Lost but not forgotten: The legendary Michigan grayling

By Brianne Turczynski

Republished with permission from Michigan Out-of-Doors Magazine

Courtesy of the Clarke Historical Library of Central Michigan University

It would be difficult to find a person these days who had firsthand experience with the Michigan grayling. Old fishing tales passed down through generations eulogize a fish sought after for its magnificent beauty, delicious meat, and ravenous hunger. Hazen L. Miller writes in The Old Au Sable of a fish with an almost unquenchable appetite. It’d try anything you’d put on your fishing line, “bits of cloth from a hooked rug, cherry blossoms, pieces of its cousins”—it didn’t discriminate. The grayling swam freely in the Au Sable River before 1900 and were correctly identified around 1870.

Rube Babbitt, whose family was one of the early settlers of an area near a railroad stop named Crawford, recounts fishing with his father and catching the mystical fish for the first time, “My father and I caught a few strange fish in the Au Sable,” he said, “and wondered what they were. Whenever we needed provisions, father would walk to Bay City for them, and one time he took along a couple of the fish to satisfy his curiosity. Nobody in Bay City knew what they were, so father gave them to [a friend], who said he would send them to Washington for identification.”

When they found out the beautiful fish that swam in abundance in the Au Sable was none other than the coveted grayling, they changed the name of the town from Crawford to Grayling in honor of it.

At that time the grayling population was immense. “We were very much pleased with the discovery and resolved to benefit from it commercially,” Babbitt reminisced in an interview with the Detroit News on December 15th, 1929. The old fishing tales render the grayling a brightly colored fish, and a dream of an artist’s palette. Like rainbows shimmering in the water, their large dorsal fins had an iridescence reminiscent of the ocellus in a peacock’s feather.

“The grayling laid like cordwood in the Au Sable,” Babbitt said, “and it was no trick to catch them on a fly tied with the feathers of a blue jay or high-holder, or a squirrel tail.” He mentions that from 1875-1881, he and his father sold and shipped them to a Chicago restaurant for a generous sum of money.

Then the world got wind of it—the river’s secret abundance. Executives vacationing from big cities came to the northern region of Michigan for a bit of sport and went home filled with pride after catching hundreds in one weekend. They saw the voracity at which these fish ate and began fishing for financial gain, brought the train lines in and fished thousands of the grayling out of the water. With no season or size regulation to mark the end of the slaughter, the innocent grayling, whose flesh smelled of thyme and tasted sweet, was nearly done for.

Courtesy of the Clarke Historical Library of Central Michigan University

In his book, Miller retells the fishing tale of Ansell Judd Northrup, a lawyer from Syracuse, New York, who came to the Au Sable in 1879 to fish for the renowned grayling. Northrup writes, “I made my first cast. In a flash, with a leap out of the water a fish seized the fly before it touched the surface, and was fairly hooked, with scarcely an effort of mine. I hastily drew him in—he weighed only four ounces—and, for the first time, beheld the marvelous colors of the large dorsal fin and the pectoral fins, the silvery sides, the olive-brown back, the “V” shaped black specks…and the graceful, taper form of the grayling. If I had not taken another fish, I should have felt repaid for my journey.”

Northrup’s second grayling gave more of a fight, “Casting again, I struck a fine fellow that showed great vigor and activity for two or three minutes…I gave him full play and studied his form, colors and spirited movements in the clear water, as he passed up and down, within twenty feet of the boat. The magnificent dorsal fin, erect like a warrior’s plume, waved like a battle standard, and glowed like a rainbow, and his shining sides lashed in the sunlight like silver.”

The anglers, however, complained that although they would bite ravenously, their little mouths were so delicate that anglers had to be careful landing the fish.

William B. Mershon writes in this Recollections of Fifty Years of Hunting and Fishing, that “If you get one on your line in the swift waters of the Au Sable, you will be fortunate as well as skillful if you land your fish, for the grayling is a tender-mouthed fish and you must exercise your greatest care and skill in handling him.”

After years of successful fishing, the lumberjacks came and used the Au Sable to transport lumber. The absence of trees on the shore of the river not only increased the temperature of the water for lack of shade but gave way to erosion. The lumberjacks had their sport on the surface of the water, but beneath the surface, the spawning beds of this coveted fish were disturbed, and the particles drudged up from the bottom suffocated and killed many of them as bark particles lodged in their gills.

Mershon argues that he did not suspect this to be the cause of the extinction but rather the grayling’s own greediness. When fishing enthusiast and writer Thaddeus Norris visited Michigan to try for grayling he caught one hundred and twenty pounds in a day. He wrote in an article published in Scribner’s Monthly Magazine in November of 1879, “I took at five casts fifteen fish, averaging three-quarters of a pound each. The following day we fished along leisurely until we had our live-boxes, containing each sixty pounds, so full that the fish began to die.”

The gluttonous nature of the grayling coupled with the ambitious attitude of anglers without limits hastened the slaughter and made it impossible for nature to make up the difference. Mershon states his premonition in Fifty Years of Hunting and Fishing, “…the grayling probably could not withstand the excessive fishing which its native waters have undergone, because of its greediness.”

He also recounts a time he witnessed excessive waste by visitors to the region, “…two large camps, all non-residents and strangers, killed five-thousand fish…They salted and carried away at least half of them. Many were eaten, more were wasted. For two miles below from their camps decaying fish whitened the stream and the offal and fish entrails left unburied in camp tainted the air, as the dead fish poisoned the water.” He goes on to simply urge fellow fishermen, “Gentlemen, save the grayling.”

The grayling population eventually dwindled until vacationers and natives alike no longer caught any at all. “He is a “free biter”, Northrup writes, “and is bound to disappear before the multitude of rods avowed over his devoted head. The sport he affords in his capture, this taste he gratifies in the frying-pan, and the allurements of the charming streams he inhabits, all conspire with his simplicity to destroy him.”

These predictions came true, unfortunately, and before the 1920s the grayling was considered by anglers completely extinct from the Au Sable River. Its last sighting is unknown.

As a result of commerce and industry—the chopping of trees, which take fifty years or more to rejuvenate—Miller argues that the nature of the river is so changed that the grayling will never swim its quiet waters again. “No,” he writes, “the grayling is gone forever.”

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