June 17, 2019

Michigan’s Arctic Grayling Initiative: Reintroducing an Icon

By Nick Buggia, Upper Midwestern States Manager

In Michigan, water is what brings us all together. It doesn’t matter if you are from Detroit or Calumet, we all have memories and traditions that revolve around our lakes and rivers. If you are an angler, Michigan is a premier destination for fresh water fishing. Whether you want to troll on the big lakes or cast a fly in a secluded stream, the opportunity is there.

I grew up fishing on Saginaw Bay and around the Thumb of Michigan. Pike, walleye, salmon, and lake trout were all some of my favorite species to target. When I think of rivers like the Au Sable, Betsie, Huron, and Manistee, they bring back memories of camping, kayaking, and tubing in addition to fishing. In my mind they were spots that people went to party and enjoy a long summers day on the water. It wasn’t until I left for college that I started to appreciate all of Michigan’s rivers for their angling opportunities and realized how fortunate I was to live in a place that had over 20,000 miles of trout streams. I now enjoy fishing for steelhead, brook trout, and browns just as much as trolling for walleye.  

A few years ago, I heard about the Artic grayling, an unfamiliar fish in the Salmonidae family that was once native to only two states in the lower 48 – Montana and Michigan. Though it hasn’t been seen in Michigan since 1936, it was once one of Michigan’s most iconic and popular game fish species. We even named a city Grayling, MI.

Historically, grayling were found in many cold-water streams throughout Lower Michigan and in the Upper Peninsula. Some of the largest populations of grayling could be found in the Manistee and Au Sable Rivers. During the last few decades of the 1800s, grayling was a commercial food fish and a popular game species. Unfortunately, due to habitat destruction, unregulated harvest, and competition with other species, the grayling were extirpated from Michigan by 1936.

However, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) hopes to change that very soon. I recently became aware of the DNR efforts to reintroduce grayling in partnership with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, and last week I spoke with the DNR to get an update on the project. At that very moment, DNR staff were on their way to Alaska’s Chena River to source eggs for broodstock. The Chena River is home to a genetically diverse population of grayling that is adapted to a wide range of environmental variables, and they have not been influenced by previous hatchery introductions. The DNR plans to source fertilized eggs from the Chena River for three consecutive years to ensure that as much genetic diversity as possible is available for the broodstock.   

The Chena River eggs will be transported to the Oden State Fish Hatchery (Emmet County) where they will be hatched and reared into the state’s future broodstock. However, don’t expect to be catching grayling anytime soon. The first batch of eggs aren’t expected to be stocked into Michigan rivers until 2022, assuming everything goes according to plan. Once the eggs hatch, it will take another three to four years for the grayling to reach reproductive maturity. 

Previous attempts to stock grayling by the DNR were unsuccessful, likely due to the fact that the grayling were hatched and raised in a hatchery before stocking into local streams. This time, they are taking a page out of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park’s playbook, who has successfully reintroducing grayling into streams using Remote Site Incubators. These incubators allow the eggs to condition to their new home even before hatching, allowing for the most natural growing conditions and fry survival, hopefully resulting in a hardier fish that is better suited to its environment. The Manistee River System has been selected as the initial reintroduction site after a habitat evaluation study determined it was the best candidate for success.

Initially a partnership between the DNR and the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, the project has grown to over forty-five partners. As sportsmen and women, we are on the frontlines of conservation every day. This project speaks volumes to those efforts. Because of the conservation funding we generate through the American System of Conservation Funding, along with grassroots habitat restoration efforts, habitats that could no longer sustain native species are now being restored, along with their native fish and wildlife populations. It is truly amazing that we can take a species once thought gone forever and reintroduce them into their native range. I hope the Arctic Grayling Initiative is successful, and I look forward to the opportunity to once again connect with a native grayling on a fly line in my home state of Michigan.       

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