I’m the first to admit that I’m a terrible angler. I love fly-fishing, but fish do not love my flies. Mostly, as Robert Traver wrote in his Testament of a Fisherman, “I love the environs where trout are found.” Still, it would be nice to actually catch a fish once in a while. Part of my problem, I’m convinced, is that I do not know enough about the science of flies and rivers. So when Jason Frenzel, volunteer coordinator for the Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC), told me about their winter stonefly survey last year, I jumped at the chance to participate.
I’ve devoured books about fly-fishing, but there’s more to learn in a current than on a page. Since moving to Ann Arbor a couple years ago, I’ve fished stretches of the Huron at random, without any clue as to where I should be fishing. The winter stonefly survey appealed to me because it would show me new stretches of water. I would have a chance to scout and learn a little about those waters, and I might even learn a little about flies. Plus, it seemed only right that if I was going to fish the watershed, I should do something to help keep it fishable.
Stoneflies are an indicator species, which means that they can only survive in high quality streams. They hide in leaf packs and in gravel bottoms underneath riffles in the winter. Some stonefly species are dormant the rest of the year. The healthy waters which harbor stoneflies also harbor a diverse mix of other flies at other times of the year, like caddisflies, mayflies, and damselflies. I’m no biologist - far from it - but it makes sense to me that an abundance of flies means an abundance of food for fish.
My team surveyed two sites in the watershed. The first was Davis Creek, also known as the South Branch of the Huron. The second site was on Greenock Creek. I volunteered to be a “collector,” because it meant that I would be in the water, wading creeks and scooping samples with a net. After training for a couple hours in the morning, I joined my team for the afternoon survey. We also had a team leader and three sorters, all very knowledgeable biology and entomology students from the University of Michigan , Eastern Michigan University, and Oakland University.
The first site on Davis Creek was off a dirt road in a wooded area. The only nearby development was a few houses uphill from the creek. I waded in at a shallow gravel point and collected samples from leafpacks under cutbanks, gravel bottoms under riffles, and scraped from fallen logs. The team sorted the samples and found an abundance of stoneflies, as well as mayflies, caddisflies, and larvae. A red-tailed hawk flew overhead, as if to accentuate the natural beauty of the site.
The second site provided a stark contrast to the first. Though the creek looked the same, it harbored no stoneflies, and very few of any other fly. This stream intersected a paved road, ran adjacent to a subdivision, and flowed downstream from a dam. Foam collected against a downed tree, and old lumber planks piled atop each other on the far side of the stream, well- hidden in a tangle. On our way back to the vehicle we walked through a swift-moving snowmelt running along the road and bound for the creek.
Dams artificially warm water temperatures and trap sediment, decreasing oxygen and reducing the natural flushing action of rivers. Runoff from developments and impervious surfaces carry pollutants, such as phosphorus from lawn fertilizers, directly into the stream, rather than filtering through the ground. Even for someone with my limited scientific background, this site illuminated the damage we’re capable of inflicting on any watershed.
Before participating in this survey, I would probably have fished the second site as soon as the first. Except for the aesthetic charm of the South Branch stretch, I wouldn’t have known the difference. Having volunteered, though, I think I’m just a little more knowledgeable about river quality than I was before, and can apply that knowledge to select better places to fish in the future. More importantly, though, hopefully I can use this understanding toadvocate for the improvement of water quality in the watershed and the state as a whole.
The HRWC's annual Winter Stonefly Search is coming up on Saturday, January 26, 2013. They're looking for volunteers, so contact Jason Frenzel and let them know you'll be there. You might even learn a little something and catch a few more fish this year!
It's been a while since the last post, with good reason. I started a new job with the largest statewide conservation organization in the nation, which brought my conservation year full circle.
January 2012 found me attending a town hall meeting on the Land Cap Bill in Alpena, where dozens of Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) members had shown up "in force, in camo and informed." Little did I know that I'd be on staff at MUCC by the end of the year. The Huron River Watershed Council also gave me an opportunity to get my waders wet during their annual Winter Stonefly Survey.
It was a good thing that there were contentious town hall meetings about terrible anti-conservation bills to attend last winter, because with a complete lack of snow, there wasn't much outdoor recreation going on. My frustration with being unable to cross-country ski or snow-shoe resulted in another blog highlighting the increasingly obvious effects of climate change. I was able to ski to work only one day all winter, but the snow had melted by the end of the day and I had to carry my skis over my shoulder on my walk home.
Trout season renewed my spirits like it always does, and this year my fishing finally hit its stride. A big part of that was going fishing with an outdoor writer I'd met at the Land Cap town hall meeting, and by watching him cast I realized that I'd formed some bad habits, probably as a result of teaching myself to fly-fish mostly by reading books and winging it on the stream. After that afternoon, I started catching fish with more consistency.
Around the same time, the organization I was working for at the time - the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (LCV) - launched a project I'd been working on since I started there the previous October. The Green Gavels program was a collaboration between the University of Michigan Law School Environmental Law & Policy Program and Michigan LCV that summarized in plain English and rated 30 years of Michigan Supreme Court environmental decisions. Included was the Anglers of the AuSable case in which the court vacated a decision that would have protected the AuSable River and restored key Michigan Environmental Protection Act caselaw. My role was to coordinate Michigan LCV's end of the project, including writing the initial case analyses and convening an all-star cast of legal minds to review the analyses and ratings.
The summer saw a slew of anti-conservation bills passed in the Michigan legislature, and I'm thankful that Michigan LCV allowed me the opportunity to testify against many of them in state Senate committee meetings. Unfortunately, bills weakening environmental protections for sand dunes and shorelines passed anyway.
The summer of 2012 also taught me that the best antidote to frustration over conservation politics is to get your hands dirty and your waders wet doing actual on-the-ground conservation work. Huron Pines offered the opportunity to volunteer improving my favorite water - the Pigeon River - by anchoring large woody debris into streambanks eroded by the hungry water flowing downstream from a certain troublesome dam. The small gods rewarded me with a decent brown trout the next day on the Black River a few miles east. Around the same time I was offered the opportunity to help the Pigeon River Country Association out with a new website; they do incredible work funding a summer intern to maintain trails in the Pigeon River Country and ensuring that the "Big Wild" is kept wild.
October means bow season, but it also means full-bore election season during even years. I bowhunted the Pigeon River Country the first weekend of October, seeing at least 25 deer, though most were out of bow range. I did reach a couple personal still-hunting milestones that weekend, though: I stalked to within 40 yards of two bedded does, but lacked the cover to close the distance another ten yards to get into my range. I also had a mature 6-point come within ten yards of me while I was crouched under cover, but a doe with him spooked when I tried to get in a position to draw on him. He never saw me, but followed the doe when she ran off.
That was it for hunting until after the election. Michigan LCV led the charge for Proposal 3 to increase Michigan's ratio of renewable energy in its electricity mix. While many thought that Prop 3 didn't belong in the Michigan Constitution - and they probably have a point - I supported it because renewable energy means less coal-fired mercury in the waters I fish and a reduced contribution to climate change, the effects of which we've seen heavily in Michigan's outdoors this year through a lack of ice cover, low water levels and EHD in the deer herd. Ultimately, Michigan voters decided they didn't want any changes to the Constitution and Prop 3 went down. I'm encouraged by our collective reverence for our state constitution, though, because the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund is protected in it and I fully expect a similar wave of public opposition to any legislative attacks on it, which were proposed too often over the last legislative session.
After the election, I accepted a position as Grassroots Manager with MUCC. As a hunter and angler who cares more about conservation than any other issue, there's no better place for me to be. My first direct contact with MUCC was at the Land Cap town hall, and it's exciting and ironic that I'm now tasked with organizing similar grassroots efforts in support of conservation in Michigan.
I was able to get out deer hunting twice more before the new year, once during firearm season and once during late archery season. Both times I combined my hunts with winter backpacking excursions into the Pigeon River Country, and while I didn't shoot any deer I saw a few and even got to spend and afternoon hunting with my dad.
So that was my year in conservation. It was hectic, frustrating, exhilerating and wonderful, but it was just a prelude to what I'll be working on in 2013.
Drew YoungeDyke is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer and a Director of Conservation Partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation, a board member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and a member of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers and the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association.
All posts at Michigan Outside are independent and do not necessarily reflect the views of NWF, Surfrider, OWAA, AGLOW, MOWA, the or any other entity.