Each day, hundreds of people – especially kids – will congregate along the Boardman River on Hall Street, in the city’s warehouse district. If this season is anything like past years, there will be lots of laughter, jumping up and down, pointing of fingers and juvenile squealing.
A lot of fuss over fish, you might think. But these are BIG fish, and there are lots of them – all hanging out at the bend in the river and waiting their turn to swim into the James P. Price Trap and Transfer Harvest Facility (which we locals just call the Boardman River Fish Weir).
On any given day during the fall salmon run – which usually starts in the third week of September and runs to the end of October – there can be so many Chinook and Coho backed up below the fence-like weir that you could almost walk across the river on their big slippery backs. Assuming you’d want to.
But the big fun (especially for youngsters) is watching the huge fish make their way, leap by leap, up the churning water of the fish ladder into the facility’s three holding bays, where they cruise back and forth like caged tigers and splash the unwary onlookers. Each year, anywhere from 3,000 to 13,000 salmon are trapped and harvested at the weir, while other species are returned to the water and allowed to continue their journey upstream.
Typically, this happens about once a week, whenever there are around 1,000 fish available at one time. (The number of fish entering the weir depends largely on the weather; when there’s been more rain, the water gets cooler and the fish respond by swimming upstream.)
The weir may not seem like a particularly sporting way to catch fish, but it’s very necessary. Since 1985 the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has been planting Pacific salmon in the Boardman to enhance the once-depleted fishery in Grand Traverse Bay, a move that brought our local sportfishing industry back from the edge of disaster.
But salmon are huge fish, and when they swim upstream to spawn and die they can create a smelly, unsightly problem. The solution? Remove them from the river before that happens! The state went into partnership with Traverse City Light & Power and built the Trap and Transfer Facility, named for former TCL&P board member Jim Price.
Now all those captured Cohos and Chinooks are brought inside, iced down and sold – eventually to be turned into salmon fillets, smoked salmon and cat food, while their eggs are made into caviar or used for bait. Other fish – steelhead, brown trout, lake trout and Atlantic salmon – are released back into the river. (There’s another fish ladder just upstream at the Union Street dam where you can watch them make their final climb to freedom.)
None of that seems to matter to the families who crowd around the weir during the salmon run to watch the fish climb that watery ladder and prowl the long concrete alleyways of the holding bays. In fact, the DNR gives free tours of the facility to school groups and other members of the public, showing them how weirs and fish ladders work and talking about the threat of invasive species and how Michigan’s fish hatcheries rear fish. It’s quite a blend of history, biology and environmental stewardship.
Public tours are offered visit www.michigan.gov/huntfishcenter for information. (Other tours can be scheduled through the week by appointment.) To schedule a tour or a school field trip to the Carl T. Johnson Hunting and Fishing Center in Cadillac -- or to arrange for to arrange for a visit from the DNR's "Salmon in the Classroom" program, contact park interpreter Edward Shaw at 231-779-1321 or email@example.com.