Flies Only: Early Sport Fishing Conservation on Michigan’s Au Sable River

by Borgelt, Bryon G.

Abstract (Summary)
This dissertation focuses on the earliest stage of fish conservation on the Au Sable River of Michigan. It begins with the popularization of the grayling fishery in the nation’s sporting journals, such as Forest and Stream and Scribner’s Monthly where Thad Norris and others wrote of the adventure and abundance of fly fishing on the Au Sable. By the 1890s the grayling were all but gone due in part to over fishing, commercial lumbering and the introduction of non-native brook trout. Despite the absence of the grayling, a sustainable sport fishing industry had risen from the ashes of the cut over lands of the Michigan High Plains. Early sport fishers had recognized man’s role in the loss of grayling and began their own versions of fish and stream conservation centered in the towns of Grayling and Lovells. Early fish conservation looked directly at protecting the resource itself, and not the modern holistic approach that encompasses the entire ecosystem. The first focus was to create state laws that closed seasons and promoted more sporting methods of capture such as the use of a hook and line. Then the state focused on the enforcement of laws with the game warden system. In Michigan, county game wardens, with full legal authority, could be hired by private citizens, clubs and special interest groups. This system pitted outside conservation agendas against a local reluctance to follow state laws. Another early fish conservation method was the hatchery system. Artificial fish propagation had been perfected in the US in the 1850s and was put to use to bolster fish populations against natural threats and fishing pressure. Privatization had been one of the most basic forms of conservation. Keeping anglers and hunters off the water and land certainly meant increased wildlife populations. Anglers along the South Branch strung barbed wire across the river, violating state law which stated that navigable rivers were held in the public domain. In 1907, fly fishing anglers along the North Branch of the Au Sable sought a different form of restricted public access, the creation of the nation’s first fly fishing only regulation of public water. Under the direction of William B. Mershon, a wealthy lumberman from Saginaw, Michigan, and T. E. Douglas, a lodge owner on the North Branch, flies were the only legal method of fish capture on a large portion of the North Branch. Mershon first advocated for this legislation once he purchased several thousand acres adjoining the river as a means to protect juvenile trout and keep people off his portions of the stream. The law went in and out of effect between 1907 and 1928 and provided interesting commentary on the conservation movement’s struggle to form a cohesive identity. Although Mershon’s law was repealed due to a lack of scientific support, it did launch interest into the conservation merits of fly fishing and started the legacy of fish conservation for which the Au Sable is famous for and would eventually lead to the creation of Trout Unlimited.
Bibliographical Information:


School:University of Toledo

School Location:USA - Ohio

Source Type:Master's Thesis

Keywords:fly fishing au sable michigan environmental history social commons river trout grayling william mershon unlimited conservation progressive


Date of Publication:06/16/2009

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