Priority Waters

Pere Marquette River – A National Treasure

Michigan is full of stunning rivers. Photo by FlyLords.

I waded into the murky waters of fly fishing later in life, when my older son, Kyle, decided he wanted to learn, and requested a rod for his 12th birthday. We set off to test the Pere Marquette River, not far from our summer place in Michigan; so green, we didn’t even realize how iconic this waterway that we’d traveled over so many weekends actually was.

A treasured river

This river is unique. The only river in the Great Lakes Basin without a single dam, she flows free through the Huron-Manistee National Forest from headwater tributaries to the mainstream, through “The Forks” in Baldwin, to her mouth at Pere Marquette Lake, and into Lake Michigan in Ludington.

Stepping into a river, no matter when in life, connects us to something deeper. Photo by Flylords

In July 1978, the Pere Marquette and its major tributaries were designated a Michigan Natural River by the State. That same year the river was added as a National Wild and Scenic River, the first in Michigan, and one of fewer than 1% of rivers in the US.

This river is a Michigan treasure, a national treasure, and now very much recognized as a worldwide treasure, being well known to the angling and trout-loving world. The watershed encompasses an area of 755 square miles and contains 380 water miles comprised of five major streams including over 69 miles of the mainstream, Baldwin River, Middle Branch, Little South Branch, and Big South Branch, and over 75 small feeder creeks.

A beautiful Pere Marquette brown trout. Photo by Allen Crater.

Beyond being recognized as a world-class, year-round trout, steelhead, and salmon fishery, the watershed boasts the first brown trout ever planted in the US when, in April 1884, the US Fish Commission released 4,900 German brown trout fry into the Baldwin River, a tributary of the Pere Marquette.

A personal connection

But for me, the river is something more. A rare place where my tangled-in-a-Tag-Alder-mind untangles itself. A place I can turn off 42 of the 43 channels simultaneously playing in my head and focus on only one. Where I can pick out the strings section in the symphony of chaos.

Take a gander at this beautiful brown’s spots! photo by Allen Crater

Of course, my excuse is that I go to fish. And I do. But secretly I don’t go to the river for just the fish, I go to the fish for the river. The river that is indifferent to my chaos. The fluid river that understands constant change. The river that is both beautiful and dangerous. That gives life and takes it. The river that is never stagnant. That is born new again after every storm. The river that takes a longer view – not caught in the human immediacy of minutes and hours and days – but lives in the natural world of years and decades and centuries. The river that has endured both the insult and the compliment of time. The river that is connected to all living things – the life-giving artery of the forest.

Allen finds the occasional rainbow in the Pere Marquette as well

When I need to mend myself, I step into the quiet river. She wraps around my feet like the silky loop of a lariat and whispers “this way.” Casting my problems into her cool steady current and slowly retrieving her wise reply. Alone with my thoughts, the mesmerizing thrum of wild places still quickens the senses. The vitality of life and inevitable certainty of death witnessed with clarity. Here, I find myself looking through younger eyes with wonder and anticipation too often lost.

Who wouldn’t want to find one of these bejeweled trout on this National Treasure. Photo by Allen Crater

Watching for the slight sip of a bejeweled trout. Lost in the rhythm of the cast and focused on one seemingly simple task – connecting with something else living and vibrant, and then releasing it. Letting it go. Giving it back.

Learn more about TU’s Priority Waters work on the Pere Marquette here.