Something Spectacular: My Great Lakes Salmon Story

Something Spectacular: My Great Lakes Salmon Story

by Howard A. Tanner


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As the new chief of the Michigan Department of Conservation’s Fish Division in 1964, Howard A. Tanner was challenged to “do something . . . spectacular.” He met that challenge by leading the successful introduction of coho salmon into the Michigan waters of the Great Lakes. This volume illustrates how Tanner was able to accomplish this feat: from a detailed account of his personal and professional background that provided a foundation for success; the historical and contemporary context in which the Fish Division undertook this bold step to reorient the state’s fishery from commercial to sport; the challenges, such as resistance from existing government institutions and finding funding, that he and his colleagues faced; the risks they took by introducing a nonnative species; the surprises they experienced in the first season’s catch; to, finally, the success they achieved in establishing a world-renowned, biologically and financially beneficial sport fishery in the Great Lakes. Tanner provides an engaging history of successfully introducing Pacific salmon into the lakes from the perspective of an ultimate insider.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611863031
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 12/01/2018
Edition description: 1
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 419,218
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

HOWARD A. TANNER, widely known as the “father of the Great Lakes salmon fishery,” spent a distinguished forty-year career in fisheries and natural resources and serving as chief of the Michigan Department of Conservation Fish Division and director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

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Developing a Firm Foundation

Growing Up with the Fishes

My ties to fishing began at a very early age. My father and mother moved to Mancelona, Michigan, in 1925, when I was just two years old. The circumstances and opportunities of life in that part of Michigan in that small town at that time were basic to my early development.

My father loved to fish and provided me with wonderful fishing experiences. He fished for one principal species — the brook trout. The brook trout is a particularly beautiful fish. When living, its colors can be truly brilliant, and even hours after death, when it's washed and prepared for meals, it's still beautiful.

I remember this quite vividly, though I think that I was no more than three years old in the beginning. It was my privilege to put all my fondest brook trout (in those days the limit was twenty-five) into a dishpan. Then I would lay them out on a piece of newspaper and arrange them according to size. I liked the looks of them and I liked the feel of them, so soft and smooth. Those early memories account for the beginnings of my love for fishing. I loved the brook trout and then the habitat, the environment, the natural surroundings that were part of a brook trout fishing expedition. The season ran from May 1 until Labor Day. We also fished perch in the wintertime, but in my very early years, perch felt rough and had spines and were far less desirable than brook trout.

Brook trout fishing at that time in that place was a challenging and lovely experience. The streams were small, cold, and clear. In my early fishing days, I didn't have boots or waders. I would walk the banks of selected portions of the Cedar River between Mancelona and Bellaire. It was in the upper Jordan River valley in the area that we knew as the "green swamp," so named because it was occupied by a sizable stand of cedar and tamarack. This peninsula was shaped almost like a hairpin, with the river nearly encompassing it, and had not been burned by the frequent forest fires.

Brook trout are nearly always to be found in deep water under submerged logs or under bridges, logs, or beneath undercut banks. Only in certain areas are they found out in the open.

We fished with a metal rod, black cotton line, and a double-bladed spinner loaded with a sculpin, which we referred to as a "muddler." It took considerable skill to cast the spinner accurately so that the line would float gently down underneath the log or the bank. In those days, brook trout had to be seven inches long to keep, and we would often catch several undersized brook trout before we got a keeper. By the time that I was old enough to think about exceeding the limit — twelve years or so — the limit had been reduced from twenty-five to fifteen per day.

Brook trout are really delicious — cooked in a frying pan, usually with lard or bacon grease, with its head on. We ate the muscle in the cheeks, and I still love the crispy tail fin. Brook trout were the center point for a matrix of my experiences in the out-of-doors. My father loved everything to do with the outdoors, and he was my role model in that and in so many other ways.

One summer, Dr. Jan Metzlaar from the Michigan Conservation Department visited us. He was surveying Michigan's inland lakes, examining and identifying their fish populations. He was given my father's name as somebody who fished a great deal. He came and stayed with us for two or three days, parking one of the early departmental panel trucks in our yard. The truck had racks along the insides with glass jars full of preserved fish of various species.

Probably the significant element of his visit was a remark that my father made in my presence several times, words to the effect, "Just imagine! This man is well paid for going and examining the fish populations of Michigan lakes!" I think that my father's remarks revealed that he would have loved to have had the opportunity to do what Metzlaar was doing. Somewhere in my mind, I thought, "My father can't do that, but perhaps I could" — sometime in the distant future.

The Jordan River

In the summer of 1937 my father opened a meat market. We had a wonderful summer of fishing together, usually on the Jordan River on Sunday morning or late Sunday afternoon — his only day off. A railroad had been built on the floor of the valley, the timber removed and the valley repeatedly burned over. The roads we used were frequently built atop the old railroad grade with some of the ties still in place. One entrance took us through a farmer's gate, which we carefully closed because his cattle still roamed and grazed in places where the second growth of trees had not yet begun. We went there to fish brook trout, but we also went to hunt mushrooms in the spring and grouse (we called them partridge) in the fall. In the spring, we would also make a trip to pick trailing arbutus.

I relished the sights and sounds of the valley in the early morning. On various occasions, as I moved quietly along this stream, I saw a mink — that's right, M-I-N-K. We occasionally fished the impounded tributary dammed by the beaver, and occasionally I would see one. I sometimes saw a great blue heron stalking a green frog, and admired the unbelievable beauty of the first male wood duck that I saw. These were all part of those early trips with my father to the Jordan River valley.

It was on one of those trips fishing for brook trout that I caught a rainbow trout just over twenty-five inches long. What a surprise! I still vividly recall the excitement of catching that fish. The stream was full of logs and other obstacles, and I successfully subdued it to a point where I could heave it toward my father's outstretched hands while he stood in the middle of the river. He grasped the fish — he referred to it as a sockdolager (very exceptional) — and tossed it to a grassy spot near where I was standing; then I pounced on it. It was more than thirty years before I caught a larger trout. I think that specific event was important; because of that, I came to consider myself an expert fisherman.

Bellaire Days

Another very important event came in early September of 1937 when we moved to Bellaire because my father had become sheriff of Antrim County. Part of the arrangement was our dwelling next to the jail. If I had enjoyed fishing while living in Mancelona, Bellaire was paradise. A small village, in those days about 450 people, it's located on the Intermediate River — a part of the Antrim County chain of lakes, where almost a dozen lakes are connected by streams and eventually flow into Lake Michigan at Elk Rapids. These lakes, these rivers were heavenly for me. The Intermediate River was almost at our back door. I had a car to drive, and fishing opportunities were abundant all around me.

When I was fifteen, I found a job at Jim's Bait and Tackle Shop. Jim's shop was another facet of my move towards a career in fisheries. I waited on customers; I pumped gasoline; I cleaned and bailed out boats; I caught green frogs and muddlers. Once or twice, I dug night crawlers, which I didn't like.

I also had a printed business card, identifying myself as a fishing guide. Perhaps it was that big rainbow trout that convinced me that I had the expertise to guide fishing trips. From then until the summer of 1942, I worked as a guide. It was a great experience with multiple fishing opportunities — think about it: I got paid for going fishing! At various times during my life, I have described that as the best job I ever had.

I guided men and, once or twice, a woman with her children. I guided people who I considered wealthy. They had great equipment, and often they had a summer home at one of the nearby lakes. In general, they were successful, well-educated, well-spoken, very intelligent people from a wide variety of professional experiences. One outstanding individual by the name of Wendell Llewelyn was a vice president of General Motors, heading up the Chevrolet division. He and his family had a summer cottage on nearby Lake Bellaire. We usually fished alone in the late evening, and we had numerous casual conversations of all kinds. He was well-educated and articulate and moved in circles of power with which I had no personal experience. This connection opened avenues of thought for me that expanded my horizons in many ways.

My high school years in and around the small town of Bellaire included further contacts and observations related to one fish or another. I found the annual spawning runs of other fish species fascinating. Less than fifty yards from my back door, in the Intermediate River, were runs of hundreds of big walleyes. Later, at the end of their spawning migration, fishes such as suckers and red horse would pile up by the thousands below the dam immediately upstream, and I would spear some of them. Then our family, the prisoners in the county jail next door, and friends down the street would eat some.

Some of my experiences in the lakes and streams come under the heading of what my father called "penoverating." Roughly translated, that means just looking around to see what is happening. For the first time, I saw members of the sunfish family spawning, the nests that were built, and the male guarding those nests. I found the stickleback's nest-building fascinating — a nest of woven vegetation that encapsulated the eggs and the male of the species as he guarded them.

The peering that we did at night with an underwater light revealed much more than the whitefish or the gar pike that we were spearing. I saw the immense numbers of game fish present in some locations. I saw the huge muskellunge in pairs as they entered the marshes to spawn. My father and I once made a trip to Elk Rapids, where I saw members of the local sportsmen's club seining large numbers of big rainbow trout by torchlight, placing them in washtubs and transporting them above the dam for release into the Elk River. I saw people dipping smelt at night at the mouth of the Jordan and Boyne Rivers. My father was often present, and his clear expressions of interest and excitement guided me to appreciate what he appreciated.

Speaking of a Career

I was president of our high school's junior and senior classes, and I gave what was termed the "president's speech" at our graduation ceremonies. The important point here was that I said, in closing, that I intended to pursue a career as an ichthyologist. That term technically means a person who studies the classification of fishes — I suppose that was close enough for the time. Perhaps I thought some about my future career, but it was a long way from any definition.

During that summer of 1941, having completed high school, my Uncle Hugh (only eight years older than I, and the closest thing I ever had to a brother) was working as an official for the YMCA and stationed in the town of Hastings, Michigan. He and his wife Virginia had graduated from Western Michigan College, and they took an interest in how I might move towards a college education. I visited them in Hastings, and they took me to see Western in Kalamazoo, then to a school in East Lansing known as Michigan State College.

During the visit to Michigan State, I stopped in at the laboratories of Dr. Peter Tack, who taught the fisheries courses. What I saw was another display of preserved fish in glass bottles. Somehow, this wasn't what I had in mind. In 1943, when the Army sent me to Michigan State College to study engineering, I spent almost nine months on campus and never bothered to go over to see Dr. Tack or his fisheries laboratory. I had no firm goal of a career in fisheries then.

The "Greatest Generation" Goes to War

I lived all my young life in the cluster of a middle-class family — my parents, my maternal grandparents, an aunt, and two uncles. I was the only child in a group that included teachers, former teachers, or would-be teachers. My father brought another dimension — love of the out-of-doors, fishing, and hunting — to this family matrix. I lived in two small towns — Mancelona and Bellaire — whose total populations were not quite two thousand people.

In June 1941, the nineteen members of my high school senior class and our chaperones took an eleven-day bus tour of Niagara Falls, New York City, and the historical landmarks of our country in Philadelphia and Washington, DC. It had been a great four years during which I had enjoyed varsity sports and served as class president my junior and senior years. We would never be together like this again. All eight able-bodied boys would go on to serve in the military, and one would die on Okinawa. I spent the summer guiding fishing clients and doing odd jobs on surrounding fruit farms to save money for college. As Tom Brokaw taught me many years later, I had just lived through the decade or more of the Great Depression, and I was about to begin the second phase of experiences that would complete my eligibility for being a member of "the greatest generation."

In the fall, I turned eighteen, and it was from this foundation that I started my college career at Western. I lacked any specific goal at that time, so I enrolled in what was known as a general degree. My mother's encouraging words were, "Please finish at least one year of college." That advice was wise and prophetic.

A Life-Changing Day

The first term was routine, I guess — getting acquainted with college life, living in a dormitory, and occasionally hitchhiking the two hundred miles back home for a weekend. At the end of one such weekend in early December, I was heading back to campus. It was cold, and I was waiting in the swirling snowflakes for my next ride. When I got into the car, the radio was blaring the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

That news was surprising. However, the ongoing and discouraging reports of the war in Europe — the fall of France, the German armies sweeping across Russia and North Africa — had produced a sustained dread of what lay ahead throughout my high school years. My father had served as an infantry sergeant in the French trenches of World War I. My mother — his bride of a few months — had waited, each day scanning the lengthening casualty lists during the summer of 1918. Years later, each evening in my teens, as we listened to more news of defeats, there were times when I could sense their apprehension.

Yes, it was December 7, 1941. As I walked those few final blocks to my dorm in the fading light of that late Sunday afternoon, the impact of that news on me and my future began to settle in. I was certain that I would be entering the military, though I was not yet draft age. If I had developed thoughts of what I was going to do and where I was going to do it, any conceivable plan for education and career went out the window. I managed to get a phone call through to my parents, and they urged me not to rush into anything.

The semester ended with Christmas break, a time at home when we were at war and the news was universally terrible. I returned to Western and enrolled for my second semester. The best thing about that was meeting my future bride, Helen Freitag — during a class on rhetoric — and having one date. She was majoring in zoology and earned a bachelor's degree in that field, as well as a certificate in secretarial science. The latter served her quite well during my military years. Pearl Harbor foretold, to some degree, our fate but not our ultimate destiny.

I spent the summer of 1942 as a cabin leader at the YMCA camp on Torch Lake. I enrolled for the fall semester at Western soon after I turned nineteen. A few days later, the draft age was reduced to eighteen, so I was expecting to be drafted at almost any time. However, the Army soon announced that young men already in college could enlist in the Army Reserve with the understanding that the Army could call them to active duty at its convenience.

You're in the Army Now

That worked very well for Helen and me. It meant that we had about four months that fall and winter when we dated frequently, most often at Friday night dances on campus. We were seriously in love by the time the Army called me to active duty on April 2, 1943. I was inducted at Camp Grant, Illinois, and assigned to take basic training in the Medical Corps. While there, I was exposed to fellows from all walks of life and standards of behavior that I never knew existed. Those twelve weeks taught me that many American men did not live by the standards that I had previously encountered in my hometowns and college experience.

First, I met a group of conscientious objectors, many of them ministers or lay ministers, who were older than I and who struggled to do the physical tasks of the training. I greatly respected them. At the other end of the spectrum were men classified as illiterate, many of them from Pennsylvania coal-mining country. Still another group had been assembled in one place so that they could be conveniently treated for venereal diseases. A miscellaneous group seemed most devoted to getting drunk on weekends. Finally, we had some college students like me.


Excerpted from "Something Spectacular"
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Copyright © 2019 Howard A. Tanner.
Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
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Table of Contents

Foreword John L. Hesse ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction xvii

Developing A Firm Foundation

Growing Up with the Fishes 3

The "Greatest Generation" Goes to War 11

Building the Educational Framework 24

Professional Practitioner 38

The Great Lakes Context

The Inland Seas 57

Human History and the Great Lakes Fishery 64

Fisheries Management 72

Michigan Matters

Meanwhile in Michigan 79

Returning to Michigan 85

Commercial Fishing 91

The Great Lakes Fishery Commission 98

Tribal Fishing Rights 101

Fishes Of The Great Lakes

Lake Trout 107

Sea Lamprey 113

Alewife 120

Salmon 124

Introducing Coho

The Call 137

A New Day Dawns 140

Supporting and Opposing Forces 145

Eggs from Oregon 161

The Hatchery Situation 165

Preparing To Launch

Financial Challenges 173

Making the Case 176

New Personnel 182

The First Release

April 2, 1966-the Official Beginning 187

The Summer of 1966 190

The Jack Run 194

Promise Fulfilled

Alewives Reprise 201

The Dream Come True and a Nightmare 205

Swimming Upstream 217

Sustaining the Excitement 221

Further Developments

Stewardship and Contaminants 229

Economics 232

Conclusion 239

Notes 246

Index 260

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