull up nets full of catch, sometimes going down several hundred feet. Image courtesy of the author.
“Lifter,” equipment used in fishing tugs to pull up nets full of catch. Image courtesy of the author.

The crew, Ross and I worked at a table near the “lifter”. Ross steered and I stacked the net in a box. On days when there were lots of chubs in the net, it was slow going, sometimes taking from first light until the afternoon to lift.  The chubs, or Coregonus hoyi, are part of a genus including whitefish, cisco and lake herring. There were days we caught over a thousand pounds. I was a novice fisher but had the advantage of never getting sick.

We fished from Northwest of North Manitou Island to Platte Bay, some of the same waters that Magdalene (Lanie) Burfeind fished in 1869. She kept her boat at Port Oneida and sold her catch to the crews of the steamers that stopped at Port Oneida. In this description of seventeen-year old’s Lanie’s fishing methods, written in 1869 and published in The Evening Wisconsin newspaper in October of that year, she had:

been the master of a handsome craft and a set of ‘gill nets’. She puts them out early in April and continues them till late in the Fall. She is out every day at daylight and again in the evening in all but the roughest weather. She takes a younger sister with her to help set and draw the nets. She often brings in a couple of hundred fine lake trout white fish… Her white mast and blue pennon is known by people far along the coast. Boats salute her in passing.*

At the time Lanie Burfeind fished, there were ten known species of Coregonus living in different parts of the lakes. Miss Burfiend may have caught and sold coregonids that were never described and included in the genus.

Bloater, Coregonus hoyi. "Coregonushoyi". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coregonushoyi.jpg#/media/File:Coregonushoyi.jpg
Bloater, Coregonus hoyi. “Coregonushoyi”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coregonushoyi.jpg#/media/File:Coregonushoyi.jpg

Coregonus hoyi and culpeaformis were the fish Ross and crew caught in the Manitou Passage more than 100 years later. As the net came in so did other fish and objects from deep dark places 300 feet down. A cod relation, the “big, bad” Burbot, also known as “lawyer” came in over the side with the hoyi catch. Spiky Stonerollers, stream boat clinkers and the occasional trout came in with the chubs but often nothing else but Coregonus hoyi. They had the deep dark lake to themselves. On bad days Ross sped up the lifter and the net came in empty. In 1984, a net could stand on the lake bottom and catch nothing. Not so today; Bushels of quagga mussels foul nets as they filter the same zooplankton preferred by coregonids.

Chubby Mary at The Cove in Leland. Yum! Image courtesy of Scott Schopieray, https://flic.kr/p/6H96j2
Chubby Mary at The Cove in Leland. Yum! Image courtesy of Scott Schopieray, https://flic.kr/p/6H96j2

After months of releasing “chubs” from the net I began to be aware of the variation in color and shape. There were very slight differences in hue in the silver of the sides. Sometimes I wonder if I was witness to the last of a species of Coregonus that was sold as a “Chubby Mary” at the Bluebird in Leland. It is my understanding that the popular drink is no longer made with C. hoyi but with C. artidie. Not having a degree in mixology I can’t be sure.

(Editor’s note: Upon further inquiry, the “Chubby Mary” is still available for consumption at the Cove restaurant in Leland. Described as “part appetizer, part drink,” Chubby Mary is made with the house blood mary mix, a pickle, two olives, and lemon garnish to accompany the fish, a smoked chub served with pita chips. The servers were unsure what species of Coregonus is now used.)

The US Fisheries Commission reported in 1890 that whitefish and lake herring, (both within the group Coregonus), accounted for 58% of the commercial catch in Lake Michigan. At the time there were eleven commercial fishing boats operating in Benzie County and eleven in Leelanau. None in Grand Traverse. The Booth Company was developing a wide network to exploit fisheries and fishers in both American and Canadian waters.

Standard modern fishing tug, "Kathy," docked at Leland Harbor, May 2015. Image courtesy of the author.
Standard modern fishing tug, “Kathy,” docked at Leland Harbor, May 2015. Image courtesy of the author.

Coregonus nigripinnis was found in great abundance in the deep waters of Lake Michigan in 1890. Blackfin whitefish were “sought mostly in steam vessels and are taken in gill nets set 60 to 110 fathoms deep.” The longjaw whitefish (C. zenithicua) lived at similar depths but did not have black markings on the fins.

The Manitou Islands have little in common with the Galapagos Islands other than the fact that a unique group of species evolved over time in isolation. Diving in the Galapagos I saw many fish and I talked with fishers unloading shark fins. I saw finches flitting about under the table of the café at Puerto Ayora. As a coffee drinker I could not miss them under foot as they evolved a taste for biscotti. It was fascinating to see that same assemblage of species that Darwin had so famously observed.

As the ice receded from the Great Lakes the coregonids were at the margin 10,000 years ago. Like Darwin’s finches they were separated into different populations as the lakes rose and fell. Each group changed as the ice continued to melt. The populations responded to local conditions and donned different colors and shapes. Deepwater blackfins became the dominant planktivore in the fathoms of Lake Michigan. The pelagic longjaw coregonids are hard to spot in the deep remote places of the big lakes, but, like the finches, changed in response to the environment.

While inhabiting remote niches and not making big splashes, the Great Lakes coregonids are a group of fish with many names that reflect the wide distribution and importance of the group. Other species of Coregonus are: kiyi, bartletti, johannae, reighardi and hubbsi. Hoyi are thought to still be present in Lake Michigan and sometimes called “bloater chub”. The blackfin and shortjaw can still be found in Lake Superior. Coregonids evolved the ability to move in the water column by regulating buoyancy as they fed on zooplankton.

Fishing tug on display at Glen Arbor by the National Park Service.
Fishing tug on display at Glen Haven by the National Park Service. Image courtesy of the author.

Over time the Great Lakes fishing tug was perfected to a point where fish numbers were threatened. The “Lifter” was developed to pull nets from the deep regions of the lakes. The covered decks on the tugs allowed the fishing operations to continue into bad weather. One such vessel is on display at the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore in Glen Haven near where Lanie fished.

When the steamer Normon lay wooding up at Port Oneida in 1869, it was recorded that Miss Burfeind had delivered fish: “The clerk at the office tipped his hat to her as if he was in the presence of a Duchess. ‘That’s the smartest girl in Michigan,’ said the engineer as she passed out the gangway. The girl gave no heed to admiring glances and compliments that followed her, but straightaway sought her little fish cabin where she was mending nets, by the shore.”*

The decline of coregonids took place over many years. The introduction of chemicals and invasive species changed the ecology of the Great Lakes. Tiny eggs of C. kiyi and C. hoyi left to drift in the water column were gobbled up by unwanted intruders. The free floating C. zenithicus eggs were acted on by numerous kinds of chemicals. Ecological change has come to that water column in ways that biologists are still trying to understand, but it is clear that the diversity of the Coregonus group has been reduced since 1869.

It is unfortunate that the group has been so reduced. More than any other assemblage of organisms they evolved in the Great Lakes and represent the lake environment as true natives, just as finches represent the Galapagos Islands.

Stewart Allison McFerran has a degree in Environmental Studies and worked with Frankfort students on a robotics project. He led an Antioch College environmental field program to the Great Lakes and worked as a naturalist at Innisfree. He worked as a deck hand for Lang Fisheries and currently is an instructor at NMC Extended Education program. He lives on a Benzie stream. He did graduate studies in science education and was a Research Associate at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. He grew up on a Lake in Michigan where he caught and released many turtles from his rowboat “Mighty Mouse”. McFerran is a regular contributor to Grand Traverse Journal.

*Article on “Lanie”, Semi-Weekly Wisconsin (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), Sat, Oct 16, 1869, Page 3