A Fling and a Prayer | Feature | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Feature

A Fling and a Prayer

These Parts/Salmon Snagging in Ludington, MI: None Dare Call it Fishing

by

comment

The weather must cool before salmon leave Lake Michigan to die. In the lingering warmth of late September they lie in wait off Ludington State Park, and fishermen in chest-high waders have to walk out to meet them. Here's a scene you might see along the Atlantic coast when the bluefish are running--the long, graceful rods, the two-handed casts into the surf, the slow walk back to dry sand where the rod is set into a holder to wait, arched, taut, for a strike hundreds of feet away. This is sport. But then the weather breaks and the fish crowd into the Sable River; what happens now is beyond sport and must be experienced to be appreciated.

The Sable River flows through northwest Michigan, barely visible on the map. It ends once in man-made Lake Hamlin, roughly eight miles north of Ludington proper, and starts up again after the dam on the lake's western border, flowing one final mile through the state park and into Lake Michigan. It's a clean little stream, not especially impressive; the real beauty of the area is in the magnificent dunes and the miles of dazzling sand beach. The sand is everywhere; it drifts, it blows, it creeps, it sneaks into your hair and between your teeth. No visitor to west Michigan departs without a sample of it.

A visitor to Ludington encounters his first salmon in this sand, washed up and drying on the beach, eyes plucked by gulls. The salmon is an impressive thing, long as your leg, just as thick, leather-skinned, hook-jawed, wickedly toothed. You don't have to be told. This is a creature that properly belongs to the sea.

In Michigan the native fish are bass, pike, sunfish, perch, catfish, bowfin, suckers, the rare speckled trout, the even rarer grayling. This salmon is a newcomer, an immigrant. So is its principal forage, the alewife, which arrived with the Saint Lawrence Seaway, as did the lamprey eel, a bloodsucking parasite that nearly ended Lake Michigan as a fishing resource. Thanks to the lamprey, there was a time when people spoke of Lake Michigan as a "biological desert," and indeed it was, occupied mainly by tons and tons of inedible alewives that inconveniently died every spring along every beach. If you came to Ludington to fish in those days, it was to fish not in the great lake, but in Lake Hamlin. You fished from small boats, you brought your minnow pail, your worm can, your plastic bobber. On lazy summer nights you pulled out bullheads, drank beer, and felt good. People still do it, but not when the salmon arrive.

What distinguishes the Pacific salmon from other Michigan fish is not so much its origins as the cycle of its life and death. In their native northwest, salmon hatch in the highest reaches of sea-flowing streams where the water is cold, swift, and shallow. As smolts they work their way to the sea; as adults they return once, to spawn, then die. No salmon may live beyond its allotted time. And every salmon must die in the required place. However far they may swim, wherever the water may take them, they must return to the place where first they saw light. Block the stream of the ancestors, you destroy an entire strain of fishes. They will swarm hopelessly, they will uselessly discharge their eggs into silt.

The salmon live no differently in their new midwestern home. Abducted and transported half a continent from the streams and seas of their ancestors, they cannot become other than what they are. It would have been impossible to transplant the adults. What men did instead was take the seed. A new generation, beginning its life in hatchery tanks, has no memories of the ancestral streams. It is a blank page, waiting for the word. Released into a new stream, the young salmon accept this place as their home. No matter how unlikely or inappropriate, they will return to it when the cycle ends.

Sportfishing for salmon is not for the poor or uncommitted. Except for spring and fall these fishes run far and deep. It takes big boats to follow them, special gear to reach into their depths. Charter captains, tracking them with sonar, use trolling rigs weighted with sinkers the size of cannonballs. They guarantee their customers fish. No fish, no pay, that's the slogan. The customers pay two, three, four hundred dollars an outing split among a party seldom larger than six.

On a clear blue day in Ludington, boats, chartered and private, file out past the breakwaters at dawn, bristling with tackle. At dusk they are back, circled by gulls. The talk in the restaurants and bars is of salmon; you hear it in the next booth, fish that stripped the line, broke the tackle, secret spots that yielded up the limit. Salmon have made a new industry on the Michigan coast.

All summer the salmon belong to the boat people. On shore the boatless ones crowd the breakwater, cast till arms grow weary, and eventually surrender their lures to the rocks. From time to time a whoop goes up, a fish is taken, hope never dies entire. But the salmon are at sea, a strange and saltless sea their ancestors never knew, and they are awaiting destiny.

The chinook salmon, also called the king salmon, and its smaller cousin, the coho, remain the principal species stocked in the Great Lakes, although now we also have Atlantic salmon, steelhead trout, brown trout, and something called a splake, which is a hybrid put together by the fishery people. The fishery people are constantly coming up with something new.

The life cycle of the chinook salmon is four years. At full growth it truly is a king. The record for Michigan is 46 pounds. Twenty-pounders are common. Thirty-pounders are not rare. For a freshwater fisherman, the sight of such fish is intoxicating, even unnerving. Coho salmon run smaller, only five, six pounds, seldom over ten. It takes a little while before one gets to thinking of such fish as "small." It takes a while before one gets to saying "It's only a coho." When the snagging starts, it takes, oh, maybe 15 minutes.

The first fish enter the river in mid-September. They are very tentative about it, easily spooked in the clear shallow water. Even though snagging season officially opens September 10, it pays to wait for bad weather. You must understand that the entire class is schooling up offshore, waiting. They must enter this stream or die unfulfilled.

Alas, they will die unfulfilled anyway. Few of the salmon stocked in the Great Lakes successfully propagate their kind. The conditions are almost never right, even in the best of streams. This is certainly true in the Sable River. At the point where it empties into Lake Michigan it is a clean but brownish stream that actually narrows at its sandy mouth. Because this is parkland, the river seems unspoiled, almost natural; you imagine it a thousand years ago, exactly the same, eternally flowing its forest-stained waters into the great blue lake. But, of course, one mile upstream there is that dam. And the dam is what stops the salmon. It is in this little stretch of river, in most places so narrow a fisherman almost casts to the opposite bank, that they will meet their end.

As the salmon gather, so do the salmon snaggers. It must be pointed out that while numerous streams flow to the lake's eastern shore, and salmon run into almost every one, in only a few designated places are people permitted to snag them. There is something about the act of snagging that raises the hackles of high-minded sportsmen. It just doesn't fit with the Field & Stream image of the civilized easterner dropping a carefully chosen royal coachman at the head of a quiet pool. You might as well, as one fellow put it, shoot them with guns. Your average salmon snagger might find this a good idea too, if he thought it would work.

The people who come to snag salmon arrive in pickup trucks, campers, and well-used American passenger sedans, They quickly fill the campgrounds at Ludington State Park, setting up their tents and trailers, looking up friends from last year, praying for bad weather. The out-of-staters come from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, and southern Ohio, among other places; they speak in down-home accents, play country music on their radios, and know how to catch fish.

The salmon snaggers are outdoor people. They do not mind a little rain on their campsites. They would not mind waking to a thin cover of snow. A gale out of the west, one that sends waves thundering up on the beaches, that would be best of all. Meanwhile, as the good weather persists, the lovely late midwestern summer, tourists drive out to the park to watch the sunset and stand on the bridge over the Sable River, looking down for salmon. These tourists stay in town, in motels within walking distance of Lake Michigan. They are couples of an age beyond childbearing, well dressed, well wheeled. They drive Cadillacs, Lincolns, Chrysler New Yorkers, car-wash clean with Illinois plates. Occasionally a salmon of 20 pounds or so will glide beneath the bridge and these men, elbows on the rail, softly chatting with their wives, will get a certain look and you know the tackle shops will have a new customer come morning.

The tackle for salmon snagging is specific, ugly, and strong. Jack Ferwerda, who owns a resort and bait shop outside the park, will sell you an eight-foot rod of solid fiberglass so tough you could whip a man to death with it. Line? Forty-pound test, too light; 50-pound test, a little better; 60-pound, still not too strong. There is no such thing, Ferwerda says, as a line too strong.

Ferwerda also sells the snagging hooks, bullet-shaped lead projectiles with naked treble hooks on both ends. You hold one of these in your hand, you shudder to think what might happen to an innocent bystander stepping into its path.

The successful salmon snaggers know precisely what to carry. Their rods are even longer and heavier than Ferwerda's. Their lines absolutely 60-pound test or better. They know the right knots that will not slip loose. They carry boxes, heavy boxes, of extra snagging hooks. They are prepared to lose a hundred to the rocks and keep on snagging. They own waders, the kind that pull tight beneath your armpits and fasten with shoulder straps. Most impressive of all are the landing nets the snaggers carry. These are nets that could easily scoop up a full-size dog, any breed up to a German shepherd and maybe that too. It's almost comical to see a fisherman so confident. Almost, but not after the weather breaks.

Fortunately this gathering army of snaggers is never turned loose en masse on the little Sable River. Mayhem would surely result; at least that seems to be the view of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The first time I visited Ludington they operated a lottery at the field house in the state park. The rules of the lottery were simple, and stern. If you were not seriously interested in salmon snagging, they would soon have had you discouraged. You had to be there at six. No, you could not enter the day before; no, you could not enter by mail. You had to arrive in the dead of the night and face the company of several hundred people who by life habit rise early, eat hearty breakfasts, and work hard every day. Four shifts were chosen, 200 persons each shift, each shift good for two hours of snagging, one shift per person per day. On the stage at the field house were four bins, appropriately marked. You chose one, dropped your name in, and waited for the drawing. The first shift, hitting the river at dawn, was every snagger's first choice, and shift four, which reached the river in midafternoon, was a bit of a joke--good enough for a tourist from Chicago, but not to be seriously considered by a man who had driven all the way from West Virginia. If you went for shift number one and failed, your name automatically moved to the bin for shift number two. Fail again, try for number three. The same for number four. At the height of the run, you could very well be out of bed in the middle of the night and still never reach the river.

Snagging is a blindman's buff kind of game. The technique is to cast into or beyond a likely spot, allow the rig to settle, and then yank it back as hard as you can. Maybe a fish will be swimming by. Maybe your blind jerk will snag it. It seems a shame that one must use such primitive methods, but the plain and simple fact is that salmon embarked on their spawning runs no longer care to engage in such activities as eating. It seems every newcomer must find this out for himself. In Ludington a second and larger river, the Pere Marquette, has its own salmon run, where no snagging is allowed. Morning and evening the banks fill with fishermen, the air fills with flying lures, hidden logs at river bottom fill with lures that will never again fly, and the lesson of the salmon that will not strike is learned and learned again and again. Spawning salmon are occasionally caught on lures, but given the quantity of metal and plastic flashing through the water, one suspects these unfortunate fish may simply have opened their mouths at the wrong time.

Ferwerda's is a good place to get a fix on the salmon run. Part of the service here is a fish-cleaning station where, for one dollar each, you can get your catch skinned and filleted, a dollar you will willingly pay once you have tried this task for yourself. Around ten in the morning, as soon as the first shift has come off the river, successful snaggers begin to pull in, dragging their fish from the beds of pickup trucks, enormous fish, 10, 15, 20 pounds, that Al the Fish Cleaning Man, with a few flicks of his knife, turns into the kind of meat that goes for eight dollars a pound at the supermarket. If two or three trucks show up, and the fish they bring have that dead-for-three-hours look, and if the talk is of "this damn weather," meaning the sky is already blue and the air already warm, you might plan on sleeping in the next morning, and spending the afternoon poking around in Lake Hamlin for rock bass. But if the trucks line up one after another, if the fish pile up on the sand, if Al takes the cigarette out of his mouth and really gets to work, you know the run is on.

Al handles the noble king salmon with rural dexterity and no noticeable respect. He is a Ludington resident and this work is extra money, plain and simple. Al will grab a 15-pounder, toss it up on the cleaning table, and strip away the leathery skin with two strokes of his knife and pliers. Two more strokes and the pinkish white fillets are free. The belly (it's all fat, Al says; don't eat it, the Department of Natural Resources warns), the head, the tail, the entrails, more than half the weight of the fish, are shoved unceremoniously into a dumpster, and the eggs--the larger fish are almost always female--saved in a separate container. It seems a shame to throw so much of a creature away in order to eat so little.

These salmon eggs are not saved for human consumption. I know of no one who has tried them, although I know of no reason why one should not. Sometimes it is simply best to follow the local customs. What the eggs are used for, Al explains, is bait, bait to catch other salmon. When salmon aren't laying eggs, it seems they are eating them. Salmon eggs are very large for fish eggs, nothing at all like caviar. They are bright orange and several times the size of a bb shot, and a good-size salmon easily yields several pounds of them. To use them as bait you must sew them into a small mesh sack along with a few styrofoam pellets to keep them off the bottom. This is what the surf fishermen mostly use, rigged on a slip sinker that allows the salmon to pick up and run without feeling the weight. Al sold me some of these rigs and I tried them with no success. Lacking waders, I simply wasn't getting my cast out into the surf. Almost all of the surfers are locals. A patient and genial lot, they catch maybe a fish or two a day, occasionally the limit, which is three fish of any one species, five overall. One man who had been at it for a month and canned quite as many salmon as his wife cared to look at was kind enough to give me a 12-pounder, which I brought back for Al to clean. I did not have the heart to tell him it had been someone else's salmon sack that did the trick.

It came to this. I would have to go snagging myself.

Five o'clock in the morning is not my time of day. It is a time to roll over in a warm bed and clutch a warm woman and gently hold her to you and slip back into dreams of youth and passion; nothing that happens at five in the morning can be better than this.

It is a kind of madness that gets a man out at such a time and driving north with the great black lake on his left and a couple of hard Michigan apples in his coat pockets. No one could be awake, you think, no one, and the parking lot behind the field house is filled with people who are wide awake and full of party. You jostle inside, show your license, sign your tag, and carry it to the bin marked "first shift." You go downstairs, buy a cup of hot black coffee, a sweet chocolate doughnut, bring it upstairs, and find a spot on one of the green wooden benches that line the hall-like room.

In time snaggers fill every space on every bench and begin to line the walls. So many people, up so early, almost no one looks drowsy except for a young woman in the green uniform of the Department of Natural Resources who waits onstage with two older men, You watch your competition step to the table, drop their names into the bin, first shift, everyone gambles on first shift, they grin, joke with the sleepy DNR girl. Watch where I put it, I know you're gonna do right by me. In their fisherman's hats, plaid flannel shirts, and armpit-high waders, the snaggers all seem related. It's a family, a gathering of the clan, all these Kenny Rogers beards, all these down-home accents; you feel an outsider and carefully scrutinize the faces for another like your own, whatever kind of face that might be. There are women in the crowd, most with husbands or boyfriends, and they are ready to go, as wide awake as the men; there are several blacks, maybe they are from Tennessee too, and a few clean-cut tourists who no longer feel this is beneath them. The crowd grows quiet when the senior DNR officer takes the microphone and reads the rules. Your name will be called once and once only; fail to answer, your spot will go to another. Have your license ready when you reach the table. You will be given a badge to wear on the river and your license will be returned when you return the badge. If your name is not called in the first drawing, a second will be held in one half hour. Good luck.

Two hundred names are drawn from the first bin, which remains discouragingly full. What are your chances? Every single Kenny Rogers beard gets called. Every set of chest-high waders goes. All the regulars you have seen dragging truckloads of fish to Ferwerda's march to the stage and take their badges. If this were Chicago I would have my suspicions, but this is west Michigan, the land of the up and up.

Eventually you go in the second shift. A blacktop road follows the river and ends at the dam. Parking there, you meet the first shift, the lucky ones, dragging their stringers of fish too heavy to lift from the ground. Now you see why so many of these pickup trucks from Ohio and West Virginia and Tennessee have a series of metal prongs welded against the front bumpers. People hang salmon, one, two, three, four, five, on these hooks and drive away, displaying their booty to the world. And you wonder, should you get lucky, just where in your little Cavalier you might load such fish, and how in future months you will get rid of the smell.

From the dam to the lake, the Sable River is a shallow sandy stream never so wide that people casting from opposite banks cannot tangle their lines, if they have not already tangled them with the person at their side. With 200 snaggers on the river, you are pretty much limited to casting straight forward, none of this upstream or downstream stuff. Now you learn the advantage of the chest-high waders. Ankle-deep stretches alternate with dark and promising pools. It is the people with waders who reach those pools, the people without waders who stand frustrated on the sandy banks.

But the very best spot, the spot most eagerly sought, is below the dam.

It's a surprisingly small dam--on one side, Lake Hamlin, placid, boatless; on the other, the river. For the salmon, this is the end of a journey that never found the sea. You cast into the pool, aiming between the lines of the man on your left and the man on your right. You take care not to catch up the man on the opposite side of the river. You have two hours.

At first it seems odd, casting out unbaited hooks, blindly snatching them back, trusting all to luck, but it begins to feel like normal fishing. You cast, you reel, you keep an eye on your companions. A few fish are taken, as always by someone else, and you grow envious, then discouraged, then bitter. Then, as always happens when you are not properly prepared, something catches at the end of your line, and for a moment almost too brief to be real, you feel a fish pulsing in the current, and just as it rises, just as you see it in a flash of gold, the line goes slack. Oh, what might have been!

Let me tell you what it is like to catch a truly big fish. Most freshwater fishermen only think they have caught big fish. A four-pound bass is not a big fish. A six-pound northern pike is not a big fish and neither is a five-pound walleye. No bluegill, crappie, perch, or rock bass is a big fish. Saltwater fishermen use things like that for bait. At Pensacola I once saw a man bait up with a 12-pound bonito. He was looking to catch a big fish. I saw people hook onto fish so strong that spectators got bored watching and walked away. I saw one guy hooked onto a fish so strong even I tired watching. For all I know that guy and his fish are still pulling in opposite directions. People who cast colored bits of plastic into the lily pads do not know about such things.

When it happens, when you at last hook into something truly large--one time just south of Tampa I snagged a manta ray that could not be permitted aboard my canoe--your first and immediate reaction goes like this:

My God! My God! I will never land this thing!

The "big one that got away." It's more than a legend, some mere liar's tale. Big ones really do get away. They smash tackle, bust lines, gobble up lures and spit out the paint, they swim right through your landing net and are never seen again.

You do not "play" a truly big fish. You cannot even turn the reel. In Florida, I saw a man set the rod over his shoulder, turn his back on the sea, and walk to the opposite end of the pier, dragging whatever was on the end of the line that much closer. Then he turned and rushed back, reeling. In this way he finally brought something with very large teeth up to the pier, where it promptly cut the line against the barnacled pilings and swam away. Probably just as well.

The big fish. What else is fishing all about? That moment when the hook is set. That moment when you know this is not a log, not some other fisherman's line, not a passing motorboat, that moment. And you never really believed it would happen. It's the lottery ticket. It's your high school friend's big sister. Some things are too good to come true.

But sometimes they do.

So here is the Pacific salmon at the end of its empty journey--high-tech wildlife with the memory of salt seas and cold flowing coastal streams buried in its cells. Trapped, doomed, it circles, it gropes, and then, bang, the hooks slam home. In a rush of gold it rises to the surface and all the fury of its lost destiny explodes. "Oh! Look at that!" a woman cries. Indeed, look at that! Her man stands waist deep in the water, that guaranteed-never-to-break solid glass rod bent double; he heaves with all his strength and the great fish roars out of the water. This is no time for sportsmanship, people are running from all directions with those oversized landing nets, get this fish to shore before it tangles every line on the river! The struggle is short, brutal, breathtaking. "Oh! He's a beauty!" the woman cries when the fish, dripping eggs, fills the net. A beauty, and you cast out your line praying, oh Lord, let it happen for me!

A year later you are back. Suddenly the rules have changed. No more lottery, the state of Michigan has decided to save a little money by streamlining the process. But no, you still do not get to sleep. One way or another, they want you out of bed. Six AM seems like a nice civilized hour to the Michigan mind. My mother's brother always told me anyone who slept past six was wasting half the day. Five AM. That's when they milk the calves and get the chocolate milk they immediately drink up before a sleepy little city kid even has a chance to rub his eyes. Five AM. That's when they start forming the line outside the park today and, since it's first come, first served now, maybe you'd better get there a little bit sooner.

No longer do you wait inside a warm field house with hot coffee and doughnuts to comfort you, with good wooden benches to rest your weary bones. Instead they've got you in a parking lot three miles down the road, waiting for the campsite office to open. You recognize the same crowd as last year, the same Kenny Rogers beards and down-home accents, the same armpit-high waders, the same talk of fish and the weather and the DNR, which is screwing up the fishing. The coffee is now in thermoses, and the wind coming off the lake is cold enough to chill it before it reaches your lips.

In the new system the office opens promptly at six and each fisherman is given a number corresponding to his position in line. Then we wait again until seven, when we're given badges corresponding to our numbers and are turned loose in that order. It pays to be at the head of this line. All who have been here before know that very well, and yet there is no cheating among these fishers, no attempts to steal ahead of one another. These are courtly, well-mannered people up to and sometimes including the moment when three of them snag onto the same fish at the same time. They stomp around in the cold and tell stories--"Did you see that woman yesterday? She snagged this old boy behind the ear and cast him right out into the river!"--and a visitor from Chicago, joined in conversation, finds himself instinctively dropping a certain familiar F word from his vocabulary.

It is not yet dawn when they issue the badges. The DNR man, same man as last year, walks down the line and announces the new rules. Limit is changed. Three fish, any kind, per person. Only one shift today, as soon as you have your badge you may start, fish till five o'clock if you like. Have your number, your Michigan license, and two dollars ready when you reach the window.

It looks good. Only 30 or 40 people ahead of you. Probably got here at three. But you should still get a good spot, and now you know where that good spot is--by the dam. And the fish are going to be there, yes! The wind is like ice and the waves have been thundering up on the beach all night; there are going to be fish in that pool!

The line begins to move. The first fishermen to get their badges run, don't walk, to their cars. Just because you are number 1, or 10, or 20 doesn't mean you will reach the water according to your place in line. You still have three miles to drive and here are all these good old boys from Ohio and Indiana and Pennsylvania, every one of them born behind the wheel, just raring to go. Engines roar, tires squeal, slowpokes are passed at 60 miles an hour. Did I say this wasn't sport? I take every word of it back.

Moments later you reach the dam and the competition is already there, whooping. Fish on! Fish on! Jesus, they'll have everything out before you even get off a cast! Men and wives work together like frontier couples, break a line, break a rod, a reel falls apart, the wife is there with a fresh rig, ready to go, extra rods, extra reels, extra lines, hundreds of extra hooks, not a moment is lost.

The fishermen crowd together, no quarter asked, none given. No sooner a line hits the water, another drops above it. You snag an enormous fish only to see it landed by another who snagged it first. You snag another and that landing net you thought would be plenty large enough might as well be a teaspoon. The others help, not from goodness of the heart, just to get your fish out of the water. They're not in the least disappointed when it snaps your 40-pound line like a thread.

Faster and faster the deadly hooks fly. Only by a miracle is no one maimed. A newcomer bumps you out of position. People step in front of one another. Every fish hooked draws unwelcome company. Weaklings give ground, and having given ground give a little more, and eventually find themselves casting out over a sandbar and bringing back nothing but riverweed. An hour goes by, two, the sun brightens, and you find yourself with two great bloody salmon lying on the bank and the respect of your companions, who by now have become your friends. By God, you held your own. You step back to let a citified gentleman with clean trousers and a brand-new rod take your place. A glorious end for the victors, you grin and compare stories and feel very pleased with yourselves.

It is not a glorious end for the salmon. By hundreds they lie in the sand, dribbling out spawn, turning black, their great hooked jaws agape. Like all dead things, they are ugly, more so since they have been dying now for days and weeks. Except for a woman with her Instamatic camera, nobody even troubles to take a picture. It's cleanup time, lug everything back to the car, a quick trip to the fish-cleaning station, then nothing to carry home but meat.

The state of Michigan warns against eating richly of this meat. With your nonresident fishing license ($20.35 for the year, plus $7.35 for a snagging stamp, plus $9.85 for a trout and salmon stamp if you want to actually fish in the lake) you get a 30-page booklet of regulations and a few valuable tips. "For the freshest tastiest fish, keep them alive until cleaning or on ice." "Because fish are 85 to 95 per cent digestible they are excellent food providing well-balanced protein as well as vitamins and minerals and are very low in sodium."

Lake Michigan fish provide more than that. A few pages later we read that "organic chemicals, like PCBs, tend to accumulate to highest levels in fatty fish species such as carp, catfish, large salmon and lake trout." Consequently, "consumption of some species should be either restricted or eliminated . . . "

By "restricted" the Michigan Department of Public Health means no more than one meal a week, and none for children under 15, none for pregnant women. Restricted are all coho salmon over 26 inches and all chinook salmon over 23 inches taken from Lake Michigan waters. By "eliminated" the Department of Public Health means all lake trout over 23 inches, all chinook salmon over 32 inches, and all brown trout over 23 inches taken from Lake Michigan waters. Just for good measure, all carp and catfish are eliminated as well.

None of this greatly troubles the snaggers on the Sable River. If "they" say something, then it can't really be true, can it? "You'd have to eat salmon every day for the rest of your life before you'd get as much as they stick in those damn mice." This guy has three, his wife has three (actually he caught them all), tomorrow he means to limit again, before he's done he means to pack his cooler with as much as 200 pounds of meat. That's in fillets, no bones, no skin, no head, tail, or guts. That more than fills a freezer. That more than takes care of the neighbors.

Shucks. That pays for the trip!

The snagging season officially closes on October 25. What is left in the Sable River rolls over and dies all by itself. They wash up on the banks, big black things with horribly hooked jaws. The gulls descend. Park employees fill Dumpsters. The cold steady current washes the last of the eggs back toward the lake. Miles and miles away, in Beulah and Kalamazoo and Manistique, the next generation wait in hatcheries for the hand of man to start them on their journey.

Always busy, the hand of man. Transplanting species from faraway seas. Creating new hybrids. Giving nature a little help. The fisheries people have been preparing something new for sportsmen. Since Lake Michigan salmon can barely reproduce anyway, why let them spawn at all? Why let them die, as their ancestors have died for thousands and thousands of years, at the peak of their life cycle? Why not zap them in the hatchery, alter their DNA, create a new, improved fish? Such creatures--already they exist--will live and feed and grow in the lake for years and years, grow to 100 pounds or more. And they'll never come near shore where the snaggers can get them.

These big fish are supposed to be ready around the turn of the century. I see myself, grown old and pale, wheeled aboard one of those sonar-equipped charter boats. I'll be handed a rod chosen by the captain, rigged with a lure fastened by the captain, and it will be lowered to a depth determined by the captain and towed through waters charted by him. I'll sit in my chair watching the rod tip and when it bends double (a truly big fish!) my heart will race while I watch the captain set the hook and reel in my 100-pounder. Later I'll pose on the dock beside my catch and let the captain take the picture.

Until then, no more snagging for me. I mean to die a sportsman.

For information on the Ludington area, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

Add a comment