DAYS GONE BY: Last Saturday In April

By Jill Engelman

Lake County Historical Society

During the 1670’s Father (Pere) Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit missionary traveled through the Great Lakes region exploring it with fellow Jesuit Louis Joliet. The area at that time was included in the French holdings. They mapped and surveyed the region, making peaceful contact with the local Indian tribes. Following Father Marquette’s death at the mouth of the river, the Indians of the area honored him by calling it the River of the Black Robe (their name for Marquette). The name persisted till a tribal battle between the Potawatomi and the Ottawa where virtually everyone in the village was killed. This precipitated a name change in the Indian’s language to the Notepeseukun River, meaning “river with heads on stakes”.

The 1873 Tackabury Atlas, published by H.F. Walling recorded the first survey of Lake County identifying the famed waterway as the Notepeseukun River. The French, however, supported the name Pere Marquette River, which has survived down through time.

The loggers stripped the forests of the virgin white pine by the late 1800’s. The process of rolling logs down the steep banks caused extensive erosion, and along with the excessive sunlight on the water warmed the rivers temperature, causing the fish population to plummet. The native Grayling became extinct. Brook Trout, a more tolerant species, were introduced into the Pere Marquette circa 1879 and survived, especially in the upper reaches of the river.

The first German Brown Trout in America were planted by the Michigan Fish Commission, quite by accident in 1884, off the railroad trestle over the North Branch of the Pere Marquette River. What was then called the North Branch is actually the Baldwin River, a tributary of the Pere Marquette River. Legend has it that the weather had warmed, jeopardizing the health of the fingerlings being shipped in metal milk cans. To preserve the fingerlings, the trout were dumped into the water off the side of a railroad boxcar. Thus the Pere Marquette River became the first public river in America stocked with the wild German Browns. Government stocking programs and those of conservation groups continued to ship trout in milk cans via the railroads for decades to come.

Rainbow Trout fingerlings were first planted in the Pere Marquette in 1886. The land had gradually reforested providing canopy over the water which caused the river water temperature to drop. The fish populations of Browns, Brook and Rainbow Trout began to increase.

The turn of the century in 1900 marked the time when man began moving into the watershed in numbers to hunt and fish as well as settle on farms and in communities. Private hunting and fishing clubs were established. The Kinne Creek Association, also called the Wingleton Club, the Pere Marquette Rod & Gun Club, Flint Rainbow Club, Fin & Feather Club and others provided a destination and social setting for downstate sportsmen to enjoy the wildlife along the upper stretches of the Pere Marquette River. Others came and built lodges along the river. Early local fishermen became guides for others, one being Andrew Bradford. Fishing guides advertised day trips for $5.00 in the 1930’s, enticing more downstate residents to come north, jump-starting the tourism industry in the area. Flat, square ended, wooden boats propelled by poling became a common sight on the river and a boat livery service designed specifically for fishermen was begun in Baldwin in 1949 by the Sedleckys and Merle “Zimmy” Nolph. Fishermen enjoyed vying for the multitude of trout to be caught, as the 1945 creel limit was 15 fish!

From 1964 to 1968 the Michigan Department of Natural Resources planted Chinook and Coho Salmon in Lake Michigan with Coho Salmon only in the feeder streams, including Ruby Creek - a tributary of the Pere Marquette. What was a 80-20 Browns/Steelhead ratio changed rapidly to a 80-20 Steelhead/Browns ratio.

The National Wild and Scenic Act was signed into law October 2, 1968, providing for the protection and enhancement of the outstanding remarkable values of a river including scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historical and cultural values. The Michigan Natural River Act of 1970 established designations of a river, or portion thereof, as a natural river area for the preserving and enhancing values for water conservation, its free flowing condition, and its fish, wildlife, boating, scenic, aesthetic, flood plain, ecologic, historic and recreational values and uses. The Pere Marquette River was designated as both a National Wild and Scenic River and a State Natural River within the next decade. In general terms, these Acts provide protection against commercialism of the river corridor and it was hoped that the Pere Marquette River would benefit from said designations.

As “The Last Saturday In April”, the opening of trout season, approaches, think of the history of the fishery and how it has shaped the river that you fish today.