Kalamazoo: Famous for its Paper, Mall...and Fish?

Jul 12, 2018

This month, “Why’s That?” brings you a fish story. Not a tall tale, but a question from listener and WMUK volunteer Maria Maki. She’s heard that Kalamazoo was once a globally renowned destination for fishing, especially for trout.


“That the Arcadia Creek and Portage Creek were famous worldwide and that even royalty would come into Kalamazoo and stay at the Reid Hotel and fish our creeks and rivers,” she explains.

Maria wants to know if that’s true.

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Let’s start with the Kalamazoo River. Jay Wesley is the Lake Michigan Basin Coordinator for the state Department of Natural Resources. He says we know from archeological studies that before Europeans arrived in the area, the Pottawatomi ate sturgeon from the Kalamazoo and used sturgeon and other bones for tools.

“They used fish called freshwater drum, channel catfish, so we knew that those were plentiful back in history, and figured that smallmouth bass, northern pike and walleye and lots of different sucker species existed there,” he said.

But as Kalamazoo industrialized, the river changed. Dams made it hard for some fish to reproduce. The city used the river as a sewer, and factories opened to make auto parts, pharmaceuticals and lots of paper.                                                                                            

“All of them discharged their wastewater into the Kalamazoo and it became really polluted and really didn’t support hardly any fish except common carp,” Wesley said.

“At one time the river was actually proposed to be designated an industrial river, which meant it would have been dedicated to serving as a waste repository,” adds conservationist and author Dave Dempsey, who wrote a book about Michigan’s environmental movement.

By 1951, the state had declared the Kalamazoo all but dead. But Dempsey says citizens pushed back. He adds that people had protested the river’s degradation as early as the 1920s.

“Some were anglers, some were just people who cared about the river who were speaking out against the pollution and clamoring for some kind of government action,” he said.

Dempsey says after 40 years of outcry, the state began to clean up the Kalamazoo. And it’s made a big difference. The river’s still dammed in places, and because of PCB pollution, you have to be careful what you eat from it. But the DNR’s Wesley says things have changed dramatically since the days when the Kalamazoo ran gray with paper pulp.

“It went from really a dead river with nothing but carp to, I would call it one of Michigan’s most premier smallmouth bass fisheries,” he said.

What about the fishing in the streams that feed the Kalamazoo? The good news is that parts of those tributaries never got polluted like the river. That includes Augusta Creek where it runs through the Kellogg Forest east of Richland.

Augusta Creek passes through the Kellogg Forest east of Richland.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

Richard Chamberlin is a member of the sporting group Trout Unlimited. At a quiet spot by a covered bridge, he says he doesn’t think we’d much luck fishing for trout today. The water’s about 70 degrees. Chamberlin says that’s hot for a trout.

“The warmer it gets the more lethargic they get. They want it to be about 60 because that’s got good oxygen content,” he explains.

I ask Chamberlin Maria Maki’s question: if it’s true people once came from all around to fish in Kalamazoo. Chamberlin says he doesn’t think so, at least not for trout. He says streams up north and out west have much more to offer, though he still enjoys fishing here.

“There’s an old saying that trout only live in beautiful places,” he said.

Kalamazoo does have a place in fishing history as the original home of the Shakespeare Company, an innovator in fishing gear. And Chamberlin mentions Heddon, a pioneering tackle company formerly of Dowagiac.

“So yeah, it was a destination for manufacturing of fishing tackle and lures,” he said.

Kalamazoo might not be Michigan’s premier fishing destination. But the DNR’s Jay Wesley says anglers do travel to fish the Kalamazoo.

We have fishing guides that actually work the river, through Kalamazoo up toward Marshall. The lower end of the river below Allegan is very popular - people come up here from Chicago,” he said.

Maria says she’s glad to hear it.

The show pond at the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery in Mattawan.

“It’s bringing people in and giving people jobs,” she says of local fishing tourism.

You can always find fish at the Wolf Lake hatchery in Mattawan, where the DNR raises several species for stocking in various waters. At the show pond, which anyone can visit, Maria shakes pellets of fish food into the water, drawing a splashing crowd of rainbow trout.

“They’re pretty,” she says. “You can see the colors along the side.”

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