The History of Fishing Saginaw Bay

By: Capt. Dan Manyen


It’s not easy to exactly determine what economical or historical impact the hunting and fishing sports have had on our particular area. But it is indeed a rich and colorful history, shared practically by every family that was forced to live by their wits, or off the land while trying to etch out a life on it. Of course the lumber industry was the first resource taken advantage of in the Bay City area. And this particular industry thrived easily; because of the many rivers that spider webbed the whole county along with the easy access to the Great Lakes via Saginaw Bay. But the fishing and hunting resources always played a big part in the local economy and well being of its inhabitants. Unlike today, both the hunting and fishing sports were in many cases a necessity for the poor common folk versus a pastime, hobby or sport. And living near a body of water such as the Saginaw Bay and its many feeder stream and rivers, was a wealth of opportunity waiting to be tapped. The Kawkawlin River , which in the local Indian tongue meant “Walleye,” was a perfect natal river for both the walleye and the very large Northern Pike population. The Saginaw River as well as its head water feeder streams, the Tittabawassee, Cass, Flint, Bad and Shiawassee, were all utilized by these species as well as a very large Sturgeon population. This unfortunate fish specie was often looked at as a nuisance and trash fish, and was destroyed in great numbers. Archival pictures often show these fish being burned in huge piles along the beaches of the Saginaw Bay. The damage they did to the fishermen’s fragile perch and walleye seign nets back then superseded the price brought for their flesh or eggs. The best caviar was and still does come from the Russian strain of Beluga Sturgeon. The walleye, (miscalled by many back then as pickerel) , was the main specie pursued and sold in great numbers to both local fish market outlets and buyers from the eastern states.

fishing saginaw bay

1845 Map: Saginaw Bay area

fishing saginaw bay

Early 1900s: Residents close to the bay often went out on the ice to purchase fresh fish from fishermen.

fishing saginaw bay

Early 1900s: Villages of ice fishing shantys on the bay was a common site any means of food for the table or selling to stores.

The Impact of Industrialization

By the late to mid 30’s the industrial revolution had started and the (First-Growth Big-Forest) harvest and production of building lumber in Michigan was winding down. But another industry was taking over in a big way throughout Michigan. The automotive industry was building, expanding and looking for places near waterways, where these resources could be both utilized in production and shipping of their product. Many plants sprung up along the shorelines of the Saginaw River. And the ships and barges used to transport raw wood materials during the lumber hey-day, now switched over to sand, gravel and iron ore to both build and supply the new industries with the raw materials they needed. This of course did not stop or ease the pain of the Great Depression during this time. What did for many though, including my own Grandfather, was the plentiful fishing and hunting resources the Bay area offered. When Grandpa couldn’t get a job unloading the (Bean Boat) as he called it for .50 cents a day, he’d be out hunting or fishing for a meal for his family. Grandpa talked often about spending all winter out on the ice on Saginaw Bay in a (Pickerel Shanty) spearing pickerel. A buyer would come out once a week in his Model “A” Ford Pickup (weather allowing) ; with fire wood for the shanty stoves and buy all the speared fish for .10 cents a pound. Most were shipped to New York. The fire wood could be obtained as a lean on your catch if you wanted. And Grandpa would often just tell the buyer to drop off the money difference at home with Grandma. A mans word was his bond back then.

fishing saginaw bay

1962: Dan and brother Dave proudly showing off Northern Pike caught on the Kawkawlin River.

fishing saginaw bay

1941: Dan's grandfather, Herman Manyen with sons Russell and Bud.

fishing saginaw bay

1945: Dan's father, Robert enjoying first hunting season after returning from Italy.

Hunting was also a serious undertaking back then. My own Father told me he worked all summer one year delivering papers to buy a $5.00 Stevens single barreled shotgun from Goodenes Hardware on Johnson Street. Grandpa bought dad his first box of shells and told him 25 shells meant 25 dead Pheasants or Rabbits for the pot. And he was not kidding. After the depression Grandpa got a job working for the City of Bay City and stayed on that job for some 35 years before retiring. Grandpa lived many years after retirement and to be 89 years old, but his attitude towards the fish and game he pursued never changed. To him, and practically all in his generation, this was a resource to be harvested, possessed and utilized without care to conserving it. I think finally this attitude and the lack of restrictions placed upon the growing industries on these pristine river systems, started to take their toll. In the late 30’s/early 40’s a walleye rearing and hatching facility was built near the Old Bay City State Park Lagoon . (Part of these buildings still stand today at the State Park and are used as a wildlife learning center). This facility, which only hatched and released the small walleye fry which were quickly eaten, did not have the ability to right the wrong going unchecked for years. The silt and pollution were virtually decimating the natural stocks of spawning walleye in all the surrounding rivers and on the Saginaw Bay itself. By the late 40’s the walleye fishery was all but dead. Phosphorous levels rose dramatically from unchecked and untreated sewer outlets and many other pollutants were destroying the resource. In my own childhood, (the 50’s and 60’s) the Saginaw River never froze over . It virtually steamed all winter long, even in the most severe winters.

Back from the Dead

From the 50’s to the early 70’s things stayed pretty much the same on the Saginaw Bay and its tributaries. Some species actually thrived in the high phosphorous levels the Bay had. Perch for instance, were numerous and grew to giant sizes. Some small organisms which are at the bottom of the food chain, actually need a certain amount of pollution to thrive. But in the early 70’s the EPA was created to deal with pollution problems gone mad in many other states destroying their own waterways. Slowly, the water quality began to come back. Stronger standards and restrictions on industrial plants and what they can dump into the waterways, as well as more and higher standards on wastewater plant guidelines began to make things better. Walleye were re-introduced in the Bay during this time by our DNR and a local group formed in Bay City. The Saginaw Bay now boasts the fact that it is now the walleye capital of the world. The Bay has gone through a lot of changes these last 20 years. The most recent was caused by a foreign invader called the Zebra Mussel. This little mollusk, which by itself can filter a quart of water per day, has had the most impact. The same knee deep water I used to stand in and not be able to see my feet, is now crystal clear to the bottom in 12 feet of water. The list of invaders brought in by foreign freighters grows bigger every year. And each one changes the food chain equation either for the good or the bad. But in the 50 years I’ve been alive and using this great body of water called Saginaw Bay, I’ve never been disappointed. It’s taken care of generations of people living in the Bay City area by either providing work opportunities or basically the next meal on the table. God grant we all remember this in the generations to come.


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