DAYS GONE BY: River keeper

ON THE RIVER: Zimmy Nolph with a nice trout circa 1960.
ON THE RIVER: Zimmy Nolph with a nice trout circa 1960.

He is remembered for being an outdoors-man, river guide, naturalist and story teller. The late Don Ingle called him a “tall, oak-sturdy gentleman conservationist who seemed as timeless and constant as the river he loved; a river he knew better than most who have cast its waters or floated its current”.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1907, he quit school in the eighth-grade and traded the classroom for a study of the outdoors. In 1935 he moved to Lake County, Michigan and began a 60 year love affair with the Pere Marquette River. 14 years later he scraped together the $6,900 needed to purchase a cottage on the famous river.

He became a fishing guide on the river working a skiff boat, also called a MacDougall boat, standing on the aft end and propelling the boat downstream using a pike pole rather than oars. Working seven days a week he guided during the day and then moved boats and canoes back upstream at night. A guide trip then stretched from 8 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. making for exceptionally long days. He also tied flies and guided hunters in the fall bird hunts, which was how he provided for his wife and three daughters.

When the steel head made their comeback here, he pushed for fly fishing, and his skill at catching these wary trout was legendary. When the Flies Only section of the Pere Marquette River was designated, he was one who helped prove it was viable and sporting to catch the trout on a fly. This man was always eager to share his knowledge of the outdoors. He was a teacher by word and by example.

He had a passion for the river that exceeded that of others, protecting it from what he determined as harm. He hated salmon and recreational canoeists. He felt that the salmon, which were introduced into the river system in 1975, nearly killed off the runs of brown trout and that recreational canoeists defaced the river with their beer cans and litter and often engaged in irresponsible behavior.

Working with local conservation organizations and the DNR he helped stock brown trout in the river when their numbers showed decline. He helped to stabilize river banks and create fish habitat structures. Trout Unlimited, the Pere Marquette Watershed Council, and the Lake County Riverside Property Owners Association all called him a friend and activist for their causes.

He knew the river better than any other, knowing just where to build a fish habitat area or shore up an eroding bank. He worked tirelessly to benefit the Pere Marquette River so that it would be the pristine waterway we know today.

This fine man has been gone 20 years now, but his legacy lives on. Merle “Zimmy” Nolph, the River Keeper, will be a man remembered for years to come for the passion he had for the Pere Marquette River.