The “Big River” as it’s locally called is one of Michigan’s most historic waterways. Its origin is nothing more than a small spring jumping from the ground near the little Michigan community of Fredrick. The Manistee’s sister river, the great AuSable starts just over 100 yds. away. The AuSable runs to the east to Lake Huron and the Manistee runs to the west to Lake Michigan. Both rivers (spring creeks at point of origin) are born from the sand and gravel as a result of the great Niagrin Reef formed by glacier retreat. Native Americans called the Manistee River, “The Spirit of the Woods.“ From its beginning it travels south/west nearly 200 miles before it empties into Manistee Lake and then Lake Michigan.
The Manistee was and is a great waterway for travelers. First, Native Americans used the river for travel by canoe to reach one village or another up and down the river. In those days there were giant log jams that acted as bridges for people to cross. The forest along the river was made up of giant White Pine, Cedar, Hemlock, Birches and other first generation species. These giant tress shaded the waterway and kept the river cold and clear. Wildlife of all kinds abounded. White Tail deer, Beaver, Otter, and Mink were everywhere. Fish species included Grayling and Brook Trout among others.
Fur trappers and traders worked the river for its abundance. As the Native Americans were being rounded up and put on reservations, the land along the river became very valuable to lumbermen who looked at the native White Pines as a cash crop. Middle America was growing fast and needed the giant timbers to build cities like Chicago and Detroit. The Manistee once again became a highway of water but now was carrying logs from the lumber camps to the sawmills down river at Manistee Lake. The river transported millions of logs and hundred of millions of board feet of timber.
This lumbering was a major industry and brought commerce from a wide area of America and overseas. Thousands were employed and millions of dollars were made, but at a price. Soon (by the late 1800’s) most of the trees were gone. Left behind was a barren landscape. The river temperatures skyrocketed and fish began to disappear, mudslides and erosion also took its toll on the once clear cold river. The land now nearly worthless was sold cheap. Michigan was expanding its manufacturing and needed electricity, hydropower. Michigan Power and Light Company bought thousands of acres of land along the river to construct dams to generate electricity. These dams impounded water and tamed the river and further warmed the water.
During the early nineteen hundreds the river was in stress. By 1940 vegetation and second generation trees started the healing process, but by now the river could never return to it’s natural self. Bright spots began to take shape. The Michigan Fisheries Commission began to stock trout species up and down the river. The great Pacific Steelhead that were stocked in a few Lake Michigan tributaries began making their way to the Manistee River systems. Anglers called these fish “The Giant Rainbows”. Every so often one was caught.
As commerce continued to grow thru out the Great Lakes the St. Lawrence Seaway was constructed to provide shipping capabilities. This waterway also allowed many exotic species to enter the Great Lakes. The Lamprey Eel was one of the first to invade. These eels attach to the body of fish and feed on their body fluids and bring them to their death. The once abundant Lake Trout, Brown Trout and Steelhead were all but wiped out. In response the bait fish (alewife) population exploded and brought even further stress to the Lakes and the people that lived along their shores. Millions of spawning Alewife stacked up on tourist beeches making them inhabitable for summer beech goers. Bulldozers and front-end loaders were used to scoop up the tons of dead stinking fish. Something needed to be done.
In the late 1950’s the Michigan DNR headed up by Director Wayne Dody came up with a plan to bring Pacific Salmon to the Great Lakes to feed on the millions of over abundant baitfish. The plan worked. The changing government politically replaced Director Dody and Dr. Howard Tanner took the helm and took the plan even further. At the same time the US Fish and Wildlife Service worked on a plan to help control the Lamprey Eels. The salmon introduction was nothing short of a huge success. Hundreds of thousands of anglers ascended on the Lakes to fish. Fishing commerce during these days was off the chart. Motels, bait and tackle stores, party stores, boat sales, etc. was going wild.
Today the Great Lakes are relatively healthy and managed for balance of aquatic species. The Manistee River and its tributaries contribute heavily to the local economy with fishing and paddling leading the way.