The Boardman River is the beating heart of Grand Traverse and Kalkaska counties. A living entity that sustains a wide variety of fish, flora and fauna, it originates near Kalkaska and empties into the west arm of Grand Traverse Bay in Traverse City.

The Boardman is one of Michigan’s premier cold-water trout streams and is currently undergoing the largest river-restoration project in Michigan’s history. When concluded, this undertaking will have seen the removals of three hydroelectric dams and the modification of a fourth dam at the site of Traverse City’s $22 million FishPass project.

Following the completion of FishPass, which state officials say will allow them to prevent “invasive or non-desirable (emphasis added) fishes through controlled sorting,”the DNR wants to do something that should be anathema to an agency whose mission statement says it is “committed to the conservation, protection, management, use and enjoyment of the state’s natural resources for current and future generations”: The DNR wants to release steelhead, a fish that is not native to the Boardman River, into the upper stretches of the river.

A Short History of the Boardman River

Once called the Ottaway by the Native American tribes who inhabited the area in the 1800s, the Boardman has been logged, gouged and gored during the last 150 years. The river was renamed the Boardman after an Illinois timber baron named Captain Horace Boardman purchased land at the river mouth in 1847, built a sawmill, and then logged the riverbank into oblivion, turning the Boardman into a floating sea of white pine corpses and hastening the extinction of the grayling.

In 1894, Traverse City built the first of three hydroelectric dams to power the city. They produced power for more than a century until they were decommissioned in 2005. The Brown Bridge Dam was removed in 2012, the Boardman Dam came down in 2017, and the Sabin Dam was removed in 2018. The net effect of the dam removals has been to significantly lower the water temperature, boding well for the resurgence of the river’s wild brook trout population.

Looming Threats to the Boardman River

DNR officials, whose six fish hatcheries are producing steelhead at maximum capacity, claim that they want to restore “connectivity” between the Great Lakes their connecting rivers by releasing hatchery-raised steelhead into a river that is still recovering from the three dam removals. In addition to wiping out the brook trout, that irresponsible decision would turn the Boardman from this:

Fly fishing in river.JPG

into this:

Photo by Perfect Fly Store

Today, we already have wild, self-sustaining brook trout and brown trout populations in the Boardman. It makes no sense to jeopardize it to improve the populations of Lake Michigan steelhead. Virtually every river, stream, and creek that empties into the Great Lakes has runs of steelhead and salmon. The DNR claims that thousands of wild, naturally reproduced salmon and steelhead fill the rivers each year. For six decades we have been dumping millions and millions of steelhead and salmon into the Great Lakes and harvesting only small numbers. Yet, the DNR still cannot say that salmon or steelhead will ever become self-sustaining.”
— Dave Leonhard, co-owner of Orvis Streamside