Boy spearheads effort to return Arctic grayling to Michigan

(Michigan DNR photo)

ROYAL OAK, Mich. — To understand how a 9-year-old boy became a champion of a fish that hasn’t been in Michigan for 85 years, we should first tell you about the love between the boy and his grandfather.

When Declan O’Reilly was born, his granddad didn’t buy him a teddy bear but a stuffed fish. When Declan visits grandpa Sherm Shultz at his cabin in Grayling, they fish on the Au Sable River.

The fish-crazed grandfather will next teach the fish-crazed grandson the four-count rhythm of fly fishing.

When Declan learned this summer about an effort to bring the Arctic grayling back to Michigan, he wanted to help.

He raised money, spread awareness, formed a club and is working with the state Department of Natural Resources. The DNR recently held a program about the species for his class at Keller Elementary School, The Detroit News reports.

“I like that they’re thin,” he said. “I like their dots. They’re like a rainbow trout.”

Shultz said he’s proud of his grandson.

“A lot of work has been done,” he said. “It really captured his attention.”

Children are known for their passing fancies but, in Declan’s case, all things merge into one, and a fish runs through it.

The Arctic grayling joined this love story in the summertime.

Declan and his family were visiting the Oden Fish Hatchery near Petoskey, a family tradition started by Sherm Shultz. During the July visit, Declan was drawn to a sticker that showed a slender fish with a humongous dorsal fin.

Written across the sticker was “Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative” and the website for the DNR.

Declan and Laura looked it up and learned the freshwater species, which can grow up to 30 inches, once was the king of northern Michigan. The city of Grayling is named after it.

The Thymallus arcticus thrived in the cold streams until its numbers began to drop in the mid-1800s. By 1936, it was gone. Causes of death: overfishing, loss of habitat and being gobbled up by brown trout.

The DNR and Little River Band of Ottawa Indians announced a project to bring the species back in 2016. Three years later, eggs from Alaska, where grayling are prevalent, were transferred to Michigan. Researchers hope the fish will inhabit the state’s waters by 2025.

“It would be fun to fish for them,” said Declan, with grandpa in tow, of course.

In the meantime, however, bills have to be paid.

Declan began raising money for the initiative on his ninth birthday in October. Instead of presents, he asked for donations for the grayling project. He raised $1,400.

He’s selling T-shirts and other items with a grayling logo designed by his uncle. The uncle, artist Matt Shultz, is donating his share of the proceeds to the fish initiative. The items may be purchased at

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