Viewpoint: Local TU Chapter brings large section of AuSable back to life
If you build it they will come.
It’s good advice for a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield if one is trying to catch a glimpse of Shoeless Joe Jackson’s shade or have a simple game of catch with Dad.
It’s an even better idea for bringing trout back to a long dormant section of the AuSable river.
And thanks to the Mason-Griffith Founders Chapter of Trout Unlimited (MGFTU) it’s coming true.
The section in question is the headwaters of the AuSable, especially the historic Williams Tract. It is a reach of river that was compromised by logging and, more importantly, dams. The Salling dam as well as the one at the Stump Pond in Grayling had turned it into a slow-rolling, shallow, sandy stream prone to warming in the summer. It was a coldwater desert with few trout and little expectation for change.
Then things began to change. The Salling Dam failed a DEQ inspection for safety in 1990. When no property owners were willing to pony up the money to fix it, the dam was removed in 1991 with monies provided by the Michigan Council of Trout Unlimited. After decades of contention, the Stump Pond Dam was removed in the 2000s. This solved two problems; the river cooled off and the area was again open to migration from trout downstream.
They just needed a reason to come.
That’s where retired DNR biologist Steve Sendek entered the picture.
Sendek had come to the AuSable in the late 1970s as a field biologist, and took over responsibility for the river a decade later.
As the dams came out Sendek longed to restore these upper reaches. In 2012, he managed to do a trout survey of the water in the Pollock Bridge zone.
“The section was very poor trout water, very skinny. It had always been a problem,” Sendek explained, but he saw potential if it was properly restored.
It was all a question of time and money. Finally retired, Steve Sendek had the time, and, as a longtime member of the MGFTU board of directors, he knew where to find the money.
The chapter had substantial cash reserved for conservation, and was in favor of the restoration, but would need more funds. Grant applications to The Habitat Improvement Account (HIA) proved to be fruitful. The HIA was a bi-product of the Michigan Hydro Relicensing Agreement of 1995. It set aside funds from Consumers Energy in order to improve and maintain riparian areas in the AuSable, Manistee and Muskegon River watersheds.
Some work had already been accomplished prior to the big push to restore.
Pollock Bridge Road runs close to the AuSable along one curvy section. MGFTU volunteers did a massive stabilization project in 2011 including the placement of lunker structures. These actions effectively ended years of sedimentation in the section while offering local salmonids several places to hang out.
Sendek’s plan for the Williams Tract was initiated in 2013. It involved creating over 150 lunker structures, also known as “Trout Hotels,” and placing them in key areas. In addition, brush piles and large woody debris were added to both provide addition cover and channelize the stream. The latter effect would speed up the flow of water and start scouring the riverbed. Stones were added in some areas to create riffles. The combination of riffles and an increase in current uncovered the gravel long buried under decades of sand. This, in turn, raised both the potential for greater spawning as well as more insect life.
It didn’t happen overnight. Sendek’s work crews put in five seasons onto that section of river. Three-person crews worked over 2,000 hours on the project, and were supplemented by more volunteer efforts in several sections of the river.
It didn’t come cheaply. About $400,000, with $50,000 of that directly from MGFTU, went into the project.
In the end MGFTU restored the AuSable River from the Williams Tract to M-72, about five miles.
And did the trout come? According to a follow-up DNR fish survey the answer is a resounding “yes.”
In the midsummer of 2017, DNR Senior Biologist Neal Godby, Sendek’s successor, did a survey of the area to determine the impact of the effort.
There was a 57% increase in total numbers of brown and brook trout with both fish showing almost identical expansions. The results for biomass, the total pounds of trout, were even more impressive. There was a 112% increase for brown trout and a whopping 196% for brook trout.
“I’ve never seen numbers like that before,” Sendek said, “especially for biomass. There are more trout and bigger trout there than before the project began. We turned back the clock by decades.”
Anecdotal evidence also supports Sendek’s notions.
Tony Alongi has a cottage near Pollock Bridge. He’s seen steady improvement in the fishing since the project began.
“I think that the trout were scattered about in the area and when the structures came in they were attracted to them,” he said. “We are finding that the trout are coming from directly under the structures. It’s definitely improved.”
Sendek is pleased.
“We took a nothing water and created a fishery. This is Type One regulation water,” he said. “Everyone can fish this section any way they want during the season.”
Sendek’s second point is important in regard to impression. Many fishers of all stripes think Trout Unlimited only works on water with special regulations such as Flies Only or No Kill. Not so with the Mason-Griffith Founders Chapter, which opposed the No Kill plan in the 1980s when it was still the Mason Chapter.
Current Chapter President Karen Harrison, says to get ready for more rejuvenation of Type One water.
“Next up is Batterson Bridge to WaKui,” Harrison said. “All of it paid for by Mason-Griffith.”
In the meantime, there’s a new piece of good trout water where everybody is welcome.