Spawning An Industry: The Man Behind Michigan’s Salmon Mania

Howard Tanner is the man credited with creating Michigan’s salmon industry.

Fifty five years ago, he introduced an invasive species to Michigan, the Coho salmon. He had a hunch the fish would thrive and it did more than that. It took off and made Michigan a premier fresh water sport fishing destination in the world.

“Once people experience it, it’s not like catching a perch or a bass or something small,” says charter fishing captain Lance Keene. “It will actually pull you around so it’s pretty exciting and they enjoy it a lot.”

Tanner, the former head of the DNR fisheries program, introduced the sport fish and revolutionized the industry.

“I observed the introduction of Coho into Colorado, it was not successful,” says Tanner, “They survived but there wasn’t a good food base for them so they didn’t grow much.”

Tanner graduated from Michigan State University and then went out west to work. That’s where he saw the failed attempts in the Rockies but after returning home to Michigan, DNR Director Ralph MacMullan demanded he make a splash with the fishery division.

“I want you to do something and if you can, make it spectacular,” said MacMullan at the time.

That’s when he thought about the failed attempts in Colorado with the Coho salmon. The reasons it didn’t work there, weren’t issues here in Michigan. Everything fell in line when he was told of a surplus of salmon eggs available on the west coast during a late night phone call.

“That night was the most unusual, the most marvelous,” says Tanner, “I think i stayed awake all night, everything fitted remarkably well.”

Michigan had everything needed for the Coho to thrive, at least on paper.

“It was like two plus two equals four. There was the largest supply of freshwater in the world, a food supply and now we had a predator,” says Tanner, “A very popular sport fish that was surplus on the west coast.”

He was given the go ahead. He sent a crew out west to pick up a quarter of a million salmon eggs and bring them home, they picked three locations to drop the eggs, including the Platte River and Bear Creek.

There was political and environmental backlash but the first great sign is when salmon experts came to check in on the process.

“All they could say was they had never seen so much water and get ready you’re going to have something big,” says Tanner.

Without the Coho and salmon, fishing in Michigan would still be going on. There are so many breeds and varieties to find but it was the coho that really turned on the mania in Michigan.

“There was all the excitement,” says Tanner.

It took two years before the salmon were big enough to head to the Big Lake and when they did, the anglers were waiting. In record numbers.

“Thousands of boats and no place to park them,” says Tanner.

This scene was happening along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

“You couldn’t rent a room within 50 miles of Manistee and they ran out of gasoline, the stations shut down,’ says Tanner, “Then when they ran out of beer, it was a really big problem.”

Instantly the sport was changed forever, the Great Lakes were now the place to cast.

“To catch a salmon was a trip to Alaska or at least to Washington or Oregon,” says Tanner, “If you caught a 6 pound largemouth or a 10 pound muskie or something you were on TV, and now here you are, you never even thought of catching salmon and you’re catching fish, that averaged 12.6 pounds.”

Now 55 years later, it’s a $10 billion a year business. It’s not unusual to catch 20-30 to potential 40 pound fish and Michigan has embraced the sport.

“We’re allowed to keep three steelhead per person, five salmon per person, there’s just nowhere else in the United States where you can keep that many fish,” says Keene.

Captain Keene has spent his life fishing Lake Michigan and the rivers that feed it. He has no reason to go anywhere else to fish. Because of Howard Tanner, everything is here in Northwest Michigan to thrive.

“You wouldn’t have this amount of people that come up to this location if we didn’t have this fishing industry,” says Keene, “There’s not much else to do here if you are not a hunter or fisherman.”

Once the Coho survived, King and Atlantic salmon were quick to follow and now Michigan is a salmon fishing destination. The future is bright and Tanner is happy to sit back and watch his life’s work grow.

“I’m very optimistic. It’s going to be a damn good fishery,” says Tanner, “What comes after that? I have no idea but it’s exciting because it’s never stationary.”

Tanner recently wrote a book on the entire story, “Something Spectacular: My Great Lakes Salmon Story.” All proceeds raised by the book are being donated to Project FISH, a program designed to get youth into the sport. You can purchase the book on the MSU Press website.

Categories: Hook & Hunting