Trading in a junk river

Fishermen are trolling for chinook salmon and trout in downtown Detroit, thanks to a multimillion-dollar recall campaign on pollutants
November 03, 1975

One tends to think of trout streams in terms of babbling riffles surrounded by sighing pines, of circling ospreys overhead and—in the wilder parts of the world—snarling bears disturbed at their bankside meals. Things are a bit different on "The World's Biggest Trout Stream." All those colorful outdoorsy adjectives still apply, but the nouns? Forget it.

The babbling you hear, and there's plenty of it, emanates from nightclubs, bars and discos blaring forth high-decibel Motown rock. The sighing stems from frustrated commuters, as homeward they wend their weary way from the skyscrapers that flank the stream. Most of the circling is performed by police and traffic-report helicopters, while the snarling comes courtesy of the region's ubiquitous muggers. For The World's Biggest Trout Stream—hold your breath, trash fans—is none other than the Detroit River.

Not so long ago you literally had to hold your breath in the vicinity of this infamous waterway. The 25-mile stretch of fast southward-flowing water linking Lake St. Clair with Lake Erie, which is bracketed by the densest concentration of heavy industry in North America, was a kind of aquatic Augean stable. Its busiest tributary, the River Rouge, where a sprawling Ford Motor Co. industrial complex sits and spews, ran bright orange with pickle liquor, an acid used in steel processing, while the mainstream itself gleamed rainbowlike under the industrial haze thanks to the 35,000 gallons of oil vomited into it daily. During the brutally cold winter of 1960-61, when most of the river froze over, Michigan state conservation officials counted 20,000 ducks killed by surface oil in the few remaining open pools. Angry hunters gathered truckloads of the dead birds and drove over to Lansing to dump them on the capitol lawn. At the time it seemed a protest of little avail.

The river continued to run foul and fecal until the mid-1960s, when a combination of tough federal and state environmental laws were implemented. Then, two years ago, as the latest chapter in its farsighted "Great Lakes Salmon Miracle," the Michigan Department of Natural Resources began stocking the Detroit River with more than 1 million chinook salmon and steelhead trout. This fall those fish, grown from fingerlings to "jacks" of as much as 20 pounds on a diet of omnipresent alewives, were back to spawn.

"Look there!" said Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young recently, pointing to the sonograph mounted in the cabin of the good boat Pequod. The sonar's stylus had just scratched half a dozen thick, black, upside-down vees on the graph paper. "Those are chinook or I'll eat Cobo Hall." As the mayor made his vow, Cobo Hall, home of the Detroit Pistons, loomed just 200 yards off the Pequod's port quarter.

The mayor and two outdoor writers were guests aboard the Pequod, a 26-foot salmon boat owned by Larry Serafin of the Michigan Steelhead and Salmon Fishermen's Association, on the first serious day of fishing on the Detroit River since the cleanup began. The operation was code-named DRIFT (for Detroit River Invitational Fishing Trip) and had attracted some 30 outdoor writers from as far afield as San Francisco, Kansas City, Nashville and Boston. Everyone was eager to bend a rod in the World's Biggest, etc., and 21 boats circled with the Pequod off the wild shores of downtown Detroit, sonars pinging, downriggers humming with the strain of as many as seven light-test lines trailing gaudy spoons and wobbling plugs, all of the craft dodging manfully as heavily laden ore boats coursed through the channel that flows between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

"They're salmon, all right," said Captain Serafin, scanning the sonograph marks, "but I doubt they'll hit." A slim, mod-clad and coiffed Detroit carpenter, Captain Serafin is scarcely a lookalike for the skipper of the literary Pequod. "They're about 40 feet down and doing absolutely nothing. The water temperature down there is about 60° Fahrenheit, and chinooks aren't likely to feed at anything warmer than 57°."

Tom Schneider, president of the Michigan Steelheaders, who was serving as Serafin's mate for this outing, added nightcrawlers to some of the deep-running lures. "Sometimes chinook will take worms when all else fails in warm water," he said. "You've got to get into the deep holes, which is tricky here, because the current runs about seven or eight knots. Also, we might pick up a walleye or two." Schneider, a blond, mustachioed lure designer from nearby Warren, Mich., waxed rhapsodic about the variety of fish life in the resuscitated river. Not just chinooks and steelhead, but smallmouth bass, muskellunge, walleyed pike and sturgeon have returned to the river since the cleanup. The sonograph continued to mark fish, and the rods to nod unstruck, as Serafin, Schneider and Mayor Young detailed the facts and figures of the rejuvenation.

The cleanup is the result of more than a decade's herculean effort, plus about $750 million in private and public funds. The 60 Detroit industries located along the river have spent between $300 and $400 million on new recycling and waste-treatment equipment. One company estimated a $5,000-a-month reduction in operating costs as a result of its recycling program: environmental concern can turn out to be good business as well as good image-making. The city of Detroit alone, Mayor Young was proud to point out, had spent another $345 million over the past nine years to remove 90% of the organic waste from its sewage. For the foreseeable future, industry and government will be spending more than $10 million annually for other improvements. The results have been dramatic. Those 35,000 gallons of oil a day spewed into the river in the 1940s were reduced to 3,676 gallons of waste, oil and grease by 1963. Early this year, Detroit Natural Resources watchdogs calculated the daily dump at an average of 651 gallons, an 82% reduction from the 1963 figure. "Don't know as I'd want to drink it just yet," said Young, "but I wouldn't hesitate to eat any fish we caught out of it...if we ever catch one."

Trolling ever deeper into the troughs and holes revealed by the sonograph, the Pequod's passengers and crew began speculating on what else might be snagged as the hooks bounced bottom behind the cannonball sinkers of the electric downriggers.

"This was a rumrunner's heaven back during Prohibition," said Serafin. "We might pick up a case of that good old Canadian hooch." Across the river, the windows of the Hiram Walker distillery seemed to wink a flash of hope. The mayor shook his head dispiritedly. "I don't know," he said, "I'd rather we hooked up just one big fightin' mad chinook. Hook a chinook—that's my motto."

But it was not to be—not that day at any rate. One barely legal smallmouth bass took a trolled spoon nearly its own length during the morning—"What you'd call a tiny-mouth bass," the mayor quipped as it was returned to whence it came—and in the early afternoon, in the shallow waters where Lake St. Clair empties into the river, a muskie smacked a lure but was off in a flash. Not one of the 22 boats volunteered for the DRIFT expedition produced a salmon, though a few did hook smallmouths and the next day a 22-pound walleye was boated. "You know the river's clean if there's smallmouth in it," said Schneider, a bit defensively. "And the sonograph shows that there are salmon here. Not too many just yet, but they'll be here once she cools down a bit more." Perhaps far fewer, he admitted, than the stocking figures would indicate. Canadian commercial gill-netters, working the Lake Erie waters where the Detroit River fish plant has been growing to maturity, may have taken a heavy toll of the young fish. It was gill-netters, both American and Canadian, with their tough new nylon nets—coupled with the establishment of sea lampreys in the lake—who had decimated the native lake trout and whitefish population of the Great Lakes in the immediate post-World War II years. The lampreys are now under control, thanks in large part to a Michigan DNR program, but the commercial fishermen of Canada thus far have shown no inclination to reduce their predatory role. "Those are our fish," Schneider complained, "paid for with our tax dollars. Something's got to be done about it."

That evening Young hosted a feed for the frustrated anglers at Manoogian Mansion, the city's luxurious mayoral residence. For once that day, there were plenty of Great Lakes salmon available, both poached and smoked in the form of hors d'oeuvres. The mansion fronts on the river, and some of the guests strolled down to streamside before they left. The river rolled past, strong and clear under the sunset, with no oil slicks visible, no reeking flotsam to wreck the contented mood. A raft of mallard ducks paddled just offshore from the boathouse, squabbling among themselves. A huge lake steamer, her rusty plates boiling through the strong blue water, came downriver.

Just then, what looked remarkably like a salmon rolled and flagged its notched tail and disappeared beyond the mallards. A silver flash in the last light. That's a fishing stream, all right.


Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)