Grayling a relic of fishing days gone by

There once was a fish called the Michigan grayling;

Whose numbers through human activities began failing;

Lumberjacks, fishermen, and others were affecting their population;

Fisheries biologists attempted to increase them through propagation;

But all efforts to prevent extinction were travailing!

This limerick briefly tells the story the demise of the Michigan grayling, and now the rest of the story. Yes, the Michigan grayling are gone forever, the result of the lumbering industry, overfishing (harvest), and competition from non-native species.

Grayling are in the salmon and trout family (Salmonidae) and scientifically called Thymallus articus. Worldwide there are only five species of grayling, three in Russia/Mongolia, one in Europe, and one in North America. In North America, there were three separate geographic populations, being the now extinct Michigan type, the southwest Montana type, and the Alaska/Canada type. The latter two are still viable, fishable populations. At one point in time, they were recognized as separate species, but now are lumped under T. articus. This biologist is not supportive of this lumping and would like to see a DNA analysis of each population.

The range of grayling in Michigan was streams in the northern two-thirds of the Lower Peninsula and a short portion of the Otter River in the UP. All the LP streams were pure grayling (no brook trout), except for some suckers and minnows. The Otter River, on the other hand, had about 20 species, including brook trout.

The Michigan grayling became extinct in the LP in a relatively short period of time. European settlers discovered them in the early 1860s and by the early 1890s, they were gone from the LP. They did hang on in the Otter River until 1936, when the last documented grayling was caught by Walter Erickson.

One of the reasons they were driven into extinction was the lumbering of the LP, which had extensive pine forests. While researching the archives for a Manistee River report, a survey made by A.S. Wordsworth for the River Improvement Company (obviously misnamed) was discovered. His job was twofold, first to characterize the pine timber along the banks and secondly, to measure the massive log jams in the river and estimate the cost of removal. Eleven massive jams, ranging from 300 to 500 feet long. On one jam he found a large white cedar growing and cutting to the center which he estimated to be 160 years old. Subsequently these jams were removed to facilitate floating logs to market, which were rolled down the stream banks, introducing tons of silt and sediment, destroying the grayling’s food source and habitat.

Grayling were fun to fish for, excellent eating and so popular a LP town was named after them. They were a species that rose eagerly to a fly and reports of anglers catching 100 a day were common. A commercial fishery developed for them, which led to thousands being harvested, salted, and shipped to market.

Lastly, as the populations declined rapidly, fisheries managers began stocking non-native species, mainly brook, brown, and rainbow trout, as early as the mid 1880s. This was done in LP streams, as in a 20-year period grayling became scarce in most rivers. Grayling being a species that could not tolerate competition, their numbers further declined.

Efforts to increase their numbers through stocking grayling obtained from Alaska/Canada, Montana, and the Otter River from 1887 to 1937, with about 500 adults, 100,000 yearlings, and 3 million fry into LP streams also failed.

Thus, Michigan grayling are only a memory Next month we will explore the modern era of grayling restoration in Michigan.

Go Fish!