Sunday, January 29th, 2023
Sunday, January 29th, 2023

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Brookies getting a boost on the upper Black River

Gaylord, Mich. – The upper Black River, says Carol Rose, is
“such a precious resource, the only river in Lower Michigan managed
exclusively for brook trout, and it’s a premier brook trout
fishery.”

And, it’s getting better and better all the time.

That improvement is coming through the efforts of the Upper
Black River Watershed Restoration Committee, a diverse group Rose
chairs.

With representatives of local, regional, state, and federal
agencies, industry and conservation groups, and individuals, the
group brings restoration ideas and funding options to the table,
and fashions a conservation agenda to make a difference on the
river.

Legendary conservationist Bud Slingerland first led the group,
Rose said, after local folks thought they noticed a decline in
local brook trout fishing. Years later, he picked her as his
replacement. “The reason it works, I think, is that I’m not an
agency person,” Rose said. “I don’t have to follow one agency’s
protocol.”

She runs the meetings, which take place a couple of times a
year, as members interact to share ideas and potential funding
sources. The result is a schedule for on-the-ground work, often
using a three- to five-person crew the committee itself funds and
fields.

Is it difficult to find consensus among such diverse interests?
“Oh, not at all,” Rose said. “These people all work for the common
good. They want to maintain and restore the river resource and its
brook trout fishery.”

In the past several years the work has focused on several
directions, a main one the installation and replacement of large
woody debris in the river.

Tim Cwalinski, DNRE fisheries biologist at the Gaylord office,
said studies found that production – the hatching of young brook
trout – was good within the upper Black watershed. But recruitment
– their survival through their first year – wasn’t.

There just wasn’t enough cover in the form of woody material to
give them a leg up on survival. Logs also help shore up river banks
against erosion.

So, “We’re adding wood in a lot of areas,” said the biologist of
the committee’s efforts. “We’re not talking about helicoptering
here,” he said in comparison to well-publicized work on the larger
AuSable River. “We’re floating it in with cables, hauling dead wood
off the floodplain, using deadwood from nearby stands,” all with
the blessing of wildlife biologists and other specialists.

It’s a carefully planned program. The current permit for the
project takes up 64 pages, covering 48 river segments, and each
installation of woody debris is mapped using GPS coordinates to
pin-point locations.

Similar work is ongoing within Canada Creek Ranch, Black Creek
Ranch, and other clubs, sometimes using the same crews, paid for by
the clubs themselves.

While the addition of timber is the prescription for some areas,
others need the removal of wood, in the form of beaver dams. These
structures form pools of water that warm in the sun and can raise
temperatures beyond what’s favorable for brookies.

Specific beaver dams are targeted for removal, while in other
locations trapping is used to thin beaver numbers.

Meanwhile, temperature monitoring tracks conditions throughout
the watershed.

“It’s amazing how many more trout you get (surviving) in a cool
summer than a warm summer,” Cwalinski said. “Sixty-six to 67
degrees seems to be the break point. Cooler, you might get 500
trout in that three-quarter-mile stretch; warmer, it might be
six.”

In a novel approach on one short feeder stream to the East
Branch of the Black, Cwalinski located a single patch of spawning
gravel, and the watershed group is now building gravel pods to
match it and, perhaps, boost production.

“We’re looking at a little bit of everything,” said Cwalinski of
the group’s holistic approach to the watershed.

Members of the committee include the Northeast Michigan Council
of Governments, the DNRE’s Fisheries Division, the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Huron Pines, Tip of the Mitt
Watershed Council, the Montmorency Conservation Club, “and lots of
private groups” and individuals, Cwalinski said. Other groups, such
as southern Michigan Trout Unlimited chapters and some northern
Michigan companies, have made donations to the committee.

“At the end of the year we usually have $60,000 or $70,000 in
the pot” to put the crews into action, Cwalinski said. The
Montmorency Conservation District handles the money and administers
the work.

And the upper Black River watershed stands ready to showcase the
results in dazzling brook trout.

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