March 16, 2022
This article was originally titled "Saving a Badger State Gem" in the Feb/March 2022 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
The Menominee River is a majestic wilderness river situated in northeast Wisconsin. Through much of its course, it winds through dense pine forests with dramatic rock outcroppings, cascading falls, long runs, and deep pools. It has produced such abundant fish and wildlife that Native Americans made it their home for more than 4,000 years.
The Menominee forms the border between Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and while it has faced adversity brought about by logging, paper, and energy industries over the years, what remains today is a stunning landscape and resilient watershed that produces healthy, naturally reproducing populations of smallmouth bass from the top of the watershed to the bottom.
The Badger State, and northern Wisconsin in particular, is well known for its lakes and rivers. So, what makes the Menominee stand out among others in a geographic region that’s rich with diverse fly-fishing opportunities for bass, panfish, trout, and muskies? It’s difficult for me to provide an unbiased opinion. I’ve spent more than five decades exploring many miles of this big, beautiful waterway, beginning with some of my earliest memories catching fish with my grandfather when I was eight years old. There are, however, a number of characteristics that make this river ideally suited for the fly rod.
The Menominee originates from the confluence of the Brule and Pine rivers east of Iron Mountain, Michigan and runs for more than 100 miles where it eventually empties into Lake Michigan at the sister cities of Marinette, Wisconsin, and Menominee, Michigan. Throughout its course, it contains areas of slow-moving water ideal for motorboats and canoes, as well as rapids up to Class V that only the most experienced kayakers and rafters would dare to run. There are many stretches where you can float and fish for big, hungry bass all day long without seeing another soul. It can be safely navigated without a guide if you do a little homework, and there are many access points on both the Wisconsin and Michigan sides of the river. If you decide to go with a guide, Tight Lines Fly Fishing Company in De Pere, Wisconsin is your best option. Owner Tim Landwehr has been an advocate for the Menominee River and was recently featured in the web series Das Boat produced by MeatEater. In my humble opinion, they are the best smallmouth guides on the planet.
A drift boat can easily traverse most sections and is an ideal craft from which to pitch poppers and streamers to endless scenes of passing structure, from massive fallen pine trees scattered along the banks to large boulders strewn about, along with occasional rock islands. And there are a number of dramatic bluffs with steep walls that create deep, dark holding spots for aggressive fish. And as if Mother Nature herself decided that wasn’t enough variety, you can cast gaudy grasshopper patterns to intermittent lush, grassy banks and catch smallmouths hanging out on the edges.
My favorite play is to run a fly along the entire length of a submerged log, twitching it every few feet until a smallie boils at the surface. One memorable 20-incher inhaled my streamer under such circumstances and, upon realizing it had been hooked, raced toward the boat and leapt out of the water when I’d finally stripped enough line to catch up to it. When it crashed to the surface on its side, something large and furry fell out of its mouth and began to sink into the tannin-stained depths. Closer inspection revealed a mouse that left me wondering what compelled this fish to decide it needed to eat my Murdich Minnow in the first place!
Unlike bass in some fisheries that work together to crash minnows in the shallows, due to a lack of ambush structure, Menominee smallmouths are loners, preferring their own rock or log to hide behind until something tasty drifts or swims by. This creates suspenseful fly rodding, convincing you that that every well-placed cast might produce a hefty bronzeback.
These fish do have some other unique characteristics that I’ve not seen elsewhere. On too many occasions to count, I’ve had bass explode on the surface next to my popper, jump two feet into the air, and eat the fly on the way down. Fishermen not familiar with these traits will almost invariably pull the fly away in the commotion, unsure exactly what just transpired.
And if you hit it just right, you might experience the mysterious flying ant hatch in August, which causes 4-pound bass to swim leisurely to the surface to sip ants like Yellowstone cutthroats feeding on mayflies. It is a spectacular sight to see rises in every direction, including right smack in the middle of the river. These hatches, however, can be sporadic and difficult to predict.
Recognizing the importance of preserving undeveloped areas along the Menominee, the states of Michigan and Wisconsin joined forces in the early 1990s, along with the Conservation Fund and other donors, to create the Menominee River State Park and Recreation Area. The footprint of the park has since grown to more than 7,500 acres. Ongoing funding is provided by Michigan’s Natural Resources Trust Fund, whose stated goal is to “protect the park’s environmental importance and scenic beauty” and Wisconsin’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, which pledges to “preserve the natural areas and wildlife habitat and to protect the water quality and fisheries.”
With such efforts undertaken to protect this river and the healthy numbers of smallmouths and other species that swim within it, some may be astonished to learn of the threat to this fishery that has loomed large for the past five years. A Canadian company called Aquila Resources, Inc. acquired land along the river with the intention of constructing a massive sulfide mine, called the Back Forty. The mine would be constructed less than 150 feet from the banks of the Menominee River in a pristine and relatively undeveloped area called Sixty Islands. This area also contains burial and other sites of cultural significance to the Menominee Indian Tribe.
Aquila applied for and received permits from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (the agency’s name was changed by the current administration to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy) to construct the mine, as well as a large tailings pond that would contain toxic chemical byproducts that include sulfuric acid. The pond would be constructed with an “upstream” design which, in similarly constructed mines, has inevitably resulted in failure—sometimes significant structural failure and loss of life. Permits were approved even though Aquila has never constructed or maintained a sulfide mine, and despite objections from area citizens and local governments.
The Menominee Indian Tribe, along with the Coalition to Save the Menominee, Inc., challenged issuance of several permits by the Michigan agency. The tribe filed a lawsuit against the EPA alleging that it acted arbitrarily when it failed to exercise authority over permits for the Back Forty Mine. A federal appeals court declined to review the case despite the harm that could be caused to an interstate waterway.
However, in January 2021, Michigan Administrative Law Judge Daniel Pulter denied one of the needed permits, finding that Aquila failed to explore potential alternatives to its mining plan that may have lessened the impact on area wetlands. And in April of 2021, a Michigan Circuit Court judge ruled that an earlier permit should be revisited to examine concerns expressed by Michigan regulators that groundwater modeling filed with the original permit was incomplete.
In May, Aquila announced that it would not appeal Judge Pulter’s decision denying the wetlands permit, but indicated that it would be filing an entirely new mining plan that would include an underground mine, a detail that was not in the originally filed plan but was included in materials provided to investors. In discussing with Dr. Al Gedicks, who is a professor at the University of LaCrosse in Environmental Sociology who has researched the mine proposal extensively, he stated, “This omission in the originally filed plans is evidence that Aquila has never been honest with the public or regulators about its plans for the mine and essentially engaged in a sham permitting process.”
Following the news that Aquila would not appeal the denial of the wetlands permit and amid rumors that the company was strapped for cash, advocates opposed to the mine believed they were on the verge of defeating the mine proposal once and for all. Unfortunately, in September 2021, it was announced that Aquila would be acquired by Gold Resources Corporation, which has a stronger balance sheet than Aquila. Gold Resources also announced that they had every intention of continuing to seek construction of the Back Forty Mine on the banks of the Menominee River.
The Menominee has faced many threats over the years, from logging activities that led to deforestation along its banks to paper industry practices that tainted its waters. It has also faced a host of invasive species as well. Somehow, the river has managed to recover time and again, to provide endless recreational opportunities for fishermen and other outdoor enthusiasts from Wisconsin, Michigan, and beyond.
Many are worried, however, that if this mine is built, the mighty Menominee will have finally met its match.
Other rivers across the country face similar threats from the mining industry, including Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, the Smith River in Montana, and Rapid Creek in South Dakota, to name just a few. When one also considers the compounding effects of climate change, it is difficult not to conclude that this has become a defining moment for the future of many of our most cherished water resources.
Fortunately, there are organizations across the country that are working hard to save our rivers from degradation and destruction. In the case of the Menominee River, that organization is the Coalition to Save the Menominee, Inc. Led by President Dale Burie, this organization has been educating the public about the plight of the Menominee and raising funds to support legal efforts that have been instrumental in reversing course on the mine permitting process. Burie recently stated: “The Coalition and their affiliates continue to stand strong with our staff of attorneys to protect this large waterway to the Great Lakes. Be assured that this battle has gone on for 20 years and will continue to go on until these speculative mining organizations give up on ever getting close to the Menominee River.” As passionate fly fishers and stewards of the waters where our quarry reside, it’s imperative that we support organizations like the Coalition. It’s also apparent that time is of the essence.
Scott Seymour is an attorney employed by a national insurer in Madison, Wisconsin. He recently published his second book, Return To Familiar Waters: Fly Fisherman’s Journey Back to the Troubled River of His Youth, which is available at littlecreekpress.com or amazon.com. All profits from sales of the book are being donated to the Coalition to Save the Menominee River, Inc.