Fish ladder may be in Rockford’s future
by Beth Altena
“If you have a business in Rockford, this will make a difference to your business,” said Glenn Blackwood of Great Lakes Fly Fishing, a Rockford business. Blackwood spoke before Rockford Rotary, telling members that the Rogue River has been selected as one of only twelve rivers across the United States for a multi-year restoration project organized by Trout Unlimited (TU). Blackwood spoke in terms of business for Rotary, but might well have said if you live in Rockford, this will affect you positively.
Selection process began over two years ago when TU researchers considered three Michigan rivers for restoration and protection. Because of strong support in the area by environmental groups, donations by local business and non-profit partners and the extreme value of the Rogue as a fishery, the Rogue was chosen over the Rifle and Pigeon/Black rivers.
The project is a far-reaching effort that will encompass the entire Rogue River watershed from its beginning in the former Rice Lake headlands in Newaygo County on through the waterway to its influx into the Grand River. Efforts will include working with cities and municipalities along the way to the very riverbed under the Rogue’s cold waters, said Nicol De Mol, who has been hired by Trout Unlimited to head the project for the Rogue.
“As a major cold water tributary to the Grand River and its close proximity to a large population center, the Rogue River is an extremely important resource in southern Michigan,” said De Mol. “The lower portion of the river, below the dam in Rockford, is fabled for its excellent steelhead runs in the late winter and early spring. The eastern tributaries, particularly Cedar, Stegman, and Duke Creeks, host significant brook, brown and rainbow trout fisheries. The scenic and fishery values of the Rogue have resulted in more than 90 miles the main stem and tributaries being granted “Natural Rivers” status under Michigan’s Natural Rivers Act.”
Blackwood noted that, although the river is famous as a fishery, it has nonetheless gained 7 to 8 degrees in temperatures from earlier years. A restoration of a river in “pretty good shape but with significant room for improvement” will result in more fish, bigger fish and a healthier river. This is good news for those who enjoy fishing, paddle sports on the river, or even value the downtown shopping district.
“We are a huge destination for fishermen in Chicago, Muskegon, Jackson, Lansing, Kalamazoo, and more,” said Blackwood. He speculated that if Rockford had more lodging, many of those day-visitors would stay—and spend more money here. He described the Rogue as twice the fishery of other rivers because of the quality of fishing for those kind of fish that stay as well as the fish that migrate from the Great Lakes to spawn in the Rogue.
De Mol said part of her focus as project manager is to develop a structure of individuals and groups who will be a permanent part of the protection of the river. Community involvement is a key portion of the river’s future well-being. De Mol listed the following as priorities:
• build support among local communities and promote protective municipal policies;
• improve habitat and water quality through restoration projects;
engage anglers, children, and community volunteers in monitoring, education, and other river events; and
fill key information gaps to guide future management and restoration.
• Increase Habitat Restoration Efforts
• Assess strategic opportunities for habitat restoration in lower river and coldwater tributaries.
Conduct strategic habitat restoration projects, particularly those that could improve connectivity in the system (culverts, small dams, fish passage)
De Mol said, among planned efforts is to study the waters above the Rockford dam and indentify thermal effects. “Dams typically do cause a lake effect,” she said, because the dam slows the movement of the river. She said the presence of pike in that section of the Rogue is an example of warmer waters affecting the fish species that thrive in the environment.
Working with the Department of Natural Resources and Energy, De Mol said she will be looking into what options there may be to alleviate thermal affect if testing proves it is taking place. “Maybe there will be a fish ladder at the Rockford dam, which could extend the miles the migratory fish can go upstream,” she suggested. Noting that she is not a fish biologist and thermal effects will not likely be tested until next summer, De Mol said this is just one example of what evaluation of the Rogue may reveal and suggest as a future project to protect the cold water fishery.
The Rogue is one of only two eastern rivers selected by Trout Unlimited, although the national organization was started here in West Michigan over 50 years ago.
“Most of the Home Initiative rivers are out west,” she said. She said it is a very big deal that people from other parts of the country can look at the Rogue River and see that it is a unique and valuable resource. “It’s right here in our area, but maybe we take it for granted. I think this should make people sit up and take notice,” she said. “This is a really big deal.” De Mol said the Rogue is also the only river in the project chosen for its urban location and the pressures it faces due to future development also make it unique to the program.
Financial support for the project has been generously provided by the Frey Foundation, the Wege Foundation, Wolverine World Wide, Inc., the Schrems West Michigan TU Chapter and Robert DeVilbiss.