New book written by local native is ‘something spectacular’

Linda Gallagher, Contributing Writer

Courtesy photo

Howard A. Tanner, the father of Michigan's salmon program, is pictured (far right) with a nice Coho salmon caught in Lake Michigan during the fall of 1968. Shown with Tanner are two unknown friends and his father, Howard Tanner, Sr. (second from left), who served as Antrim County's sheriff for many years.


BELLAIRE – When Antrim County native Howard A. Tanner accepted the position as Chief of the Michigan Conservation Department's Fisheries Division in 1964, then Conservation Dept. Director Ralph MacMullan told him to "do something – and if you can, make it something spectacular" for what appeared to be a collapsing Great Lakes fishery.

So he did – with a couple of buckets of a Western species of fish known as Coho salmon.

Fifty-five years later, the man who introduced the Pacific salmon to Michigan's Great Lakes has done something else spectacular. At the age of 95, the father of Michigan's salmon program has written his autobiography, aptly entitled "Something Spectacular, My Great Lakes Salmon Story."

Raised in Antrim County, first in Mancelona and later in Bellaire, Tanner is quick to point out in his book that the rivers and streams of the area gave him his love for fishing and a "firm foundation" for his development, clearly recalling the first fish he ever caught, at the age of just 3 years old.

A brightly colored brook trout from the pristine Cedar River, probably no more than a few inches long, was the first of many fish the growing boy landed from the waters of both the Cedar River and the Jordan River on fishing trips with his father, Howard Sr. – Antrim County's sheriff for many years – as well as from the many lakes of Antrim and Kalkaska counties.

That early passion for fishing stayed with him through his Bellaire High School years, where he served as president of both the junior and senior classes, and noted his intentions to become an ichthyologist at his graduation ceremony and through his early college years at Western Michigan University. Dreaming of his many idyllic days of fishing, along with a girl he met named Helen, sustained him through World War II and a lengthy deployment into the jungles of Southeast Asia after an equally idyllic honeymoon on Lake Bellaire.

Returning from the South Pacific at war's end with a GI bill in hand, Tanner returned to college, this time at Michigan State College, now known as Michigan State University, where he acquired a degree in limnology – the study of lakes and streams. That degree led to a Master's degree, and later, a PhD acquired from a study of lakes located within the Pigeon River Country State Forest.

After a 12-year stint in Colorado, where he held a position as assistant leader of the state's fish unit, Tanner returned to Michigan in early 1964 and his new post in Lansing as the Conservation Dept.'s fisheries director, where he soon realized the dire state of the Great Lakes' fisheries.

Native stocks of lake trout and whitefish had collapsed to the point of being almost non-existent, due to an invasive exotic called the sea lamprey, which preyed on lake trout, and almost unlimited commercial fishing. Native perch and walleye populations, the preferred quarries of what little sport fishing was occurring on the Great Lakes, were also threatened, due to increased pressure from commercial anglers with the loss of lake trout and whitefish. Additionally, everything was being drowned out by billions and billions of a small exotic fish known as the alewife.

Dying and dead alewives, having eaten all of the available invertebrates and other forage, piled up in masses on Lake Michigan beaches, seriously impacting the summer tourist industry, and demands were growing that something be done immediately to resolve the issue.

Harking back to his days in Colorado, Tanner knew that both Coho and its smaller cousin, the kokanee salmon, fed on alewives in their native habitats along the Pacific coast.

Stocking in Colorado had proven that kokanee could do well in freshwater lakes, as Coho salmon could as well.

But Michigan's first taste of Pacific salmon did not come from any of the Great Lakes, but rather, Antrim County's Torch Lake.

Having more experience with the kokanee, Tanner began his introduction of salmon with several thousand young kokanee "smolts" (year and a half old fish about two inches long) into Torch Lake's Wilkerson Creek near Eastport in the spring of 1965, with hordes of media from throughout the Midwest present to record Gov. George Romney's actions and words as he dumped the first bucket of fish into the creek.

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