For all of the arctic grayling’s remarkableness, the mechanics behind its eventual extinction in Michigan is a story all too common.
A species known for its “tints and colorings not unlike the plumage of the peacock” and exotic dorsal fin, arctic grayling descended from fish that thrived in the state at the end of the last Ice Age. They proliferated for eons in streams across Michigan, particularly in the Lower Peninsula from roughly the Muskegon River northward.
Even their initial presence was a rarity of sorts: Only Michigan and Montana in the lower 48 states sustained native populations of arctic grayling.
The so-called “trout of the pines” were “so numerous they almost choked the streams during migration,” according to “Trout of Michigan,” a 1938 publication by Muskegon author Harold Hinsdill Smedley.
“When one considers the number of fish the streams were producing at that time, we marvel at the amount of food that those streams must have contained,” Smedley wrote, adding that they were so highly regarded and identified with Michigan that the state at one time considered putting grayling on its flag.
The extirpation of Arctic grayling from Michigan streams occurred rapidly during and after the logging era, an early period of prosperity for the state. After lumberjacks cleared the trees from the river banks and surrounding areas, they rolled them into the rivers to float down to sawmills.
Unfortunately for the grayling, the log drives typically occurred during their spring spawning run, endangering the adult fish, and filled in much of the gravel where they needed to place their eggs.
Seemingly simultaneously, anglers also played a role in grayling’s demise by overfishing them in their native streams. At the time, the fish were plentiful and also easy to catch. Historical records recount massive angler harvests of grayling, many of which were killed and “left to rot on the bank,” Smedley recounted.
“That the Michigan grayling was slaughtered by the hundreds and thousands there is no doubt,” Smedley wrote.
The last known specimens in Michigan were found in the Otter River in Houghton County, one of the only areas of the Upper Peninsula known to have grayling, but they were fished out by the mid-1930s.
“The Michigan grayling was a victim of peculiar environment,” Smedley wrote. “They are now as extinct as the ‘dodo’ bird and have gone the way of the [passenger] pigeon.”