As sportfish go, graylings are kind of the oddballs. Most of us don’t live where they do, which gives these fish an exotic appeal. Growing up, I was enamored of them, often seeing beautiful images of those large iridescent dorsal fins lit up in shades of pink, purple and aqua. During my first visit to Alaska in 2007, I couldn’t wait to catch one. I quickly realized that climbing them was not difficult. They will eat almost any dry striper, nymph or small you want to throw. They also put a devilish twist on the 5 weight fly rod. I also learned that graylings are so prolific in the far north that they don’t attract much of the locals. With so many other players like salmon and trophy rainbows in Alaska, not many people are booking trips to the tundra just to color.
But would more anglers like grayling if they were more accessible in the Lower 48? Thanks to recent developments at a fish plant in Michigan, we may find out in the near future.
A new plan for Grayling stocking in Michigan
What many people don’t know is that grayling once thrived in the continental US. They were native to Montana and Michigan. But grays are a delicate species with low tolerance to environmental changes. To thrive, they need clean, ice-cold water loaded with insect life and the freedom to roam for miles during seasonal migrations – not easy with dams in the way. In 2014, Montana grays were removed from the endangered species list, although even after years of conservation efforts to obtain that status change, they still exist in only 4 percent of their historic range. The biggest culprit in the disappearance of graylings in Montana was the stocking of trout, which began in the late 1800s. Michigan’s native grayling, which are now extinct, felt the sting of introduced trout as well, although logging and overfishing in the 1930s put the final nails in their coffin. For decades, biologists in Michigan have been trying to figure out how to bring them back from the dead, and after several failed attempts, they may be closer than ever.
According to this story on Bridgemi.com, past efforts to reintroduce grayling relied on basic trout harvesting methods. The fish were raised in hatcheries and transplanted into the rivers as young fish. Today, scientists have a better understanding of grayling and realize that past stockings introduced the fish to Michigan waters too late. Graylings must be embedded in their birth stream so they can return to it to reproduce. If the fish is too old when planted, it will not develop that instinctive memory. These early stocking efforts failed to reproduce, and most of the fish that survived fell victim to the trout, now synonymous with Upper Michigan angling, even though they are ultimately invasive. This time, Michigan is adopting a technique from the playbook of another Lower 48 state with gray issues.
According to the story: “Michigan’s new effort borrowed a technique from Montana, where species managers successfully introduced grayling by pouring water into riverside buckets containing fertilized eggs. When the eggs hatch, they are poured from the bucket into the stream and immediately embedded.”
Biologists in Michigan hope this technique will work, but reintroducing grayling is only part of the battle. The other is the adversarial politics that come with it.
But is reintroducing Grayling a good idea?
Across the country, anglers want to take part in crusades against invasive species. There is concern about how snakeheads are affecting bass populations. There are concerns about how Asian carp are destroying entire rivers. In some parts of the US, smallmouths threaten native trout. Here in Michigan, however, massive efforts are being made to reintroduce a native species — to right the wrongs of the past — and they’re facing backlash.
The biggest issue facing Michigan biologists is where to put grayling, because many of the small springs where they historically thrived were clear. Tree removal removes shade and insect life and increases water temperature. The Upper Manistee, Boardman, Jordan, Maple and Au Sable rivers are all being considered for reintroduction, but for the plan to work anglers must be on board, and many are not.
From the story: “The Upper Black River Council Board – a conservation group – signaled in 2017 that it did not want to participate in the reintroduction of grayling, fearing the fish could compete with the Lower Peninsula’s brook trout in the northeast of distant
“And the United Conservation Clubs of Michigan, Michigan’s largest statewide conservation group with more than 40,000 members, passed a resolution in 2018 expressing a number of concerns about the grayling’s return.
“The group is concerned that focusing on grayling could distract from other fish conservation priorities, with no guarantee that it will succeed. And if the effort succeeds, said Nick Green, the group’s director of communications, MUCC is concerned that anglers may one day be required to adjust their habits to protect fragile grayling populations, such as by restricting fishing. in areas where grays are present.
A line is being drawn in the sand, as interest groups want the state to decide what’s more important: saving grayling or stream access and the economic benefits of recreational trout fishermen.
Some of the counterarguments are valid—primarily that climate change is already altering Michigan’s fisheries, so work needs to be done to preserve and conserve what’s already there before trying to bring back an extinct species. The team from the plant thinks the sweet spot is the Boardman River, where recent dam removals have lowered the water temperature. The hope is that this cold will help thin out the brown trout population (which is already smaller than in other streams in the area). Likewise, the upper river has few salmon and steelhead, and, therefore, less angling pressure.
If successful, it will take years for the graylings to reach maturity and hopefully spawn on their own. Personally, I’d jump at the chance to target grayling in Michigan one day – although the point of reintroduction is less about angling and more about re-rooting a watershed. But if there’s one thing the Michigan grayling saga proves, it’s that whether you’re trying to get anglers to see some benefit in an invasive species or trying to get them excited about the return of a native species, you just don’t you can win.